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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
Thanks to the media we are all aware of the murky world of gangs and weapon dogs, but few of us have had first-hand experience of life within London’s toughest and most violent areas. Here ex-gang leader turned poet and author Justin Rollins talks to Not So Dangerous Dogs about pit bulls, dog fighting and gangster rap…
What made you want to write a book on the issues surrounding status dogs?
Justin: The main reason for my writing of the status dogs part of the book [Status Dogs & Gangs] is because I was sick of reading the negative headlines about ‘pit bull type’ dogs. There is so much more that goes on behind the scenes of the status dogs issue; people are so quick to judge the ‘Bully breeds’ and as a dog lover I wanted to try to rebuild a positive image of them – especially the Pit Bull Terrier which many people don’t realise is the most poorly treated dog in the world as the result of ‘man’ using this strong breed for his own evil agenda.
In the book you mention the influence of rap music videos featuring pit bull type dogs. How much power do you think this has over the breed choice of ‘impressionable youth’?
Justin: As a mixed race youth growing up in London with no father figure, I looked to ‘gangster rappers’ as some sort of role model – not a great choice but I was too young to realise that at the time. Music videos from artists in the USA filled with anti-police messages, fast women, graffiti, gangs and of course ‘pit bull dogs’ were so appealing. The rappers looked threatening and having large muscular dogs at their side made them appear even more menacing – as an ex gang leader I know only too well the need to look tough, and having such a dog enhances that image.
I believe this mentality spread across the pond to the UK. You only have to watch the video for ‘Real Compton City Gs’ [a 1993 song by Californian rapper Easy E] with gangs on their block, tattoos on their necks and angry men pointing trigger fingers towards the camera, and compare it to any recent London-based gangster rap video and you will see how the image has spread. I believe that this is the reason the youths of today are walking about with pit bull type dogs.
Pit bull types and legal ‘bully breeds’ are often described as ‘devil dogs’ in dog attack articles. Do you think that the media is partly responsible for their notoriety and subsequent popularity amongst gangs?
Justin: The media always like to ‘hype up’ headlines to sell papers and create fear, although I am all too aware of dog attack stories and I’m still wary if I see a young kid with a large dog when I’m out walking with my own child. If people never watched the news or read the paper they would not have this inbuilt fear of these breeds or dogs in general. Just look at the photo that will be printed of the so-called ‘devil dog’: it will usually be a snarling beast. Where are the photos of the same breed in their family homes playing or sleeping with children? Yes, the media has played a major role in spreading the mistrust of these dogs, as well as impressing young, angry youths with the images they publish.
Illegal dog fighting features in your book and has hit the headlines recently following the airing of Channel 4’s ‘Going to the Dogs’ documentary. Why do you think the ‘sport’ still continues over a century after it was outlawed?
Justin: I think dog fighting is a disgusting thing. It angers me even thinking about it now and that is the reason I didn’t watch ‘Going to the Dogs’. I have had quite an insight into the world of dog fighting as a result of my interview with ‘Irish Frank’, published in my book. I believe it is still around purely due to nasty and evil people. You get angry men wanting to express their hatred towards each other through dog fighting, or to enhance their own ‘status’ amongst their friends and it sickens me. The most frustrating part is because the pit bull type is illegal in this country, once it is finally rescued by the authorities, sometimes after years of cruelty and abuse, 99% of the time it will be put to sleep. If another breed is rescued from the fighting scene it may get the chance of a fresh start.
Another reason this so-called sport still lingers around our streets is due to Asian gangs becoming heavily involved. In Pakistan it isn’t unusual for whole villages to come together to watch their version of a pit bull fight. The winners receive money, mobile phones and even televisions if their dog wins. The dog fighter will then lift his blood-soaked winning dog upon his shoulders and dance around as people play flutes. From this it isn’t hard to see why so many young Asian men living in the UK feel free to carry on with their ‘dog fighting’.
You also mention in Status Dogs & Gangs that you believe the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 should be rewritten, including the abolishment of breed specific legislation (BSL). What effect do you think this would have on irresponsible pit bull ownership – would their tough reputation suffer if they became popular family pets?
