Merseyside Police launches Taking the Lead campaign

Taking the lead - promoting responsible dog ownership

Merseyside Police are today (Monday 24th July) launching their Taking the Lead campaign to help reduce incidents of dog bites in Merseyside, starting this summer.

Supported by the Police and Crime Commissioner, Emily Spurrell, the campaign also has the backing of the Merseyside Dog Safety Partnership (MDSP), the Blue Cross, Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, University of Liverpool, Royal Mail and local councils.

The aim of Taking the Lead is to offer important safety tips to all dog owners in Merseyside about looking after their pet, especially around children, which could prevent serious injuries.

To help with this aim, over the summer holidays Merseyside Police will post a series of informative and useful videos on our social media platforms to educate dog owners as well as join with partners to speak to people in parks and other public places.

The videos will involve our partners, who will offer their expert tips and advice on ownership and how to reduce the chances of dog bites.

Police data shows that children under 16 are most likely to be the victims of dog bites and this risk increases significantly in the summer when more children are at home with their pets or around other people’s dogs, and are also spending more time in public spaces.

Although parks and beaches have been identified as hot spots for incidents, dog bites can happen anywhere and most bites occur in the home. Any offences that happen in private can be prosecuted in the same way as bites in public.

Inspector Katie Wilkinson said: “We know that during the summer holidays, when children are spending more time at home, the number of dog bites increases.

“By running Taking the Lead as the schools break up, Merseyside Police hopes to give children and parents the knowledge and skills to stay safe over the six week holidays and in the future. This will help to reduce the number of youngsters hurt by dogs and improve their understanding of dogs and their needs, regardless of their breed or size.

“We are determined to reduce the numbers of children and adults in Merseyside being hurt by dogs. It is crucial that we educate youngsters at an early age about how to be around dogs.

“Some of our simple messages includes not bothering dogs when they are eating their dinner or when they are sleeping and not approaching a dog you don’t know.

“If walking your dog out in your community, always make sure they are on a lead and consider whether they need to be muzzled.

"Dogs must always have access to comfortable and warm shelter, water, companionship and entertainment such as toys. Make sure that your garden or yard is always secure so that a dog cannot accidentally escape.”

Merseyside’s Police Commissioner Emily Spurrell said: “Here on Merseyside we have seen the devastating consequences a dog bite can have. Yet, we know there are some simple steps that dog owners can take to help protect people, particularly vulnerable children.

"I urge dog owners across Merseyside to take the time to watch these videos, listen to the expert advice and think about the measures they can take to prevent anyone getting hurt by a dog over the summer and beyond.”

Statistics provided by the School of Veterinary Science at the University of Liverpool shows that in Merseyside, there tends to be more dog bites in areas with socio-economic challenges.

Between 1998 and 2018 around 5% of all national hospital admissions in relation to dog bites occurred in Merseyside, with Knowsley containing the most incidents per populations across 333 local authorities in England.

In terms of the other boroughs, St Helens was the fifth highest local authority for hospitalisation rates, Liverpool was sixth, Sefton was 30th and Wirral was 106th.  

Dr John Tulloch, Lecturer in Veterinary Public Health at the university of Liverpool said: “We know that dog bites are a community problem, and the Take the Lead campaign is a fantastic approach to working with local residents to help reduce the risk that dogs can pose. We fully endorse and support the ongoing work of Merseyside Police to helpcommunities live and work with their dogs in a safe way that will help to avoid life-changing injuries.”

Dog behaviour expert Dr Carri Westgarth, from the University of Liverpool: “It is important to remember that any dog can bite regardless of how well you know it, and most bites will occur in the owner’s home. It’s important to give dogs their own safe space to be alone, give them plenty of exercise and mental stimulation, and when your dog wants to be left alone leave them be.

“Dog bites to children can be very severe so ensure that you observe children and dogs closely and intervene when necessary. Dogs do not want to bite you, it is a last resort response for them, so watch out for any warning signs of them being uncomfortable in a situation and remove yourselves, or them, from it.”

Merseyside Police also has the highest number of reported dog bites causing injury of any police force in the country.

In 2022, there were tragically two fatal dog attacks in Merseyside.

On Tuesday 21 March, 17-month-old Bella-Rea Birch was killed after she was attacked by a dog in her home on Bidston Avenue in St Helens.

The dog involved, which was humanely destroyed, was an American Bully XL, a legal breed not subject to any prohibitions under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. 

On Monday 3 October, Ann Dunn, aged 65, died following a dog attack at a house in St Brigid’s Crescent, in Kirkdale.

Five American bulldogs, which were inside the property, were handed over and humanely destroyed.

