The Countdown to Crufts – How to make the most of your visit

In just under 2 weeks’ time, the halls of the NEC Birmingham will echo with the sound of barking as almost 22,000 dogs compete in obedience and agility championships and battle for the title of Best in Show. Crufts has been a major event in the canine enthusiast’s calendar for 126 years, and although it rarely passes without some form of Kennel Club controversy, those four days towards the beginning of March are always a great excuse to talk non-stop about all things dog (although when do us dog lovers ever need an excuse?)

Whether you’re thinking about visiting the world’s biggest dog show for the first time or already have your tickets sorted and are looking for a few tips on how to make the most out of your day, here is a selection of ideas based on my past experiences of being a visitor to the show. Enjoy Crufts!

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Flyball at Crufts (photo copyright Express & Star)

It’s not all about the judging! Watching a line-up of dogs being carefully inspected by a judge may be the first thing that springs to mind when someone mentions a dog show, but there is so much more to Crufts than the rings. Five halls of the NEC are transformed into doggy shopping heaven, with hundreds of trade stands selling everything from grooming equipment to KONGs, clothing for both dogs and humans, dog beds and collars and everything in between. There will also be the opportunity to support charities such as Birmingham Dogs Home and Guide Dogs. Fans of canine cartoons will be excited to hear that Rupert Fawcett (‘Off the Leash’) will have his own trade stand (Hall 5, stand 23) and will be available to sign books between 11am and 3pm on every day of the show. Don’t forget to nab as many free dog food samples as possible! When the exhaustion sets in from plodding round the enormous halls, there is the Main Arena (otherwise known as the Genting Arena) with a programme packed full of dog sports and displays for you to enjoy while you take a break. If you fancy something more ‘hands on’ there is the Discover Dogs area where you can talk to the owners of over 200 different breeds, pick up some information leaflets and of course have a bit of a cuddle with some friendly pooches. Discover Dogs is always a hit and can become quite crowded, particularly around the popular breeds, but it’s a great opportunity to get some advice from the people who really know their dogs.

Plan your day carefully – you don’t want to miss any great displays or competitions. Timetables for the Main Arena, Good Citizen Dog Scheme Ring and Young Kennel Club Ring are all available on the official Crufts website now, so head on over there and plan your other activities around anything that you want to catch (printing off your own timetable is also a cheaper alternative to buying a programme on the day). My personal favourite is flyball – the atmosphere of the finals is incredible! The display from the dog unit at West Midlands Police is another highlight, and the team return year after year to give a demonstration of their amazing canine crime fighters. You don’t need an extra ticket to watch the group judging at the end of each day (apart from Best in Show on Sunday), so if you’re still around in the evening be sure to head to the Main Arena to see which breed wins the title of best in group.

‘Human food’ at Crufts is quite expensive, so you may want to take a packed lunch (although I can thoroughly recommend the hot pork baps on sale!). Don’t expect to easily find a comfortable and dog-free place to sit down as seats within the food area are limited – be prepared to sit on the floor or take your food into the arena with you. There are food outlets such as Subway within the NEC, but if you fancy something a little more classy there are various restaurants at the nearby Resorts World complex. Talking of expense, don’t forget that Crufts offers a discount off the entry price for students so make sure that you take your student ID with you!

Be respectful of any dogs that you encounter. Be mindful that they may be tired, and the show dogs on their benches are likely to be enjoying a well-earned rest. Talk to owners before you make a beeline for their dogs. You might come across flustered entrants rushing through the halls – they might be hurrying to their class or to get their dogs back to their benches so try not to obstruct them. As already mentioned, Discover Dogs is the best opportunity for photo opportunities and cuddles, with all of those dogs just waiting to be fussed over!

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You’ll find dogs of all shapes and sizes at Crufts, such as this Bernese Mountain Dog (photo copyright Daily Mail)

Crufts is very child friendly, with free admission for children under 12. Check out the Young Kennel Club (YKC), open to dog lovers between the ages of 6 and 24. The group has its own dedicated ring in Hall 3, where you can watch top young handlers compete. The ‘Safe and Sound’ display held in the Good Citizen Dog Scheme Ring is also a great way of teaching children how to interact safely with dogs. Finally, no Crufts visit would be complete without attempting to win a giant dog! There is usually a stand within the halls where you can either buy a toy dog or try to find a winning ticket and take one home for a couple of pounds. Speaking from experience, carrying a (remarkably realistic) giant Great Dane on your back around five halls is not much fun, so it’s probably best to leave that bit until nearer the end of the day…

If you’re a champion for Staffies then be sure to catch the East Anglian Staffordshire Bull Terrier Display Team – their agility antics take place this year in the Main Arena on Thursday morning. It’s always great fun and very rewarding to watch these dogs and their passionate owners laugh in the face of stereotypes as they have an absolute blast, hurtling around the agility course at top speed. Paul O’ Grady joined the display as a special guest a few years back – who knows whether another celebrity will put in an appearance this time? Either way, it’s a fantastic endorsement for the breed and is not to be missed.

Best in Show requires a separate ticket to general entry, so unless you are lucky enough to have one of these, you won’t be able to gain access to the arena on Sunday after 3:30pm, when the Working and Pastoral groups will be judged before the stage is set for the crowning of Best in Show. Not to worry – you will be able to watch Best in Show live on television. The coverage starts at 6pm on Channel 4. The rest of Crufts is also televised on both Channel 4 and More4. For full TV schedules please click here.