Justin: I would love to say that the pit bull’s bad image would fade away if the breed was legalised but in my lifetime it just won’t happen. Even in Hollywood films and cartoons the bull breed always plays the dopey, less intelligent dog or the ‘tough’ dog. Close-minded people will always judge and look down their noses at something, whether it’s a hooded kid lost on the streets that clearly just needs love and guidance or a large bully breed dog. Kids growing up in some parts of inner cities or estates feel isolated and often alienated from society – the reason they choose a breed whose own reputation mirrors how they feel.
Our current Dangerous Dogs Act does not appear to be effectively dealing with the status/weapon dog issue. What would you like to see in its place? Should legislators examine the wider context beyond the dogs themselves?
Justin: It’s not the dog, it’s the owner. What is going on in the owner’s life? The bigger picture is a social issue. Throughout history many young men in this country have wanted to fight back ‘against the system’ – we’ve had punks and the like fighting all over the UK’s streets, football hooligans venting their built up anger against each other and now you have another ‘urban menace’ – hoodies with weapon dogs. Legislators should look beyond the dog and at society in general. If you want to stop the young hoodie walking these dogs, introduce a minimum age of ownership: that would immediately stamp out teenagers parading their large dogs as some sort of status symbol.
For more information on Justin’s work, visit his website or follow him on twitter @JustinRollins7z
“They picked Akanni up one morning
Beat him soft like clay
And stuffed him down the belly
Of a waiting jeep…
…They came one night
Booted the whole house awake
And dragged Danladi out,
Then off to a lengthy absence…”
The above extracts are taken from ‘Not my Business’, a poem written about the abuse suffered by African people at the hands of the army or secret police. Although the violence and injustice conveyed by author Niyi Osundare seems a world away from our equality-rich society, nobody could possibly deny the similarities between the narrative and the recent reports of the 22 innocent Pit Bulls dragged from their homes by Merseyside Police – killed for no reason other than a lack of pet insurance and paperwork errors.
Exempted dogs (those that are confirmed to be of illegal type but deemed safe to return to their owners) by law have to be neutered, microchipped, tattooed, kept on a lead and muzzled in public and insured with third party pet insurance. If owners fail to meet any of these conditions, their dogs will be seized. Chloe, a six year old Pit Bull type on the Index of Exempted dogs, was taken from her 66 year old owner during a morning raid in a style usually reserved for dealing with dangerous criminals rather than family pets, with the metaphorical ‘waiting jeep’ taking the form of seven police vans. Although it is not yet clear whether her owner did indeed have Chloe insured via DogsTrust membership as she had claimed, it seems that Merseyside Police acted without compassion, making little distinction between the family and those involved in illegal activity. In any other case, an innocent middle aged lady would never be grouped with criminals, yet her dog’s physical appearance led to exactly that. All exempted dogs have to be proved to be of ‘sound temperament’ before being released to their owners, meaning that neither Chloe nor the other 21 Pit Bull types were dangerous dogs.
Despite exempted Pit Bulls presenting no more of a threat to members of the public than any legal breed, failure to comply with the exemption conditions is likely to mean death for the dog. Controversy surrounding the destruction of friendly and exempted Pit Bulls is nothing new; during the early years of the Dangerous Dogs Act the case of Dempsey, another family pet, made headlines when her muzzle was taken off in public in order to stop her from choking on her own vomit. Despite the removal of the muzzle being a temporary measure as an attempt to save her life, Dempsey was ordered to be destroyed. It took three years to save Dempsey, during which time she, like so many other ‘Section 1’ dogs currently affected by the Dangerous Dogs Act, was kept in secure police kennels. It was a legal loophole that eventually saved Dempsey; her muzzle had been removed by a family friend who failed to inform her owner of the court hearing, and as a result of her owner’s lack of awareness, Dempsey was spared – proving that sometimes ignorance really is bliss. (Further information on Dempsey can be found here).
But unlike Dempsey, the Pit Bulls seized in Liverpool, dubbed the ‘Merseyside 22’ by campaigners, were not given the chance to be saved. This is not the first time that Merseyside Police have taken direct and arguably unjustifiable action towards the destruction of Pit Bulls. In 2007 the force came under scrutiny from the dog world, including organisations such as the Kennel Club, when it initiated a week-long ‘amnesty’ – allowing owners to hand over illegal breeds without themselves being prosecuted. The Kennel Club pointed out that criminals with potentially dangerous dogs were unlikely to partake in the amnesty, while responsible owners would be more likely to comply with the law in order to avoid imprisonment, and their well-behaved dogs would be put to sleep as a result.
