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The use of DNA registers to tackle irresponsible dog owners


Key points on the use of DNA registers to tackle irresponsible dog owners:

  • DNA testing can theoretically be used to link a given dog and its owner to a faecal sample (eg from dog foul found in public places) or saliva found on the carcase of dead livestock found in the outdoors
  • Such an association derived solely from DNA testing in itself, does not prove the owner has not picked up after their dog, nor that a given dog has attacked or killed a farm animal
  • DNA testing is also entirely reliant on the offending owner having submitted their dog's DNA onto a register; if the dog's DNA is not registered no enforcement measures can be taken
  • There are significant financial costs associated with a DNA testing programme
  • Experience of compliance with dog collar and tag legislation in the UK and statutory dog licensing in Northern Ireland, suggests a significant proportion of dog owners would not register their dog's DNA, substantially limiting the potential impact of a DNA testing programme
  • There are a number of alternative, more cost effective measures available to local councils to reduce the impact of irresponsible dog owners, including responsible dog owner days and poster campaigns

The situation

A primary aim for the Kennel Club is the promotion of responsible dog ownership. Responsible ownership incorporates a number of elements, including: exercising your dog; knowing where you can walk your dog; picking up after your dog; training your dog etc. The majority of dog owners are responsible owners. Unfortunately the small minority of dog owners who do not meet their responsibilities give all dog owners a bad reputation within their local communities. This directly leads to local authorities introducing restrictions on access to dog walking areas for all dogs and their owners, regardless of their good behaviour. Recently there have been proposals to use DNA testing to tackle irresponsible owners who don't pick up after their dog or for those whose dogs chase and attack livestock.

How DNA testing works

The first stage in using DNA testing is the registration of the dog's DNA onto a database. This is done by taking a painless cheek swab from the dog, this sample can then be analysed and the individual dog's DNA profile added to the database, alongside the details of the dog's owner at that time.

Once this registration has taken place any future samples of a dog's faeces, hair, saliva, blood etc. can then be matched back to records on the DNA database, along with the details of the dog's owner at the time of testing. However, if the dog's DNA has not been registered on the database, no match can be made and the dog's owner cannot be identified.

The KC view

The Kennel Club would strongly support any effective practical measures that would selectively target the actions of irresponsible dog owners. While in theory the use of DNA testing could provide local authorities and other enforcement agencies with the tools to do this, we have a number of concerns over the practical application of this idea. Unless these can be addressed, we believe these proposals are likely to further penalise responsible owners, whilst doing very little to tackle irresponsible owners. Whilst not exhaustive, some of our main concerns are -

1. Irresponsible owners are highly unlikely to register their dogs

The potential success of a DNA testing strategy is wholly reliant upon dogs being registered to a DNA database. Without registration, DNA collected from a faeces sample in cases of fouling, or a saliva or hair sample in an alleged livestock attack, cannot be matched back to the originating dog and its owner. Irresponsible owners who don't pick up after their dogs, or don't walk their dogs on leads around livestock, are almost certainly not going to voluntarily register their dogs onto a DNA database.

Equally efforts to make it compulsory for dogs to be registered to a DNA database are likely to be ignored by irresponsible dog owners, as enforcing registration is likely to be very difficult to implement in practice. There are two obvious parallels to be drawn - 1) dog licensing which is compulsory in Northern Ireland but it is estimated that only one-third of all dog owners have a dog licence [1], and 2) an estimated 1.5 million dogs in the UK don't wear a collar and tag even though this is a legal requirement for dogs in public spaces. [2] Thus the significant costs of registering dogs onto a DNA database and testing DNA samples will either be borne by responsible dog owners or the local authority, or most likely both, for little benefit in tackling the problems linked to irresponsible dog owners.

