Colin Christopher Tennant MA (Canine Behaviour & Psychology) FCFBA
I began my career in dog education professionally when I was sixteen years of age and have spent my life developing dog behaviour solutions and training methods at my Canine Behaviour Centre, to help people with difficult dogs and use this accumulative knowledge in many canine disciplines. I also served in the Cheshire Police Dog Section. I am qualified in criminal law via the Police Home office Courses and have developed Dog Law courses for the Cambridge Institute of Dog Behaviour and Training (CIDBT) in the UK and for students abroad. All of this combined supports my court work as an expert witness.
English Dog Law has become more intrusive and egregious in the last decade for those of us who own pet dogs; the Dangerous Dogs Act (1991) has been amended a number of times and is designed to reduce harm to the public from dogs that pose a serious threat. Now who could argue with that, one might say? The Dogs Act (1871), however, already is suitable for most cases (excluding prohibited breeds). There are other Acts that can be used for the control of dogs or deal with owner responsibility.
Did you know that your car is not a private place for the purposes of the Dangerous Dogs Act? Under section 3(i) of the 1991 Act (as amended by the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, (the ‘2014 Act’), if any dog is dangerously out of control in any place, including all private property, the owner or person for the time being in charge of the dog, is guilty of a summary offence. That offence becomes an aggravated offence and triable either way, if the dog injures any person or an assistance dog while out of control and an arrest may be made.
Definition of Expert Witness
I will begin with how the law describes an “expert witness”: An expert witness is a person whose opinion by virtue of education, training, certification, skills or experience, is accepted by the judge as an expert. An expert witness provides evidence that is admissible, to furnish the Court with information that is likely to be outside the experience and the knowledge of a judge or jury. An expert witness can provide the Court with a statement of opinion on any admissible matter calling for expertise by the witness if they are qualified to give such an opinion.
The duty of an expert witness is to help the Court to achieve the overriding objective by giving opinion that is impartial and unbiased, in relation to matters within their expertise. This is a duty that is owed to the Court and overrides any obligation to the party from whom the expert is receiving instructions. Often defendants misunderstand this and see me as on their side, which I am not. I point out to them that I am on the side of the Court without exception.
Academic qualifications can be helpful, but do not in any way replace extensive experience and skill in working with multiple dog breeds in both training and behaviour situations.
Unfortunately, the majority of work relates to the Dangerous Dogs Act (1991), although the Noise Abatement Act (1960) is another common area within which I work.
Dangerous Dogs Act (1991)
As stated this act makes up most of my work and in essence, a dog owner can be required to appear in Court if their dog is deemed to be ‘dangerously out of control’ – for example, if the dog injures someone or causes someone to be afraid that it might injure them. This of course is open to misuse and interpretation; here I proffer an example:
If a dog is friendly and on a lead, but excitable whilst being walked and jumps at a person in the street, even making no contact, but perhaps barks; if the target person states they felt in fear of being attacked, for the purposes and interpretation of the legislation, the offence is technically committed. The person can lay a complaint to the Police; this has many possible outcomes, some of which are most serious. This does seem odd to me and to many others. I have walked past people who have a phobia with dogs and have screamed in fear of my dog that was on a lead and quietly walking past them.
Once a complaint is triggered via the Police and thereafter executed via the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), then the law and bureaucracy takes on a life of its own and the experience for dog owners is always harrowing and stressful. I have sat with clients in courtrooms listening to their fear and upset; even when the law breaking is initially trivial, it often spirals out of control. Of course, if the dog owner has allowed the dog to be truly dangerous then it is natural that a complainant will want some form of justice and/or compensation.
My clients have rarely understood basic dog law or may have misinterpreted what in their view is common sense in dog ownership. Let me give you an abridged example of a recent case:
A couple walk their Setter through woods, they see 200 yards away, a lady walking an elderly Retriever in their direction, the Retriever on nearing the Setter growls furiously and snaps at the Setter which responds. The Retriever having weak hindquarters, falls and injures an already weak joint causing severe pain. No bites or injuries are inflicted, despite the cacophony of aggressive sub vocalisation by both dogs. No person is bitten.