The amnesty ended with the seizure of 86 illegal ‘types’. The then Assistant Chief Constable of Merseyside, Helen King, was quoted in a BBC report,
“We understand that it has been a very difficult decision for many people to part with their animals. We are grateful to all of you for putting the safety of your children and the people of Merseyside ahead of the affection for your dog.”
Just as the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 itself was a knee-jerk reaction to the dog attacks heavily reported in the media, it seems that the amnesty was Merseyside Police’s response to the widespread media attention surrounding the tragic death of Ellie Lawrenson, a five year old girl killed by her uncle’s dog – a Pit Bull type with a history of aggressive behaviour towards both other dogs and people. The dog clearly was a danger yet was not dealt with until the aftermath of the fatality; the owner’s negligence was to blame for his niece’s death. The subsequent seizure of 86 Pit Bull types, including those which had not shown any signs of aggression, did not alter the outcome – just as breed specific legislation does not prevent future dog attacks.
In an article regarding Jade, another of the 22 Pit Bulls destroyed towards the end of last month, Chief Inspector Chris Gibson said,
“These dogs pose a danger to the public, as well as to the families where they are housed. I’m sure there aren’t many who would be happy to let their children or grandchildren play out in the street, if one of these dogs was in the vicinity. These dogs are not designed to be family pets.”
Do all Pit Bull types really present a danger to children? If we are to believe what we read in the newspapers, then yes. But real statistics prove otherwise. According to DEFRA there are over 2,000 exempted Pit Bulls living in the UK as of 2013, and, since the Dangerous Dogs Act is infamous for failing to eradicate Pit Bulls, as was the intention of its creator Kenneth Baker, it is likely that there are thousands more living ‘illegally’ (“There are more Pit Bulls in this country than Labradors”, an illegal breeder told The Sun in February this year). Despite all these ‘devil dogs’ living amongst us, there have been less than twenty deaths as the result of dog attacks (from any breed) since 2005. To put this in perspective, it is estimated that around ten people are killed per year in the UK as the result of horse riding accidents. And according to statistics published in the book ‘Dogs Bite But Balloons and Slippers are More Dangerous’ by Janis Bradley, children are more likely to be killed by toys and playground equipment than as the result of a dog attack. Pit Bulls are not ‘devil dogs’ at all, and were historically bred for low aggression towards humans since those involved in dog fighting never wanted to be bitten themselves when dealing with their dogs. Socialised and well-cared for Pit Bulls are no more likely to terrorise the neighbourhood than a Golden Retriever (indeed, Pit Bulls have ‘beaten’ popular dog breeds such as Retrievers and Beagles in temperament tests – obviously these are “not designed to be family pets” either).
Fatal dog attacks are extremely rare, especially in proportion to the millions of dogs living in the UK, yet when attacks do happen both the media and law enforcers want something to blame, and as a consequence of breed specific legislation Pit Bulls are the scapegoat. Prior to 1991, the Rottweiler, German Shepherd and the Doberman all received similar negativity and any of these breeds could easily have replaced the Pit Bull in the Dangerous Dogs Act. The full version of ‘Not my Business’ consists of the message that injustice should never be ignored since one day there may be a knock at your own door. If we continue to turn a blind eye to the routine euthanasia of Pit Bulls how long will it be before more breeds are put in danger by legislators? Targeting innocent owners, and innocent dogs, instead of unscrupulous breeders and irresponsible owners who produce the real dangerous dogs is a fault with legislation, the blame for which does not lie with one police force. But as long as the euthanasia of family pets on the basis of appearance and prejudice alone continues, the recent action taken by Merseyside Police is definitely the business of all dog owners, no matter what breed we have at home.
DDA Watch campaign for the removal of breed specific legislation and assist families whose dogs are seized under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991.
Two dog related programmes were shown on both BBC (‘Louis Theroux’s LA Stories: City of Dogs’) and ITV (in the two episodes of ‘Dangerous Dogs’) in the past couple of weeks, with the latter in particular attracting a lot of attention amongst dog loving viewers, perhaps not for the reasons that ITV had originally been hoping for. Neglect and irresponsible ownership featured heavily in both programmes.
