Few dog owners are aware of all their legal obligations, study finds

Most know the laws on fouling and licensing, but they don’t know about much else

Earlier this year, Minister for Rural and Community Development Heather Humphreys and Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Charlie McConalogue reminded dog owners of their responsibilities with lambing season approaching.

However, on January 5th, a study in the Irish Veterinary Journal – Self-reported awareness of the legal status of eight responsibilities of dog owners in Ireland: are dog owners different from non-dog owners? – reported that relatively few dog owners in Ireland are aware that common responsibilities towards their canine companions are prescribed by law.

The study of 679 University College Dublin employees investigated their awareness of the legal status of eight defined responsibilities of dog owners. The study's lead author, Laura Keogh, then a student at UCD's School of Veterinary Medicine and now a practicing vet at the Whitehouse Veterinary Clinic in Co Derry, outlined her team's main findings to The Irish Times: "Across all the groups investigated – 327 dog owners (66 per cent female), 352 non-dog owners (64 per cent female) – only 17.9 per cent were aware of all eight responsibilities for dog owners that are prescribed by law. Interestingly, there were no substantial differences between awareness of owners versus non-owners, or between males and females."

The three legal requirements that participants had a substantial awareness of (exceeding 80 per cent) were that owners can be fined if their dog fouls in a public place; all dog owners must have a licence for their dog(s); and certain breeds must be muzzled and on a leash in a public place.

Why should these responsibilities generate greater awareness than others? “We didn’t investigate possible reasons,” explained Laura, “but we speculate it’s because they result in direct negative consequences to humans compared to those that result in direct negative consequences to dogs. The immediate consequences of non-compliance with these regulations are felt by humans and only through these effects on human society do they negatively affect canine welfare.

“It could also be that fouling, and licensing are among the most well-publicised laws in Dublin, and through different campaigns people are more aware of these responsibilities, but as a study hasn’t sought to ask this, it’s speculation.”

By contrast, she continued, the less well-known legal requirements have more immediate and direct negative consequences for the welfare of the dog in question than for humans. “These requirements,” said Laura, “are that all owners must keep their animal in a way that safeguards its health and welfare; it’s unlawful for an owner to abandon their dog; tail docking is only legal in exceptional circumstances and on condition that it’s performed by a vet; it’s unlawful for an owner to let their dog stray; and dogs must always wear a collar bearing the owner’s name and address inscribed on a plate, badge or disc.”

Keogh and colleagues also state: “Whilst the study was carried out amongst university staff, it may mirror the general awareness of wider society.”

Moral responsibilities

To what extent can we infer that a dog owner’s love for their pet will be reflected in their knowledge of canine-related legislation? For instance, might individuals with an innate sense of a need to discharge their moral responsibilities to dogs consider it unnecessary to develop an awareness of their legal responsibilities? “Personal and societal ethics change,” said Keogh, “and dog ownership practices that were socially acceptable 20 years ago may have changed. For individuals with a sense of moral responsibility, it helps to be well-informed, and part of this is being aware of legal provisions.”

Keogh makes a persuasive point, and society could usefully debate whether a heightened awareness of an individual’s legal responsibilities might in turn promote the development of a deeper moral dimension in relation to how an individual reflects on canine welfare.

But although the study did not explore the relationship between legal responsibility and personal values or ethics, Keogh suggested a possible connection: “For example,” she said “it is illegal to dock a puppy’s tail, with exceptions for some breeds of working dogs, and yet tail docking persists.

“If the legislation were better known, it might trigger a societal discussion into why tail docking is ethically unacceptable, and therefore make it less socially acceptable and thus improve animal welfare. In this way, the awareness that certain responsibilities are prescribed by law could facilitate the process by which law shapes human behaviour.”

Data show that the interface between honouring our responsibilities towards dogs, and the shortcomings of human behaviour is one that often needs to be patrolled by law. For example, in Ireland in 2020, enforcement of all provisions under the Control of Dogs Acts 1986 & 1992 showed that there were 1,069 on-the-spot fines issued (of which 548 were paid); 82 prosecutions; and 20 convictions.

In Ireland, legislation governing the responsibilities of dog ownership is enshrined in the Control of Dogs Act 1986 and the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013, and Keogh and colleagues are clear: “Societal knowledge of canine welfare-related legislation helps create a normative expectation for acceptable treatment of dogs, holding owners and non-owners to a high standard.” They further stress “that all societal members (both dog owners and non-dog owners) should be aware of the legal status of dog ownership responsibilities”.

In this context, with Minister McConalogue reminding dog owners of their responsibilities, with lambing season approaching, it is significant that in 2020 there were 241 reported instances of livestock worrying.

Keogh and colleagues have shown that contrary to expectations, awareness of the legal status of dog owner responsibilities is the same regardless of role and that awareness of these responsibilities is poor overall.

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