A complaint is made by the Retriever’s owner that her dog was attacked and has been injured needing hundreds of pounds worth of veterinary treatment to its joints. The Police are called and amazingly charge the Setter’s owners with an offence of having a dog dangerously out of control, because the lady owner of the Retriever said she felt in fear of being bitten when separating the dogs’ minor clash.
I was employed by a solicitor for the defence and visited the Setter’s owners at their home with my assistant Judy Cooper MA and spent three hours investigating the behaviours alluded too. Judy, the dog and its owners subsequently went to a local park where I filmed and assessed the Setter on a lead and collar. After a while it was obvious he was not attempting to snap, growl or be belligerent to any dogs he met when on a lead and other equipment I was using for safety. Other dogs ran over to sniff him and as I read each and every approach, action and counter-reaction, I began forming a behavioural opinion of the Setter’s attitude to a wide variety of dogs with different approaches. In essence the Setter minded its own business. There was a mild nervous edge to him, but it was obviously habituated to the park and dogs.
I wrote a 5,000 word report describing all the various tests that I conducted. The Police (prosecution) evidence solely depended on the Retriever owner’s evidence and veterinary bills.
It was my contention that the Retriever had triggered the main vocalised dispute and though the two dogs had physically collided for a second or two, both dogs ceased when the Retriever lost its balance due to a previous leg injury and weakened hindquarters. I concluded, from the evidence written and my observations, the Setter to be a well-balanced dog and socially good with all dogs; its action was defensive and normal. The Retriever’s owner would not let me assess her dog in the same way. It transpired that the elderly Retriever had serious hip and spinal problems, which needed treatment long before the incident and that the sudden physical interaction with the Setter may have caused it to aggravate an age related physical disability.
Once the Crown Prosecution Service read my evidence the case was dropped a week before the trial, which often is the case. The Setter’s owners could not sleep for six months and lived in constant fear of appearing in Court with all the possible ramifications of being found guilty, fined and getting a criminal record.
Whilst writing this article I have just received a statement from a dog’s owner whose little dog was pounced upon by two large mastiffs and savaged. The mastiffs were on leads handled by a young girl who couldn’t hold one, let alone two large dogs. Passers-by tried to help and the little dog’s owner was badly bitten about her hands and arms by the mastiffs. In contrast the Police have refused to take any action and the local MP has so far been ineffective. I example this case for you to compare dog on dog activities and the extreme differences in how police forces react and proceed.
Cross examination of witnesses
Inside the Court, which I often describe as a ‘theatre’, simply because the witness often puts on staggering performances of truth, dishonesty and misleading verbal descriptions. The CPS lawyers, whether in the magistrates or higher courts will lay out their case, their witnesses, usually police officers and civilians, will lay out their case and be cross examined by the defence lawyers I am working for. In turn, I will present my evidence alongside the other defence witnesses and the prosecution lawyers will scrutinise my evidence and try to drive holes in it. I have met colleagues who have come into this work and after one or two cases have sworn never to repeat the dreadful experience in court – it’s not like TV shows!
My duty as an expert witness is to the court not the defence or prosecution whoever employs me. My expertise as a Clinical Dog Behaviourist is about supplying independent evidence about the dog’s behaviour in the circumstances presented. The prosecution counsel and defence counsel can ask any questions they feel are pertinent and sometimes this can be unnerving for witnesses. As a former police officer, I do not find it stressful. You have to have a very active and sharp mind to work out the questions being asked and where they are leading to. Lawyers will, if opportunity arises, press with some ferocity their views to prove their case, which is the adversarial system in Great Britain.
Dog owners on the whole find the experience a very stressful time. Some court officials can be very considerate and understand the nervousness of witnesses whilst others seem to be indifferent. In the magistrates’ court, the Court Clerk, also known as a court legal adviser, is a qualified solicitor, possibly a barrister, assigned to this work and will preside over criminal or civil proceedings. They provide advice on applicable laws, judicial procedures and limitations. The magistrate or judge will thereafter decide the guilt or non-guilt of the defendant.