The first episode of Dangerous Dogs surrounded the working lives of Birmingham City Council’s dog wardens and the situations that they face on a daily basis. Two wardens in particular caused controversy with their handling of an abandoned Akita who refused to come quietly, leading many viewers to brand the programme ‘Dangerous Dog Wardens’. With cameras following their every move, the women were shown shouting at the frightened animal before struggling to drag it out of the property with the use of two catch poles, leaving the dog visibly distressed and physically exhausted. When dealing with potentially dangerous dogs it is always important to put human safety first, and the use of such equipment is certainly justified, however, seemingly due to the nerves of the wardens, the event took longer than perhaps it should have done, with one of the wardens initially panicking at the sight of a spider in the doorway. The constant opening and closing of the door, together with the shouting (and sometimes screaming) from the dog warden, surely must have heightened the dog’s fear, making his capture even more difficult. Perhaps this quote on how to approach dogs, taken from this RSPCA International publication on dog control guidance, should have been noted;
“Remember that any action from the catcher(s) will provoke the dog(s)… A catcher should adopt a non-aggressive body posture by presenting a low-profile on approach. Their movements should remain calm and slow.”
Louis Theroux’s programme, City of Dogs, also demonstrated the effects of animal abandonment with one animal control officer reluctantly collecting a Pit Bull Terrier to be euthanised. According to those interviewed, many dogs in Los Angeles are simply thrown out when they are no longer of any use for breeding or other money making activities. Without anyone coming forward to claim the Pit Bull, and hundreds more stray dogs requiring kennel space, there was simply nowhere for the dog to go. Unlike the Akita back in Birmingham, the Pit Bull did not show any signs of aggression as a result of its treatment, showing that an abandoned dog doesn’t always mean ‘dangerous dog’ (indeed, once the Akita was nursed back to health at Birmingham Dogs Home, it passed all temperament tests and was rehomed). What was obvious from both programmes was that irresponsible ownership is a leading factor of aggression issues within our dog populations.
In Dangerous Dogs, an owner with apparent alcohol issues had lost count of how many Staffie cross puppies he had in his flat, and, despite the advice from the warden, sold many of the puppies as early as four weeks old to “anyone who wanted them”. It is clear that anyone who would even consider buying a tiny puppy from a man down the pub would not be the sort of person to raise a well-balanced family pet, and the future is bleak for the puppies who are likely to become victims both to their poor early upbringing and their unscrupulous owners. In Episode two, a family living in squalor had numerous Staffies which were never given access to the garden nor walked, together with a litter of young puppies covered in their own excrement, cats and kittens locked in a filthy bathroom and various small animals in tiny cages, a murky substance in their water bottle their only source of liquid. It made for very upsetting viewing, and the frustration on the dog wardens’ faces was obvious. The dogs could not be seized under the Animal Welfare Act as they were physically healthy and were not deprived of food and water. Just as with the litter of puppies who were sold at four weeks, the wardens were powerless. The ‘owners’ agreed to hand over the rest of the animals, but the dogs stayed. These dogs may indeed become the next attack headlines, a result of the simple fact that they are unexercised, untrained and unsocialised. But because they are fed and watered, they can not be seized or rehomed to a suitable environment, and the owners are able to continue producing endless litters of dogs.
It seemed very wrong that the family, who could barely take care of themselves, were allowed to keep the dogs, particularly after witnessing the terrible conditions in which their other animals had been living (and the fact that one member of the family had previously received a five year ban from keeping animals). This was only made worse when the cameras showed Gunner, a friendly, well-cared for Pit Bull, being taken away to secure police kennels. Gunner, like many other family pets declared to be ‘type’, had presumably never shown any signs of aggression, and he was allowed to return to his owners as an exempted dog. Another Pit Bull type featured in the programme had been found straying, and was clearly not a danger to those handling it since it was not muzzled and there were no catch poles in sight. Yet because it matched the identification measurements, the dog was humanely euthanised – under the Dangerous Dogs Act it is illegal to rehome Pit Bull types.
