In recent years, the BHS has become aware of a great increase in dog attacks on horses - not just on loose horses in fields, but also on those being ridden or driven.
The problem: predator meets prey. It’s that simple.
We don’t think of our lovable companions as either predator or prey, but it is fact that dogs by nature are predatory animals and equines are prey. Today, both species offer companionship and enjoy leisure activities with their owners, meaning they need to exist together and use common areas for exercise.
Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, instinct sometimes takes over both horses and dogs, resulting in unwanted behaviour. The consequences for both animals and their handlers or owners can be at best distressing and at worst fatal.
The Solution: Socialisation, Close Control and Consideration
Socialising horses and dogs is a good way to minimise issues. The socialisation period for puppies is quite complex. The sensitive period of socialisation towards other animals runs between three to 12 weeks, varying slightly, and continues for a further eight weeks with regard to inanimate objects.
From approximately four to nine weeks, puppies exposed to pleasant new stimuli will develop a long-term positive association with it. This is the perfect time to introduce them to horses, but the puppy at this age is usually still with the breeder, who may not take this action.
From approximately seven to twelve weeks, puppies' ‘fright, flight, fight’ response is dominant, which means they can acquire a fear association most easily at this stage. For example, a fright with a horse could cause the puppy to develop a fear of horses, which may manifest itself in aggressive behaviour in later life. This is the time when most puppies are moved to new owners, so care should be taken in introducing the puppy to new things, especially horses. It’s important not to force a situation on the puppy, but to allow them time to come around to being near horses and prevent unwanted behaviours, such as chasing.
There is also a secondary socialisation period at around six to nine months where fear associations are readily made. Puppy owners need to keep up socialisation activities right through this period in a way that means they don’t force a puppy into a situation that causes a fear reaction.
It’s just as important to socialise horses with dogs. Allowing calm dogs around the yard will help to do this but dogs that ‘play’ with horses, chase them or are generally too lively around them will not be helpful and may just create a fear of dogs.
For dog owners to avoid making themselves vulnerable to potential prosecution for having a dog ‘dangerously out of control’ (Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 Section 3), it’s important that they have their dogs under ‘close control’. This means the handler is capable of instantly controlling their dog, no matter what the circumstances.
‘Close control’ will differ from dog to dog depending on the reliability of recall and obedience once recalled. If a dog does not have good recall, it’s advisable to keep it on a lead if you may encounter horses or other livestock.
Consequences of having a dog deemed ‘dangerously out of control’ include:
- Destruction of the dog
- Disqualification from owning dogs
- Compulsory muzzling and keeping the dog on a lead in public
- Two years' imprisonment
- £5,000 fine
Being able to instantly recall your dog and put them on a lead when you see a horse and rider is essential to avoiding potentially dangerous situations, and the least a responsible dog owner should be able to do. Horse riders and carriage drivers will be extremely grateful and should pass you with equal courtesy.
Understanding why dogs chase
Chasing is in a dog’s instinct, just like flight is instinctive to horses. It is how they have survived, passed on the genes, evolved and come to exist today. Today’s dogs may not chase with aggression or biting in mind but the horse doesn’t know this and their reaction will be the same.
Dogs are not direct descendants of the modern day wolf we know of today; both the dog (Canis Familiaris) and the modern wolf (Canis Lupus) are descended from a common ancestor. Dogs have inherited a chain of behaviours from their wild fore bearers, which has seven stages in its fullest form:
Orient – Eye – Stalk – Chase – Bite kill – Bite dissect – Eat
Specific aspects of this chain have been honed (hypertrophied) through selective breeding in different types of dogs to meet the needs of man. Dogs could then assist and ‘work’ for the human.
Today, the number of dogs kept for a specific role have declined and a large number of dogs are now kept as pets, but their instincts are still there. It’s useful to consider what the dog’s role would have been, and subsequently what behaviours would have been honed within the breed to for human needs. This will help the owner understand and, ultimately, train the dog.
Understanding why a horse will run
Horses are flight animals because, historically, they were prey. The instinct to flee from any kind of threat is ingrained and very difficult for a rider to influence. A horse can’t distinguish whether the dog is being playful or otherwise, so the horse’s reaction will be the same.
If the horse can’t escape from the threat, they’ll attempt to defend themselves with their hooves, which may have steel shoes attached. If a dog is caught by one of these flying hooves, they could be seriously injured or killed. The rider may be limited as to how much control they have over such a powerful animal in a state of fear; the horse will be fighting back in the only way it knows how.
It’s possible to train horses to accept dogs but it takes time and patience, like any aspect of training a horse.
