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Some policy proposals on dogs

For many people, the companionship and outdoor exercise involved in dog ownership are important factors in maintaining physical and mental health. For many children, caring for a pet teaches responsibility and appreciation of other lives. However, while access to nature is a public need, dog ownership is a choice. A right to roam responsibly for people does not automatically mean a right to roam for their pets, and there are places and situations where restrictions should apply. 

In the course of researching the potential impacts of dogs in the countryside, it became clear to us that issues like disturbance, livestock worrying, fouling are far from the only challenges associated with the nation’s fondness for canine companions. Not least is the issue that we don’t know exactly how many dogs there are, where they all come from, or who owns them. Current laws regulating dog breeding and ownership and the industry in canine products and services are several, disjointed, poorly known and communicated, and increasingly inadequate. A deep and wide national conversation on the place of dogs in society seems long overdue. 

This is an emotive subject and any new regulation of dogs or dog ownership is likely to generate considerable public interest, both positive and negative. Not all the recommendations here are pertinent to access, but it makes sense to consider them together, not least for ease of dissemination, but also because parcelling changes in dog policy with highly popular access reform is likely to boost acceptance of sensible restrictions, while addressing some of the most frequently expressed concerns in the right to roam debate–those of wildlife disturbance, livestock worrying and the ecological impacts of dog excreta and pet medicines.

The following policy suggestions compiled by Right to Roam are based on a presumption that new access legislation will be providing a right of responsible access to parts of the English countryside not currently covered by the CRoW Act (subject to sensible exemptions for private gardens, fields with crops growing in them and the most sensitive nature sites). These reforms will expand the areas available for people to walk with their dogs, and give them the ability to largely avoid fields where interactions with cattle may pose risks (cattle trampling is the most common cause of death in public fatalities on farmland and livestock worrying is a major anxiety for farmers). However, they will also give landowners and farmers the ability to protect genuinely sensitive sites by applying restrictions where necessary, and these will include restrictions on where and how dogs are allowed.

We suggest the following areas for consideration: 

Dog breeders and canine fertility clinics

  • Licensing for all dog breeders and importers, applying to anyone selling puppies or rehoming rescue dogs, with free one-off licences for the purpose of rehoming ‘accidental’ litters. 

  • Licensing of canine fertility clinics 

These are key improvements from which others stem. Understanding where ‘new dogs’ come from will provide clarity over how many dogs there are in the country, where they are and who owns them, and reassurance that issues relating to dogs are not out of control.

Dog owners

  • A revamped nationalised system of pet registration for dogs (and cats) and licensing of owners, mandatory chipping for puppies and rescue animals before they are rehomed. Paid for through annual fee (with discount for low incomes)

  • Owner certification requiring completion of a user-friendly, interactive online training course, covering welfare, husbandry and issues pertaining to dogs in the outdoors (livestock and wildlife awareness to minimise risk of worrying and disturbance, neosporosis, parasite treatment toxicity, managing interactions with people and other dogs, providing high quality on-lead walks, responsible toileting etc). On completion a prospective owner/carer will receive a code allowing them to buy or adopt a chipped and registered dog. Once registered, owners could also be offered standardised basic puppy training advice and incentives to attend in person sessions.

  • Promote a dog-walkers’ code as part of new English Outdoor Access Code (OAC). 

  • Recruit and support high profile dog lovers and organisations to share public information, including existing laws pertaining to dogs and the new English OAC.

Commercial dog walkers

  • Creation of a professional body to register and represent dog walkers.

  • Consultation on the number of dogs that should be exercised together in public by one handler.

Places for wildlife, places for dog walking

  • As part of the proposed new access legislation, provision should be made for excluding or restricting dogs in ecologically sensitive sites and fields with vulnerable livestock at certain times of year, e.g. lambing season, bird nesting season. 

  • A mechanism for zoning in heavily used dog walking areas that balances needs of dog walkers with legitimate exclusions (seasonal or permanent) in more sensitive wildlife habitats, or habitats with species sensitive to dog disturbance. This would include greater provision of toileting areas, attractive, free-to-use off lead exercise areas, and designated bathing areas or ‘splash zones’. This may require changes to subsidy payments and planning laws - for example, around change of use of farmland in urban fringe areas, additional parking and infrastructure.

  • Public education and advice on providing stimulating on-lead walks. Dog behaviourists challenge the idea that dogs ‘need’ to run off lead on every walk.

Vets and medicines

  • Regulation of veterinary medicines marketed for pets, in line with those used on livestock, including requirement for full Environmental Impact Assessment. An urgent ban on over-counter sales of topical ‘spot-on’ products containing the most damaging insecticides which are already banned for use on livestock (e.g. fipronil and imidacloprid). Reduce veterinary prescriptions of spot-on treatments, and petcare packages that incentivise vets to prescribe unnecessary monthly prophylactic treatments. 

  • Public information around the environmental toxicity of parasite treatments - also included in owner certification and training course detailed above.


  • Revise Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005 to cover agricultural land to combat the spread of neosporosis.

  • Facilitate provision of more toileting areas near access points.

  • Public education on disease, nutrient enrichment and plastic pollution potential of different types of poop bag. 

Livestock worrying

(NB Some changes to the law around worrying, including increased penalties are in motion.)

  • Tighten the law on livestock worrying, removing the exemption for kenneled dogs, including hounds used for hunting.

  • Improve official record keeping relating to incidents of livestock worrying - lack of data makes the problem difficult to understand. For example, as well as the number, location and cost of incidents, record whether the attack was witnessed or discovered afterwards, was the dog accompanied or unsupervised, where were the livestock (in secure enclosure or freelancing, on roads, etc.?). Police currently do not keep all these details.

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