While mistreated or ill-socialised dogs have the capability to become dangerous, many dogs in both America and here in the UK are actively trained to show aggression. In City of Dogs, a group of men demonstrated their protection training with a Dutch Herder. The dog had been trained to bite a padded sleeve in a display similar to police dog work but without the control that is achieved through the intense police training course. When the trainer gave the release command, the dog held on. If this apparent lack of control in a semi-professional environment seems worrying, consider the fact that ‘weapon dogs’ are now relatively common in the UK, with many dogs receiving ‘training’ involving physical violence in an attempt to cause aggressive responses. This results in a certain unpredictability, making so-called status dogs a danger to the public. Breed specific legislation has little impact on this trend as Pit Bull types are often used alongside legal breeds to convey status and intimidate others. In the first episode of Dangerous Dogs, a male with a severe attitude problem threatened the dog warden with violence as she was in the process of attempting to issue a fixed penalty notice after witnessing his partner let their Staffordshire Bull Terrier foul. The man, who heard the commotion outside his flat, came downstairs and threatened to “punch the face off” the warden before shouting a stream of profanities at the cameraman. Not, then, the actions of a responsible Staffie owner – the dog was clearly just another status symbol.
“If I rode around every day with a gun, I take the chance of going to jail if the police stop me. I can ride around with my dog all day long. He’s just like my pistol at my side.” – LA protection dog trainer
In both programmes we have seen dogs starved, thrown out on to the streets, deprived of exercise, forced to produce numerous litters and actively trained to bite or intimidate. The chance of any legal breed owned as a ‘weapon’ biting a member of the public is far greater than that of a Pit Bull type owned responsibly causing harm, yet dogs declared to be Pit Bull type are routinely destroyed even if they present no threat to public safety while dogs that are likely to cause problems in the future are not dealt with until after they attack. With no incentive to take care of their animals, and money to be made from the breeding of status dogs, at present there is no reason for irresponsible owners to change their attitude. Since punishments rarely equal their crimes, it is usually the dog that pays the highest price. Future laws need to concentrate on ownership, not breeds. The Dangerous Dogs narrator closed the programme by saying that as a nation we are falling far short of being able to call ourselves dog lovers. Until our laws are improved, this sadly remains all too true.
The two episodes of ‘Dangerous Dogs’ are currently available on ITV Player.
‘LA: City of Dogs’ is also available online and can be viewed via BBC iplayer until April 13.
Cardiff Dogs Home found themselves at the centre of controversy last week following the news that three healthy puppies in their care had been put to sleep. It is understood that the puppies, named Samson, Daisy and Coco, were identified by a Dog Legislation Officer (DLO) as being ‘Pit Bull type’, and, since they had been found straying, had no owner to make an appeal and were immediately seized.
It is thought that the puppies were only 12 weeks old, making them too young to be ‘typed’ since the guidelines used in the identification of Pit Bull types are entirely based upon physical characteristics of an adult dog. With descriptions such as “height to weight ratio should be in proportion” and “the head should be around 2/3 width of shoulders” (Association of Chief Police Officers of England, Wales & Northern Ireland, 2009), it seems impossible that the DLO involved at Cardiff Dogs Home was able to make an accurate assessment;
“Dogs that are classed as dangerous due to type only and are too young to be accurately assessed must be subject to a DLO examination to determine whether they should remain with the owner until such a time that they can be accurately assessed (usually 9 months of age).” (Kent Police, 2013).
An informal statement was issued on December 13 and can be seen on the Cardiff Council website;
“We are aware of the negative publicity regarding the 3 pups that have been put to sleep at Cardiff’s Dogs Home. They have been positively classed as pit bull type by a qualified Dog Liaison Officer. This breed is unable to be re-homed by the Local Authority under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1990. The Dog’s Home has to adhere by the law and we are sending a very strong message out to indiscriminate breeders to stop what they are doing, the law is in place for a very good reason and it is with deep regret that we have to carry out such acts.”
Do indiscriminate breeders really care about the ‘message’ conveyed by putting puppies to sleep? Those breeding illegal dogs for financial or personal gain have little interest in the welfare of the puppies produced, especially since many are destined for the cruel world of dog fighting. It is unrealistic, and rather naive, to suggest that ending the lives of three healthy puppies will stop anyone involved in illegal activity to “stop what they are doing”. Since the euthanasia of the dogs did not make headlines, their deaths went unnoticed by the majority of the public, including those who produced them. The only people affected by this outcome are the staff and volunteers at Cardiff Dogs Home who had no choice but to hand over the puppies, who they had looked after since their arrival, knowing that their fate had been sealed. It is a shame that the spokesperson decided to add that “the law is in place for a very good reason”, despite not being able to correctly refer to the law as the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991.
