Intensely proud of their self-styled image as a nation of dog-lovers, Britons are chewing over radical government proposals to embed microchips in every canine in England and Wales.
Six million dogs would be tagged so owners could be traced as part of the proposed crackdown against those who use dangerous animals as a weapon to intimidate others. Third-party insurance would also become compulsory so victims of dog attacks could be compensated.
But in a country where a backlash is already growing against the perceived growth of a nanny state, with extensive closed-circuit camera surveillance of public areas and the world's largest (per capita) police DNA database, right-wing politicians and their allies in the media have claimed the plan would backfire by penalizing law-abiding families and creating a vast bureaucracy of enforcement officers, scanners to check pets for microchips, and pounds for seized animals.
Unsurprisingly, postal workers warmly welcomed the proposals after they were unveiled by the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, himself a twice-bitten former "postie."
"People have a fundamental right to feel safe,” he said.
The proposals, which will be subject to a three-month period of public consultation and will not become law until after the general election, come amid rising public concern about the keeping of so-called status dogs for use as weapons or to intimidate communities. Cases of children being mauled to death by such animals in recent years have received massive media coverage. Britain would become the first European country to introduce compulsory microchipping for every dog if the plan becomes law.
Dog-fight complaints rising fast
The number of complaints about dog fights increases 12-fold between 2004 and 2008, according to Britain’s Royal Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA).
Rachel Casey, an animal behaviorist at Bristol University, says that while there was a real problem surrounding the deliberate training of dogs for fighting or intimidation, the wider issue of dog bites was a complicated one.
“There has been an increase in aggression from dogs, but the highest rates of bites relate to people being bitten by their own dogs,” she says.
While there was a lack of research in the area, she added, a study in Ireland had suggested the highest incidence of bites originated from popular breeds such as terriers, rather than larger breeds regarded as the stereotypical "fighting dog."
“More people have dogs now also, but there is confusion about how you deal with them. There are no standard messages. Television shows might say one thing, but then a vet may say something else. Whether it’s a fighting dog or not, it can learn to show aggression due to a particular situation.”
Qualified support Thursday for the microchip proposals came Thursday from the Kennel Club, the 137-year-old governing body for dogs in the UK, but not because of hopes they could clamp down on the problem of aggressive animals.
“From a welfare aspect, chips are the most effective of way of locating an owner if the gets lost,” said the club’s Secretary, Caroline Kisko, who added that it had long been critical of existing legislation which bans specific breeds of dogs, such as pit bulls.
“We believe in the principle of ‘deed not breed,’ and so our main concern has been that the law has concentrated heavily on the breed rather than on ensuring that owners were responsible,” she added.
The concern many dog owners and others would have about the proposed microchipping plan, she said, was that the irresponsible owners would simply choose to remain outside of the law.
A headline above an opinion piece in the mass-selling Daily Mail by commentator Quentin Letts summed up the gripes, asking: "Why should I pay for the crimes of devil dog owners?"
Predicting that the cost of the proposed scheme would amount to £100 ($150) per dog, and that insurance premiums could even run as high as £500 ($750) a year, he said that it was all because of “a few evil-minded bullies” roaming poorer housing projects with muscular and often aggressive "trophy dogs."
He added: “Of course, these are the very people who will ignore the legislation and carry on parading their snarling pitbulls - but all of us middle-class dog lovers will once again have to dig into our pockets for this tax-grabbing Government.”