Four year old rescue dog Cooper was seized as a ‘Pit Bull type’ last year and held in police kennels for almost two months. Here his owner Rachael talks to Bark! about the impact that the ordeal had on the family and explains how Cooper is now adjusting to life as an exempted dog.
Tell us about how you met Cooper.
“Cooper came into our lives quite unexpectedly! My husband, Mike, had recently retired from the armed forces following 23 years of service, which meant that he would be at home more often before starting his new career. One day, Mike called in at our veterinary practice to drop off a form for our elderly Westie while I was at work. When he arrived, everybody in the surgery was talking about a puppy that a man had just brought in off the street. The vet nurse asked Mike if he was interested in adopting a puppy and introduced him to a very skinny and poorly Cooper. Mike took a photograph of him and immediately dashed over to my work to show me. Did I want him? Of course I did! Later on we headed to the surgery together and Cooper was placed in my arms. It really was love at first sight. Sadly, the vet nurse broke the news that he had tested positive for parvovirus. With no owner to claim him, Cooper’s future looked bleak. As we talked about his chances of pulling through, I stared at the puppy on the table who could barely hold his head up and knew that we couldn’t just leave him in this state. We agreed to fund two days treatment and then we would re-evaluate the situation.
Although we had no idea if the puppy was going to make it, we dared to buy a collar and name tag, and told our two children, who were 16 and 22, that we may be having a new addition to the family. We anxiously phoned the surgery at regular intervals to check on his progress. After a few days, the vets decided that he was fit enough to come home with us, as long as we obeyed strict hygiene practices. At first he was very reluctant to eat or drink, but with the help of our two (somewhat unimpressed) terriers, he slowly learnt how to be a dog and began to settle into family life.”
What was life like with Cooper before he was seized?
“Cooper was a complete love bug. He loved nothing more than to cuddle up with us – we think he firmly believed that he was a small terrier as he would constantly attempt to sit on my knee. He adored everyone. He enjoyed puppy class, and even tried agility, which he took to like he did everything else in life – at 110 miles an hour! He seemed to want to know where we were at all times and was nowhere near as independent as our two terriers – he just wanted to be near us, which made him happy. As time went by he grew in confidence, and he loved the beach and swimming in the sea. He was generally just a fun puppy to be around and possibly the most loving dog we had ever owned. He had to have an operation to remove his tail to prevent infection, due to being diagnosed with ‘happy tail syndrome’, which basically meant that he was so happy that his continuous tail wagging frequently resulted in him making his tail bleed (leaving our house looking like a crime scene!). He quickly recovered from the operation and carried on with his usual lust for life.”
When did you first realise that there may be an issue with Cooper’s breed?
“On a number of occasions, people stopped us and asked about Cooper, and sometimes people would stare. In all fairness, he was stunning with his amber eyes and red nose, so we naively thought nothing of it. When he was about 12 months old, our daughter was offered a substantial amount of money for Cooper when she was out walking him. We brushed off any concerns and weren’t aware that there may be an ‘issue’ with Cooper until he was seized.”
Can you talk us through what happened when Cooper was taken from you?
“We had just returned home from a week at the coast where Cooper had done his usual thing of running at breakneck speed over the sands. Upon our return, his stomach had been a little unsettled (he occasionally suffered from an upset stomach due to his poor start in life), so Mike left the dog door open for him to let himself out. Unfortunately, Cooper escaped from the garden and was picked up by a member of the public and handed into the dog warden, who contacted the police. Cooper was visually identified as ‘type’ and taken to police kennels. I received a phone call from Mike who explained what had happened. We were both utterly devastated. We phoned the police and asked if we could take his bed, toys, and food, as we were concerned that a change of diet would be detrimental to his health. We were told that we couldn’t see him and they couldn’t tell us where he was. They said that if the food they gave him upset his stomach they would try something else.