If you’re unable to visit Crufts this time, don’t forget that you can catch the events from the Main Arena live in your living room! The livestream will run throughout the four days and can be accessed via the official Crufts website and YouTube channel. This is also handy if you want to watch something which takes place on a different day to the one you attend. All of the events are then usually loaded separately onto YouTube.

Crufts takes place between the 9th and 12th March at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham. For official information, please visit the Crufts website.

‘Babies, Kids and Dogs’ (Hubble & Hattie, 2016) – A vital lesson for parents

It is a sad fact that children under five are the demographic group most likely to be on the receiving end of a dog bite. Perhaps even sadder – and certainly more frustrating – is that such attacks are often caused by a family member’s pet rather than a strange dog. But how can such incidents be prevented? How can parents spot the warning signs and teach their offspring the correct manner in which to behave around dogs? The brand new title from ethical animal publishers Hubble & Hattie, Babies, Kids and Dogs, attempts to address these concerns and offers practical advice regarding dog behaviour and training with an emphasis on ensuring that the family pet remains exactly that – an animal to be respected, loved and enjoyed by all members of the family, young and old.

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Authors Melissa Fallon and Vickie Davenport both have degrees in animal behaviour and a wealth of experience in dog training, alongside being parents themselves. With a foreword from Steve Mann, the founder of the Institute of Modern Dog Trainers (IMDT), the book immediately promises to be a useful tool for all dog owners, with or without young children. In less than 100 pages, the authors manage to cram in a heap of information, including everything from the potential causes of dog bites and how to spot stress signals, to a breakdown of training exercises to work on prior to the arrival of a baby.

The layout of the book is arranged so that the majority of text is broken up by a variety of full colour photographs, making for easy reading. In the case of the explanation of training exercises, the images complement the text nicely by offering an insight into how the tasks should be performed. Subheadings, such as ‘Potential problem behaviours/scenarios’ and ‘Respecting your dog’s food/resources’, are organised into five chapters – Assessing your dog, Preparation, Introducing the new family member, Toddler training and Raising children around dogs. One small criticism is that the first chapter contains quite a wide scope of information which deviates from its description of ‘Assessing your dog’ – perhaps the majority of this chapter would have been better suited to an extension of the introduction – and the page which details how to manage a reactive dog on the lead would have been better suited to the ‘Building confidence’ section instead. Despite this, the assessment chart itself offers an excellent starting point for identifying any areas which may trigger behavioural problems by incorporating a traffic light system to mark how well the dog appears to cope with stimuli, such as the presence of children and baby-related items. Tasks such as on-lead walking and the ability to give up toys are also included in the chart, which is further organised into ‘The Six Essentials’:

  • Build confidence
  • Walks/ exercise
  • Flexible routine/energy
  • Avoiding temper tantrums
  • To chew or not to chew
  • Establish boundaries

An interesting part of the book is the inclusion of ‘Charlie and Champ’ illustrations by artist Natasha Thompson, designed to encourage discussion about safe dog interaction with your child (see example ‘How do we know Champ is unhappy?’ below). Most notably is the image of ‘Charlie’ hugging the dog – the so-called cute photographs widely seen across the internet of toddlers climbing on uncomfortable dogs recreated in cartoon form. While preventing children from teasing the family pet or pulling their tail is (hopefully) obvious, unfortunately many dog owners are oblivious when it comes to recognising the signs of stress or attempts at avoidance behaviour, making the more subtle body language that ‘Champ’ demonstrates a vital lesson for parents too.

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‘Champ’ illustration as featured in the book

Overall, Babies, Kids and Dogs offers an excellent insight into dog behaviour in relation to life with children. Its accessible format, with a successful balance between theory and practical training advice, makes the book a valuable resource which should be on the bookshelves of all parents and dog owners. It would not be unrealistic to say that this publication has the capability to educate the public and therefore have an impact on the reduction of instances of dog bites on children.

‘Babies, Kids and Dogs’ (Hubble & Hattie, September 2016) can be purchased directly from the publishers here.

 

I recently wrote a piece for anti Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) campaign group Born Innocent about the flawed Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 which can be viewed here.

It’s time for breed NEUTRAL legislation! Interview with canine campaign group Born Innocent

Today marks 25 years since the Dangerous Dogs Act came into force, introducing breed specific legislation to the UK for the first time. Since August 1991, thousands of dogs have been seized and often euthanised under ‘Section 1’ of the Act which prohibits four types of dog, originally chosen due to their size and fighting heritage. The most common of the types, the Pit Bull Terrier, is a much maligned and misunderstood breed. As a result of Section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act, dogs which share the characteristics of a ‘Pit Bull’ can not be rehomed, even if they have passed temperament tests conducted by qualified dog behaviourists. Those who already own a dog which is deemed to be ‘of type’ have to attend court in order to have their dog exempted by law, a lengthy process which often goes on for months, during which time their pet is held in secure kennels – an unfamiliar environment, often without daily exercise. Some of these dogs never return home.

Yet despite all of this, dog attacks are still on the rise in the UK. The Dangerous Dogs Act is a failed piece of legislation which has caused untold misery to so many dog owners and those who have the task of enforcing the law and dealing with its effects. Following the recent reports into the failings of breed specific legislation from both Battersea Dogs and Cats Home and the RSPCA, I caught up with Born Innocent, a campaign group working for a full reform of the Dangerous Dogs Act. The group’s work and anti-breed specific legislation message has recently been openly supported by TV dog trainer Victoria Stilwell. Here’s what they had to say…

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Purple Patch – Born Innocent’s logo

 

Hi, Born Innocent! Can you tell us about your organisation and who is involved?