Horse riders should always slow to a walk to pass dogs so they don’t incite the chase instinct in the dog.
Take a look at our leaflet, produced in conjunction with The National Police Chiefs' Council and the RSPCA. It aims to give advice on how to pass each other as safely as possible.
If you’re attacked
Should the worst happen and you’re attacked by a dog while riding, you should try to:
- Stay calm
- Protect young or vulnerable riders if possible and safe, and distance yourself from the dog by riding away
- Keep the horse's head away from the dog
- Allow the horse to defend itself
- Always carry a mobile phone when out riding so you can summon help if needed
- Make note of any identifying details of either the dog or their owner
After the event:
- Ensure the safety of your horse and yourself
- If possible, try to take some contact details from the dog owner in case there is a need to follow up the incident
- Always report any incident to the Police and ask them to refer it to the Dog Legislation Officer who will be an expert in these matters
- Report it to the BHS
While we all hope to avoid situations happening, there is some legislation that can be applied when a problem has occurred.
In the vast majority of cases, one of the following pieces of legislation will apply:
Section 3 Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 (Updated 2014)
Creates a criminal offence of allowing any dog (i.e. of any breed or type) to be dangerously out of control in any place. A dog can be regarded as being dangerously out of control on any occasion where it causes fear or apprehension to a person that it may injure them. Furthermore, if that dog does injure a person, then the offence is aggravated.
Legal action may be taken against the owner and/or the person in charge of the dog at the time.
Section 2 Dogs Act 1871
Requires that the owner is brought before a Magistrates’ Court following the laying of a complaint. If the Magistrate is satisfied that the complaint is justified, they can make any order they feel appropriate to require the owner to ensure that the dog is kept under proper control, or in extreme cases destroyed.
Importantly, this is regardless of whether the dog is in a private or public place.
Section 8 Animal Welfare Act 2006
Section 8 creates a number of offences associated with the fighting or baiting of animals, the organisation of animal fights and its associated activities; for example, if a person deliberately sets a dog onto a horse.
Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953
An offence under this act is committed if a dog worries livestock (attacks or chases in a way which may reasonably be expected to cause injury or suffering), on any agricultural land. The owner of the dog, and, if it is in the charge of a person other than its owner, that person also, shall be guilty of an offence.
Other legislation exists (see below) but the above measures are the most likely to be relevant.
Visit DEFRA’s website (opens in new window) for more details.
Animal Welfare Act 2006
Section 4 creates offences of causing unnecessary suffering which in many ways is simply a replacement for s1(1)(a) of the Protection of Animals Act 1911. It creates two offences: firstly, for an individual to cause unnecessary suffering to an animal by an act or failure to act and secondly, whereby a person responsible for an animal permits, or fails to take steps to prevent, unnecessary suffering by an act or failure to act by another person.
Section 9 creates a new offence and places a duty of care on those responsible for animals to ensure the welfare needs of an animal are met. It includes those who abandon animals, as by doing so they can’t be said to have taken all reasonable steps to ensure the animal’s needs have been met.
Offences Against the Person Act 1861
This act makes it an offence to maliciously wound or cause grievous bodily harm (GBH) to another with or without a weapon or instrument. Section 47 also creates an offence of assault occasioning Actual Bodily Harm (ABH). These offences should only be considered in the most extreme circumstances due to the severity of the penalties.
Metropolitan Police Act 1839 and Town Police Clauses Act 1847
These provide for offences for anyone to allow an unmuzzled ferocious dog to be at large (i.e. not under proper control in a public place) and attack, worry, or put in fear any person, horse or other animal in any thoroughfare or public place in the Metropolitan Police District, or any street in a town.
Dangerous Dogs Act 1989
In addition to any civil order made under the 1871 Act, the 1989 Act allows a Magistrate to disqualify an owner from having custody of a dog for any period the Court thinks fit. The 1989 Act also provides enforcement provisions for breaches of any control order imposed on an individual under the 1871 Act.
Public Order Act 1986 Section 5
Under this act, a person commits an offence if he/she ‘uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, resulting in a person being harassed alarmed or distressed.
Report your concerns
Anyone who has suffered as a result of either a dog attack, or been frightened that they might be attacked by a loose dog, should report it to us. You can complete our online form. This will help us to compile the statistics that we hope will help us to make a difference.
It’s worth remembering that all dogs should be under control and supervision when in a public place and the fact that a dog is wearing a muzzle is no deterrent – the chased animals do not know that the dog cannot bite them and will still run with fear. We have received many distressing reports of horrendous injuries caused as a result of this type of attack.