Today marks 25 years since the Dangerous Dogs Act came into force, introducing breed specific legislation to the UK for the first time. Since August 1991, thousands of dogs have been seized and often euthanised under ‘Section 1’ of the Act which prohibits four types of dog, originally chosen due to their size and fighting heritage. The most common of the types, the Pit Bull Terrier, is a much maligned and misunderstood breed. As a result of Section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act, dogs which share the characteristics of a ‘Pit Bull’ can not be rehomed, even if they have passed temperament tests conducted by qualified dog behaviourists. Those who already own a dog which is deemed to be ‘of type’ have to attend court in order to have their dog exempted by law, a lengthy process which often goes on for months, during which time their pet is held in secure kennels – an unfamiliar environment, often without daily exercise. Some of these dogs never return home.
Yet despite all of this, dog attacks are still on the rise in the UK. The Dangerous Dogs Act is a failed piece of legislation which has caused untold misery to so many dog owners and those who have the task of enforcing the law and dealing with its effects. Following the recent reports into the failings of breed specific legislation from both Battersea Dogs and Cats Home and the RSPCA, I caught up with Born Innocent, a campaign group working for a full reform of the Dangerous Dogs Act. The group’s work and anti-breed specific legislation message has recently been openly supported by TV dog trainer Victoria Stilwell. Here’s what they had to say…
Hi, Born Innocent! Can you tell us about your organisation and who is involved?
We are a non-profit campaigning group seeking to introduce a scientific-based, breed neutral strategic approach to dog legislation, with a focus on preventative measures. Born Innocent is formed of a committee of six professionals, all with wide experience in dog rescue, animal welfare, campaigning and political lobbying. Our Chair, Ms Frannie Santos-Mawdsley, is a senior international marketer, with a 20 year career in data and insight analysis. Our Advisory Committee is led by Shakira Miles, CEVA’s Veterinary Nurse of the Year 2016, and is counselled by veterinary professionals, trained behaviourists and scholars. Alongside Ms Miles we have Marie Yates, a writer and social entrepreneur who loves dogs. Marie is the co-founder and director of Canine Perspective CIC, a social enterprise using force-free dog training to make a positive change to the lives of humans and rescue dogs. We are also fortunate to have Professor John Cooper QC as our patron.
What was the inspiration behind your logo, ‘Purple Patch’?
We wanted our identity to feel professional while at the same time being welcoming and inclusive. The inspiration for Purple Patch has three elements:
- Purple is a colour associated with responsibility: we promote responsible dog ownership.
- ‘Patch’: Section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 is a patchy piece of legislation that we can no longer ignore.
- The figure of a dog reaching out for assistance with his paw. Hopefully this speaks for itself!
These three elements combined, in the design of the logo, are the embodiment of Purple Patch.
Which areas of the Dangerous Dogs Act will Born Innocent be focusing on?
Our vision is the introduction of breed neutral legislation in the UK, with a supportive framework that fosters education, responsible ownership and bite prevention backed by scientific research. Hence, our focus is on a reform of the full current legislation.
Many animal welfare charities and other organisations such as the Kennel Club have previously spoken out against breed specific legislation. Why do you think that we have not yet seen any proposals to remove BSL from the Dangerous Dogs Act, despite evidence that it does not have any effect on the reduction of dog bite cases?
Whilst many leading organisations such as the Kennel Club have spoken against BSL, this is not their single area of focus. There has long been a misconception amongst the public (including politicians) of what breed specific legislation is, what it does and what it does not do! Often, the language used by the media and government is surrounded in jargon and folklore. On top of that, many organisations have focused on separate pieces of legislation and evidence, while still dealing with the ‘now’ (e.g. supporting owners or stray dogs).
What we are doing at Born Innocent that is different is bringing scientific, legal, financial, human, animal and societal considerations together in order to look at the full picture of how legislation affects our society.
Lately there has been a lot of publicity surrounding the Dangerous Dogs Act, following the seizure of Hank in Northern Ireland. Do you think that this has raised awareness of breed specific legislation amongst the general public?
Hopefully it is starting to make a difference. However, while we are still seeing certain breeds demonised by the press, we need to ensure that education and changing the dialogue around dog bite prevention remains at the centre of public debate.
If someone has had their dog seized as a suspected Section 1 ‘type’, what support is available for them?
There are support groups that can be found on social media, especially Facebook. It would be unfair to name one over another, but excellent daily case support is available. We often get messages and emails, and we will direct individuals to the most appropriate support for them, since Born Innocent focuses on campaigning. Most importantly is that the owner’s basic rights as a UK citizen are understood. You do not have to agree that you are guilty (because owning a suspected breed banned under Section 1 is a crime), nor to sign your dog over to the police to be euthanised. We believe that having an independent, court verified assessor who has had no previous links with the police is essential for impartial advice on whether the dog fits ‘type’ or not. Finally, there are many excellent solicitors who specialise in canine and animal law. Our legal advisors are Parry, Welch & Lacy who successfully handle complicated cases and, like us, believe in questioning type first and foremost before approaching the exemption route.
What would Born Innocent like to see as a replacement for the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 in its current form?