We are a non-profit campaigning group seeking to introduce a scientific-based, breed neutral strategic approach to dog legislation, with a focus on preventative measures. Born Innocent is formed of a committee of six professionals, all with wide experience in dog rescue, animal welfare, campaigning and political lobbying. Our Chair, Ms Frannie Santos-Mawdsley, is a senior international marketer, with a 20 year career in data and insight analysis. Our Advisory Committee is led by Shakira Miles, CEVA’s Veterinary Nurse of the Year 2016, and is counselled by veterinary professionals, trained behaviourists and scholars. Alongside Ms Miles we have Marie Yates, a writer and social entrepreneur who loves dogs. Marie is the co-founder and director of Canine Perspective CIC, a social enterprise using force-free dog training to make a positive change to the lives of humans and rescue dogs. We are also fortunate to have Professor John Cooper QC as our patron.

What was the inspiration behind your logo, ‘Purple Patch’?

We wanted our identity to feel professional while at the same time being welcoming and inclusive. The inspiration for Purple Patch has three elements:

  • Purple is a colour associated with responsibility: we promote responsible dog ownership.
  • ‘Patch’: Section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 is a patchy piece of legislation that we can no longer ignore.
  • The figure of a dog reaching out for assistance with his paw. Hopefully this speaks for itself!

These three elements combined, in the design of the logo, are the embodiment of Purple Patch.

Which areas of the Dangerous Dogs Act will Born Innocent be focusing on?

Our vision is the introduction of breed neutral legislation in the UK, with a supportive framework that fosters education, responsible ownership and bite prevention backed by scientific research. Hence, our focus is on a reform of the full current legislation.

Many animal welfare charities and other organisations such as the Kennel Club have previously spoken out against breed specific legislation. Why do you think that we have not yet seen any proposals to remove BSL from the Dangerous Dogs Act, despite evidence that it does not have any effect on the reduction of dog bite cases?

Whilst many leading organisations such as the Kennel Club have spoken against BSL, this is not their single area of focus. There has long been a misconception amongst the public (including politicians) of what breed specific legislation is, what it does and what it does not do! Often, the language used by the media and government is surrounded in jargon and folklore. On top of that, many organisations have focused on separate pieces of legislation and evidence, while still dealing with the ‘now’ (e.g. supporting owners or stray dogs).

What we are doing at Born Innocent that is different is bringing scientific, legal, financial, human, animal and societal considerations together in order to look at the full picture of how legislation affects our society.

Lately there has been a lot of publicity surrounding the Dangerous Dogs Act, following the seizure of Hank in Northern Ireland. Do you think that this has raised awareness of breed specific legislation amongst the general public?

Hopefully it is starting to make a difference. However, while we are still seeing certain breeds demonised by the press, we need to ensure that education and changing the dialogue around dog bite prevention remains at the centre of public debate.

If someone has had their dog seized as a suspected Section 1 ‘type’, what support is available for them?

There are support groups that can be found on social media, especially Facebook. It would be unfair to name one over another, but excellent daily case support is available. We often get messages and emails, and we will direct individuals to the most appropriate support for them, since Born Innocent focuses on campaigning. Most importantly is that the owner’s basic rights as a UK citizen are understood. You do not have to agree that you are guilty (because owning a suspected breed banned under Section 1 is a crime), nor to sign your dog over to the police to be euthanised. We believe that having an independent, court verified assessor who has had no previous links with the police is essential for impartial advice on whether the dog fits ‘type’ or not. Finally, there are many excellent solicitors who specialise in canine and animal law. Our legal advisors are Parry, Welch & Lacy who successfully handle complicated cases and, like us, believe in questioning type first and foremost before approaching the exemption route.

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Exempted dog Zara – who by law must now wear a muzzle at all times in a public place. Photo copyright ‘The adventures of Zara dog’ Facebook page

What would Born Innocent like to see as a replacement for the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 in its current form?

We would like to see a breed neutral legislation that focuses on the owners’ responsibility rather than a dog’s guilt. The last 25 years have taught us that focusing on breeds does not diminish bites. Looking at successful communities around the world, the positive results are in those where education comes first, supported by animal neutering and health programmes, together with increasing fines which are livelihood proportionate. Moreover, the police and Government are currently not focusing enough resources on a serious matter which is often linked to breed specific legislation – dog fighting. We would like to see the label “dog bred for fighting” removed from legislation, because the guilt is then placed on the dog. The case of the dogs saved from Mike Vick’s fighting ring in the US clearly demonstrates that even dogs previously involved in fighting can be rehabilitated. Hence, we need a piece of legislation that focuses on education, prevention and punishing people who are guilty, such as irresponsible and cruel handlers.

How does Born Innocent intend to lobby for change?

We conduct both empirical and desk research in various areas affected by the law, such as animal welfare, human rights, bite prevention, legal execution and husbandry and better ownership education, amongst others. We use our data-based findings in lobbying Parliament and the House of Lords, together with its subsidiary groups and legal advisors.

What’s the best way for supporters to get involved with your campaigns?

Our current key campaign is to lobby the Law Society on the review that they are conducting of unfair and discriminatory laws, by 31/10/16. We want them to advise the Government to scrap the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, as it is, according to many lawyers and barristers, “one of the worst pieces of law in the UK”.

We also encourage everyone to write to their own MP and to DEFRA. We have tips on letter writing which can be viewed on our website.

