Helen Martin: The hidden menace of attacks by dogs off leads

Letting your dog roam off its lead when there are other dogs around is a bad idea. Picture: Getty
Letting your dog roam off its lead when there are other dogs around is a bad idea. Picture: Getty
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IT’s the dog owner’s dream, striding along in the sunshine in a remote area of scenic beauty, with your four-legged friend off-lead, scampering around you, ears flapping, tail wagging and sniffing the air.

It really is a dream, because there are risks, from the pet running off and getting lost, to getting tangled in barbed wire, or causing physical damage or stress to livestock in certain places. So caution applies.

For most of us dog-loving, Edinburgh urbanites, popular dog-walking areas from Portobello beach to Blackford Hill are also heavily populated by other walkers and their dogs. And in those circumstances, letting your dog off lead isn’t usually the best idea.

The number of attacks by off-lead dogs can’t be officially calculated. Not all attacks, even those resulting in serious mauling or injury, are reported to police or dog wardens. What’s the point if the owner grabbed his/her dog and ran off without giving personal details?

The priority for each victim’s owner is getting their dog to the vet as soon as possible. But there is no simple “interlink” mechanism between independent vets’ practices to create accurate statistics.

Vets I have spoken to in the last week have told me dogs injured by attacks from others running off-lead, and therefore outwith their owners’ control, are “regular” incidents in their surgeries, around one a week depending on the size and location of practices. On that basis there are at least hundreds every year in Edinburgh and the Lothians!

As a dog owner, that shouldn’t surprise me. I can think of five acquaintances whose dogs have been attacked and wounded by off-lead dogs.

Vets tell me some owners don’t recognise the crucial importance of training, and the necessity of preventing their dog from becoming over-dominant both at home with the family and outside with other dogs.

Tiny and aggressive, big and scared? It’s a mixed, doggy world out there, and some owners are in denial. When their dog attacks, they claim shock and surprise, insisting it’s never happened before, or even suggesting the victim dog must have done something to anger theirs.

In my view, these same owners tend to be the ones who consider it shamefully “weak” to keep their animal on a lead and prefer, even if they can’t re-call their pet, to let it do its own thing. They don’t know the law.

Scottish SPCA chief superintendent Mike Flynn says: “Any dog, regardless of its breed, can be aggressive through an owner’s lack of training or through deliberate encouragement of bad behaviour.

“It is ultimately the responsibility of the owner to ensure their pet is kept under control at all times. Anyone with an animal that shows aggression towards another animal or person has a responsibility to rectify this problem immediately through training or veterinary advice.

“The Control of Dogs Act 2010 makes it an offence for a dog to be out of control in a public or private place. This needs to be enforced by the local authority and early interventions such as dog control notices ordering owners to keep their pet on a lead, muzzled and, if required, attend specialist behavioural training classes.

“Under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, any owner who allows any breed of dog to attack a person in a public place may face prosecution and the prospect of their animal being humanely destroyed as a result of their irresponsible actions.”

Last week a friend was walking with her timid dog on the lead when another walker’s dog shot out of the undergrowth and attacked her pet. It bit her too, something that came low on her priority list (even though she later had to attend A&E) because her dog, trying to spin away from the threatening fangs, fell over and broke its leg in two places leaving bones jutting out and blood flying.

The panic, trauma, stress, fear and horror left a lasting effect on both her and her dog, not to mention the cost of the vet bill for saving his life and leg with surgery to fit a metal plate.

She’s a strong and fair person. This is her response to the appalling ordeal: “Our greyhound’s back leg was bitten by a spaniel shortly after we re-homed him. We have worked hard for over a year to help him regain trust in other dogs. To have a dog run aggressively towards him – our greyhound was on-lead – and attack him was the worst nightmare,” she said.

“Owners must take responsibility for their dog’s actions and where there is any risk, however slight, the dog has to be kept on a lead, or if need be, muzzled as well.

“Otherwise they are failing to protect their own dogs – and themselves – from the potential consequences of their dog’s actions. I am a dog lover and I fully understand that people want to give their dogs freedom to run, roam and sniff – I do too - but that has to be balanced with the responsibility to protect other people’s pets as well.

“I don’t want anyone else to experience what we have. It will be a long road to recovery both physically and mentally for our greyhound and during that time I just hope that he will have the space and peace during walks to enjoy them and to learn to trust other dogs again.

“Our greyhound now wears a yellow bandana to let other owners know that he needs space. It’s a charity, the Yellow Dog Project, which aims to raise awareness of dogs like ours who have been made vulnerable by attacks.”

Visit yellowdoguk.co.uk for details.