The end of 2017 saw hope on the horizon for animal welfare, particularly with regards to dogs. The Government promised new legislation which would increase sentences for animal cruelty, and, thanks to the success of the ‘Lucy’s Law’ campaign, DEFRA announced plans for tighter regulations surrounding the breeding and sale of puppies. The puppy farming campaign gathered momentum throughout the year before being officially launched in Parliament during December. Although there’s still a long way to go before we can expect to see the end of puppy farming in the UK, the success of Lucy’s Law to date is encouraging for all animal campaigners. And there’s more. In early December, ‘Finn’s Law’ was introduced to Parliament. Officially known as the Service Animals (Offences) Bill, which is set to have its second reading in February, Finn’s Law would make it an offence to attack service animals, including police and assistance dogs. The proposed legislation was inspired by the bravery of police dog Finn, a German Shepherd who suffered life-threatening injuries while on duty with his handler PC Dave Wardell. So far, the bill has received unanimous backing from MPs.
Breed specific legislation took a major blow in 2017, with Montreal overturning their infamous Pit Bull ban which had been introduced a little over one year ago. Repealing BSL proved to be a key issue within Montreal’s election, with the newly elected party, Projet Montréal, promising to change the legislation and removing the anti-Pit Bull measures with immediate effect – a great victory for all end BSL campaigners and a huge relief for the Montreal SPCA and all bull breed owners in the area. Elsewhere, the city of Mansfield, Ohio, removed BSL from their dangerous dog laws, while over 130 people attended a city council meeting in Lakewood to protest against the breed-specific law which was passed in 2008. Back in April, the city of Payette, Idaho, also eradicated BSL, following on from other victories in Payette County and the city of Homedale. The state of Delaware enacted new anti-bias legislation which now prevents any of its municipalities from introducing any breed specific law.
Here in the UK, actor and dog lover Sir Patrick Stewart was keen to voice his disdain for the Dangerous Dogs Act after discovering that his foster Pit Bull would not be allowed to enter the country. Stewart was planning on giving Ginger, who was rescued from a US dog fighting ring, a permanent home in England, but instead was forced to make the decision to give her up. Ginger’s story was covered by national newspapers and shared all over social media, including a video published by popular animal page The Dodo, helping to raise awareness of the absurdity of BSL. Stewart is a proud supporter of LA-based dog rescue ‘Wags & Walks’ who rehome a variety of bully breeds and have a very clear anti-BSL stance. Meanwhile, the RSPCA’s #endBSL petition reached 85,000 signatures in September, and a report was published in the Irish Medical Journal which demonstrated how damaging BSL can be with regards to how members of the public perceive danger from individual dogs (with the study also concluding that there were no differences in the type of bite inflicted from legislated and non-legislated breeds).
2017 was certainly very busy for Born Innocent who celebrated their first birthday back in May and worked tirelessly to spread their end-BSL message throughout the year. In addition to attending conferences, meetings with the Law Commission, events in Parliament and various seminars, the team sent representatives to plenty of local dog shows and breed rescue events up and down the country. They even had a stand at Discover Dogs, where they were able to provide advice to owners of bully breeds and educate the public about BSL (with some individuals breaking down in tears when they learnt about the horrors of our current legislation). Another highlight of the year was having their research published in The Times, with mentions of the campaign group also appearing in K9 Magazine and Dogs Today. Professor John Cooper QC, patron of Born Innocent, received an ‘Unsung Hero’ award at DogFest for his dedication to improving animal welfare and for his work at Born Innocent – a proud moment for the whole team.
So what’s next?
2018 could be the most crucial year yet for ensuring that BSL is consigned to history. Now more than ever we need everyone’s voices to be heard. With the Government finally taking real action for dogs, it seems that there has never been a better time to lobby against breed specific legislation. Born Innocent have no intention of slowing down in 2018 – empowered by their successes of last year, they are ready to continue their work on the front line to end breed specific legislation for good. Less than a week into the new year, the team already announced exciting news of a brand new partnership with the London Fire Brigade, teaming up to assist with their education programme for 13-14 year olds. Born Innocent will be focusing their workshops on dogs, taking a proactive approach to dog bite prevention and raising awareness of dog welfare.
Will this be the year that common sense finally prevails?
With the help of dog lovers, campaigners and celebrity supporters, 2018 truly could turn out to be the ‘Year of the Dog’.
To stay updated with Born Innocent’s latest news, follow them on Facebook and Twitter @borninnocentdda. Remember to share posts and help spread the word about the failings of breed specific legislation, using the hashtag #endBSL.
For details on how to contact your local MP and DEFRA regarding the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, please see Born Innocent’s guide here.
