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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 September 2007, 16:34 GMT 17:34 UK
Dog owners 'should be licensed'
By Julia Houston
BBC News

Pitt bull terriers
Pitt bull terriers and their cross breeds are banned
With their powerful jaws and thickly muscled bodies, many believe pit bull terriers are a danger.

The death of five-year-old Ellie Lawrenson has renewed debate about the hazards of possessing so-called dangerous dogs.

But the owners of dogs threatened with being destroyed under the laws have a legal champion, who also believes the time has come for an overhaul of current legislation.

In fact Trevor Cooper, a solicitor who has represented scores of owners in court, said dog owners should come under scrutiny before being obliged to apply for a licence.

He said: "Perhaps the time has come to look at whether people have an automatic right to own a dog.

"I think we should see the re-introduction of licensing. It would be easier then, perhaps we could pre-empt incidents before they happened.

"It's the people who shouldn't own dogs that we should deal with. I'm unconvinced dog legislation has worked. I'd make the laws harsher and more stringent, but not on the dogs - on the owners.

"I take the view that there is no reason why a pit bull terrier should be an unlawful breed of dog in this country.

Dangerous dogs: The four breeds that are restricted in UK

"They are a lawful breed, if the requirements of the dog can be complied with."

The Dangerous Dogs Act was brought in after a series of dog attacks in the early 1990s.

The act states that anyone who owns a "type of dog known as a pit bull terrier" must have it neutered, and keep it muzzled and on a lead in public.

Also banned under the act are Japanese Tosas, the Dogo Argentinos and the Fila Brasileiros. Cross-breeds of those dogs are covered by the law.

However, the authorities have found it sometimes difficult to prosecute because proving a dog is, beyond reasonable doubt, a pit bull terrier can be tricky.

Mr Cooper has represented many dog owners before the courts under the act on Merseyside.

Dogs will automatically view children as the same or a lower ranking than themselves
Sharon Bolt, dog trainer
"I think there has been at least 40 cases that have gone to court, and out of those I think only one dog has been destroyed," he said.

Dog expert Sharon Bolt, from consultancy Good Dogs, echoes Mr Cooper's belief that it is the way a dog is treated, and not its breed, that determines its behaviour.

"It's not a case of blame. I think if someone doesn't understand the workings of a dog then that is when it becomes dangerous," she said.

"As dog owners we are responsible for our dogs. The best thing we can do is to learn the language of the dog, and remember that it is a dog and not a human.

"I feel that aggressive attacks are mainly due to miscommunication between owner and dog, and the misunderstanding of their pack mentality.

'Alpha role'

"The dog looks for leadership, and if it doesn't get it, it takes on the alpha role as it sees no-one else to do it.

"That's when the dog becomes the leader, and sees its job as keeping danger away."

Ms Bolt also said children need to be taught that dogs are not a toy and they should never be left alone with a dog, however friendly it may seem.

"Dogs will automatically view children as the same or a lower ranking than themselves because of their height and high-pitched voices," she said.

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