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…
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Channel 5’s ‘Dangerous Dog Owners and Proud’, broadcast last night (August 4th) was the latest in an increasingly long line of status dog documentaries – and none of them have been worthy of airtime on National Geographic. From the opening scenes of the programme, with its dramatic voiceover and footage of the stereotypical ‘youths with big dogs’, it became apparent that the programme was not going to deliver much in the way of insightful advice on how to tackle the problem of status dogs.
It seems that the trend amongst these ‘dangerous dog’ documentaries is to shock and repulse the viewer to the point of triggering a backlash, without including any helpful or professional pointers as to how the issue could be effectively dealt with. Interviews are laid bare, with viewers encouraged to come to their own conclusions. While 19 year old pit bull type owner Nick brags about the weapon-like nature of his dog Sergeant (pictured above), he lifts his T-shirt, revealing several scars received as the result of stabbings – one of the few moments of the programme to offer a true insight into the reasons behind status dog ownership. It is surely obvious to anyone, including our Government, that the problem with dog attacks goes far beyond the four-legged individuals. A friend of Nick’s, as an explanation as to why he has his own big dog, American Bulldog Roxy, says, “there’s people who try to rob ya, people who try to stab ya, people who try to mug ya, you’ve got burglars…” soon he runs out of alternative ways of saying ‘having things stolen’ and the camera once again returns to the main event of Sergeant the illegal pit bull, who is later shown being encouraged to attack branches, a ‘target’ consisting of clothing filled with stuffing, and even a friend of his owner. A 19 year old boy has been on the receiving end of a knife, perhaps during an attempt to take his material possessions, yet the media focuses on his dog rather than how our country has stooped this low. The self-proclaimed ‘dog haters’ claim that we should care less about dogs and more about people, and in this instance it seems that they are right – focusing on these teenagers and helping to prevent the situations they find themselves in would also ultimately help the dogs who find themselves caught up in the world of ‘status’ and violence.
Keen to show that it is not only lost teenagers who own pit bull types, the programme also introduced us to Jolie Reine, a model with a passion for dogs. Her own pit bulls appeared to be well-cared for, kindly trained and happy to play with the children. Just when it seems that – shock horror – a terrestrial television channel could be showing pit bulls in a positive light, it all goes pear-shaped when one of the dogs escapes from the garden and a fight ensues. When the police arrive to seize the dogs (their visitation had already been arranged as the result of Reine herself wishing to have her dogs exempted by the courts), the soft side of the breed again emerges as one of the dogs rolls over during the officer’s inspection. Here is a complete stranger freely examining a dog’s teeth with no threat of being bitten; many veterinarians would be able to tell stories of bites from legal breeds during similar examinations. The inherent characteristic of the Pit Bull Terrier to attack other dogs is sadly the result of artificial selection, but, if not encouraged, true fighting behaviour is unlikely to ever surface in an individual. Of course even responsibly owned pit bulls can exhibit aggressive behaviours, but their type itself does not mean that they are more likely to behave ‘dangerously’ than other breeds; thousands of pit bulls and Staffordshire Bull Terriers live happily alongside other dogs and pets. It is worth remembering that according to the programme the dog that started the fight had indeed been previously trained to do so with previous owners, although it’s not clear why Reine chose to take in an ex-fighting pit bull, putting her other dogs in danger. In any case, it is obvious that her dogs were not a threat to people, and happily they were returned as exempted dogs.
Conversely, Staffordshire Bull Terrier owner Tracy Dunn states that she wants her Staffie to behave aggressively, personifying the “it’s the owner not the dog” statement. Although Dunn has a ten year old son, she has no qualms with ‘training’ her dog to attack – and actually sees her child as the reason for doing so. Protecting the property and preventing her son’s possessions from being taken is something that Dunn seems to be obsessed about and she appears to have installed the need for a ‘guard staffie’ into her son too. It is a real frustration that while Jolie Reine had to go through the process of exemption for her pit bulls, Dunn is actively attempting to turn her dogs into weapons, yet they will not be dealt with unless an attack occurs. As well as showing the idiocy of such owners who are putting their own children’s lives in danger by reinforcing aggression, the programme highlights how breed specific legislation leaves irresponsibly owned dogs free to attack, simply because they are not a banned breed.
Battersea Dogs and Cats Home issued a statement last night in reaction to the programme: “The culture of ‘status dogs’ in society is a tragic example of animal cruelty, and owners who train their dogs to be aggressive are risking the lives of those around them and often condemning these animals to a death sentence. Battersea cares for nearly 6000 dogs a year, and this includes dogs that, in some cases, have been trained to attack. For some of the cruelty cases that turn up at our gates, it’s too late to help them as their traumatising experiences mean that they are unsafe to rehome. But Battersea carefully assesses each dog and always hopes to offer them the chance of living in a loving, responsible home. Education is key to driving down the incident rate of dog attacks to make sure that dogs and people can mutually enjoy each other’s company. Battersea works tirelessly to get vital messages out to thousands of often hard to reach young people by screening its ‘Bully breed’ short film to spell out the repercussions of training a dog to be aggressive. Anyone who suspects a dog is being trained to attack should report them to the police immediately.”
Plenty of people took to Twitter to voice their opinions using the hashtag #dangerousdogowners. Here’s a selection:
Although called ‘Dangerous Dog Owners and Proud’, the dogs featured throughout the programme are exclusively pit bull types and Staffies, implying that these are the only true dangerous breeds. When Anna, Tracy Dunn’s new Staffie, is tested to see her reaction to a potential intruder, the narrator sums it up perfectly:
“It seems that Anna is a typical Staffie – she hasn’t got an aggressive bone in her body.”
Dangerous Dog Owners and Proud is available on Demand 5. All screenshots copyright Channel 5.