Derry’s Dog Warden - a vital service

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The dog warden is not the most sympathetic of characters in Disney films.

But the reality is we’d be lost without them; it’s more the truth about cats and dogs.

The cost of a dog licence has just gone up from £5 to £12.50, the first increase since 1983.

And that money goes to maintaining the work of Derry City Council’s Dog Warden Service, which plays a vital role in the city.

“It’s not a lot of money when you consider that a pet is a member of the family,” said Kennel Supervisor and Chief Dog Warden Michael Duddy.

There are still rates of £5 available for people on income-related benefits or housing benefit and senior citizens still get their dog licences free of charge, although if they have more than one they must pay £5 for each additional licence.

Michael Duddy at the Derry City Council  Dog Pound.  (0411JB76)

Michael Duddy at the Derry City Council Dog Pound. (0411JB76)

The changes are being made under new legislation on dog ownership in Northern Ireland. Enda Cummins Senior Environmental Health Officer with Derry City Council explains: “There are also changes to the conditions of obtaining a licence.

“Dog owners are advised to microchip their animals as soon as possible prior to the introduction of compulsory micro chipping in April 2012.

“Owners may currently take advantage of free chipping provided through Councils, the Dogs Trust and participating veterinary practices.

“The new Act will see the introduction a new offence of dog attacks on domestic animals and will provide for the designation of specified control conditions on licences where there are breaches of the Dogs Order.

Changes will allow the courts to make a “contingent destruction order” which exempts a dog from destruction but only where certain specified conditions are met.”

Michael Duddy points out that putting dogs down is always a last resort and that it increasingly rare.

“Only three dogs in the past ...... were humanely destroyed,” he explains.

“We will always try and return a dog to its rightful owner or, failing that, try to get it rehomed.

“We work with the Rainbow Centre here in Derry and also with the Causeway Coast organisation based in Coleraine. It is a joined-up approach with other agencies and charities which works really well.”

As well as raising money to fund the work of the Dog Warden Service, the dog licence also helps to identify owners so when dogs do go missing, their owners can more easily be tracked down.

“It is very important to get the message across to people who qualify for a licence free of charge, that they still need to get one,” Michael says.

“They may wonder what the point is if they don’t have to pay for it, but they are liable for a fine of between £50 and £80 if they do not have a valid licence for their pet and that can come as a nasty surprise.”

Although Michael reckons that the vast majority of dog owners look after and treat their animals well, there is still a substantial minority who they consider to be irresponsible owners.

That includes people who do not get their pets microchiped for identification purposes or fit them with a collar; people who allow their pets to roam freely on the streets; those who do not clean up after their animals; owners who leave their pets locked up for eight or more hours a day when they are at work.

“It’s still very common to see dogs out on the street without a collar or a nametag, but in Derry today there are still far fewer stray dogs around than there used to be,” says Michael.

“There has been a very good take-up of the neutering programme through the Dogs’ Trust which has made a big difference in that regard.

“But still there are dogs who get out for one reason or another if a binman or window cleaner let them out for example.

“And any dog which is out loose on the streets can be picked up by law by the dog wardens.

“The best way to reunite a dog with its owner is for it to be fitted with a microchip or simply a collar.

“If we can’t identify it that way then it ends up here at the dog pound where it will be properly fed and watered and looked after while we try to get it rehomed.”

Dogs are not allowed out off a lead in the streets under any circumstances.

“People who are worried about nuisance dogs should always contact us immediately,” added Michael.

“People maybe let their dogs out in the mornings to follow children to school or sometimes because they can’t be bothered to walk them and then clean up after them.

“And we get a lot of calls from people whose dogs didn’t come home.

“But owners need to realise that if their dogs are out straying and are picked up and they will be subject to heavy fines just as they would if they don’t licence their dogs properly, between £50 and £80 each time.

“People have to realise that when a dog is out on its own it is going to be fouling the area.

“Not only is that bad for the environment, it is also unhealthy and can cause disease which can result in blindness, and that is especially dangerous to children.

“If people have any concerns at all about stray dogs then they should get in touch with us directly or through Derry City Council.”

The Dog Warden Service is there to offer advice to dog owners about how best to care for their animals and how to avoid problems.

“I always say never let your dog become a nuisance to a neighbour,” says Michael.

“People should always be aware of that.

“Not only do we have problems with stray dogs and fouling but dog barking is another constant complaint that we get. Dogs need to be exercised regularly and they need to have companions.

“Anyone concerned about a dog in a neighbourhood can contact the council and they will put you through to the dog warden service.

“We investigate every call we get within 24 hours. They are categorised into how serious they are from an attack on somebody or livestock down to fouling complaints and general nuisance.

“Anyone who has concerns about a dog should come directly to us and we will deal with it.

“We will deal with every report that comes through to us, although obviously attacks on people or on animals will have the highest priority of al the calls we get.”

Dogs remain a popular family Christmas present and Michael has some sound advice for anyone thinking of getting a pet during this festive season.

“It’s a decision that should involve all the family, so it needs to be discussed by everyone. After all, the dog will become a new family member,” he said.

“You need to consider the size of your house and your garden. Not every dog is suitable for every family.

“You also need to think about how they work and who will be available to look after and walk the dog.

“And anyone looking for a dog should come to ourselves or a charity like the Rainbow Centre to give a dog a new home.

“It’s much cheaper than getting a dog anywhere else like a puppy farm and thankfully we don’t have too many of those in the north west.”

The majority of dog owners are responsible, look after their pets well and are mindful of their wider responsibilities, says Michael.

“When the Peace Bridge first opened it was a chance for the people of Derry to come out and a lot of them wanted to show off their dogs when they were out for a walk,” he says.

“And there was a problem with fouling which unfortunately did get a lot of publicity.

“But it really didn’t take that long before that was sorted out and now in that lovely walkway right through the city centre there isn’t a problem at all now.

“I think that shows that the message does get across to the people in Derry and that we are winning the battle.”