John McLellan: Bad dog owners take the blame

Most owners are responsible but there are still too many who take the lazy option. Picture: Reuters/Neil Hall
Most owners are responsible but there are still too many who take the lazy option. Picture: Reuters/Neil Hall
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If it’s the start of January it must be time to get fit. The 5:2 Beyonce diet seems to be the current fad, with eating next to nothing two days a week reportedly responsible for the First Minister’s slim-down.

Years ago I did the no carbohydrate thing for about five weeks and lost more than two stones, but boy was it dull by the end. There’s only so much stir-fry without rice or noodles you can eat.

I’ve never really got beyond the basic truth that if you burn more calories than you eat you lose weight; the more you burn the more you lose as long as you don’t go home and empty the fridge. Now old injuries are catching up, increasing exercise is not as straightforward as it once was, but one thing is guaranteed to make sure the legs get stretched – the dog.

Ours is only a West Highland terrier so it’s not the most demanding and one good walk a day is all she really needs. These days it’s the humans who need it as much as she. And in this party season, the mutt forces you to get out and blow away the cobwebs.

The short days mean the window for decent walks is small, but we are blessed with a wide choice of routes which are as good as if not better than anything any town or city in the UK has to offer.

In just the last week, we have been on what would, to a visitor, seem like six or seven extraordinary walks and all within a maximum of a ten-minute drive from the house.

The best view was undoubtedly 1600 feet up in the Pentlands at the top of Allermuir. And starting at Swanston village takes you through what must be one of the most beautiful little places so close to a major city anywhere in the UK.

The dog has been up the Braid Hills, round Blackford Hill and the Braid Burn, up Easter Hill, and along Colinton Dell.

Of course it comes with responsibility and no excursion takes place without a plentiful supply of bags. Most owners do the same. Sadly not all, and if the canalside is anything to go by there are a fair few who do not see it as part of their duty to clean up after their canine friend’s activities.

The threat of fines from an environmental warden is clearly no deterrent to the determinedly antisocial. There is one large dog round our way which regularly leaves its calling card on the pavement, presumably on its way to the park and whose owner still thinks the street outside anyone’s home except his or hers is an acceptable dog toilet. Without getting CCTV rigged up for weeks on end they are unlikely to be caught.

It’s the same across the city, and few things get people more angry than dog’s doings on their shoes, hence the Evening News campaign and also the launch last week of a Scottish Government consultation into the possibility of new laws to tackle irresponsible dog ownership.

Understandably alarmed by dog attacks on children, the First Minster is reportedly keen on compulsory microchips and licensing but the consultation will look at a range of approaches. Legislation is being introduced in Westminster to make chipping of dogs in England compulsory by April 2016.

The old licence which cost a meaningless 37p but a fortune to administer was abolished in 1987. Now there are 640,000 dogs in Scotland and on a rough ratio that means about 70,000 of them will be in the Edinburgh area, possibly more.

In the year up to February 2013, remarkably for a city this size, only four dog control notices were issued, up from zero the previous year. There were 132 investigations, an astounding 412 per cent increase on the 32 such probes in 2011.

Across Scotland, in 2012-13 there were 94 dangerous dog notifications and 945 breaches of control orders, compared with 624 notifications and 668 order breaches in 2010-11.

Maybe the conclusion is that the authorities have identified more of the antisocial owners but they are not put off by the penalties – but 945 control order breaches out of 640,000 dogs represents either massive under-reporting or a very small problem.

Whatever the problem, it lies with owners, not stray dogs. My impression is you see far fewer stray dogs now than ever before, a view backed up by David Ewing, the general manager of the Edinburgh Dog and Cat Home at Seafield, which can house up to 140 dogs at a time.

“We are not seeing the packs of stray dogs we used to have roaming the estates,” he said.

“When I started 40 years ago, about 30 animals a week were being put down, now it’s a last resort only for those which are unsafe to rehome.”

That amounts to only about 50 of the 2200 dogs the home cares for every year. About a third of all strays are reunited with their owners within 48 hours and the vast majority of the rest are successfully found new owners. Only one in 20 reappears.

Fortunately but unusually, this year the usual pre-Christmas surge of unwanted pets has not materialised.