We update all of our social media daily. Visit our website at www.borninnocent.co.uk

Follow us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/borninnocentdda/

Follow us on Twitter and Instagram at @borninnocentdda

 

Help Hank – and every ‘Pit Bull type’

Four years after the controversial euthanasia of family pet Lennox, Belfast City Council are once again in the breed specific legislation spotlight following the seizure of two year old crossbreed Hank. Hank was allegedly removed from his home by a total of four dog wardens and eight police officers on July 14th, according to owner Leonard Collins. Collins created the petition ‘Save Hank’ on change.org, which has reached over 100,000 signatures worldwide. A Facebook page of the same name has also received a great deal of support, with almost 50,000 likes.

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Hank – photograph copyright ‘Save Hank’ Facebook page

Hank’s owners appeared on ITV’s This Morning programme earlier today, alongside behaviourist Dr Roger Mugford. Despite Eamonn Holmes’ irrelevant dog faeces tangent, and comments made by Ruth Langsford about Staffordshire Bull Terrier crosses potentially having “pit bull traits”, the plight of Hank was successfully brought to the attention of the public. Issues were also raised about the treatment and welfare of seized dogs. Collins stated that despite Belfast City Council describing Hank as “aggressive”, they have promised to release him “straight away” if it is deemed that he is not of Pit Bull type. If this is true, there is clearly a difference in opinion over Hanks’ temperament, since his owners describe him as an affectionate family pet. However, since it is also alleged that Hank has not been exercised since last Thursday, together with him being in a strange kennel environment, it is possible that the dog has indeed shown signs of aggression. This alone shows how ludicrous the law is, since a reprieve for a dog deemed to be of Pit Bull type exhibiting “aggressive behaviour” would be extremely unlikely. It also demonstrates how it is impossible to receive an accurate picture of the dog’s normal behaviour in such circumstances.

Holmes’ concerns about the temperament of Bella, the exempted dog sat on the sofa with Dr Mugford, demonstrated how the addition of a muzzle makes an otherwise friendly dog appear to be dangerous (Dr Mugford noted that he actually believes Bella to be a Labrador cross Hungarian Vizsla). Despite the uncertainty about Bull Breed types from the presenters, the response on Twitter by those using the hashtag #DeathRowDog was overwhelmingly in Hanks’ favour, with many expressing disgust at the idea that a dog can be taken away and put to sleep without any history of attacks. But sadly, public support will have no impact on the council’s decision regarding Hank’s fate. The petition to save Lennox in 2012 gained over 200,000 signatures and support from TV trainer Victoria Stilwell, yet the outcome for the dog remained the same. Worryingly, today the Belfast Telegraph have reported that ex police dog handler Peter Tallack has been appointed to assess Hank – the same expert who assessed Lennox.

Belfast City Council stated that they received abuse following the euthanasia of Lennox. Hank’s owners have been keen to emphasise that they realise that the staff involved in the seizure of their dog are simply doing their jobs, and see the situation as “the perfect opportunity to challenge breed specific legislation”. Their crowd funding campaign, which originally aimed to raise £5000 for Hanks’ legal fees, has now raised over £13,000. Following the destruction of Lennox, Victoria Stilwell wrote on her blog, “We must learn from this and make Lennox and his family’s struggle a rallying cry for change”. Sadly, for those outside of anti-BSL circles, Lennox soon faded from memory, rather like how the story of Cecil the Lion or Harambe the Gorilla captured everyone’s hearts… for a while. Despite the efforts of campaigners, there was no major public rallying cry for Pit Bull types. And yet these are not wild animals caught up in human ignorance. These are pets which share our homes and hearts. Dogs which have been targeted in the UK since the 90s. This is outdated legislation which has no place in our society and does not prevent dog attacks. How many more high profile cases like those of Lennox and Hank will we need before the rally cry really begins?

Dogs are man’s best friend. It’s about time that our legislation reflected this.

 

Please visit the ‘Save Hank’ Facebook page for updates.

Professor Green attacks BSL in ‘Dangerous Dogs’ documentary

The failures of the Dangerous Dogs Act were highlighted by British rap artist ‘Professor Green’ in his latest documentary produced for BBC Three, with assistance from organisations such as Battersea Dogs and Cats Home.

From the start of the programme, the rapper was keen to emphasise that records of dog bites are currently at an all time high, despite the presence of breed specific legislation introduced in the early nineties. Himself an owner of an Aylestone Old Tyme English Bulldog called Arthur, Green noted that Bully breed owners are often tarred with the same brush and are used to being judged by other members of the public. Despite Arthur’s impressive size, it’s clear that he poses no threat – and the affection between the two of them is also obvious.

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“He’s my mate” – Professor Green with Arthur. Screenshot copyright BBC

Viewers were introduced to ‘Reece’, who is involved in the breeding and sale of illegal Pit Bull types despite receiving a ban from owning dogs. The notion that countless litters are being produced by individuals with an ownership ban is stomach-churning and makes the criminalisation of genuine family pet owners all the more frustrating. One such owner is Louisa, who has to attend court in order to save her dog Charlie from euthanasia. Charlie had never bitten anyone, yet was unlucky enough to match a significant number of characteristics in order to be deemed ‘type’. As Green points out, even a matter of millimetres can make the difference between life or death for innocent dogs. Fortunately for Charlie, the courts granted exemption. Yet Charlie is just one of 5000 dogs seized in the last three years across the country, costing taxpayers millions.