It has already been established that the dogs were too young to be assessed. It is likely that many young puppies are rehomed each year as ‘Staffordshire Bull Terriers’ yet grow into a dog with a number of characteristics matching those of a Pit Bull type; it is simply impossible to tell exactly how a dog will look when fully grown if their genetic background is unknown. It is equally impossible to determine how many characteristics a 12 week old puppy has that match the description of an adult Pit Bull type.
The deaths of three puppies, who may have made excellent family pets, is a very sad occurrence and one which will continue until breed specific legislation is removed. Until then, rescue centres throughout the country will continue to dread the arrival of the Dog Legislation Officer.
Pit Bull type identification information taken from: Association of Chief Police Officers of England, Wales & Northern Ireland (2009) Guidance on Dealing with Dangerous Dogs.
Kent Police quote from here.
For details on how to become involved in the campaign against ‘BSL’, visit the DDA Watch website.
Researchers from the University of Lincoln have recently published a paper entitled ‘Acculturation — Perceptions of breed differences in behavior of the dog (Canis familiaris)‘, which exposes the fundamental flaws in breed specific legislation and why, as part of the Dangerous Dogs Act, it does little to protect the public.
Their findings, which have been published in the American journal Human Animal Interaction Bulletin, demonstrate that those who receive little interaction with dogs are more likely to adopt a prejudiced view, comparable to racial stereotyping, than their dog-loving neighbours. According to the paper, more than half of those surveyed who identified as ‘experienced or knowledgeable’ about dogs oppose the stereotyping of specific breeds or types of dog, compared to only 15% of those who have had little or no experience with dogs. Less than one in 10 of respondents who had not owned a dog disagreed with the statement that breed specific legislation is necessary for protecting the public, with many holding the view that if a dog appears to be dangerous, it is more likely to show aggressive tendencies than its small and fluffy counterparts.
The research is a confirmation of what many of us dog lovers already know; that media and the Government play a major part in shaping the views of those who have little prior knowledge of dogs and what influences their behaviour. The research team concluded that breed specific legislation creates a false sense of security amongst the public, who may believe that dogs not deemed ‘dangerous’ by law and of a different shape to banned types are ‘safe’ and always good-natured. Breed specific legislation teaches the public that a dog’s temperament can be predicted based on its appearance, which of course is not possible. To quote the Kennel Club, “this is why dogs placed on the Index of Exempted Dogs have never been proven to be dangerous and why dogs of a breed or type other than those expressly prohibited have been involved in dog attacks.”
Myths such as the ‘lock jaw’ phenomenon also support the researchers’ opinion that breed specific legislation leads to negative stereotypes, forming an image of a vicious, crazed animal with locking jaws in the minds of the public. Whist it is true that Pit Bull Terriers do indeed have a strong bite capacity, the structure of their jaw is no different to that of any other dog breed. An experiment shown on National Geographic channel demonstrated that the Pit Bull Terrier has an average bite force of 235 pounds, compared to 238 pounds from a German Shepherd and a Rottweiler’s 328 pounds. A YouTube clip of this experiment can be seen here.
A ‘false sense of security’ has recently been talked about with regards to the popular term ‘nanny dog’, widely used amongst Staffie owners with good intentions of dispelling myths and forming positive opinions about the breed. It has been suggested that by telling everyone about the loving nature of the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, owners and breed enthusiasts are inadvertently sending out the message that it is perfectly safe to leave a dog alone with a child. Whilst I’m sure that this was not the message that owners had in mind, a lack of knowledge together with misunderstandings fuelled by such messages is potentially an accident waiting to happen, through no fault of the dog. No dog, regardless of breed, size, age or temperament, should ever be left alone with a child – even a ‘nanny dog’.
The presence of breed specific legislation lays the foundation for the myths and negative stereotypes surrounding bull-breeds, which encourages the ‘wrong’ type of person to own a bull-breed, increasing the likelihood of dog attack incidents through the concept of ‘status dogs’, which, together with a general lack of knowledge and public misunderstanding, in turn supports the argument for breed specific legislation. It is a vicious circle that can only be broken with an overhaul of legislation and introduction of laws that place the blame solely on those responsible for their dog’s actions.
Read the University of Lincoln’s article here.
For more information on the Kennel Club’s views on dangerous dog legislation, see their campaign briefing here.