I cried myself to sleep. I felt completely useless and had no idea what to do or who to speak to – we didn’t know anyone who had been through this before. Mike phoned a solicitor who gave us advice over the phone and stated that in their belief we weren’t a ‘high risk’ seizure and were unlikely to need legal representation, but they would willingly represent us should we need them.”
For how long was Cooper kept in kennels? Did you have any updates regarding his welfare?
“Cooper was seized on the 31st May and returned home to us on the 12th July. We phoned the police dog unit daily for updates, and initially our hopes were raised that Cooper would be considered to come home via the Interim Exemption Scheme [‘doggy bail’]. However, we were then told that they didn’t have the scheme in our area and probably never would.
I can’t begin to explain how we felt while Cooper was being held. I was beside myself with worry and needed to know that he was okay. He is a family pet who had never spent a night away from us, and I feared that he wouldn’t cope in kennels and would think that we didn’t want him anymore. The Dog Legislation Officer (DLO) assessed Cooper and came out to see us on the 13th June. He said that Cooper was fine and that he thought he was a good dog. After advising us to raise a few fence panels in the garden and taking photographs of his living area, the DLO was satisfied and said that he could see no reason why Cooper shouldn’t come home. Although this was a great relief, the toll on the family was immense, and we continued to have sleepless nights as the worry hung over us that we may be given a destruction order. My greatest fear was that Cooper would die alone. I couldn’t get away from the fact that we had saved his life once, only for him to potentially be killed for looking a certain way. The whole thing made no sense.”
Thank goodness that Cooper was able to return home. Can you give us a brief overview of the exemption process?
“When we finally got the court date, it couldn’t come quickly enough. The morning of 8th July, after a tense and sleepless night, we headed out for our first ever trip to court. The DLO met us outside and we chatted about Cooper and dogs in general. The moment in court came and went in the blink of an eye, and we were given a contingent destruction order, which meant that Cooper was going to be registered as an exempted Pit Bull type. We sent all the paperwork to DEFRA that day along with our fee, and headed out to celebrate with the family. As Cooper had already been castrated and microchipped prior to seizure, and we’d made the arrangements to have the third party liability insurance in place, we didn’t have to wait long for him to be released. We asked what size muzzle Cooper was being trained with and purchased a few of them. Once we knew for certain that Cooper was coming home, we put a post on social media to explain what had happened, and we received a lot of positive messages of support from our friends.
Cooper came home four days later.”
Has Cooper’s behaviour changed since he was seized?
“When he first came home, Cooper was very quiet. He was hoarse when he barked and he was smelly and scurfy. His paws were pink and inflamed. We took him to the vets and he was given some medication as his glands were up in his neck, possibly from continuous crying and barking when he was caged. He was also given some foot scrub to reduce the inflammation which seemed to be an allergic response, and we were advised that once he was back on his own diet it should resolve quickly.
Initially, Cooper only left his bed for food and walks. He looked sad and shut down. He accepted our contact but wasn’t as loving and cuddly as he was prior to being seized. My mum described him as “dead behind the eyes”. We wondered if he would ever return to being the Cooper we all knew and loved, or whether the experience had changed him for life. Gradually, he adjusted to being at home and became cuddly Cooper again, but he was a shadow of his former self in other ways. He developed separation anxiety and would bark, cry, howl and eat objects, including our leather sofa and anything else in his way, if we left him alone even for the shortest periods of time. His stomach issues increased significantly and he was diagnosed with colitis, which we were told is triggered by stress. On a few occasions he had some flare ups where he would pass pure blood. Our previously relaxed and balanced dog was now very anxious. He became reactive on the lead towards other dogs and also became nervous of strange noises.”
What adjustments have you had to make to help Cooper settle back into family life?