It is worth noting that we are not drawing a parallel with microchipping requirements due to be in force in England from April 2016, as microchipping is popular with most dog owners in any case (with around 80% of dog owners already microchipping their dogs). Dog owners view microchipping as a positive measure to aid them in being reunited with a lost or stolen dog. Microchipping is a cheap and quick procedure and microchipping databases have long been in existence.

2. Experience in the US is not directly translatable to the UK

DNA testing is successfully used in the United States to tackle dog fouling issues within private "managed communities" where there is usually no right for the general public to walk their dogs, and where it can be a requirement for those living in these communities to register their dogs. Monitoring who has and has not registered their dogs onto the database will be considerably easier within a managed community, compared to a UK local authority area. It is therefore quite reasonable to assume the proportion of dogs registered on a DNA database is likely to be higher in a US managed community, than a UK local authority area. Successful application of a DNA testing programme in a small, private managed community in the US cannot be seen as an indication of potential success within a UK local authority setting.

On a general level it is worth noting that the whole culture of dog walking and ownership is considerably different in the US to that of the UK. Dog licensing is mandatory in most states in the US, though much like Northern Ireland compliance rates can be low, with an estimated figure of only 17% of dogs in San Francisco being licensed. [3] This may be one reason why a DNA testing programme has yet to be rolled out across a municipal area in the US.

In urban environments in the US, the default legal requirement is for dogs to always be on lead, except in designated off lead areas such as enclosed dog parks. Dog owners take their dog to a dog park, let it off the lead, and often take a seat while the dog runs around. This concentrates where dog owners congregate, which facilitates the enforceability of a testing regime. In contrast, in the UK there is no general requirement for dogs to be on lead, and there are extensive statutory public rights to take off-lead access across vast tracts of public and privately-owned land. Quite apart from formal parks and urban greenspaces, inEnglandalone this includes 140,000 miles of public rights of way, 2.5 million acres of Forestry Commission land and 1.4 million acres of Open Access land. Thus unlike in the US, people in the UK walk with their dogs over very large areas, providing significant health benefits for dogs and owners alike. Indeed, as off lead exercise is a key way to meet the requirements of the Animal Welfare Act 2006, we would have significant concerns over any measure which may deter dog owners from responsibly exercising their dogs off lead.

3. Resource implications of a DNA enforcement approach

In the US, as part of the registration process, dogs are swabbed in the presence of the community's management staff. This is to ensure that the DNA sample submitted is actually from the dog to be registered; this is required to avoid fraudulent DNA samples being registered. In a local authority setting additional controls would be required not only to ensure that the dog owner was providing DNA from their actual dog, but also that the details the owner provided for their name and address was legitimate. Implementing this protocol on a local authority scale would either require significant local authority resources, or will instead significantly increase the costs for those dog owners who opt to register their dog.

As the dog's registered address is likely to change during its lifetime, through moving or transfer of ownership, the DNA register would have to allow dog owners to update their address information or transfer ownership details. This would potentially allow unscrupulous owners to fraudulently alter the contact details of the dog's registered owner to make it very difficult, if not impossible, to prosecute future offences. In a private, managed community setting this would be very easy to monitor and police, however in a local authority setting this would be considerably more complex. Implementing safeguards to avoid this problem will again substantially increase the costs for the local authority, dog owners or both.

A DNA testing programme will require local authorities to have officials both policing compliance with registration to a DNA database and collecting samples to be sent for analysis. In many cases these samples will not be traceable back to the owner and therefore no enforcement action will be possible. This will also stop the local authority being able to recoup the costs associated with sample collection and testing. Given that local authority resources are already limited this will undoubtedly result in fewer resources being available to catch offenders in the act. Arguably this will make it easier for those who have not registered their dogs to get away with unsociable activity.

To have any potential to make a meaningful impact, DNA registration would have to be compulsory. If local authorities take this route, they would need to invest in a significant communication campaign to educate local dog owners. Additionally they would have to provide clear signage to inform dog owners of the rules within the area, especially at boundaries between local authorities if different rules are in force. This could prove especially difficult in urban greenspaces and the wider countryside, as these areas often span local authority boundaries.