That’s the simple version, but as an example some cases can go on for years with trial after trial. The dog seized stays in incarceration and without doubt suffers psychologically, developing serious conditions of stress and aberrant behaviours, making them less likely to adapt back into our society. The authorities seem not care about this or should I say do nothing about it. That is my experience over 30 years in the work. The kennels in which they are kept vary from good to appalling and I have made complaints to the bad ones run by the West Midlands Police, conversely the Northamptonshire Police are outstanding and the officers I have met there have been very helpful, so it’s a very mixed picture.
The Dangerous Dog Act (1991) is for dogs dangerous to people, not dog on dog aggression, the latter cases actioned under The Dogs Act (1871) as a civil prosecution, which still has severe penalties including ordering a dog to be euthanized. However, many pet owners get caught up in the Dangerous Dogs Act (1991) when their dog is involved in a dog on dog dispute, because they are frequently bitten by dogs fighting.
A court could also decide that your dog is dangerously out of control if either of the following apples: (i) the owner of an animal thinks they could be injured if they tried to stop your dog attacking their dog and (ii) in the melee be bitten or attacked. The example here is that a dog attacking (even just vocally) can still put another dog owner in fear that they may be bitten. That immediately puts many thousands of dogs on the Police radar.
You have no rights to visit your dog if seized
I will explain how the legal system executes its work. If a Police Officer (Dog Legislation Officer) assesses a dog, considers it a banned breed and/or believes that your dog is dangerously out of control the dog may legally be seized and impounded at an anonymous kennels. The dog’s owner has no rights to see the dog under any circumstances. That’s draconian and the Police response is that in the past some criminals whose dogs were seized threaten the kennel owners with violence or break in to where the dog was ensconced, hence the no visit rule. The fact that the majority of owners I have interviewed and defended would not be violent cuts no ice with the lawmakers and enforcers.
The court procedure post dog seizure
Once a person has been charged (it is irrelevant whether the dog is isolated in police custody or as some good police forces do, allow the owner to keep their dog at home under a strict agreement order until the date of the court hearing). The Police and defence prepare their evidence to be heard on a specific date upon which the owner has to attend.
As I generally work for the defence I will explain how that works. I am sent the evidence from the CPS (via solicitors), which I read very carefully to understand the rationale for prosecuting the owners of the dog. My job is primarily to conduct an independent assessment of the dog in question and its temperament, characteristics and whether I feel the CPS claims are accurate in regard to the dog. If I feel the dog has been wrongly assessed or the evidence is inaccurate, as their witness claims in respect of the dog’s psychological state and/or behaviour, I will thereafter write evidence to support my expert opinion. The Police will have their own experts at the hearing too.
The Proscribed (banned) Breeds
The breeds of dog currently illegal in the UK are the Pit Bull Terrier, Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argentino and the Fila Brasileiro, however, crossbreeds including any of those types of dog may also be subject to the law, depending on their size and characteristics.
Most dangerous dog cases I deal with are appertaining to the American Pit Bull Terrier as described in the breed standard by the US Breed Society. Most cases I deal with are about cross breeding of that breed with other bull breeds like Staffordshire bull terriers. This basically is the Police expert witness stating that the dog they have seized is a derivation by the dog’s physical characteristics and or behaviours. (Genetic sequencing is not accepted in English Law.) This Police opinion is arbitrary and varies a great deal – even the Police Dog Legislation Officers may have different opinions about the dog seized. My job is to go, by appointment, to the kennels where the dog is kept (often for months and sometimes over a year in isolation). The Police allow me to examine the dog, which means getting it out of the kennels on a lead and collar. Most dogs are fine, but some are very aggressive, because they have been traumatised by the entire experience and the conditions they are kept in, which in my view is cruel.
