THE number of people attacked by dogs in Scotland has risen by 160 per cent in the past eight years, prompting calls for new laws to crack down on violent pets and their owners.
The Scotsman has learned that the number of dog attacks reported to police totalled 623 in 2006-7 compared to 239 in 1999-2000. The majority of attacks, however, are never recorded and experts say the true figure is likely to be several times higher.
The figures have emerged as police investigate another fatal attack, this time on 13-month-old Archie-Lee Hirst, who was savaged by a pet rottweiler at his grandparents' home on Friday.
Last night, Archie-Lee's mother, on her 18th birthday, spoke for the first time about the loss of her son, describing him as a "sleeping angel" who would always be in her heart.
It now appears possible the Scottish Parliament could strengthen dangerous-dog legislation and introduce restrictions tougher than those in England, amid the new figures which equate to almost two attacks every day.
Alex Neil, an SNP MSP, yesterday announced that he intends to introduce a Private Member's Bill early next year. Significantly, the ruling SNP administration has given its backing in principle to tighter legislation, making it more likely that a bill could succeed.
The move would make it an offence to have an out-of-control dog in an owner's own home, or a relative's home, and would require a microchip to be inserted into all dogs that are subject to a control order imposed by the courts.
The rise in attacks by dogs, which resulted in injuries and were reported to police, were revealed in a parliamentary answer.
"These figures show that the current legislation isn't working and we need to modernise the law on dangerous dogs," Mr Neil said. "My bill would introduce control orders for dogs acting threateningly. If a dog is acting threateningly, it could be subject to an order which could force it to be muzzled or have certain restrictions placed on it, and it would be automatically microchipped."
Mr Neil's bill goes further than the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act, which prevents people from owning certain breeds and makes it an offence for an owner to allow their dog to be out of control in public or after straying on to someone else's property.
Police are unable to intervene when a dangerous dog is out of control in a family home. The new bill would close this loophole by allowing police to take action if they receive a complaint.
"Any dog can be dangerous in the wrong circumstances," he said. "That's why any dog acting dangerously, anywhere, would come under this legislation."
Mr Neil intends to publish his consultation paper early in January with legislation going through the Scottish Parliament later in the year.
Kenny MacAskill, the Justice Secretary, has given his general backing to the principle of a bill to tighten up the law on dangerous dogs and Mr Neil is hoping that, if he can secure Scottish Government support, his bill could be on the statute book by Spring 2009.
Mr MacAskill said: "The concept has our support and we hope to work with Alex on this. We recognise that as a government action needs to be taken."
A Scottish Government spokesman added: "The Government has written to chief constables and other interested parties to establish how the law operates in their areas, what can be done to make enforcement of the law more effective and whether the law needs to be changed.
"We welcome Alex Neil's plans to consult on proposals for a draft bill early next year. The consultation should encourage debate on this important public-safety issue."
The issue of dangerous dogs was put to the top of the political agenda this time last year when a five-year-old girl, Ellie Lawrenson, was killed by a pit bull terrier while at her grandmother's Merseyside home on New Year's Day.
Doreen Graham, spokeswoman for the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said the legislation on dangerous dogs was flawed and needed to be changed. She said that many of the recorded attacks would be from breeds like Labradors in the home, simply because so many Labradors are pets.
Ms Graham said the Dangerous Dogs Act only covered certain breeds and, instead, it should apply to the behaviour of all dogs, and should also lay the responsibility on owners, not the animals. She said: "This highlights the need for all owners to be in control of their animal at all times."
Ms Graham said all dogs had the capacity to be dangerous, it just depended on the owners and the way they looked after the dogs.
"The problem is that people get dogs for all the wrong reasons. Sometimes it's pester power and sometimes people get them as macho fashion accessories, but it is essential that all dogs are trained properly. It is here where the legislation is deeply flawed – it targets breeds, not deeds. The legislation has to be reviewed. It needs to put the responsibility on the owner, not the dog."
But Bill Aitken, Conservative justice spokesman, questioned the need for new legislation, pointing out that, under Scots law, sheriffs already have the power to ban someone from owning a dog.
"This bill will be looked at against the existing law, but we must get out of this habit of simply reaching to legislate every time there is a tragedy," he said.
Pauline McNeill, Labour's justice spokeswoman, also expressed doubt on new legislation, adding: "We need to identify deficiencies in (current] law."
Grieving mother praises sister who tackled killer pet
A TEENAGER who was looking after her young nephew when he was mauled to death by a rottweiler was last night described as a "hero" by the victim's mother.
Kara Hirst, 16, was babysitting 13-month-old Archie-Lee Hirst and her two younger sisters, aged six and seven, when the dog launched the attack.
The toddler was being carried to the back door by the seven-year-old when the dog snatched the child out of her arms.
In a statement released last night, Kara's sister Rebecca, the mother of Archie-Lee, spoke of the 16-year-old's valiant efforts to save Archie-Lee from the rottweiler's jaws.
Ms Hirst, who turned 18 yesterday, said: "I'd like to say to Kara we are all so proud of her – she tried.
