The failures of the Dangerous Dogs Act were highlighted by British rap artist ‘Professor Green’ in his latest documentary produced for BBC Three, with assistance from organisations such as Battersea Dogs and Cats Home.
From the start of the programme, the rapper was keen to emphasise that records of dog bites are currently at an all time high, despite the presence of breed specific legislation introduced in the early nineties. Himself an owner of an Aylestone Old Tyme English Bulldog called Arthur, Green noted that Bully breed owners are often tarred with the same brush and are used to being judged by other members of the public. Despite Arthur’s impressive size, it’s clear that he poses no threat – and the affection between the two of them is also obvious.
Viewers were introduced to ‘Reece’, who is involved in the breeding and sale of illegal Pit Bull types despite receiving a ban from owning dogs. The notion that countless litters are being produced by individuals with an ownership ban is stomach-churning and makes the criminalisation of genuine family pet owners all the more frustrating. One such owner is Louisa, who has to attend court in order to save her dog Charlie from euthanasia. Charlie had never bitten anyone, yet was unlucky enough to match a significant number of characteristics in order to be deemed ‘type’. As Green points out, even a matter of millimetres can make the difference between life or death for innocent dogs. Fortunately for Charlie, the courts granted exemption. Yet Charlie is just one of 5000 dogs seized in the last three years across the country, costing taxpayers millions.
It is estimated that there are currently as many Pit Bull types in the UK as there were at the time of the introduction of the Dangerous Dogs Act. The programme claims that breed specific legislation has only increased the popularity of Pit Bull types amongst those who take pleasure in knowing that their dog is an illegal breed. In addition to this, by focusing on specific types as opposed to the welfare and treatment of dogs, the Dangerous Dogs Act does nothing to prevent attacks from legal breeds, such as those which fatally mauled Jade Anderson in 2013. The documentary features a short interview with Jade’s parents, who express anger at the fact that the owner of the dogs, which were underfed and rarely walked, did not receive a custodial sentence. The couple state that they do not believe that any particular breed of dog should be banned in the UK.
Towards the end of the programme, Green comes to the conclusion that the decision to ban the Pit Bull type was not only due to the high profile dog attack cases circulating throughout the media in 1991, but was also linked to the associations that the breed has with the “underclass”. Green believes that the ‘devil dog’ label and the widespread stereotype of criminal owners is an attempt to make the seizure of Pit Bull types appear justifiable, and does little to encourage any feelings of compassion towards either dog or owner. It is said that initial plans for Section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act (breed specific legislation) included breeds such as the German Shepherd. In this sense, with the strong link between German Shepherds and the police, perhaps it is no wonder that it was the Pit Bull type that was banned instead.
“We thought that someone would come to their senses at some point” – Shaun Opperman, Director of Veterinary Services at Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, on the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991
In addition to the documentary, a short video was also made available on YouTube, entitled ‘Dogs on Death Row’. In the clip, Green visits the main Battersea site, where last year 91 Pit Bull types were destroyed under the Dangerous Dogs Act (dogs deemed to be of illegal type can not be rehomed). A dog suspected to be of Pit Bull type is brought in to the centre during filming. The dog, named Caramel by the staff, is clearly a friendly and well mannered dog, despite being found on the streets. It is a tense moment when the measurements taken by the Dog Legislation Officer are announced – seeing this lovely dog being put to sleep would be heartbreaking – yet thankfully this time it is a happy outcome. Green also talks to Shaun Opperman, the head vet at Battersea, who has no choice other than to put down healthy dogs if they match a significant number of Pit Bull type characteristics. Opperman expresses his disdain for the Dangerous Dogs Act and says that it is “nonsensical” to euthanise dogs of sound temperament, adding that when the law originally came into effect he did not believe that it would still be here, 25 years on.
