Frothing at the mouth, the rottweiler looked as if it were on a trampoline as it hurled itself against a 1.5-metre gate, delivering a volley of barks to Paul Coleman. Moments earlier, the postman had been forced to deploy his postbag as a shield and beat a hasty retreat from a cul-de-sac as an alsatian, roaming free, marched towards him. “Beware dog loose – make my day loser,” warned the sign on one garden gate.
On his rounds in Sheffield four years ago, the 43-year-old father of two was savagely attacked by a pair of dogs. Pulled down by a staffordshire bull terrier and a staffie crossed with a banned Japanese tosa, Coleman, a postman for 17 years who grew up with dogs, was mauled for 15 minutes. Great chunks were torn out of both legs and his left arm was bitten. He is back at work but he still bears the physical – and mental – scars. “You should never have to be in fear just doing your job,” he said, visibly alert to the deep woofs and frenzied yaps that greet his arrival at dozens of front doors.
Every day, 12 Royal Mail workers are attacked by dogs. In the year to March 2011, 6,005 adults and children were admitted to hospitals in England after they were “bitten or struck by a dog”, the fifth successive year-on-year increase. Six children and two adults have been killed since 2006. In London, where status or weapon dogs are a common sight and there appears to be an arms race to create ever more menacing hybrids, A&E admissions for young people with bite injuries have increased by 119% over five years.
Coleman, who required skin grafts on his deep leg wounds, was off work for seven months after his mauling.
The dogs ignored attempts by Coleman and two neighbours to fend them off with a garden rake, hammer and iron bar, but finally ran off at the sound of police sirens. “I don’t think a kid would have survived 15 minutes with those dogs,” said Coleman, who is 1.8 metres (6ft) tall and weighs 100kg (16 stone). One of the animals was never traced but their owner was prosecuted and sentenced to four months in a young offenders institution. Coleman eventually won £7,000 compensation.
Since returning to work, he has been given a means of self-defence: a plastic peg that postal workers are supposed to clip to letters and use to push the mail through the letterbox to lessen the risk of bitten fingers. “It’s right bloody rubbish to be honest,” said Coleman cheerily. He knows almost no postal workers who use this “flimsy” and clumsy contraption.
The law offers delivery workers even less protection. Coleman got his meagre compensation because he was attacked in the street. If anyone is savaged by a dog in a front garden – on private land – the owner cannot be prosecuted under the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act. The only recourse is to the 1871 Dogs Act, a feeble piece of legislation that cannot trigger serious penalties or proper compensation.
From the Kennel Club to the Communication Workers Union, which represents postal workers, dog lovers and those more preoccupied with human safety are united in their contempt for the Dangerous Dogs Act. This law was rushed through parliament by John Major’s government at the height of a media frenzy about pit bull terriers after a series of attacks on children.
“It is probably the worst bit of legislation that’s ever come onto the statute books,” says Laura Vallance of the Dogs Trust. “Not fit for purpose,” is the verdict of David Bowles of the RSPCA. “What usually happens is a child is killed by a dog, the media go mad, the politicians go mad and then the police do something. If the purpose of the 1991 law was to either get rid of banned breeds or reduce dog bite incidents it has failed on both accounts.”
Despite the act outlawing four breeds – including pit bulls and Japanese tosas – experts estimate there are now more pit bulls on the streets than 21 years ago. The law created an offence of having a dog dangerously out of control in a public place and yet many dog attacks occur within the home. Both elements have only sporadically been enforced. In 2005/6, 35 dogs were removed from London streets by the Metropolitan police. In 2008/9 (after dogs killed people in 2006 and 2007), 719 dogs were seized. Many were destroyed.
Dog owners could be forgiven for being confused by the different laws in Northern Ireland (where there are dog licences), Scotland (which last year introduced a new law criminalising dogs and owners for bad deeds, rather than banning bad breeds) and Wales (which has just completed a consultation on microchipping).
In England, the government “has been dithering”, according to Bowles. “England is the do-nothing scenario and we know that doing nothing doesn’t work and we’re still seeing a rise in dog attacks and dog fighting. To be brutally honest, [the government] haven’t really known what they’ve been trying to achieve.”
The RSPCA wants a new law to create a clear link between dogs and owners through compulsory microchipping or the return of the dog licence. It also supports measures to control problem dogs before they attack people – preventive orders that could be issued by police or councils. Under Labour, this proposal was called the “dogbo” – a canine asbo – and was hated by many dog lovers. Some owners fear council busybodies who don’t understand dog behaviour would enforce unnecessary measures on innocent dogs – from muzzling to banning dogs from public areas. Such control orders were introduced in Scotland last year. “The problem we’re seeing in Scotland is that local authorities have this power now but it’s not being enforced,” says Vallance. She fears the current economic climate makes it unlikely councils will be given funds to train or employ dog wardens to issue controls against wayward dogs.
“We’ve become quite frustrated with the government. There’s been consultation after consultation,” said Vallance. The coalition may be wary of accusations it is a nanny state meddling with animal-loving middle England but, according to RSPCA polling, two-thirds of owners favour licensing because they believe animal welfare will improve.
“We simply can’t understand why it’s taken so long,” said Huw Irranca-Davies, shadow food and farming minister, of the 18-month wait for legislation after the last public consultation.
Labour wants the new law to cover attacks on private property. “It’s preposterous that an attack on a postal worker in a front garden is not covered by the existing legislation,” he said. Labour also supports dog control orders but, unlike everyone from the Kennel Club to the CWU, does not yet want to scrap the banned breeds section of the 1991 law. “The move towards focusing on deed not breed is absolutely right but the police say it’s one of the few weapons they have so they are keen not to see it scrapped,” said Irranca-Davies.
Some dog lovers disagree. Extending the law to cover private property will be “an absolute disaster”, according to Allie Green of DDA Watch, a not-for-profit company that takes in dogs seized by the police and supports owners of accused dogs. She believes it will enable burglars to take legal action against homeowners whose dogs were defending their property and argues that the 1871 act is sufficient. “It’s quick, it’s simple and it can make people put a dog on a lead or destroy it,” she said.
Most of all, she is desperate to see the end of banned breeds. “It’s absolutely ridiculous because it’s based on looks. If anyone doesn’t believe how stupid it is, go to a court case – all they talk about is the length of the tail and height of the dog,” she said. “We don’t want this law. Everybody thinks it’s 18-year-old London youths with ‘vicious’ pit bulls but we get loads of calls from respectable working people who thought they had a staffie and now someone is taking them to court trying to make out they are a criminal.”
Green would like a licence for owners, not dogs, with a test to ensure every owner knows the basics of the law, dog control and animal welfare. Ultimately, she says, breeding should be more closely controlled to reduce the number of dogs in Britain.
Ministers are close to agreeing proposals for a new law and are set to make an announcement within three months, according to a government source. But a spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said there would be another consultation period before these new proposals were put into draft legislation. “It’s a question of getting these things right. We’re at the point now where we’re firming up the proposals in readiness for them to be put forward for consultation,” said the spokesperson.
Coleman does not hold out much hope that reforms will change anything on his round. “Everyone used to say a dog is man’s best friend. Now a dog is just there for status,” he said. “If what had happened to me had happened to an MP, I guarantee something would have been done about it. Because you are Joe Average and a postman, people say ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s part of his job to come across dogs.’ Yes it is, but I shouldn’t be attacked by them and I shouldn’t be in fear every morning, thinking I’m going to get attacked today.”
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