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’.
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.
“This name is not often bestowed seriously but rather in jest. Perfect for the dog who leads burglars to the family silver and runs from the neighbourhood cat”.
The above description, taken from a ‘Choosing Dog Names’ book, is for the name ‘Killer’. The recent tragedy involving a pit bull type of this name demonstrates that there are dog owners out there incapable of understanding that the name is best used ironically. Far from running, ‘Killer’ had reportedly attacked the neighbourhood cat in 2012. Full details of the incident, in which 11 month old Ava-Jayne Corless died as a result of her injuries inflicted by the dog, are as yet unknown, however it appears that the dog was one of at least two kept at the property and had also previously intimidated neighbours. Clearly the dog should not have been housed with small children, let alone allowed to enter a room with a baby on its own. It is another case of how the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 does not protect the public, since when an attack does happen it is too late – both for the child and the dog – while hundreds of dogs with wonderful temperaments are needlessly euthanised.
Back to the name itself. Whilst ‘Killer’ would be an amusing name for a Chihuahua, the larger the dog is the more important it becomes to choose a name without any negative connotations. Bully breeds are already viewed with enough (usually unfounded) suspicion without a tough nickname added to the mix. Of course, owners of dogs such as Killer already know this, which is exactly why they give such a title to their dog. ‘Killer’ was probably never intended to be a family pet and was instead made into an aggressive status dog. But how much influence does a dog’s name really have on its behaviour?
An experiment devised by Professor Stanley Coren aimed to answer this question. 291 university students were given a brief description of a dog, along with its name, and were shown a short video clip of various scenes involving a German Shepherd barking and jumping up at a person before being pushed away. The students were then asked to select adjectives from a list which best described the dog’s behaviour from what they had seen; both positive and negative attributes were listed. The important part of the experiment, of which the students were unaware, was that the name of the dog within the descriptions differed. Half of the group had been informed that the dog’s name was tough sounding, such as Killer, Ripper, Butcher or even Assassin, while the other half thought that the dog’s name was a popular pet name such as Buddy or Lucky. Interestingly, the results showed that the students who were under the impression that the dog had a violent name were three times more likely to view the dog as aggressive than the students who had received a positive sounding name on their description. The students were also asked to describe the video clip in their own words, and descriptions from the group with tough names went along the lines of “The dog saw a man and didn’t like him. The dog barked at him and tried to jump on him to make him go away, but the man pushed him off before he could be bitten”. In contrast, the positive name group thought that the dog was barking to greet the man and that the jumping up was playful rather than intimidating.
If a name can have such an impact on our perception of a dog, then reactions to the dog will also be influenced by it. If the students in the experiment were interacting with the German Shepherd rather than watching a video, it is likely that their actions would correspond with their words; those who thought ‘Assassin’ was about to bite their arm off would probably run a mile. The way that people react to dogs plays a significant role in their behaviour since dogs communicate mostly via body language. ‘Assassin’ may be the friendliest dog in the world, yet when faced with a terrified, screaming student with waving arms he could become stressed and may bark or even lunge if he felt threatened and unable to escape. Or, if the student did indeed run away, the dog may have given chase, reinforcing the student’s view that the dog was dangerous.
The name that you choose for your dog not only reflects yourself but also creates an impression of your dog, which could result in harmless behaviours being misinterpreted– potentially leading to behavioural issues around people.
By the way, this is my new puppy. His name? Dave.
See Dr Coren’s original article on the name experiment here.
The phrase “Innocent until proven guilty” is clearly lost on the British press. For as the news broke on Wednesday 6th November that four year old Lexi Branson had been killed by a dog, the photographs accompanying articles in both national and local publications were that of a Dogue De Bordeaux, otherwise known as a French Mastiff.
Despite not having a confirmation of the breed, the Daily Mail included a small collection of ‘frightening’ facts about French Mastiffs, under the subtitle “Fearsome Cattle Guards”. Readers were unable to overlook the huge photograph of Lexi and the dog, which is now believed to belong to a friend of Lexi’s mother, Jodi Branson. Towards the end of the article, the reporter mentions that police officers had said that the dog was not thought to be listed under the Dangerous Dogs Act. If Leicestershire Police had not yet confirmed the breed, how did the Daily Mail know it was a French Mastiff? The truth was, they didn’t. Neither did many other papers, yet this did not stop them publishing different photographs of Lexi with the dog.
A day later and photographs of a different dog altogether replace those of the French Mastiff. This time it is the dog responsible for the attack. The dog, described as a “Bulldog”, was adopted by Jodi Branson from a rescue centre a few weeks earlier. It is thought that the centre had made it clear that the dog was unsuitable for rehoming with children; confusion over why Branson wanted a dog described as such, and why the centre allowed her to take the dog, appears to have been overshadowed by the original identification hiccup and the continued speculation around the dog’s breed. Other factors, such as that of the flat where the dog was kept being owned by a housing association which prohibits dogs, do indeed point to the rescue centre being at fault. It appears that the dog was rehomed without any initial checks to ensure the suitability of Branson’s home. It may be that Branson gave false details, which would also explain why the centre allowed her to take the dog despite the presence of a young child in the house. In any case, the incompetence of either the rescue centre or Lexi’s mother is of far greater importance than the dog’s breed.
When a tragic event such as this happens, it could be argued that the breed of dog involved is irrelevant; a little girl has died. With this in mind, it is even more frustrating that the media focus on the dog itself rather than the bigger picture surrounding the incident. If the rescue centre is giving out animals to anyone who walks through their doors, it doesn’t bear thinking about how many dogs have been unwittingly rehomed to an environment in breach of the Animal Welfare Act, or even ended up in the hands of dog fighters. It also raises the question of how many other centres nationwide operate in a similar manner, and how many other children are at risk, at no fault of the dog, which may have been abused.
The Kennel Club were quick to issue a statement regarding both the English Bulldog and the French Mastiff breeds, stating that both have a loving nature and that “no dog should ever be portrayed as being representative of an entire breed”. Unfortunately the French Mastiff, which presumably was not even on the premises at the time of the attack, has been tainted with ‘rumours’ which should never have been published. The English Bulldog is now also under the glaring eye of the public, despite the dog involved clearly not being a purebred example. With Sky News publishing a gallery of dog breeds involved in recent attacks, debate has once again arisen over whether more breeds of dog should be included in Section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act. Thankfully the Government have confirmed that they have no plans to ban more breeds, however it is worrying to consider that these types of breed-blaming news articles were what originally influenced the introduction of breed specific legislation in 1991.
It seems that there are no signs of the media ceasing to publish such inaccurate and damaging articles, despite it being in the interest of everyone, both human and canine.
Read the Kennel Club’s statement here: http://www.thekennelclub.org.uk/press-releases/2013/november/statement-following-the-death-of-lexi-branson/
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.