The reintroduction of dog licences is one suggestion put forward in the documentary as an alternative to breed specific legislation, with stricter penalties for those who own larger breeds. However, Green believes that no politician will “put their neck on the line” to challenge the Pit Bull ban, since they would potentially face a huge backlash should an attack happen following their decriminalisation. Yet it has already been established that there has not been a reduction in Pit Bull numbers since 1991. The ‘wrong’ type of owner who would potentially create a ‘dangerous dog’ is not waiting for the Pit Bull type to be made legal – they already have one. Surely those in favour of focusing on four particular breeds of dog, three of which hardly ever seen in the UK, should be the ones to face any sort of backlash when a child is attacked by a ‘legal’ breed.
Breed specific legislation is not preventing dog bites. Everyone can see this, from the British Veterinary Association and the Kennel Club to victims of dog attacks and now even Professor Green.
So why can’t our Government?
‘Professor Green: Dangerous Dogs’ is available now on BBC Three.
Channel 5’s ‘Dangerous Dog Owners and Proud’, broadcast last night (August 4th) was the latest in an increasingly long line of status dog documentaries – and none of them have been worthy of airtime on National Geographic. From the opening scenes of the programme, with its dramatic voiceover and footage of the stereotypical ‘youths with big dogs’, it became apparent that the programme was not going to deliver much in the way of insightful advice on how to tackle the problem of status dogs.
It seems that the trend amongst these ‘dangerous dog’ documentaries is to shock and repulse the viewer to the point of triggering a backlash, without including any helpful or professional pointers as to how the issue could be effectively dealt with. Interviews are laid bare, with viewers encouraged to come to their own conclusions. While 19 year old pit bull type owner Nick brags about the weapon-like nature of his dog Sergeant (pictured above), he lifts his T-shirt, revealing several scars received as the result of stabbings – one of the few moments of the programme to offer a true insight into the reasons behind status dog ownership. It is surely obvious to anyone, including our Government, that the problem with dog attacks goes far beyond the four-legged individuals. A friend of Nick’s, as an explanation as to why he has his own big dog, American Bulldog Roxy, says, “there’s people who try to rob ya, people who try to stab ya, people who try to mug ya, you’ve got burglars…” soon he runs out of alternative ways of saying ‘having things stolen’ and the camera once again returns to the main event of Sergeant the illegal pit bull, who is later shown being encouraged to attack branches, a ‘target’ consisting of clothing filled with stuffing, and even a friend of his owner. A 19 year old boy has been on the receiving end of a knife, perhaps during an attempt to take his material possessions, yet the media focuses on his dog rather than how our country has stooped this low. The self-proclaimed ‘dog haters’ claim that we should care less about dogs and more about people, and in this instance it seems that they are right – focusing on these teenagers and helping to prevent the situations they find themselves in would also ultimately help the dogs who find themselves caught up in the world of ‘status’ and violence.
Keen to show that it is not only lost teenagers who own pit bull types, the programme also introduced us to Jolie Reine, a model with a passion for dogs. Her own pit bulls appeared to be well-cared for, kindly trained and happy to play with the children. Just when it seems that – shock horror – a terrestrial television channel could be showing pit bulls in a positive light, it all goes pear-shaped when one of the dogs escapes from the garden and a fight ensues. When the police arrive to seize the dogs (their visitation had already been arranged as the result of Reine herself wishing to have her dogs exempted by the courts), the soft side of the breed again emerges as one of the dogs rolls over during the officer’s inspection. Here is a complete stranger freely examining a dog’s teeth with no threat of being bitten; many veterinarians would be able to tell stories of bites from legal breeds during similar examinations. The inherent characteristic of the Pit Bull Terrier to attack other dogs is sadly the result of artificial selection, but, if not encouraged, true fighting behaviour is unlikely to ever surface in an individual. Of course even responsibly owned pit bulls can exhibit aggressive behaviours, but their type itself does not mean that they are more likely to behave ‘dangerously’ than other breeds; thousands of pit bulls and Staffordshire Bull Terriers live happily alongside other dogs and pets. It is worth remembering that according to the programme the dog that started the fight had indeed been previously trained to do so with previous owners, although it’s not clear why Reine chose to take in an ex-fighting pit bull, putting her other dogs in danger. In any case, it is obvious that her dogs were not a threat to people, and happily they were returned as exempted dogs.
