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
“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.