Voices: Your dog isn’t your ‘child’ – it’s a dangerous animal

Another day, another terrible tragedy involving a young child and a dog. The headlines speak for themselves: 17 animals seized by police in Greater Manchester after a six-year-old girl was seriously injured in an attack.

The attack took place at an address in the suburb of Carrington on Sunday afternoon. The unnamed child was taken to hospital where she remains in a stable condition.

Before this, in January, a fatal dog attack took place in Milton Keynes, where a four-year-old girl was mauled to death in a garden. Just hours before that happened, an inquest was told that 28-year-old dog-walker Natasha Johnston died of “multiple penetrating bites” to her neck. She was attacked by the eight animals in her care in Surrey on 12 January.

The list keeps growing: In March last year, 17-month-old Bella-Rae Birch died after being bitten by a dog bought by her family just a week before. In April, 12-day-old baby Elon Jase Ellis-Joynes was killed by a chow chow alsatian cross at his family home in Doncaster. He suffered between 30 and 40 puncture wounds and later died in hospital, while the dog, named Teddy, was put down.

There are more. Take December 2022: an 83-year-old woman died from her injuries 17 days after being attacked by a large black XL bully cross cane corso breed in Caerphilly, south Wales. Almost exactly a year before, in the same town, 10-year-old Jack Lis was mauled to death by an American bulldog. Both dogs are currently legal to own in the UK.

And in London, also in December 2022, an 11-year-old girl was left with serious injuries – including broken bones – after being attacked by a dog on her way to school.

If the unhappy roll call seems endless, that’s because it appears to be: last year, a woman in her forties was killed and a man suffered life-changing injuries in a dog attack near Rotherham, even though South Yorkshire Police said neither of the two dogs involved were considered banned breeds under the Dangerous Dogs Act.

Speaking as a parent of two young children (and also for myself) – I find this terrifying. I live near an area of open woodland where dogs are routinely let off the lead. Every time we go for a walk and someone’s supposedly “harmless” pet bounds up to us, I freeze. I’ve been known to physically scoop my son up into my arms – why would I take any risk? At six, he’s tiny, delicate – no match for an out of control canine, no matter how “friendly” its owners insist it is. And they do insist. The only thing more ubiquitous than dog attacks is the number of people declaring their pet is “different”; that it’s “gentle”; that it’s “more afraid of you than you are of it”.

“He won’t hurt you,” dog owners laugh when they see my children cower – and it can feel incredibly belittling. What some dog owners need to understand is: your dog isn’t your relative or friend – it’s a dangerous animal. You’re putting my family at risk every time you let it off the lead, and then laughing about it. The entitlement is astounding.

There’s not only the risk to people, but the risk to wildlife, too. Where I live, there are lakes and forests and countless reports of dogs attacking not only other dogs – but swans. All too recently, a female swan died after “bites on its neck from the attack, and had lost a lot of blood”. The local park’s swans group posted the news on its Facebook page saying: “Today we say goodbye to yet another one of our swans killed by a dog. This was a seriously nasty incident and totally preventable. She has been with her mate for a long time and this is heartbreaking.”

If you’re tempted to scoff or eye-roll away the “scare stories”, you need to look at the facts. Dog attacks, thankfully, are rare – but they have still risen significantly over the past two decades. The latest data tells us that 3,395 people were hospitalised by such incidents in 2002, compared with 8,389 in 2018. At least 32 people were killed by dogs in the decade to 2022, while official figures suggest that just less than half that number were killed by dogs in the 10 years prior to the introduction of the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act.

And what about a lifelong fear of dogs when one knocks over a child? My daughter had to be coaxed from behind my legs for years because a bulldog charged at her full pelt in the park when she was three, knocking her violently to the ground. When I took the owner to task over it, they laughed it off. “He’s just playing,” he said. “She shouldn’t have run. He just wanted to chase her.”

Think about it this way: if you’re in a public place (any public place) perhaps your dog should not be off its lead. It might be too dangerous. You may feel like its your cuddly friend, or even your “child”, but it’s not. It’s an animal – and it could hurt someone.

If you’re tempted to dismiss my concerns as the ravings of a rabid cat owner (I’ve yet to hear of a fatal tragedy involving a house cat) then don’t take it from me – take it from the experts. Veterinary charity the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals warns that even the most placid pet can become hostile if they feel under threat or compelled to defend its territory.

“A well-socialised dog will not normally be actively aggressive towards other dogs and dogs don’t go around looking to attack others. But any dog can become aggressive if they are afraid and feel there is no other way out of the situation,” a spokesperson said. “This can be due to a current perceived threat or even past experience making them uncomfortable.”

The charity did say that dogs seldom attack without some form of warning, with growing aggression typically indicated by growling, snarling, snapping, baring their teeth and lunging – and there are seven warning signs we should all be aware of – but I would argue this is way, way beside the point.

I’m sure there are divisions between good dog owners and bad ones – just as there are people – but the real issue here is being cavalier with your dog in the first place. In failing to recognise its potential for harm. You may love it, but the rest of us don’t have to. And, given the latest awful news, for very good reason.