“I like to think it’s a trend but it’s too early to say,” said Mr Ewing. “But people are better prepared to take on dogs, they come armed with questions and you never got that in the past. It must be the internet.”

For responsible owners, a licensing system will feel like just another way for the government to raise taxes and if a scheme similar to that operating in Northern Ireland is introduced in Scotland, a £12.50 annual permit could rake in £8 million.

But the answer is not simple, says Mr Ewing. “Compulsory chipping is not a panacea because the information is not always up to date. But a meaningful licence is part of the solution so that people can have basic ownership training. There is also a basic lack of education about animals and children don’t know the signs when an animal just wants to be left alone.”

He would also like to see a licence fee include a system of third-party insurance, thus putting dog ownership on a par with car ownership. It would certainly concentrate minds but with the cost of keeping a dog 
estimated at around £650 a year – a lot more if you need regular trips to the vet – responsible owners will inevitably feel they are paying the price for others’ irresponsibility.

“There is a price to pay for everything, and a licence would hopefully make people think about the commitment to it,” added Mr Ewing.

There will be the usual joyless crowd happy to see dog owners taxed to the hilt. But given that most people’s contact with bad dog handling is what gets scraped off shoes the priority is to change the behaviour of people who regard the world away from their doorstep as the mutt’s lavvy.

If the polluter pays principle is applied, surely the first step is to ramp up fines and get wardens on the job.

Scottish Government consultation: http://scotland.gov.uk/Resource/0044/00441549.pdf

The Edinburgh Dog & Cat Home, 26 Seafield Road East, www.edch.org.uk/

Beggars can’t be boozers

A HEART-warming Edinburgh Christmas tale:

Scene: A bustling Rose Street during the Christmas sales. Amidst the shoppers, a middle-aged gent looking rather like one of Santa’s less-than-diligent elves, probably affected by over-consumption of alcohol for some time, is attempting to improve his financial position.

Gent (at passers-by): “Haw, are youse no gonnae gie’s any money?”

Christmas shoppers fail to respond and quicken their pace.

Gent (louder): “Hey, are youse no gonnae gie’s any f***in’ money?”

A further pause as more shoppers widen their route.

Gent: “Is naebody gonnae gie’s any f***in’ money for a f***in’ drink?”

Well-dressed female shopper: “Not if you’re going to speak to us like that.”

Gent: “Ach, you werny gonnae gie’s f*** all anyway.”

The a to z of my university challenge...

So that’s it over. I’ve had my 15 minutes of fame on national TV; well not even close to that. It was hardly Smeato at Glasgow Airport or anything approaching it, after all.

Broadcast last Friday, I was one of the Stirling University team on a round of Christmas University Challenge (Jack McConnell and John Reid couldn’t make it, I’m told), in which we were pipped by St Hugh’s College, Oxford.

I get the invitation at the beginning of October and was really looking forward to the experience. Recorded in Salford’s Media City a month ago, I had a pleasant morning walking round the Imperial War Museum North before going off to do battle in a relaxed frame of mind.

But since then, I’ve been waiting in my mental condemned cell for my humbling exposure.

I am now, dear reader, the former newspaper editor who forgot the alphabet.

There will be no shortage of people out there who might think it explains a lot. And indeed one of my old college associates texted to say he always knew that to be successful in journalism a firm grasp of the Krankies’ background was more important than a working knowledge of the alphabet.

Maybe it’s age, ignoring government alcohol advice, or rugby head-knocks, or any possible excuse I can think of, but it’s now there for posterity.

Now I like quizzes, certainly never contemplated trying to swot up general knowledge, and wasn’t nervous before the show.

So what happened?

Halfway through and getting into the swing of it, we were asked to identify an alphabetical sequence. I got it, buzzed ahead of everyone and correctly said VW.

For the third letter, I was about to say X and then I hit the mental equivalent of the blue screen of death. The studio seemed to swirl, I could hear Jeremy Paxman’s voice and I said Y. Why oh Y.

My editorial instincts kicked in immediately – I could see a headline: “The editor who didn’t know the alphabet.” Even Paxman was sympathetic. “Poor fellow doesn’t know the alphabet,” he said sorrowfully.

VWX, VWX; I have repeated it ever since. I do know the alphabet. Really I do.

My team might have won if only I had just remembered the bleedin’ alphabet. Sorry, guys!