We would like to see a breed neutral legislation that focuses on the owners’ responsibility rather than a dog’s guilt. The last 25 years have taught us that focusing on breeds does not diminish bites. Looking at successful communities around the world, the positive results are in those where education comes first, supported by animal neutering and health programmes, together with increasing fines which are livelihood proportionate. Moreover, the police and Government are currently not focusing enough resources on a serious matter which is often linked to breed specific legislation – dog fighting. We would like to see the label “dog bred for fighting” removed from legislation, because the guilt is then placed on the dog. The case of the dogs saved from Mike Vick’s fighting ring in the US clearly demonstrates that even dogs previously involved in fighting can be rehabilitated. Hence, we need a piece of legislation that focuses on education, prevention and punishing people who are guilty, such as irresponsible and cruel handlers.
How does Born Innocent intend to lobby for change?
We conduct both empirical and desk research in various areas affected by the law, such as animal welfare, human rights, bite prevention, legal execution and husbandry and better ownership education, amongst others. We use our data-based findings in lobbying Parliament and the House of Lords, together with its subsidiary groups and legal advisors.
What’s the best way for supporters to get involved with your campaigns?
Our current key campaign is to lobby the Law Society on the review that they are conducting of unfair and discriminatory laws, by 31/10/16. We want them to advise the Government to scrap the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, as it is, according to many lawyers and barristers, “one of the worst pieces of law in the UK”.
We also encourage everyone to write to their own MP and to DEFRA. We have tips on letter writing which can be viewed on our website.
We update all of our social media daily. Visit our website at www.borninnocent.co.uk
Follow us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/borninnocentdda/
Follow us on Twitter and Instagram at @borninnocentdda
Four years after the controversial euthanasia of family pet Lennox, Belfast City Council are once again in the breed specific legislation spotlight following the seizure of two year old crossbreed Hank. Hank was allegedly removed from his home by a total of four dog wardens and eight police officers on July 14th, according to owner Leonard Collins. Collins created the petition ‘Save Hank’ on change.org, which has reached over 100,000 signatures worldwide. A Facebook page of the same name has also received a great deal of support, with almost 50,000 likes.
Hank’s owners appeared on ITV’s This Morning programme earlier today, alongside behaviourist Dr Roger Mugford. Despite Eamonn Holmes’ irrelevant dog faeces tangent, and comments made by Ruth Langsford about Staffordshire Bull Terrier crosses potentially having “pit bull traits”, the plight of Hank was successfully brought to the attention of the public. Issues were also raised about the treatment and welfare of seized dogs. Collins stated that despite Belfast City Council describing Hank as “aggressive”, they have promised to release him “straight away” if it is deemed that he is not of Pit Bull type. If this is true, there is clearly a difference in opinion over Hanks’ temperament, since his owners describe him as an affectionate family pet. However, since it is also alleged that Hank has not been exercised since last Thursday, together with him being in a strange kennel environment, it is possible that the dog has indeed shown signs of aggression. This alone shows how ludicrous the law is, since a reprieve for a dog deemed to be of Pit Bull type exhibiting “aggressive behaviour” would be extremely unlikely. It also demonstrates how it is impossible to receive an accurate picture of the dog’s normal behaviour in such circumstances.
Holmes’ concerns about the temperament of Bella, the exempted dog sat on the sofa with Dr Mugford, demonstrated how the addition of a muzzle makes an otherwise friendly dog appear to be dangerous (Dr Mugford noted that he actually believes Bella to be a Labrador cross Hungarian Vizsla). Despite the uncertainty about Bull Breed types from the presenters, the response on Twitter by those using the hashtag #DeathRowDog was overwhelmingly in Hanks’ favour, with many expressing disgust at the idea that a dog can be taken away and put to sleep without any history of attacks. But sadly, public support will have no impact on the council’s decision regarding Hank’s fate. The petition to save Lennox in 2012 gained over 200,000 signatures and support from TV trainer Victoria Stilwell, yet the outcome for the dog remained the same. Worryingly, today the Belfast Telegraph have reported that ex police dog handler Peter Tallack has been appointed to assess Hank – the same expert who assessed Lennox.
Belfast City Council stated that they received abuse following the euthanasia of Lennox. Hank’s owners have been keen to emphasise that they realise that the staff involved in the seizure of their dog are simply doing their jobs, and see the situation as “the perfect opportunity to challenge breed specific legislation”. Their crowd funding campaign, which originally aimed to raise £5000 for Hanks’ legal fees, has now raised over £13,000. Following the destruction of Lennox, Victoria Stilwell wrote on her blog, “We must learn from this and make Lennox and his family’s struggle a rallying cry for change”. Sadly, for those outside of anti-BSL circles, Lennox soon faded from memory, rather like how the story of Cecil the Lion or Harambe the Gorilla captured everyone’s hearts… for a while. Despite the efforts of campaigners, there was no major public rallying cry for Pit Bull types. And yet these are not wild animals caught up in human ignorance. These are pets which share our homes and hearts. Dogs which have been targeted in the UK since the 90s. This is outdated legislation which has no place in our society and does not prevent dog attacks. How many more high profile cases like those of Lennox and Hank will we need before the rally cry really begins?
Dogs are man’s best friend. It’s about time that our legislation reflected this.
Please visit the ‘Save Hank’ Facebook page for updates.