IT was a gloriously sunny day last September and my eight-year-old son and I had been on a hike in the hills of West Cork.
As we approached my car, we decided to stop off at a cafe for an ice cream before heading home. Outside, two dogs were barking and squaring up to each other while their owners tried in vain to restrain them.
I kept a wary eye on them as I led the way to the cafe door, my son, Will, close behind me. It was only when I got to the counter and turned around that I saw him sobbing. To my horror, my eye had not been wary enough: he had been bitten on his leg, by a collie.
It was a pretty nasty nip. I gave the owner a piece of my mind but she appeared shocked herself, and contrite, and I really needed to console and treat my boy.
Luckily, Will had had a recent tetanus shot and a couple of friendly St John Ambulance guys who happened to be in the area cleaned and bandaged his wound.
Later, when I told a dog-loving friend what had happened, I said the collie was not a breed that you normally associated with biting humans.
“That’s where you’re wrong,” she replied, “collies are among the most notorious dogs for biting.”
Collies? Those hard-working, clever, and obedient farm dogs? Or even more unlikely, the loveable heroes of Lassie films? More prone to biting than Rottweilers or German shepherds, for instance? This was news to me.
But my friend was right. In 2005, a Cork study found border collies, along with terriers, are indeed the most likely breeds to bite people. Other studies put jack russells at No.1 in the nipping stakes, while apparently-cuddly canines like dachshunds and labradors are also high up the list.
Of the 140 biting incidents in an Irish study in 2017, almost a third were by labradors or border collies
These facts stayed in my mind when, earlier this year, my wife and I were discussing getting a family dog.
My wife is a former dog trainer for the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind and when she suggested we get a Rottweiler, as they were ideal family pets when bred well and trained properly, I decided to bite my tongue, bury my prejudices, and hear her out.
It’s true that Rottweilers are among a group of breeds — which also includes Dobermanns and pit bulls — that have been on a ’restricted list’ in Ireland since 1998. This means that, among other things, they have to wear a muzzle in public, and their walkers must be over 16 and have them on a strong lead.
But it’s also true that these breeds can be soft, loyal and adore their families — if they are from good stock, and are trained well, they are harmless.
Or, as my wife, put it: “There’s no such thing as a bad dog, just a bad owner.”
I didn’t need much convincing and, last month, our family welcomed Roxy the Rottweiler into our fold. She is gorgeous, well-behaved, a bit of a pup (in the nicest sense, she is only 11 weeks old!) and adores her new family.
When she is fully inoculated, we will be able to take her for walks in public. One thing that worries me is that Roxy’s muzzle, along with the reputation of Rottweilers as ‘devil dogs’, will frighten passers-by.
Moreover, other dog owners will be free to walk their breeds without a muzzle, and may even let them off their lead. Some of these animals will be well-bred and safe, but others may be biters. It all depends on their upbringing, and their owners.
My recent experiences have led me to the conclusion that those 1998 laws, called Breed-Specific Legislation (BSL), targeted those at the wrong end of the leash!
Now, let me spell out a few things here. I’m not what you would describe as a ‘doggy’ person. I appreciate dog-free beaches and I believe all owners should always keep their animals on a lead, except in circumstances where they are clearly alone. I also believe any dog owner stopped by a warden who has no poo bag should be fined.
The thought of a dog attacking any person fills me with disgust. And I understand why those 1998 laws applied to the larger breeds, which are capable of doing far more serious damage to humans, in the wrong hands, than collies or jack russells (both of which are fine breeds, by the way!).
But those breed-specific laws do not seem fit for purpose. And I’m not alone in this belief.
Many dog-behaviour experts argue that the law was a flawed, illogical knee-jerk response to a complex problem; that countries who introduced similar laws have long ago realised the error of their ways — and, most damning of all, that the laws have proven to be ineffective in reducing dog attacks. In the first 15 years after they came in, the number of people hospitalised for dog bites actually went up by 50%.
In 2017, a study by the Irish Veterinary Journal declared that BSL had no scientific basis. That study involved surveying the Irish victims of 140 separate dog-bite incidents, and the opinions of 17 dog control officers.
No less an authority than Veterinary Ireland, which represents vets across the State, has spoken out against BSL and recommended changes to ensure only irresponsible owners are punished, as it did not believe breeds should be singled out.
The organisation said future legislation should be grounded in scientific opinion and focused on the education of dog owners and the public.
NUI Galway psychologist Dr Páraic Ó Súilleabháin, an expert in this area, is convinced the laws controlling so-called ‘dangerous’ breeds are not only ineffective but could be making the problem worse, as they give people a false perception that other breeds will not show aggression.
He also cites international evidence, showing education and legislation work better than banning breeds.
Dog behaviour specialist Nanci Creedon points out that all breeds can behave in a territorial manner in certain conditions, and called for a State-sponsored education and awareness programme, and for dog owners to have to pass a theory test to hold a licence.
There have been political moves to address this. The Social Democrats recently called for a review of the 20-year-old BSL laws, which would focus on owners as much as animals.
Happily, there are signs that the Government may be open to a re-think. As recently as 2017, it resisted calls to change the legislation, but current Minister of State for Community and Rural Development, Seán Canney, is seeking the public’s input into whether any breeds should be tightly controlled.
The Minister should look into overhauling the laws. The dogs in the street know it makes sense.