Laura Cummings: Will the move for dog 'Asbos' be just another barking idea?

IT IS a plan that some would argue is, quite simply, barking mad. The controversial proposal to introduce "dog Asbos" that would allow councils to fine dog owners who failed to control their pets has sparked heated debate and divided opinion.

But the scheme has already won the backing of an influential Holyrood committee, with the country's animal welfare charity also in favour.

This week, MSPs on the Scottish Parliament's local government committee agreed that animal antisocial behaviour orders – or dog control notices to give them their proper title – could improve the behaviour of both animals and their owners.

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The committee had been considering a member's Bill from Christine Grahame, the South of Scotland Nationalist MSP, which calls for such a move.

Scottish SPCA chief superintendent Mike Flynn is one who would welcome the measures.

"The dog control notices are a big improvement on what's there at the moment. The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 is a fundamentally flawed piece of legislation. It doesn't allow the enforcers to do anything until the dog has actually done damage – the police have got to wait until somebody is badly injured. These dog control notices are supposed to stop that happening, so there's the potential there to prevent.

"If the notices can prevent one tragic accident then it's all been worthwhile."

The dog control notices would allow councils to move in on dog owners if their pets displayed poor behaviour, which need not necessarily be classed as dangerous.

Pet owners could be forced to keep their dog on a lead in public, have the animal neutered, attend dog-control training courses and face fines of up to 1,000 if they failed to comply.

Mr Flynn added: "The main reason we support it is because every dog owner must be responsible. Every dog has got the ability to cause damage and every owner should realise that and be responsible.

"It is not a 'demonise all dogs' Bill, it will allow authorities to step in where people have got genuine concerns, and it should only be where a dog is deemed to be a danger to the public.

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"Current legislation focuses on the breed of a dog, which does not necessarily predetermine aggression. Every time there is a bad attack by a dog it demonises that breed, whether it's a bulldog breed or a collie breed.

"But the new Bill is based on the deed of the dog, rather than the breed, and if it can protect breeds that keep getting demonised then all the better."

However, doubts have been raised over whether councils would have enough cash to implement the plan. Papers lodged with the Control of Dogs Bill estimated a total cost to councils of issuing dog control notices to be just over 4,000 a year, but MSPs and the Scottish Government had cautioned that the estimates "may be on the low side".

The Duchess of Hamilton, Kay Hamilton, who is chairwoman of the Scottish Staffordshire Bull Terrier Rescue charity, also has her doubts – labelling the dog Asbos "nonsense".

She explains: "I just think the dog Asbos are a lot of rubbish – it's closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. The Asbo comes after the dog has misbehaved and it won't lower the number of dogs around. We need to limit the breeding of all dogs.

"The Asbos would be better than nothing but they're not the answer."

She also believes dog licences should be re-introduced instead, with owners paying around 15-20 a year for the privilege of keeping their pet.

She adds: "If the person's dog is misbehaving and they don't have a licence, the dog can be removed. If they don't turn up with a licence within seven days, their dog would go up for rehoming, and if the dog doesn't get rehomed it will have to be destroyed. I hate that thought but sadly there are too many dogs and too many bad owners."

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Over the past decade, the number of attacks by dogs in Scotland has risen from 239 to 623.

Last Hallowe'en an eight-year-old boy, who had been shopping for a pumpkin with his mother, was attacked by a Rottweiler outside a supermarket in West Granton, leaving him hospitalised for two days.

Five months earlier in May 2009, a five-year-old boy was playing just outside his home in Easthouses, Dalkeith, when he was attacked by a Border Lakeland terrier which had escaped from a nearby garden and tore a gaping wound in his right cheek and lip.

The boy underwent three delicate plastic surgery operations over five days at Edinburgh's Sick Kids Hospital. Surgeons were forced to insert 34 stitches in his face as they repaired the damage.

It is exactly such incidents which have led to the clamour of support for dog Asbos, including from the city council who say they would "welcome" the measure. That in itself has sparked a note of caution.

Mr Flynn added: "The local authorities would be enforcing it and they would have to be trained to a level where they could tell the difference between an aggressive and a boisterous dog.

"A collie that has not been out of the house for a while will run round the garden at 60mph, and some people would say that's boisterous and others would say it's aggressive – it is how you interpret it."