"She's a hero in my eyes and will be respected for what she did for the rest of her life."
His aunt failed to save him from the female rottweiler's jaws, despite striking and kicking the animal, who was described by police as weighing "in the region of seven to ten stone". The toddler was spending Christmas at his grandparents' house in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, when the attack happened.
Detective Superintendent Steve Payne, who is leading the investigation, said the seven-year-old girl was interviewed yesterday by specialist officers, along with the babysitter and Archie-Lee's grandparents.
Detectives have yet to speak to the six-year-old girl, who was upstairs at the time of the incident, as she is still in shock from the tragedy.
Scores of well-wishers – many friends but most complete strangers – left condolence messages for Ms Hirst on her page on the social networking website Bebo.
Ms Hirst described Archie-Lee as her "world", adding: "It's so hard for me at this time."
She said: "We shared so many precious memories in the short while that we had together. He is loved by many. He will always be in our hearts, never to be forgotten. He's my sleeping angel.
"All I want is to give my baby the best send-off that he deserves so my little Archie can rest in peace."
Her heartfelt tribute concluded: "RIP my little angel. You're in our hearts forever, mummy's little man."
Other messages, many from strangers, registered their concern.
A typical message, from "Sarah", read: "You don't know us but we had to come and leave a message. Our son is three months older than Archie and I cannot begin to imagine what you and your family must be going through. I am so very sorry."
The boy's father, Damian Williamson, 20, who lives separately from Ms Hirst in the Wakefield area, also talked of his love for Archie-Lee on his Bebo site.
He said he was happiest when "Archie keeps saying 'dad, dad, dad' all the time!"
Police conducted house-to-house inquiries yesterday near the home where Archie-Lee was attacked, while well-wishers delivered floral tributes to the end-terrace house in Chald Lane.
The curtains were drawn at the front of house and it was understood no-one was at home.
Speaking outside, Det Supt Steve Payne said: "The mother and father of Archie-Lee are together today and everyone involved is all back as a family unit at this distressing time. Obviously, the mother's 18th birthday being today doesn't help.
"The focus of the investigation will now be to conduct house-to-house inquiries."
Echoes of Ellie who suffered 72 injuries in fatal mauling
FIVE-year-old Ellie Lawrenson was savaged by a pit bull terrier while at her grandmother's home in St Helens, Merseyside, a year ago tomorrow.
The dog belonged to her uncle, Kiel Simpson, 23, who had a conviction for drug dealing and who lived at the same house.
Simpson was jailed in May for eight weeks after admitting owning a dangerous dog. The animal, called Reuben, had been involved in two previous incidents. In November 2006, he bit Kiel's younger sister, Kelsey Simpson. She needed hospital treatment for three puncture wounds to her thigh.
Ellie's family said they were devastated by the tragedy. In a statement, the girl's relatives said: "Ellie was always happy and smiling. She was a little angel, full of life and always running around."
Ellie had recently moved into the reception class of Tower College, a school in Rainhill, and her school report said: "Ellie is a happy little girl, who mixes well with other children … she is a popular member of her class."
Her 46-year-old grandmother, Jacqueline Simpson, underwent surgery for injuries sustained wrestling with the dog.
She was later charged with Ellie's manslaughter but acquitted following a trial in September. The prosecution had said Ms Simpson was criminally negligent when she allowed the dog into the house.
Ms Simpson denied the charges and said she never thought the dog would attack Ellie. Ellie suffered 72 injuries in the prolonged attack by the pit bull.
During the trial, the prosecution said Ms Simpson, who had drunk two bottles of wine and smoked ten cannabis joints prior to the attack, had broken a family rule by letting Reuben into the house while Ellie was there. But Ms Simpson said she was not aware of such a ban.
The judge, Mr Justice Royce, asked prosecutor Neil Flewitt if the Crown Prosecution Service had ever considered a prosecution against Kiel Simpson for manslaughter.
He answered that officers in the investigation believed there was no realistic chance of conviction as Mr Simpson did not believe the dog had access to the little girl.
Speaking to the jury, the judge said: "This is an unusual case which had given rise to very strong emotions. Suffice to say, the greatest sentence passed in this case is a life sentence of regret this lady has passed on herself."
THE LAW AS IT STANDS
THE Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 was introduced in response to a series of attacks by aggressive and uncontrolled dogs, particularly on children. MPs reacted to public concern, but there is now a general consensus among animal-welfare groups that the legislation was badly drafted.
The act banned four types of dog: pit bull terriers, the Tosa, the Dogo Argentino and the Fila Brasileiro. It is now illegal to own these dogs – unless courts make a special exemption – or to breed, sell and exchange them. Any other dogs "appearing ... to be bred for fighting or to have the characteristics of a type bred for that purpose" are also outlawed.
The owner or person in charge of a dog is also guilty of an offence if the animal is dangerously out of control in a public place.
The offence can result in a fine or a prison sentence not exceeding six months. The dog can also be destroyed and the owner disqualified from owning a dog for a specific period of time.