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
Thanks to the media we are all aware of the murky world of gangs and weapon dogs, but few of us have had first-hand experience of life within London’s toughest and most violent areas. Here ex-gang leader turned poet and author Justin Rollins talks to Not So Dangerous Dogs about pit bulls, dog fighting and gangster rap…
What made you want to write a book on the issues surrounding status dogs?
Justin: The main reason for my writing of the status dogs part of the book [Status Dogs & Gangs] is because I was sick of reading the negative headlines about ‘pit bull type’ dogs. There is so much more that goes on behind the scenes of the status dogs issue; people are so quick to judge the ‘Bully breeds’ and as a dog lover I wanted to try to rebuild a positive image of them – especially the Pit Bull Terrier which many people don’t realise is the most poorly treated dog in the world as the result of ‘man’ using this strong breed for his own evil agenda.
In the book you mention the influence of rap music videos featuring pit bull type dogs. How much power do you think this has over the breed choice of ‘impressionable youth’?
Justin: As a mixed race youth growing up in London with no father figure, I looked to ‘gangster rappers’ as some sort of role model – not a great choice but I was too young to realise that at the time. Music videos from artists in the USA filled with anti-police messages, fast women, graffiti, gangs and of course ‘pit bull dogs’ were so appealing. The rappers looked threatening and having large muscular dogs at their side made them appear even more menacing – as an ex gang leader I know only too well the need to look tough, and having such a dog enhances that image.
I believe this mentality spread across the pond to the UK. You only have to watch the video for ‘Real Compton City Gs’ [a 1993 song by Californian rapper Easy E] with gangs on their block, tattoos on their necks and angry men pointing trigger fingers towards the camera, and compare it to any recent London-based gangster rap video and you will see how the image has spread. I believe that this is the reason the youths of today are walking about with pit bull type dogs.
Pit bull types and legal ‘bully breeds’ are often described as ‘devil dogs’ in dog attack articles. Do you think that the media is partly responsible for their notoriety and subsequent popularity amongst gangs?
Justin: The media always like to ‘hype up’ headlines to sell papers and create fear, although I am all too aware of dog attack stories and I’m still wary if I see a young kid with a large dog when I’m out walking with my own child. If people never watched the news or read the paper they would not have this inbuilt fear of these breeds or dogs in general. Just look at the photo that will be printed of the so-called ‘devil dog’: it will usually be a snarling beast. Where are the photos of the same breed in their family homes playing or sleeping with children? Yes, the media has played a major role in spreading the mistrust of these dogs, as well as impressing young, angry youths with the images they publish.
Illegal dog fighting features in your book and has hit the headlines recently following the airing of Channel 4’s ‘Going to the Dogs’ documentary. Why do you think the ‘sport’ still continues over a century after it was outlawed?
Justin: I think dog fighting is a disgusting thing. It angers me even thinking about it now and that is the reason I didn’t watch ‘Going to the Dogs’. I have had quite an insight into the world of dog fighting as a result of my interview with ‘Irish Frank’, published in my book. I believe it is still around purely due to nasty and evil people. You get angry men wanting to express their hatred towards each other through dog fighting, or to enhance their own ‘status’ amongst their friends and it sickens me. The most frustrating part is because the pit bull type is illegal in this country, once it is finally rescued by the authorities, sometimes after years of cruelty and abuse, 99% of the time it will be put to sleep. If another breed is rescued from the fighting scene it may get the chance of a fresh start.
Another reason this so-called sport still lingers around our streets is due to Asian gangs becoming heavily involved. In Pakistan it isn’t unusual for whole villages to come together to watch their version of a pit bull fight. The winners receive money, mobile phones and even televisions if their dog wins. The dog fighter will then lift his blood-soaked winning dog upon his shoulders and dance around as people play flutes. From this it isn’t hard to see why so many young Asian men living in the UK feel free to carry on with their ‘dog fighting’.
You also mention in Status Dogs & Gangs that you believe the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 should be rewritten, including the abolishment of breed specific legislation (BSL). What effect do you think this would have on irresponsible pit bull ownership – would their tough reputation suffer if they became popular family pets?
Justin: I would love to say that the pit bull’s bad image would fade away if the breed was legalised but in my lifetime it just won’t happen. Even in Hollywood films and cartoons the bull breed always plays the dopey, less intelligent dog or the ‘tough’ dog. Close-minded people will always judge and look down their noses at something, whether it’s a hooded kid lost on the streets that clearly just needs love and guidance or a large bully breed dog. Kids growing up in some parts of inner cities or estates feel isolated and often alienated from society – the reason they choose a breed whose own reputation mirrors how they feel.
Our current Dangerous Dogs Act does not appear to be effectively dealing with the status/weapon dog issue. What would you like to see in its place? Should legislators examine the wider context beyond the dogs themselves?
Justin: It’s not the dog, it’s the owner. What is going on in the owner’s life? The bigger picture is a social issue. Throughout history many young men in this country have wanted to fight back ‘against the system’ – we’ve had punks and the like fighting all over the UK’s streets, football hooligans venting their built up anger against each other and now you have another ‘urban menace’ – hoodies with weapon dogs. Legislators should look beyond the dog and at society in general. If you want to stop the young hoodie walking these dogs, introduce a minimum age of ownership: that would immediately stamp out teenagers parading their large dogs as some sort of status symbol.
For more information on Justin’s work, visit his website or follow him on twitter @JustinRollins7z