It is estimated that there are currently as many Pit Bull types in the UK as there were at the time of the introduction of the Dangerous Dogs Act. The programme claims that breed specific legislation has only increased the popularity of Pit Bull types amongst those who take pleasure in knowing that their dog is an illegal breed. In addition to this, by focusing on specific types as opposed to the welfare and treatment of dogs, the Dangerous Dogs Act does nothing to prevent attacks from legal breeds, such as those which fatally mauled Jade Anderson in 2013. The documentary features a short interview with Jade’s parents, who express anger at the fact that the owner of the dogs, which were underfed and rarely walked, did not receive a custodial sentence. The couple state that they do not believe that any particular breed of dog should be banned in the UK.

Towards the end of the programme, Green comes to the conclusion that the decision to ban the Pit Bull type was not only due to the high profile dog attack cases circulating throughout the media in 1991, but was also linked to the associations that the breed has with the “underclass”. Green believes that the ‘devil dog’ label and the widespread stereotype of criminal owners is an attempt to make the seizure of Pit Bull types appear justifiable, and does little to encourage any feelings of compassion towards either dog or owner. It is said that initial plans for Section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act (breed specific legislation) included breeds such as the German Shepherd. In this sense, with the strong link between German Shepherds and the police, perhaps it is no wonder that it was the Pit Bull type that was banned instead.

“We thought that someone would come to their senses at some point”Shaun Opperman, Director of Veterinary Services at Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, on the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991

In addition to the documentary, a short video was also made available on YouTube, entitled ‘Dogs on Death Row’. In the clip, Green visits the main Battersea site, where last year 91 Pit Bull types were destroyed under the Dangerous Dogs Act (dogs deemed to be of illegal type can not be rehomed). A dog suspected to be of Pit Bull type is brought in to the centre during filming. The dog, named Caramel by the staff, is clearly a friendly and well mannered dog, despite being found on the streets. It is a tense moment when the measurements taken by the Dog Legislation Officer are announced – seeing this lovely dog being put to sleep would be heartbreaking – yet thankfully this time it is a happy outcome. Green also talks to Shaun Opperman, the head vet at Battersea, who has no choice other than to put down healthy dogs if they match a significant number of Pit Bull type characteristics. Opperman expresses his disdain for the Dangerous Dogs Act and says that it is “nonsensical” to euthanise dogs of sound temperament, adding that when the law originally came into effect he did not believe that it would still be here, 25 years on.

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‘Caramel’ arrives at Battersea. Screenshot copyright BBC

The reintroduction of dog licences is one suggestion put forward in the documentary as an alternative to breed specific legislation, with stricter penalties for those who own larger breeds. However, Green believes that no politician will “put their neck on the line” to challenge the Pit Bull ban, since they would potentially face a huge backlash should an attack happen following their decriminalisation. Yet it has already been established that there has not been a reduction in Pit Bull numbers since 1991. The ‘wrong’ type of owner who would potentially create a ‘dangerous dog’ is not waiting for the Pit Bull type to be made legal – they already have one. Surely those in favour of focusing on four particular breeds of dog, three of which hardly ever seen in the UK, should be the ones to face any sort of backlash when a child is attacked by a ‘legal’ breed.

Breed specific legislation is not preventing dog bites. Everyone can see this, from the British Veterinary Association and the Kennel Club to victims of dog attacks and now even Professor Green.

So why can’t our Government?

 

‘Professor Green: Dangerous Dogs’ is available now on BBC Three.

Worzel’s Story is ‘Very Actual Fabumazing’

A book containing the innermost thoughts of a poo-rolling, Kindle-eating, fish-hiding, seafaring rescue Lurcher may not exactly be at the top of your ‘must read’ list. But it should be.

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Worzel Wooface (photograph copyright Worzel’s Facebook page – see link below)

Worzel, or ‘Worzel Wooface’ to give him his full title, was adopted from Hounds First Sighthound Rescue by author Catherine Pickles. After starting a Facebook page to provide updates on his progress, Catherine soon found that Worzel – and his unique ‘voice’ – was a hit, and ‘The Quite Very Actual Adventures of Worzel Wooface’ was born: the book Catherine says she never meant to write, about the dog she never meant to have.

The book is 140 pages long and is presented in a diary-entry style, starting from the day that Worzel first arrived. Worzel’s hilarious narrative, often echoing the exasperated expressions from the ‘hoomans’ around him, consists entirely of his own take on English (“I is covered in mud and fox poo, HAND cow poo, and I is being quite actual cross with hanyone who finks they is going to change this state of affairs”). Far from causing difficulties in ‘actual understandings’ of the book, this somewhat peculiar writing style provides many of the laugh out loud moments – such as Worzel referring to ‘being tense’ as “tents” and my personal favourite “in The Nile” for ‘in denial’. He also thinks that the computer is named “Uff”, from the noise Worzel’s ‘dad’ makes when he sits down to play computer games and says “Uff, I’m knackered”.

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There is a variety of other canine pals featured in the book, including foster dog Pandora, a Wolfhound cross Bullmastiff who is so huge even at four months old that she earned the nickname ‘Pandora the Fridge’. The fiery personalities of the family cats ensure that there is never a dull moment for Worzel, or indeed for Worzel’s mum who sometimes has to deal with “Distressed Mouses in Hawkward Circumstances” and a certain incident involving a dead squirrel and the kettle. But Worzel is undoubtedly the star of the show. The various vet trips which he has to endure are both amusing and painfully familiar for anyone who has ever had to struggle with an anxious dog on the examination table. When given some ear drops, he comments that “Sally-the-Vet did give the rest of the bottle to Mum, so I fink Mum must have gunk in her ears as well”. Worzel’s antics at home are just as hysterical, from leaving his rather too realistic-looking toy rat in the bathroom to burying half-eaten pieces of mackerel in his bed.