4. Effect on local tourism

Being dog friendly can bring significant benefits to the local area, including tourism, with many dog owners choosing to take their dog on holiday with them. Requiring dogs to be pre-registered onto a DNA database, with the associated costs, to access public spaces within a local authority area is likely to significantly discourage holidaymakers with dogs from visiting the area. This would include both day trippers from a neighbouring local authority, right through to dog owners taking extended breaks.

Issuing a fixed penalty notice to a visitor to your area for not having their dog registered to a DNA database is likely to be unpopular - however, any exemptions or loopholes to being registered onto a DNA database will be exploited by irresponsible dog owners, thereby largely nullifying any potential benefits to the testing programme.

5. Compulsory registration could negatively affect community relations

Proposals which would make it compulsory for dog owners to submit their dog's DNA onto a database to allow their dog to access public spaces would set a rather unwanted precedent of all dog owners being presumed guilty. We would expect that the wider public would be unaccepting of proposals which required them to submit their fingerprints to access a shopping centre in case they embark on a shoplifting spree; this is effectively the same principle being applied to dog owners.

Enforcement of compulsory registration would surely require dog walkers to be stopped by officials to allow for identification of whether the dog is or is not registered to a DNA register. There have been suggestions that a coloured tag might be used to identify registered dogs. This is unlikely to be a practical solution as it is highly likely these tags will either be forged, or similar looking tags to the genuine ones to deceive enforcement officers. Indeed, a dog owner whose dog was properly registered and then either sold, passed away, or ownership was transferred in any manner, could retain the genuine tag and re-use it on another dog or give it to a third party.

There will also be a continual flow of new dogs into the local authority area either through new residents to the areas or exiting residents acquiring new dogs. When considered alongside possible fraudulent usage of tags, effective enforcement would require dog owners to be stopped and inspected on a regular, ongoing basis.

The negative effects of police use of stop and search on both community relations and police resources are well established. Indeed, the Home Secretary herself is seeking a reduction in police use of stop and search. [4]

While the identification of whether a dog is registered to a DNA database is likely to be less controversial than the use of stop and search. Considerable questions need to be addressed as to how this would be implemented in practice - would all dog owners be stopped every time they passed a dog warden or PCSO, or would a targeted approach be used? Would similar recording requirements to stop and search be implemented? Likewise, would those who are stopped be provided with some form of paperwork or receipt to allow for complaints to be made?

The majority of dog owners are likely to be accepting of being stopped very occasionally to prove whether their dog is registered. However, if being stopped became more frequent it is reasonable to expect dog walkers to become irritated or even potentially angry at the intrusion in their daily life. The effects on those in the community who already feel marginalised and targeted, such as the black and ethnic minority community, who are six times more likely to be subjected to police stop and search than if they were white, are likely to be considerably more significant.

6. Using DNA testing for alleged dog fouling incidents

There are specific issues relating to the implementation of DNA testing as an enforcement measure for dog fouling. We understand that current proposals are that a faecal sample would be collected after the alleged offence took place and then submitted for testing, with the dog's owner sent an enforcement notice in the post. In effect, this makes a dog owner legally liable for any faecal matter produced by their dog (theoretically down to microscopic amounts) until the faeces have completely decomposed. At any point should a sample of a registered dog's faeces be found in a public space within a testing area, the registered owner of the dog could be fined.

Indeed the registered dog owner would therefore be legally liable if a relative, friend, professional dog walker, or other person took their dog for a walk and didn't pick up after the dog. There is of course a direct parallel with the use of speed cameras in the enforcement of alleged speeding offences.

