Tough new guidelines on the sentencing of dangerous dog owners come into force today.

Owners can receive up to an 18 month prison sentence, or fined up to £5,000 and banned from keeping dogs, as the Government seeks to clamp down on irresponsible animal owners.

Courts will also be encouraged to order dangerous dogs to be put down and arrange compensation for victims under the rules brought in by the Sentencing Council.

Anyone using an animal as a weapon to attack someone will still be sentenced for assault, but the new guidelines cover both dogs which were dangerously out of control and the possession of banned dogs.

London’s councils have been pressing the government to help local authorities crack down on dangerous dogs for some time.

The problem, in particular so-called ‘status dogs’ used by gangs as weapons, is growing.

The number of dogs seized by the Metropolitan Police rose from 193 in 2006 to 1,107 in 2010. The number destroyed went up from 27 to 563 in the same period.

You may find some of the images in this report from John Ryall, distressing:

"With increasing numbers of convictions for offences involving dangerous dogs in recent years, the new guideline will help ensure courts use their full powers when dealing with offenders," a Sentencing Council spokesman said.

"The Sentencing Council's guideline aims to provide clear guidance to judges and magistrates to encourage consistency in sentencing and appropriate sentences for owners of dangerous dogs.

"The top of the sentencing range for owners allowing their dog to be dangerously out of control (and) injuring someone has been set at 18 months' custody in order to encourage the courts to use more severe sentences when it would be appropriate to do so."

Under the guidelines, owners, or anyone in charge of a dangerously out of control dog, would face up to 18 months in jail, with the sentence rising to the legal maximum of two years in exceptional cases.

The most serious cases could include incidents where a dangerously out of control dog has caused serious injury during a sustained attack, injured a child, or where the owner has failed to respond to previous warnings or concerns.