“We sent Cooper for training in a residential facility to help with his reactivity and anxiety. He returned to us obedient and slightly better, but was still reactive towards other dogs. Over time his anxiety increased significantly. I joined the ‘Reactive Dogs UK’ group and started following the care protocol which helped me to understand Cooper’s behaviour and which stimuli caused stress for him. I walked him in quieter places in order to start building up his confidence and reduce the triggers that he encountered. We then found a behaviourist who had a sensory environment and made an appointment to visit. Cooper now goes there on a regular basis. Upon their advice, we put Cooper back on a harness and use a lead which allows him to make choices for himself. This has increased his confidence as he isn’t forced to encounter anything he doesn’t want to, and we have found that his reactivity has decreased and he appears to be enjoying his walks again.
To help him further, we have changed Cooper’s food; we now feed him on a raw diet and he has no processed food or treats. This seems to have resolved his stomach issues completely and he has had no colitis flare ups at all since swapping his diet. We have also had a zoopharmacognosy session which allowed Cooper to self-select herbs and natural products that he may be deficient of. I was dubious at first but was amazed to find that everything he liked was used for the treatment of digestive conditions or for stress related issues. After the first session he slept for six hours straight! When we leave him on his own now, we leave some of the scents around the house which help him to relax. This may all seem a little crazy but we have chosen to rescue Cooper twice, and we owe it to him to do all we can to get him back on track.”
Have you noticed any negative reactions towards Cooper since he was ‘typed’ as a Pit Bull?
“Since one of the conditions of exemption is that Cooper must wear a muzzle at all times in a public place, there have been occasions where people have assumed that he is dangerous due to his muzzle. We have had people make comments and even pick their dogs up as we walk by, all because of how Cooper looks with his new unwanted accessory. Of course, these sort of reactions meant that he was getting less interaction with other dogs which initially increased his reactivity. We became reluctant to walk him and really took all the negative comments to heart.”
What advice would you give to anyone who finds themselves in a similar situation with their own dog?
“For anyone else facing the same situation, my advice would be to remain calm and focused. Prepare a court pack of your own, including information from your vet, records of any training classes you have attended and witness testimonies from your dog trainer regarding both yourself and your dog’s character. Be aware that there are people with lots of opinions on social media, and everyone’s experiences are different, so don’t read them thinking that your’s will necessarily follow the same pattern as this isn’t always the case. Try to get some solid advice from those who really know or have experienced the process.
Be prepared for the fact that people may not view you or your dog in the same way, and hold your head high. Don’t be surprised if your dog has changed – after talking to others it is more common than you think – just make sure that you support your dog to help them settle again. Most importantly, follow the court order to keep your dog safe. It brought it home to me when someone pointed out that having a contingent destruction order means that Cooper will not be destroyed only if we abide by the court conditions at all times.
The most important thing that I have realised is that Cooper is still Cooper – just because he meets the measurements and was deemed to be type, he’s still the same loving dog he was prior to being seized. He just needed a little time to adapt.”
Bark! would like to offer a big thank you to Rachael and her family for telling Cooper’s story.
To help put an end to breed specific legislation in the UK, please support Born Innocent, a registered non-profit campaign group focused on enacting changes to the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. Further details can be found on the website and Facebook page.
To provide support for owners who have had their dog seized, please take a look at the fundraising page for Born Innocent’s sister group, ‘Putting Breed Specific Legislation to Sleep UK’. 100% of the money raised through auctions, raffles and ‘End BSL’ merchandise goes directly to help the dogs. Thank you.
A year has now passed since the death of Francis, a stray Pit Bull type dog who had found his way to Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. Francis, by all accounts, was a friendly dog. Indeed, the Home itself released photographs of him, including one with a member of staff affectionately kissing his head, and also published an online video featuring Francis in order to bring the plight of all Pit Bull type dogs to the attention of the public. And it worked. According to newspaper reports, over 30,000 people signed a petition in the hope of giving Francis a reprieve. But there was no hope. On the 28th July 2016, Battersea announced that, in line with the current law, he had been euthanised. Francis, of course, was not the first victim, and definitely wasn’t the last. Within their statement, Battersea confirmed that 91 dogs within their care that were deemed by police to be of illegal ‘types’ were put down in 2015 alone. And those are the figures for just one rescue organisation.