If the dog attacks me, I use my skills to avoid being bitten, which to date have been successful; I still have complete arms, legs and fingers! Some dogs are easily spooked, because their family pack security is gone and most suffer various levels of extreme separation anxiety. Eventually many adapt to the primitive conditions and 24/7 boredom and isolation. They often look forlorn and sad locked in these cages. They may get a walk for 30 minutes or more on or off lead, but at one of the work places I visited for the West Midlands Police were tiny kennels and the dogs were placed in a fenced yard for so called exercise. The remaining 23 hours and 30 minutes they were locked in a small kennel.
These incarcerated dogs are mostly fine with people though some are very aggressive to dogs as their owners have taught them – this is often deliberate.
Once I have made the assessment I return to my office and write a full report of my view including the dog’s temperament, my handling experiences with the said dog and how it interacted with my associate Judy Cooper.
Bad Dog owners
The owners of some of the dogs seized are criminals and in many cases are often difficult to deal with. They have expectations all too often that I am there to get them off the offence they are being prosecuted for! I quickly disabuse them of that misconception and describe my role. Other defendants are genuine dog lovers, but don’t understand dog care standards or welfare and I have interviewed many. It’s quite disheartening at times trying to make them aware of what is basic common sense in canine management. Of course, I have to be mindful that my expertise as an expert witness is to always stay within my remit about the dog and not judge the owners – be they good or bad. Despite that, magistrates do ask my opinion on the dog owners from a handling stance. This is outside the remit, but it is what goes on in courts, because one rule is over ridden by another rule and this is the fuzziness of court experience and dog law.
When laws are injurious
The Government extended the Dangerous Dogs Act (1991) a few years back to include our homes, which to me was wrong on every level. In essence it laid open my home and garden to trespass by nefarious criminals who could say that a pet owner’s dog bit them and the dog should or could be euthanised, thus the owner consequently gets a criminal record. The law in principal should give you some protection from such a prosecution, but in reality that is simply not true. Let me give a simple example: A criminal comes through my rear gate, opens my kitchen door and enters with criminal intention (I cannot prove that); my dog sees an intruder and barks and/or bites him. I am shocked by the intrusion; my dog picks this up and reacts. The criminal may even attack me, but I can’t prove that either. When the Police arrive he simply states he was trying to get my attention innocently by open and entering the kitchen or he was lost and about to ask directions. When the Police arrive we have a man with a bite, which is evidenced and my word against his. Remember criminals lie for a living, the public don’t. There can be endless scenarios to this, but the interviews and post incident traumatic experiences for the house owner can spiral out of control. If you have a party, when people drink they may become clumsy and could step on your dog’s paw with all the noise and clatter; if your dog bites in pain (a normal reaction) the Dangerous Dogs Act is breached and you can be prosecuted and people have been.
Many people do not realise that these Acts also intrude into your car; if some person enters or places their hand in your car and your dog nips them the Act is also broken. Of course this is seriously taking away your rights, but law intrusion seems to ever creep into our lives.
I can state without equivocation that dogs have become more unruly over the past two decades not just a statistical analysis, but from me and my colleagues’ interactions with dog owners through our profession: that’s thousands each year. There may reasons, I have concluded; ineffective dog training methods and lack of socialisation are the top two.
There are other reasons and the Canine and Feline Behaviour Association (CFBA) has published the first science of its type to discover the social interactions of dogs in Great Britain in 2021. You can read the results just published at www.cfba.uk.
My advice to all dog owners involved in an alleged offence is to never write a statement to the Police without first taking legal advice; it can go so wrong for too many nice dog owners – as I have witnessed all too often. If the Police have evidence that they feel is convincing they don’t need your help to convict yourself. Call a solicitor immediately. Do I convey that all Police Officers are conniving to prosecute you? Certainly not – I have formed many friends in the Police service and in my work delivering law courses. Many are genuinely kind and do not wish to unnecessarily make life difficult for you or your dog. Some extend this to the limit and put themselves at risk of being accused of being too soft or too reasonable. The fact that, as a member of the public, you are unlikely to be aware of this, so always call a solicitor.
If you love your dog, you will, I hope make the right decisions, including socialising your puppy appropriately, training with a professional dog trainer and perhaps most importantly, choosing a breed you can manage and keep for its entire life in safety.