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.
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.