Measuring knowledge or awareness of laws is considered problematic by some scholars [17, 18]. This difficulty stems in part, from the challenge in determining what component of any marker of knowledge or awareness results from a conscious recognition of a statute and what component is just an expression of an individual’s moral stance or level of consciousness of rights. Additionally, it has been argued that true knowledge of a law is determinable only in its specific situations  which are hard to exhaustively replicate in the context of research. In general, there have been three broad approaches used to measure public knowledge of laws : Participant self-report [19,20,21], Elicitation of statements indicative of participants’ knowledge  and via categorical responses to questions about existing laws [7, 22,23,24,25]. This current study, along with others measuring knowledge of animal-welfare legislation [1, 5, 26], falls into both the first and the third categories. In this study we have measured awareness of laws with awareness defined as “knowledge that something exists” .
We have found that overall awareness that dog ownership responsibilities were prescribed by law is poor, regardless of dog ownership status or gender, and that there is substantial variation in awareness depending on the responsibility. This is consistent with previous findings in studies conducted on knowledge of the law in different jurisdictions and domains including animal welfare [1, 5, 26], medicine [22, 23, 25], education , employment [28, 29] and the family [30, 31]. The volume, complexity of legal jargon and format of statutes have previously been proffered as potential reasons for poor public legal knowledge [9, 17] and are likely to apply here as well. However, this does not explain the observed variation in awareness, with substantial awareness that some dog ownership responsibilities (“Fouling”, “Licensing” and “Muzzling and Leashing”) were prescribed by law (PI ≥ 80%) while for others, for example “Identification” there was awareness by only a few (PI < 40%) participants. We speculate that several factors might contribute to this variation. First, the immediate consequences of non-compliance with regulations governing “Fouling”, “Licensing” and “Muzzling and Leashing” are felt by humans (e.g., disgust at dog faeces in public places, fines levied against owners and dog bites to members of the public) and only through these effects on human society does non-compliance negatively affect canine welfare (prohibition of dogs in public spaces, confiscation and/or euthanasia). Conversely, non-compliance with regulations governing the rest of responsibilities (“Safeguarding Health and Welfare”, “Abandonment”, etc.), exert immediate and direct negative effects on the welfare of the dog in question. Thus, there may be greater public sensitivity to matters related to “Fouling”, “Licensing” and Muzzling and Leashing” than to the others. Consequently, rather than just an explicit knowledge of the law, this high prevalence of awareness may, in part, result from a strong correlation between the existence of the legislation and participants’ sense of what should be. Across different domains, it has been found that members of society often assume that the law corresponds to their own personal sense of what is correct . If this is a strong determinant in the prevalence of awareness, it might also explain, in part, the small difference in observed awareness between owners and non-owners. Poor awareness that “Identification” is prescribed by law, could be in part a sign that persons do not see the necessity for this legislation. Another reason for the observed discrepancy in awareness might be that “Fouling” and “Licensing” are among the most well publicised laws in Dublin. The presence of dog waste bins, merchandising of dog pooh bags and holders and signs on buses, on the street and in parks likely contributes to increased awareness of “Fouling”. Dog licensing is frequently mentioned in print and electronic media due to the purported low rate of compliance among dog owners. Additionally, it was first introduced into law in Ireland in 1865 . This might also contribute to awareness.
Our results also suggest that, notwithstanding a tendency towards greater awareness, dog-owners and females, display essentially the same levels of awareness as non-owners and males, respectively. Additionally, the relationship of dog ownership to awareness of the laws is not modified by gender. In previous studies, no clear pattern of relationship has emerged between demographic characteristics and legal knowledge , though at least one study of family law has found that women have better law knowledge than men . This has been explained by suggesting that concern and therefore knowledge of the law is more likely among those that have greatest role responsibility in the domain. Contrary to Weng et al.’s findings , but consistent with Simonato et al. , our study does not provide support for this view with respect to dog ownership except in the case of “Tail Docking” and “Licensing”. Apart from high expected correlation between the social norms of owners and non-owners, potential reasons for trivial differences in awareness may include non-dog owners’ being previous dog owners as well as currently caring for and/or residing with dogs owned by others. We cannot explain why only in the case of “Tail Docking” and “Identification”, do females show substantially higher awareness than males.
These results suggest that there is need for public education aimed at increasing awareness of canine welfare laws. Targeted educational campaigns could serve to make the language of the law more palatable to the public. Additionally, the provision of educational material in local ISPCA offices and veterinary practices may help to increase awareness.
This study has a number of limitations. The response rate (21%) does not preclude non-response bias affecting our estimates and it is possible that UCD staff interested in canine welfare were more likely to participate than those who are not. This could have led to overestimates of prevalence of awareness. Second, while we think that a negative or “I Don’t Know” response is likely to be an accurate sign of a lack of awareness (close to perfect sensitivity) an affirmative response, is less of an indicator of conscious awareness (imperfect specificity) and could, in part, be an indication of correspondence of that law with the participant’s moral stance. This latter has been a common observation in knowledge of the law studies . Third, transportability of prevalence estimates is affected by the high standard of education (> 90% at tertiary-level) of these participants relative to the general Irish population. Nevertheless, higher education has not been found to consistently predict higher awareness of laws , with Weng et al. finding an inverse relationship between an understanding of the law and educational levels . Fourth, we did not have information on current or past relationships of non-dog owners with dogs. This information might have helped to explain the similar levels of observed awareness with owners. Finally, we have used a prevalence of at least 80% as a marker of substantial awareness. This value is subjective and other values, could reasonably be used. Nevertheless, it renders the bases of our inferences transparent.
Notwithstanding limitations, we believe this study contributes uniquely to an understanding of awareness of laws governing dog ownership among university employees in Ireland. Not only does it quantify levels of awareness, but alerts readers to the possibility that public ignorance of laws governing dog ownership may be higher than apparent, given the likely discrepancy between the educational level of the study population and the general public.