Hell-hound. Devil dog. Danger dog. Killer canine. Descriptions such as these used by the media played a significant part in the introduction of breed specific legislation as part of the Dangerous Dogs Act in 1991. Twenty two years on and various alterations to the legislation later, it is difficult to believe that some national newspapers continue to use this sort of melodramatic language. Pinning the blame for an attack solely on the dog, or indeed the dog’s breed or ‘type’, in order to produce a sensationalist headline is both immoral and damaging for the reputation of all other individuals of the same breed.
Although most animal welfare, rescue groups and hundreds of veterinarians and other professionals throughout the U.K agree that breed specific legislation is flawed (is it really possible to predict a dog’s behaviour based on its shoulder measurements?), it seems that many of those involved in bringing the news to the public do not share this view and continue to bad-mouth certain breeds of dog in an attempt to stir up the same fear and hatred that Parliament latched on to when hastily passing the Dangerous Dogs Act.
The headline and introduction of this article from 1991, describing the last moments of the first pit bull type in Britain to be euthanised as a result of the Act, makes uncomfortable reading for those who love dogs and despise stereotyping. Referring to the dog as a “potential killing machine”, the paper gloats that this dog, whose only crime was presumably matching the definition of a pit bull type, was put down thanks to the “jab of death”. It would be reasonable to expect that the media has since moved on from this type of journalism, since it is now common knowledge that nurture, rather than nature, plays the biggest part in determining a dog’s behaviour.
This “Collar the Danger Dogs” logo, taken from the Daily Mirror website, indeed looks like it belongs inside the pages of the paper from the early nineties, when high profile cases of dog attacks caused public outcry. It is true that current legislation does little to protect the public from dog attacks, and a campaign to abolish the Dangerous Dogs Act and replace it with a more effective law is certainly justified, however the use of a Staffordshire Bull Terrier’s face in this way does little to dispel the myths and prejudices still haunting the breed.
Other papers refer to dogs involved in attacks as “evil”. Although attacks can indeed result in horrific consequences, whether any animal has the capability of “evil” is open to debate. A grizzly bear responsible for killing a hiker is unlikely to be associated with the devil; why should man’s best friend be given such a title? If anything, the owner, breeder or any other person responsible for the dog’s actions is the “evil” being since they have, intentionally or not, enabled the attack to take place.
Of course, false reporting and mislabelling also fuels the misunderstandings surrounding certain breeds. The American Bulldog crossbreed involved in the fatal attack on Jade Anderson has also been referred to as a Bullmastiff and an American Bullmastiff (no such breed is recognised by the American Kennel Club). Articles on the remainder of the dogs involved describe them as being of pit bull type, which is obviously false as the owner of the dogs was not prosecuted under the Dangerous Dogs Act since none of the dogs were illegal breeds.
Whether this bad press and poor reporting will continue for another twenty years remains to be seen. In the mean time, raising awareness of the real nature of our much-loved bully breeds is as important as ever.