Yet hidden amongst all the giggles is the serious side of the story. Worzel is a rescue dog and is not without issues, taking 11 months to be able to play with Catherine, and refusing to engage in ‘normal’ dog behaviour such as eating food that has been dropped on the floor – something which the family think he was punished for doing in the past. In this sense, the book is a tribute to other rescue animals who may have not necessarily had the best start in life, but are now living life to the full thanks to the patience and efforts of their new families.

I for one think that Worzel truly is a “luffly boykin”, and can’t wait to read his next book.

 

‘The Quite Very Actual Adventures of Worzel Wooface’ (Hubble & Hattie, March 2016) can be purchased here.

You can follow his latest adventures at Worzel’s Facebook page or on Twitter @Worzel_Wooface

Boycott Crufts? You’d have to be barking mad

Crufts, the world’s biggest dog show, celebrated its 125th anniversary this year. Sadly, as usual the event didn’t pass without controversy, as The Kennel Club once again came under fire for allowing a “deformed” German Shepherd Dog to advance to best of breed. Viewers who witnessed the television footage of the dog in the main arena on Saturday night expressed shock and disbelief at the sight of the visibly distressed animal, and since the dog barely managed a trot around the ring, the majority of the footage was abruptly cut short (the ‘full’ version of the clip can be seen here). But German Shepherds with extreme sloping backs winning at Crufts is nothing new – search on YouTube for any year of pastoral group judging (like this one from 2012, German Shepherd at 21:25 minutes, or this one from 2015, with a more obvious sloping back at 20:01) and you will see how the ‘frog-legged’ German Shepherds never fail to appear.

Compare the two photographs below. The dog on the left is Ramacon Swashbuckler, Crufts Best in Show for 1971. On the right is Cruaghaire Catoria, the dog at the centre of this year’s controversy. Although the 1971 champ’s back isn’t straight, particularly in comparison to most ‘working line’ dogs, it is clearly a different animal to the show line German Shepherd of today.

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However, the Crufts team on Channel 4 were quick to address the issue during the following night’s programme. Perhaps in previous years it would have been easier to sweep the negative press under the carpet, but thanks to advances in social media, it seemed like everyone was talking about the German Shepherd, making it impossible to ignore. But the ‘discussion’ on live TV still left us wondering how on Earth the dog managed to achieve the title of best of breed. And talking about one individual dog is not going to change anything, either – there is a much bigger picture here, for it seems that there is major conflict between the views of show judges and the majority of the public as to what constitutes a healthy example of a German Shepherd Dog. Take a look at the breed standard, which emphasises that the dog should be “fit for function” and able to perform “traditional work” – even the tiny illustration of a German Shepherd in the top right corner looks nothing remotely like Catoria. And so arguing over whether one individual animal should be present in the competition is futile when it appears that judges are actively working against the breed standard, and this is clearly something which has been happening for many years. Drastic steps now need to be taken, otherwise the best of breed German Shepherd for next year’s show could well be a Catoria clone – or worse.

From all this, it may seem like I am one of the many people who refuse to visit Crufts over ‘cruelty’ fears. Not so! I adore Crufts. In fact, I jokingly refer to it as the highlight of my year (ok, maybe I’m not even joking). For three days of the show I was glued to the livestream from the main arena, hooked on the various stages of agility and flyball competitions. Since Crufts is local to us, being held in Birmingham since 1991, I’ve been lucky enough to be able to attend the show for almost as long as I can remember, and this year was no exception. Friday was an action-packed day as me and my dog-loving friend exhausted all five halls of the NEC, chowed down on what has now become the ‘traditional’ Crufts pork bap and met lots of breeds at Discover Dogs. As always, though, the arena programme was the highlight and we welcomed the opportunity to rest our aching feet and watch some of the best agility dogs from around the world compete, including the wonderful Ashleigh and Pudsey.

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Our view of the agility course in the main arena

My genuine affection for Crufts is probably one of the reasons why I feel so disappointed that such an odd-looking German Shepherd was presented as the best example of its breed. With such obvious disregard for animal welfare, is it any wonder that the BBC dropped its television coverage of the event back in 2009? It is perhaps also the reason why the RSPCA’s #dogsbeingdogs made my hackles rise. The idea behind the hashtag was for people to share photos of their pets in their natural environment as a ‘true’ celebration of dogs. When I saw the hashtag I couldn’t help but think that I’d seen plenty of examples of ‘dogs being dogs’ at Crufts – from the amazing West Midlands Police Dog Unit display, to the unbridled excitement of the flyball teams, the unmistakable bond between assistance dog and disabled owner, the talent and training abilities shown during heelwork to music routines… The list goes on. The trade stands also provide a great opportunity for canine charities to promote their work, something which the RSPCA now miss out on since withdrawing their support from the show.

During our day at Crufts I didn’t see one dog that looked mistreated. Tired, yes, but abused? Definitely not. And yet there are clearly issues with pedigree dogs and the standards by which they are judged. This is where we have to be careful with the use of the term ‘cruel’. For while the public branded Catoria’s breeder cruel for producing such a deformed looking dog, the general idea of creating a dog like Eric the Pekingese – an animal which, in its ‘show coat’, is about as far removed from the natural wolf-like state as you could possibly get – was seen as some sort of joke. It seems very hypocritical to complain about the state of the German Shepherd while sharing pictures of Eric photoshopped on to Donald Trump’s head.

