Dog warden tells council 'responsible dog ownership gone out the window' in Belfast

05-05-21 No dog fouling sign-Devon Live
Belfast City Council admitted the city service is facing a crisis over dog fouling

By Michael Kenwood, Local Democracy Reporter

A dog warden has told Belfast Council that "responsible dog ownership has gone right out the window" as elected representatives admitted the city service is facing a crisis over dog fouling.

Councillors heard at City Hall this week that the dog warden service was suffering a resourcing and staffing emergency, with only 14 fixed penalties having been issued since last April for dog fouling, and only 12 staff covering the whole of the city dog services.

At the Belfast City Council People and Communities Committee meeting, elected representatives discussed for over an hour whether or not to increase fines for littering, dog fouling and failing to leash a dog, after Stormont granted new powers for council to fine up to a maximum of £200 on spot fines.

The council currently has a fixed penalty fine for littering at £80, reduced to £60 if paid within 10 days. Recently the neighbouring Ards and North Down Borough Council raised maximum fines for dog owners and litterers from £80 to £200, and the reduced rate from £80 to £150.

At City Hall this week however, councillors agreed more was required to deal with the problem than raising fines, and agreed to defer the decision on new fixed penalties, pending a workshop on the matter and the creation of a council targeted "intervention" around dog fouling, the nature of which was not fully explained.

A senior dog warden told the committee: "A lot of emphasis is on detection and fixed penalties. One of the most frustrating things for a dog warden is that the effectiveness of work is seen around fixed penalties.

"When I started in 2004, the legislation had never been enforced by any of the dog warden service team. I was brought in with other colleagues to enforce only dog fouling offences and issuing fixed penalties on the spot. We spent eight hours a day between 6.30am to 2pm patrolling non-stop for dog fouling.

"We got 250 fixed penalties in the first year, which averages about 20 a month. It doesn't sound like much, but when you put it in perspective, that was all we were doing all day on split shifts. We were trained by the best in the service, and there were no competency issues.

"It is a very hard thing to detect even if people aren't expecting you. Now, after 18 years, the public knows we are out there, and the people who want to avoid us, know how to avoid us. Now we work 8am to 8pm, and the core dog walking hours of 6.30am to 8am and 8pm to 10pm are lost.

"The 14 fixed penalties for this year sounds pathetic. But I know at least half of them have been caught by following people home because they won't cooperate, tracing car registrations because they won't cooperate, calling police out to deal with it because they won't cooperate. It takes a lot to actually get a detection.

"I tried for an hour in North Belfast, about four months ago, to catch a guy who had let his dog foul in the Waterworks Park. I followed him for an hour waiting for the police to catch up, and he eventually got away as the police were too late.

"It is a nightmare trying to catch people. So increasing the fine, yes, you will get more income from it, but you need the detections. We have 12 wardens, that's six per day, with four areas of Belfast to cover, doing all the work we do. It means if we have enough staff there will be two wardens to cover dog fouling patrols. Rarely do we have six wardens on, due to sickness and annual leave etc.

"On any given day I can guarantee dog wardens on dog fouling duty for no more than two hours a day. And you have to pick one section of Belfast to go to because there is no point in two hours over the whole city. That's the resources we are working with."

She added: "Dog ownership has statistically not increased over Covid, but it has. Offices were shut down and so a lot of licences could not be obtained. We are now spending time catching up with a backlog of licences, and the officers are inundated with new applications coming in. We are forever in the course of our duties catching up with people who have no licences for their dogs, usually aged one or two, and gotten during lockdown.

"With the increase in dog ownership, so dog attacks have increased. The number of dog attacks this year to date is 30 more than the year before. Responsible dog ownership has gone completely out the window in every area. And we are chasing our tails trying to keep on top of it all.

"I am a big advocate for promoting responsible ownership as a whole, and not just focusing on dog fouling. There are a lot of things we need help with - we need better legislation on dog control orders, on things such as keeping dogs on leads. That will cut down attacks, fouling and straying.

"Simple things like that. We need to go to the core of the service, or the core of the problem, to fix the outer problems. The dog fouling service has been around for nearly 20 years, and it's not getting anywhere.

"I've been doing it for 18 years and things have not gotten better, the complaints aren't any less. The fixed penalties have dropped as people are wise to us, and our operational hours, which widened overall, have shrunk for dog fouling."

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