Much like DNA testing of alleged dog fouling offences, speed cameras don't prove who was in charge of the vehicle at the time of the alleged offence. To enable identification of the driver, and subsequent prosecution of the alleged offender, the keeper of the vehicle is sent an enforcement notice, requiring them to identify the driver of the vehicle at the time of the alleged offence. The keeper is guilty of an offence if they fail to identify the driver at the time of the alleged offence. However, the law is clear that the keeper of the vehicle cannot be found guilty of an offence of not identifying the driver "if he shows that he did not know and could not with reasonable diligence have ascertained who the driver of the vehicle was" [5].

We assume that the same principles would need to apply for the prosecution of a dog fouling incident using DNA testing. This, of course this would require enforcement officers to provide dog owners with accurate details of the time, date and location of the alleged offence, to enable them to identify who was in charge of the dog at the time. More generally these details would be essential to allow dog owners fair opportunity to mount a challenge to a penalty notice. It is unclear how this could be achieved in practice, without the use of CCTV or an enforcement officer on site at the time.

Finally, in an unlikely but entirely plausible scenario, a dog owner could responsibly dispose of their dog's waste in a bin and then anyone could retrieve the bagged waste place it on the street or in a park. The dog waste would then be collected by the council, sent for analysis, with the responsible owner being fined through no fault of their own. This could be someone with a personal vendetta against the dog owner, a general dislike of dogs, or just general malicious intent, again this would only impact upon those who had registered their dog(s) onto the database. There is already evidence of people unlawfully trying to penalise dog owners, such as recent cases of poisoned meat being put down in parks. [6]

7. Using DNA testing for alleged livestock attacks

There are also considerable hurdles to overcome in the use of DNA testing in identifying an alleged canine perpetrator of a livestock attack. Unlike in the US, in the UK there are long-standing, widespread rights to walk dogs across public and privately owned land where sheep and other farm animals are routinely grazed. Thus presence of a dog's DNA (such as saliva or hair) on a dead farm animal is absolutely not conclusive proof that the animal was attacked by that dog; the dog could have simply sniffed or licked an already dead animal when legitimately in that field or general area. Therefore in addition to DNA evidence, the attack would need to be witnessed by someone who could give convincing evidence that the dog in question attacked the animal. Given the latter and the significant chance that the dog will not be registered to a DNA database, the realistic chance of a successful prosecution is low.

With the legal implications for the dog owner, the carcass sample would surely have to be collected by an authorised enforcement officer. In what would most likely be an expansive rural environment with limited accessibility, this would have significant resource implications. When considering the low likelihood of prosecution and resource implications, the reality is that DNA testing is unlikely to provide a practical solution to tackling incidents of livestock attacks by dogs.

Furthermore, DNA testing is unlikely to provide any meaningful preventative benefit in livestock attacks. Farmers are legally entitled to shoot dogs which are chasing livestock, if this doesn't act as a deterrent it is unlikely that a small chance of receiving a fixed penalty notice will. Instead resources would be better deployed into measures which will help to prevent these incidents occurring in the first place. These could include accurate signage to give warning to dog owners when livestock are in the vicinity; providing information on alternative routes to avoid unwanted encounters; and educating owners to keep their dogs on lead around livestock.

Moving forward

The Kennel Club believes that there are a large number of practical issues related to the use of dog DNA testing to tackle irresponsible dog owners that require addressing before the Kennel Club could support the idea.

DNA testing is highly unlikely to prevent irresponsible owners not picking up after their dog or keeping their dogs under control around livestock. Implementing a DNA testing programme would have considerable cost and resource implications. Given this and the limitations of a DNA testing programme, the Kennel Club would instead encourage local authorities to take proactive measures to promote responsible ownership.

These proactive, positive measures can be delivered at a low cost from both a financial and community relations perspective, and include: running responsible dog owner days to engage with the local dog owning community; poster campaigns to promote responsible ownership; providing dog owners with an appropriate number of bins to dispose of waste; having clear signage in place to advise dog walkers where they can exercise off lead etc. These measures will help to reduce unwanted dog related problems, without penalising responsible dog owners in the process.