August 12th will mark 26 years since the Dangerous Dogs Act was enforced in Britain, another sad milestone in the history of breed specific legislation. Despite tremendous evidence to show that targeting individual breeds of dog in this manner does not improve public safety, along with pressure from animal charities, welfare organisations, campaign groups and simply concerned dog lovers (including over 70k signatures on the RSPCA’s #EndBSL petition), DEFRA have recently refused to engage in a review of the law, as put forward by the Law Commission.
Quite frankly, the notion that a country which prides itself on its equality and intolerance of discrimination can continue to uphold such a disgusting piece of legislation is nothing short of absurd. Throw our supposed ‘nation of dog lovers’ tagline into the mix and it becomes almost laughable. Dogs throughout the UK are being put to sleep simply because they look a certain way. There is nothing to justify this. Recent research has confirmed that there were no differences found between legislated and non-legislated breeds in terms of the medical treatment required following a bite from an individual dog. Yes, the ‘locking jaw’ phenomenon is a myth – Pit Bull types are undoubtedly powerful, but so are hundreds of other legal dogs found in homes up and down the country. This particular study, published in Ireland, also found that the very nature of breed specific legislation is problematic in terms of the influence it has over our perceptions of dogs since it generates a ‘false sense of security’; labelling certain types of dog as inherently dangerous means that they are likely to be perceived very differently to legal breeds, when in reality any dog has the capability to cause harm. Indeed, research has demonstrated that hospital admissions for dog attacks are actually on the increase – not exactly the desired result of the Dangerous Dogs Act when it was enacted in 1991.
For those who still believe that breed specific legislation is necessary, due to the ‘hooded youth with Pit Bull’ image, consider the fact that these types of dog actually became considerably more attractive as a status symbol once they became illegal, and there are now more so-called Pit Bulls on the streets than ever before. It is also worth noting that for the most part it is innocent family pets who fall victim to the law in its current format, with owners left distraught as their dog is taken away. Born Innocent confirms that women in their thirties and forties are those who frequently ask for help following the seizure of their pet. It is not just those who fit the ‘criminal’ stereotype who find themselves on the wrong side of the law, simply because they own a dog whose body measurements classify them as a ‘Pit Bull’.
Francis was just one of thousands. This is happening on a daily basis. There are currently hundreds of seized dogs confined to a kennel, awaiting their fate. And yet, for the most part, nothing is done about it. Except for the dedicated campaigners who are on the frontline, battling to save the lives of these dogs, everyone else remains relatively quiet. Where are the people who generated a Twitter frenzy when Theresa May announced her plan to bring fox hunting back? Where are those who to this day still reference the death of a gorilla (#RIPHarambe)? Why do we always hear about the welfare implications of the badger cull on the news but not about the well-being of the family pets who have been dragged away from their homes? Although there have been some high-profile cases, such as Francis, Stella, and Lennox to name a few, it seems that any public hype surrounding the appalling nature of the Dangerous Dogs Act quietly fades away along with the last breath of the dog in question. Is this because, as a nation, we are all secretly turning a blind eye to the horrors of breed specific legislation? To the heartbroken owners who realise too late that they’ve just signed their pet’s death warrant? To the rescue centres forced to euthanise healthy dogs which would make perfect family pets? To the kennel assistants who cry at night over dogs they are forbidden to touch? To the dogs themselves, locked in a cramped kennel, lonely and distressed? Or the condemned dog lying on the vet’s table, giving one last pathetic attempt at a tail wag, oblivious to the fact that she’s just been given a lethal injection?
It’s time we stopped looking the other way.
Write to your MP. Write to DEFRA. If you can, attend an anti-BSL rally. Support the owners of seized dogs by making a donation. But most importantly, spread the word about our flawed Dangerous Dogs Act. Let’s get this barbaric piece of legislation consigned to history.
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