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Dog owners and the law FAQ

21 March 2016

Read our frequently asked questions for dog owners to find out what legal requirements you should be aware of.

A dog running through a field
Dog owners love to see their pets running free, but caution must be taken when letting them off the lead

Does my dog need to be microchipped?

From April 2016 all dogs in England and Scotland will, by law, have to be microchipped for owner identity purposes, as they already are in Northern Ireland and Wales. This is a painless procedure in which your pet has a small rice grain-sized pellet put under the skin, which can be scanned by a small hand-held device. A 15-digit code is unique to your dog.

The cost to the owner is cheap and many veterinary practices offer it free as part of their pet care plans. Animal shelters and rescue centres will usually include free microchipping if you adopt a dog from them. When the non-chipping option could be a £500 fine, it’s a no-brainer.

Find out the 6 laws every dog owner should know 

What happened to the old dog licence?

There was a time when you bought a dog and with it a dog licence. That was it, proof of ownership on a piece of paper for a nominal fee. But even minimal cost – just 37p then - and bother was too much for an estimated half the UK’s dog-owning population. So, instead of enforcing the law, it was abolished in 1987. It is, however, still a legal requirement in N Ireland, and costs £12.50 a year.

The end of the dog licence did not mean the end of the legal obligations of the dog owner, however. There are a number of laws that directly, and indirectly, affect dog owners and significant legislation comes in to play in England and Scotland in 2016.

What happens if my dog ‘goes’ for the postman or a parcel delivery person?

It’s upsetting for anyone delivering items to the door when they’re threatened or harmed by a dog – even your madly yapping Jack Russell hitting the inside of the door can be unnerving. There are around 3,300 attacks on postal workers every year, and the Royal Mail takes a very dim view of this matter.

Persistent threatening behaviour by your dog can lead to postal deliveries to your address being suspended, while most delivery firms have a ‘use your common sense’ policy for drivers. If they sense a threat from a dog, they won’t make the drop. You could be liable for a Community Protection Notice (CPN) to be issued against you, too.

What’s a CPN?

Community Protection Notices have been in force since October 2014. They can be issued by police and local authorities and were brought in to assist in the prevention of persistent anti-social behaviour by dog owners.

It could range from incessant dog barking, damage to property, persistent refusal to clean up dog mess etc. The owner is first given a written warning. If the bad behaviour continues the owner then faces a fine or even court proceedings.

If bad dog-related behaviour continues, then injunctions and Criminal Behaviour Orders can be issued placing extreme restrictions on offender’s dog ownership.

If my dog actually bites someone or goes for another dog, am I facing legal consequences?

This is, in fact, a fairly grey area. Was your dog provoked? Did your dog act totally out of character? How serious was the bite? Did it draw blood? In most cases it is down to the victim as to what action ensues.

It is advisable not to enter into too detailed conversation with the victim as your comments could be construed as admitting liability. The incident itself will probably be high in emotion – anger, blame, defence, tears etc , but try to remain calm, be polite and take notes on your smartphone, pictures even, if that doesn’t provoke further antagonism. 

Should the victim decide to take action consult a solicitor immediately. If the attack comes under the Dangerous Dogs Act then you could face legal ramifications.

Can I let my dog off the lead while taking it for a walk nearby?

You might think so a stroll around the block or down the road is no problem but most councils have dog control orders in place, covering areas such as:

  • Dogs on Leads Direction Orders – when you must put your dog on a lead
  • Dog Exclusion Orders – where dogs are prohibited altogether - children’s playgrounds, cemeteries, beach areas etc.
  • Dog Fouling Orders – pretty self-explanatory
  • Penalties – the fixed penalties tariff for breaching these orders.

These can be found on most council websites. Ignorance of local bylaws is no defence, remember. So, before you set off, make sure you know where it’s okay to exercise your dog – and take those poo-bags with you.

Can I let my dog off the lead in the country?

Of course, there’s nothing dog owners like more than seeing their dog running free. But there are limits. Obviously there are issues of trespass that relate to both man and dog. Then there is the issue of ‘worrying’ livestock – from pigs, cattle, sheep and horses, all the way down to the humble chicken. Farmers estimate this costs the industry £1.2m a year.

If your dog is presumed to be attacking livestock or even simply chasing it ‘for fun’, a farmer has the right to take action to protect his animals. Neither you nor the dog wants to end up facing the business-end of a shotgun, so keep your dog on the lead when walking near animals. Better still, keep away from them altogether. 

You could find yourself facing a CPN and damages for killed or traumatised livestock under Section 3 of the 1971 Animals Act. While Section 9 gives ample scope for a farmer to shoot a dog that he believes is causing, or threatens to cause, harm to his livestock.

And if you’re staying in a rural hotel, that doesn’t mean that its ‘dog friendly’ policy extends to the field adjoining the hotel grounds. Check with the hotel as to where your dog can go for longer runs and walks.

My garden is a target for early morning dog walkers letting their dogs poo over the lawn. I tap on my window to shoo them away but they still persist. What can I do?

You could ask them directly to stop but there is a danger that this could turn into a confrontation, and the next thing you know it’s you with the police caution, or worse.

Take a photo of the offence taking place and bring it to the attention of your local council or streetwarden (this is not a police matter). It is up to them to follow up your complaint. Don’t think of scooping it up, following the dog owner and dropping it, in turn, in his garden. Then you’re just as bad as he is.

What happens if my car hits a dog?

Should a motorist injure or kill a dog, under the Road Traffic Act 1988 they must stop at the scene and provide details – name, contact number, vehicle registration – to whoever is in charge of the dog at the time. If the dog was running free and no-one appears to be in charge of it, then the motorist has 24 hours in which to tell the police. No such legislation applies to cats, to most cat-owners’ dismay.

Under the same Act, a dog travelling in a vehicle must be under control at all times and of no hindrance or distraction to the driver. An accident resulting from an in-car dog’s misbehaviour could have serious consequences, not least for any insurance claim.

Will the dog licence ever be brought back?

It’s extremely unlikely that the dog licence will ever come back. However, from April 6 all dogs will need to be microchipped. Anyone who does have their pet microchipped will face a £500 fine.

Interested in taking your dog abroad? Read our guide to pet passports

Find out about Saga Pet Insurance


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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