In January this year, a three-year-old boy suffered serious facial injuries after he was attacked by a French Bulldog inside a home in Sefton. The dog was rehomed with the help of the Dogs Trust.

The youngster’s mum has described the impact the incident has had on her son, not only physically, but also how it has affected his self-esteem and confidence.

She said: “My son was attacked by a family member’s French Bulldog when he was left unattended as the adults had left the room. It was very quick and a huge shock resulting in him losing 60% of his top lip.

“He’s had a big operation since to repair it and could potentially need reconstruction in the future. It took him a while to build up his confidence to eat and drink and start to talk again. Even though he’s only three he is really self conscious about how it looks. I think it’s really important that dog owners are careful with their dogs around children.”

Mr Christian Duncan, Consultant Plastic Surgeon at Alder Hey Children's NHS Foundation Trust said “At Alder Hey we see children with dog attack injuries several times a week. It is often the child’s face that comes into contact with the dog, so we treat lots of cheek bites and injuries on prominent parts of the face i.e. parts of the nose, lip and parts of the ear. These injuries can be life-changing. By raising awareness of both the risks and appropriate behaviour around dogs, I hope the Taking the Lead campaign can help reduce these kinds of injuries.”

Kerry Taylor, Education Manager at Blue Cross said: “It is so important to understand your dog’s behaviour and understand the signs that they are uncomfortable in any given situation. Do not leave children unsupervised around dogs and baby gates are a good idea to give dogs the space they may need to have time to themselves.”

Another partner who is supporting the campaign is the Royal Mail, who recently announced there had been 1,916 dog attacks reported on its staff last year across the UK, an average of 37 attacks every week.

Lizz Lloyd, the Health & Safety Director of Royal Mail Group Limited, said: “A dog attack can have long lasting and serious effects, with some leading to permanent and disabling injuries resulting in staff being unable or unfit to resume work within the communities they serve.

“We know the number of attacks rises during the school holidays and in the summer months when parents and children are at home and dogs are sometimes allowed unsupervised in the garden or out onto the streets without restraints.

“Please support us in creating a safer community approach to responsible dog ownership by keeping pets safely away from the door or gate when a postie calls. Simple steps to secure your pet, such as this and letterbox guards make a big difference for us all and keeps your pet safe too.”

Cllr Ian Moncur, Sefton Council’s Cabinet Member for Health and Wellbeing said: “For the vast majority of the time dogs are, as the old saying goes, our best friends.

“Sadly though, there are occasions when that great relationship can go wrong, which is why Sefton is signed up to the Taking the Lead campaign.

“Taking the Lead will provide dog owners with expert tips to controlling their dog and protecting others in public spaces as well as giving people coming into contact with dogs, valuable advice on understanding behaviour and actions that may trigger an aggressive response.”

Another key focus of Taking the Lead is advising people to think before they buy a dog and research the breed characteristics to make sure they can provide that breed of dog with the right home setting.

The breeding of large bull breeds by unlicensed breeders for onward sale to some people who keep them as status dogs instead of pets, or who cannot provide the living space and stimulation for these breeds of dog, is also concerning the police and the Merseyside Dog Safety Partnership.

These breeders are unregistered and the dogs and puppies are often badly treated and kept in poor conditions.

They are then placed into homes that are unsuitable for their size and this poses significant risks to the people who live there.

Criminals who breed status dogs do so for profit and in many cases it funds serious and organised crime in our local communities.

When finding the right dog for your home, you can always check the Dogs Trust website for the latest advice, which includes reputable breeders: Dogs Rehoming & Dog Rescue Charity | Dogs Trust

Inspector Wilkinson added: “We understand there are a lot of dog owners who don’t have the right home for larger breeds of dogs.

“This is particularly the case for XL Bully type breeds. These dogs are becoming increasingly popular but many owners don’t have a suitable home due to their size and they don’t provide the dogs with the right exercise and training.

"I must stress that we are not trying to demonise any particular breed of dog or their owners, but we are working with our partners to promote responsible dog ownership and to make sure that owners are aware of the impact on the wider community of their dog’s actions. Owners should remember that every dog, not matter how well trained, has the potential to bite. 

“We also make no excuses for targeting those owners who use their dogs to intimidate others, or allow their dogs to bite people and other animals, or cause fear of injury to other. Owners have to be aware that they may well be held accountable for their actions under the law, and could end up with a criminal record.

"I would also urge people to contact police on 101 if they have any concerns about dangerous dogs in their area. Residents should be able to feel safe in the community and if they do raise concerns about dogs then these will be fully investigated. People can also contact Crimestoppers, anonymously, on 0800 555 111."