Conversely, Staffordshire Bull Terrier owner Tracy Dunn states that she wants her Staffie to behave aggressively, personifying the “it’s the owner not the dog” statement. Although Dunn has a ten year old son, she has no qualms with ‘training’ her dog to attack – and actually sees her child as the reason for doing so. Protecting the property and preventing her son’s possessions from being taken is something that Dunn seems to be obsessed about and she appears to have installed the need for a ‘guard staffie’ into her son too. It is a real frustration that while Jolie Reine had to go through the process of exemption for her pit bulls, Dunn is actively attempting to turn her dogs into weapons, yet they will not be dealt with unless an attack occurs. As well as showing the idiocy of such owners who are putting their own children’s lives in danger by reinforcing aggression, the programme highlights how breed specific legislation leaves irresponsibly owned dogs free to attack, simply because they are not a banned breed.
Battersea Dogs and Cats Home issued a statement last night in reaction to the programme: “The culture of ‘status dogs’ in society is a tragic example of animal cruelty, and owners who train their dogs to be aggressive are risking the lives of those around them and often condemning these animals to a death sentence. Battersea cares for nearly 6000 dogs a year, and this includes dogs that, in some cases, have been trained to attack. For some of the cruelty cases that turn up at our gates, it’s too late to help them as their traumatising experiences mean that they are unsafe to rehome. But Battersea carefully assesses each dog and always hopes to offer them the chance of living in a loving, responsible home. Education is key to driving down the incident rate of dog attacks to make sure that dogs and people can mutually enjoy each other’s company. Battersea works tirelessly to get vital messages out to thousands of often hard to reach young people by screening its ‘Bully breed’ short film to spell out the repercussions of training a dog to be aggressive. Anyone who suspects a dog is being trained to attack should report them to the police immediately.”
Plenty of people took to Twitter to voice their opinions using the hashtag #dangerousdogowners. Here’s a selection:
Although called ‘Dangerous Dog Owners and Proud’, the dogs featured throughout the programme are exclusively pit bull types and Staffies, implying that these are the only true dangerous breeds. When Anna, Tracy Dunn’s new Staffie, is tested to see her reaction to a potential intruder, the narrator sums it up perfectly:
“It seems that Anna is a typical Staffie – she hasn’t got an aggressive bone in her body.”
Dangerous Dog Owners and Proud is available on Demand 5. All screenshots copyright Channel 5.
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.
STAFFIE LICKS OWNER’S FACE.
BULLMASTIFF PLAYS WITH CHILD.
BULL TERRIER SNUGGLES ON THE SOFA.
These are the headlines you are unlikely to see in the papers. The mainstream media has fuelled the fear surrounding ‘bully breeds’ to the point of encouraging Parliament to hastily pass the widely criticised Dangerous Dogs Act in the summer of 1991. Unfortunately, stories of blood and gore sell newspapers, and hardly a week goes by without a news story involving a dog bite being published. Background information on the dog’s past, previous temperament and the situation surrounding the attack is usually omitted in favour of personal witness accounts using language intended to shock the reader. Such articles are often accompanied with a large photograph of a snarling dog of a similar type to the one within the story.
But what about the dog bites that happen every day? According to the NHS, around 6,000 dog bites a year require some form of hospital treatment. The breed of dog responsible for each attack is not recorded, but it is highly unlikely that all 6,000 dog bites were caused by a single type of dog. Only a very small percentage of these bites are considered ‘newsworthy’, and it is usually only those that involve breeds such as the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, a breed very much misunderstood in the country that it was created.
The purpose of this blog is to weaken the media frenzy surrounding dog attacks by reviewing articles about ‘dangerous dogs’, discussing dog-related issues in the United Kingdom and posting positive stories of ‘bully breeds’.
Let’s change the headlines, one face-licking staffie at a time.