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‘Eric’

‘Cruel’ should be a term reserved for dog fighters or people who abandon their pets at the side of the road (or worse still, move house and leave them to starve to death). It seems wrong to refer to such an amazing and enjoyable event as cruel, with no evidence of malnourished or abused dogs. There are undoubtedly many flaws when it comes to The Kennel Club and its breed standards, but there are also positive sides to the organisation too, as pointed out by ‘Supervet’ Noel Fitzpatrick on the show. In my view, the heart of Crufts is a celebration of dogs. There has to be other ways of putting pressure on the Kennel Club to change its ways; boycotting the whole event for fear of ‘supporting cruelty’ really would be barking mad.

Why ‘Doggy Prison’ will never be the answer

Deemed to be “too dangerous” to walk, seized Pit Bull type Stella has allegedly been confined to a kennel without any form of exercise for two years. Dog lovers were furious as details of her confinement emerged at the beginning of the week, following the dog being featured on the BBC programme Inside Out. A petition to save Stella from destruction rapidly gained thousands of signatures and her story has since made headlines throughout the UK. It has even been reported that a Pit Bull rescue centre from across the pond have expressed interest in flying her out to the USA.

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‘Stella’

 

From the huge amount of media attention that the case has received, it would seem that this sort of treatment is rare. And yet Stella is just one of thousands of dogs seized by the police over the last five years. Despite ‘good practice’ guidelines from the RSPCA regarding a minimum of 30 minutes exercise for each dog per day, to suggest that all of these dogs receive adequate stimulation for their age or breed would be extremely naïve. Some of these dogs have been involved in attacks on humans or other animals, but a large proportion of dogs in ‘police custody’ are occupying kennel space due to Section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 – breed specific legislation. From reports, it appears that Stella is one of these dogs, considered potentially dangerous because of her breed”.

Thanks to poorly-worded headlines which placed the entirety of the blame on the shoulders of Devon & Cornwall police force, the officers involved were the main target for much of the outrage expressed on both social media sites and the comments section of many online articles. “Fire the policemen that did this” proclaimed one angry dog lover. Others blamed Stella’s owner for prolonging her ‘sentence’ by attempting to appeal the case. Yet the blame for Stella’s confinement does not lie with her owner, nor the police. Indeed, it recently emerged that it costs the police forces around the country approximately £5 million to house seized dogs – hardly something that would be done by choice. The only person who should face any sort of backlash for Stella’s ordeal, and indeed the ordeals of the many dogs seized due to their appearance, is Kenneth Baker.

Kenneth Baker introduced the Dangerous Dogs Act in 1991. In this Guardian article from 2007, he states that there is no place for Pit Bull types in the UK, and even suggests that Rottweilers, German Shepherds and “all types of Bull terriers” should be muzzled in public. It is the legislation which demands that Stella is assessed based on her behaviour displayed while being housed at the kennels. How would you act if you had been taken to a strange environment and deprived of any real social interaction for two years? Even someone who has never owned a dog would be able to guess that an animal is likely to behave a little differently in such circumstances. So is it possible that by seizing dogs in this way, animals which demonstrated little or no signs of aggression initially are being turned into true ‘dangerous dogs’? Some people seem to think so. Remember the case of Jade Anderson, the 14 year old girl killed by ‘Bullmastiff type’ dogs in 2013? The owner of the dogs was later charged with animal cruelty – for keeping one of the dogs in a crate and depriving it of exercise prior to the attack on Jade.

While it remains to be seen whether or not Stella will be released from kennels and returned to her owner as an exempted dog, one thing is certain: ‘doggy prison’ can not continue. It costs far too much money, causes too much upset for owners (and indeed the kennel staff who care for the animals), and undoubtedly has a negative effect on the welfare of dogs. If a dog, regardless of its ‘type’, genuinely presents a threat to the public due to its behaviour, it should be humanely euthanised – straight away. It is completely unfair to label a dog as dangerous months or years down the line following seizure. In terms of changes to the law, we can only hope that some good will result from this high-profile case, yet unfortunately this seems very unlikely. The case of ‘pit bull type’ Lennox back in 2012 attracted a huge amount of media attention, but the outcome remained the same – the family pet was put to sleep and the treatment of seized dogs once again retreated from the spotlight. And so while the Dangerous Dogs Act has long been referred to as a knee jerk reaction, as long as there are people who, like Kenneth Baker, genuinely believe that breed specific legislation is the answer to our dangerous dog issues, nothing is ever going to change – for Stella or any other dog accused of being a ‘Pit Bull’.

Review: Cats v Dogs BBC 2

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Take the generic ‘which is better’ canine vs feline debate, add a dose of the likeable Chris Packham and animal loving co-presenter Liz Bonnin, throw in a bunch of impressive Attenborough-esque camera shots and what do you get? Ground breaking scientific excitement or just your average run of the mill pet programme?

