S.1 Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, Banned Breeds, Breed Specific Legislation, BSL, Pit Bull Terriers
When the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 came into force, it created a list of prohibited dog breeds. Section 1 of the Act banned owning, trading, or breeding from these types of dog:
- Pit Bull Terrier
- Japanese Tosa
- Dogo Argentino
- Fila Brasileiro
The law doesn’t consider whether the dog has acted aggressively to other dogs or people. It focuses on whether the dog has sufficient characteristics to be identified as one of the types named above. Through this article, we will refer mainly to pit bull terriers as they are the most common of the 4 prohibited types.
The legislation has been criticised for being a blunt instrument. 30 years after the law was passed, it is still controversial as many people believe that pit bull terriers are capable of being safely kept as family pets, while other breeds of dog are capable of causing serious injury if they are not kept under control.
Investigation and Prosecution
It is important to understand that the official “breed” of the suspected dog is irrelevant. As “pit bull terrier” is not a breed recognised by the Kennel Club, the examination focuses specifically on “type”. This means that even if a pet is bought as an American bulldog or Staffordshire bulldog (for example), it may still be typed as a pit bull and is banned by the legislation.
If the police suspect that an animal is a prohibited dog breed, they have the power to seize it. The dog will then be taken to approved kennels, so that it can be assessed by an expert. This expert will produce a report, assessing the characteristics of the dog. This can include the dog’s behaviour, but that is not conclusive. If that report determines that the dog has enough characteristics to be identified as a banned type, the owner could be charged under s.1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991.
This is a summary only offence, so it can only be heard in the Magistrates’ Court. However, this means that a conviction for this offence or the sentence passed by the magistrates can be appealed to the Crown Court.
If the dog owner is charged with the criminal offence of owning a prohibited type of dog, the burden of proof falls on them to prove the dog is not a banned breed. While it is unusual for the defendant to have to prove their innocence, it is lawful and shows the importance of assessing the evidence before proceeding to a trial.
It is not always necessary for a criminal prosecution, for example when someone adopts a puppy without realising it could develop pit bull type characteristics as it matures. In cases like this, the matter will still be taken to court as it is not legally possible to own a prohibited dog breed unless it has been exempted (see below)
Court Powers: Sentencing and Destruction Orders
If a person is found guilty of owning, trading, or breeding a banned type of dog, the maximum sentence is 6 months’ imprisonment. However, the Magistrates’ Sentencing Guidelines show that a custodial sentence is unlikely in most cases. A fine or Community Order is more likely.
However, for the seized dog the consequences are much more serious. The assumption is that animal found to be a prohibited dog breed will receive a Destruction Order. This means the animal will be put down by a vet.
The only alternative to a Destruction Order is if the defendant persuades the Court that the dog is not a danger to the public. If the Court accepts this, it will impose a Contingent Destruction Order. This would require the owner to comply with rules including:
- Registering the dog as being exempted
- Having and keeping insurance covering any potential injury caused by the dog
- Having the dog neutered or spayed
- Keeping the dog on a lead and muzzled at all times in public
- Not allowing anyone under 18 to be in charge of the dog
- Not selling or transferring ownership of the dog
If the Magistrates’ Court initially orders the dog to be put down, the owner can appeal against this decision before the Crown Court.