At first glance, there appears to be nothing out of the ordinary about this keyring. Sold on eBay as a ‘Staffordshire Bull Terrier/Pit Bull keyring’, it stands at just one and a half inches tall. Cute? Yes. But on closer inspection, this tiny ‘Staffie Pit’ has narrowed eyes, a heavily muscled chest and cropped ears, a practice which sadly many real dogs have to suffer as their owners attempt to transform their floppy-eared pit bull into an intimidating fighting machine. Ear cropping is illegal in the UK, but this keyring was not made for the UK market. It’s not made for adult bully breed enthusiasts either. This is a ‘Hood Hound’, part of a children’s brand available in toy vending machines throughout the USA.
Further research on the line of keyrings and small collectables, created by plastic model company Hoppin’ Hydros, leads to some worrying discoveries. The little plastic dog currently sat on my desk is actually named Sly, described on the Hood Hounds website as a “grey and white Pit” – so much for the Staffie keyring. The description continues, “This grey and white Pit may look tame, but true aficionados know, one false move and a limb may be lost!”. Sly is accompanied by various other canine characters, some in aggressive poses, including “one mean muscle mass” Bullet, whose own keyring form is pictured below. Suga, an equally brawny Rottweiler, has a “sweet name and a mean bite”. As shocking as all this may seem, according to manufacturer A&A Global Industries, Sly and the rest of the pack have been a favourite item amongst American children since their introduction in 2002, with over 25 million units sold of the two preliminary Hood Hound series alone.
And so while countless organisations the world over attempt to educate the public about responsible dog ownership, the all-important next generation of dog owners are collecting and trading items with connotations so frightening it’s a wonder that they are so freely available, especially considering the sensationalist fear surrounding dog attacks on children. Is it possible that a product could have an impact on how children view dogs, and indeed how they look after their own dogs in the future? Of course, even if it doesn’t, you still have to question the morals of a company producing such toys. A limb-tearing Pit Bull is hardly the perfect companion for Barbie. But research conducted by the retailer Argos in the run up to Christmas last year showed that there is in fact a link between toy preferences and a child’s future; over 60% of adults within design-based careers played with building blocks as children, and 66% of accountants and bankers preferred working on puzzles when they were growing up. The majority of children interested in novelty toys from vending machines are likely to be of an age when they are easily influenced by what they are exposed to, and by purchasing these characters with their pocket money, young Hood Hound fans may be demonstrating an early attraction towards such imagery. As they become older, the same children may discover rap music videos with similar tough-looking dog images, and sadly some of them may one day own a real life status dog. The very existence of ‘Hood Hounds’ makes the ownership of aggressive dogs for personal gain seem normal – something that surely no parent or dog lover would approve of.
Hood Hounds are far from the only toys that reinforce stereotypes and go the completely wrong way about marketing animal ownership to children. Walk into any store selling cheap toys and you are likely to come across fluffy white poodles stuffed into sparkly pink handbags, much to the delight of girls who may have already had a glimpse of celebrities with their wriggling, fur-shedding equivalent of the look. Dogs aren’t the only victims of careless toy designers, with a Playmobil rabbit hutch set currently available at Toys R Us that is enough to give any animal welfare campaigner a nervous breakdown and plenty of cuddly mini pigs available complete with harnesses and leads, sending out the message that treating a livestock animal as an accessory is harmless fun. Sadly this isn’t the case, as demonstrated by a cull of ‘micro pigs’ in Wales earlier this month which were thought to have escaped from captivity, creating a disease risk to other animals in the area. However, when designed and marketed in the right way, animal-related toys can be excellent. The popular Nintendo DS game ‘Nintendogs‘ teaches children that dog ownership comes with responsibility – buying food, daily grooming and providing basic training and sufficient exercise is all covered, even down to poop scooping – albeit innocuous virtual poop closely resembling a bread roll. Dogs Trust teamed up with Nintendogs in 2011 to form the ‘A Dog is Not A Toy’ campaign in response to the trend of using dogs as living fashion accessories and to “educate the dog owners of tomorrow” – a far cry from the ‘Petz’ computer games of the late 90s where the breeding, dressing up and even painting of dogs was encouraged (although at the time it did seem pretty fun).
Could this… … Lead to this?
As a child myself I owned hundreds of cuddly animal toys, but I can’t recall any of them being ‘vicious’. One of my first toy dogs was Cassie, a Spaniel who was attached to a plastic lead, not a handbag. I also had a ‘FurReal’ bear cub – did that make me want to own a real life Grizzly? Probably for a while. But the point is, unlike bears, dogs are everywhere, and children should be learning to treat them with respect, for their own sake as much as the dogs’. Both toy manufacturers and parents have a duty to make this possible.
And what about Sly, the one and a half inches tall, limb-tearing pit bull? I think I’ll take my chances.
Do you think Hood Hounds encourage irresponsible dog ownership? Or are they just harmless toys? Comment below!