Well, if tonight’s Part 1 is anything to go by, it seems like the answer is a bit of both. The documentary, shown on BBC Two, had a relatively weak start, including Packham grabbing an unsuspecting Labrador by the face and staring directly, albeit lovingly, into its eyes. A few clips of the presenter with a bunch of tame wolves made for delightful viewing – who could not be impressed by the beauty of these animals? Yet I couldn’t help but feel that the wolves, beautiful as they are, were wasted on this. No ground breaking facts here – just the idea that fluffy poodles descended from them. Oh, and that wolves work together as a pack to bring down prey larger than themselves. Err…

In all fairness, though, the wolves weren’t completely irrelevant to the programme. They were shown following the first ‘Cats v Dogs’ experiment, in which the numerical abilities of both animals were tested by asking them to select the screen with the highest number of dots. Luna the Husky seemed to find the whole thing relatively easy, scoring 60% even when the test was made more difficult. It was noted that, despite what it may seem like, dogs can not count – Luna was simply aware of the visual difference. This is said to have a conflict avoidance function in the case of wolves, with individuals able to note the size of rival packs and therefore not pick fights with a pack bigger than their own. Wise.

How did the cat get on with its own version of the ‘counting’ test? Despite having a successful start, it became clear that felines are averse to commands, and once the numbers increased the cat lost interest and it was game over. After all, as noted by one of the experimenters, when does a cat need to count to ten? When you’re testing its patience, I guess. The Arabian wild cat, said to be the ancestor of all domestic moggies, was then shown, and again relatively obvious points were made about pet cats still harbouring the desire to hunt. It is here that perhaps a breakdown of the physical and behavioural similarities between the wild and domestic cat could have been included, or even a brief mention of whether it is the domestic feline or canine that shares the most similarities with their natural counterparts (Just how different are wolves and huskies, and are Maine Coons as big as the Arabian wild cat?)

However, from here onwards the programme seemed to pick up speed. Interesting facts about the sizes of the animals’ brains (cat-sized dogs have a roughly 20% bigger brain than cats) and later on, noses (dogs have many more scent receptors and a larger brain area dedicated to smell), at last provided us with some of the scientific evidence promised. Even more impressive was the clip of Packham being tracked through a bustling city by sniffer dog Boris, who took a mere ten minutes to locate the presenter despite Packham’s best efforts to send him off the trail. Unsurprisingly there was no cat equivalent for this part, although in the following experiments the feline came out on top with its superior hearing and high jump skills.

Towards the end of show, viewers were treated to some fast-paced (and loud) Canicross (also referred to as Cani-X), itself an exciting demonstration of the endurance ability of dogs, and also an adorable long-haired Chihuahua, a tiny training partner who loved nothing more than racing through the forest alongside her owner who proclaimed that his pet was “the Mo Farah of dogs”. ‘Where is the Usain Bolt of cats?’ feline lovers across the country (probably) exclaimed.

Overall, Cats v Dogs was a fun, light-hearted take on the argument that has forever divided the nation’s animal lovers. Did it really provide us with any answers as to which species is ‘the best’? Of course not. The truth is, there is no best. Both cats and dogs are brilliant creatures in their own unique ways. Although, I think it’s pretty safe to say I’m #TeamDog.

 

‘Cats v Dogs’ is available on iPlayer. Part 2 will be shown on BBC Two next week (Thursday 11th).

#JeSuisChien and why mourning Diesel is NOT a sign of lacking humanity

The death of Diesel, a French ‘RAID’ dog, in the wake of the horrific Paris attacks, made headlines around the world. The seven year old Belgian Shepherd was killed, apparently saving his handler’s life, when a terrorist blew herself up during a siege. Many took to Twitter, using the hashtag #JeSuisChien (‘I am dog’), to share their support and to post images of their own dogs, some holding French flags. But according to some journalists, this outpouring of grief for a ‘mere dog’ is not only “soppy and irrational” but also a demonstration of us losing our humanity.

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Photo from twitter @UnePhrase

“If anyone is more interested in marking the death of an animal than of the 129 people who died last weekend, they need to take a long hard look at themselves” one journalist wrote. But how do you judge that someone is ‘more interested’ in marking the death of an animal over a person? Do you count up the number of tweets sent relating to the human victims and compare them with the amount set aside for Diesel? Or is it the content of the messages themselves – are we ‘allowed’ to show emotion for a dog? The notion that showing support for Diesel somehow overshadows the tremendous amount of news coverage for the people who tragically lost their lives seems a little strange. If the writers of these articles truly believe that sharing a photo of a dog means that we no longer care about each other, surely taking the time to write 1000 words on the issue… Wait, surely in that time they could have been busy mourning the human victims!

Perhaps it is indeed true that the sheer scale and terrifying nature of the attacks in France and across the world are simply too much for us to comprehend, and it is easier to focus our grief on a single dog – a species that most of us care deeply about – than to even attempt to convey our grief for the human lives lost. But tweeting a photograph of our pets with the hashtag #JeSuisChien does not mean that we care any less about the people involved in the attacks. It just happens that Diesel has been the only reported animal casualty of Paris, and it is unreasonable to expect the average person to send a tweet for each individual human victim. Sending a solidarity tweet for every single turkey slaughtered this Christmas may be an action worthy of the phrase ‘over-sentimentality’ – but showing support for one dog, who died in a horrific manner, a dog who undoubtedly contributed to safeguarding human life throughout his years of service to the French police, is surely not.

Telling people who or what they can mourn is dangerous territory. For dog lovers, ignoring the death of a police dog in such awful circumstances is incomprehensible. Using an animal to highlight alleged ‘victim racism’ is quite frankly ridiculous. The fact that Russia has offered French police a German Shepherd puppy, Dobrynya, in a display of solidarity, shows just how important dogs are and what they can represent.

The name ‘Dobrynya’ apparently signifies ‘strength, kindness, bravery and selfless help’.

I think this sums up police K9s pretty well.

#JeSuisChien