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
Crufts, the world’s biggest dog show, celebrated its 125th anniversary this year. Sadly, as usual the event didn’t pass without controversy, as The Kennel Club once again came under fire for allowing a “deformed” German Shepherd Dog to advance to best of breed. Viewers who witnessed the television footage of the dog in the main arena on Saturday night expressed shock and disbelief at the sight of the visibly distressed animal, and since the dog barely managed a trot around the ring, the majority of the footage was abruptly cut short (the ‘full’ version of the clip can be seen here). But German Shepherds with extreme sloping backs winning at Crufts is nothing new – search on YouTube for any year of pastoral group judging (like this one from 2012, German Shepherd at 21:25 minutes, or this one from 2015, with a more obvious sloping back at 20:01) and you will see how the ‘frog-legged’ German Shepherds never fail to appear.
Compare the two photographs below. The dog on the left is Ramacon Swashbuckler, Crufts Best in Show for 1971. On the right is Cruaghaire Catoria, the dog at the centre of this year’s controversy. Although the 1971 champ’s back isn’t straight, particularly in comparison to most ‘working line’ dogs, it is clearly a different animal to the show line German Shepherd of today.
However, the Crufts team on Channel 4 were quick to address the issue during the following night’s programme. Perhaps in previous years it would have been easier to sweep the negative press under the carpet, but thanks to advances in social media, it seemed like everyone was talking about the German Shepherd, making it impossible to ignore. But the ‘discussion’ on live TV still left us wondering how on Earth the dog managed to achieve the title of best of breed. And talking about one individual dog is not going to change anything, either – there is a much bigger picture here, for it seems that there is major conflict between the views of show judges and the majority of the public as to what constitutes a healthy example of a German Shepherd Dog. Take a look at the breed standard, which emphasises that the dog should be “fit for function” and able to perform “traditional work” – even the tiny illustration of a German Shepherd in the top right corner looks nothing remotely like Catoria. And so arguing over whether one individual animal should be present in the competition is futile when it appears that judges are actively working against the breed standard, and this is clearly something which has been happening for many years. Drastic steps now need to be taken, otherwise the best of breed German Shepherd for next year’s show could well be a Catoria clone – or worse.
From all this, it may seem like I am one of the many people who refuse to visit Crufts over ‘cruelty’ fears. Not so! I adore Crufts. In fact, I jokingly refer to it as the highlight of my year (ok, maybe I’m not even joking). For three days of the show I was glued to the livestream from the main arena, hooked on the various stages of agility and flyball competitions. Since Crufts is local to us, being held in Birmingham since 1991, I’ve been lucky enough to be able to attend the show for almost as long as I can remember, and this year was no exception. Friday was an action-packed day as me and my dog-loving friend exhausted all five halls of the NEC, chowed down on what has now become the ‘traditional’ Crufts pork bap and met lots of breeds at Discover Dogs. As always, though, the arena programme was the highlight and we welcomed the opportunity to rest our aching feet and watch some of the best agility dogs from around the world compete, including the wonderful Ashleigh and Pudsey.
My genuine affection for Crufts is probably one of the reasons why I feel so disappointed that such an odd-looking German Shepherd was presented as the best example of its breed. With such obvious disregard for animal welfare, is it any wonder that the BBC dropped its television coverage of the event back in 2009? It is perhaps also the reason why the RSPCA’s #dogsbeingdogs made my hackles rise. The idea behind the hashtag was for people to share photos of their pets in their natural environment as a ‘true’ celebration of dogs. When I saw the hashtag I couldn’t help but think that I’d seen plenty of examples of ‘dogs being dogs’ at Crufts – from the amazing West Midlands Police Dog Unit display, to the unbridled excitement of the flyball teams, the unmistakable bond between assistance dog and disabled owner, the talent and training abilities shown during heelwork to music routines… The list goes on. The trade stands also provide a great opportunity for canine charities to promote their work, something which the RSPCA now miss out on since withdrawing their support from the show.
During our day at Crufts I didn’t see one dog that looked mistreated. Tired, yes, but abused? Definitely not. And yet there are clearly issues with pedigree dogs and the standards by which they are judged. This is where we have to be careful with the use of the term ‘cruel’. For while the public branded Catoria’s breeder cruel for producing such a deformed looking dog, the general idea of creating a dog like Eric the Pekingese – an animal which, in its ‘show coat’, is about as far removed from the natural wolf-like state as you could possibly get – was seen as some sort of joke. It seems very hypocritical to complain about the state of the German Shepherd while sharing pictures of Eric photoshopped on to Donald Trump’s head.
‘Cruel’ should be a term reserved for dog fighters or people who abandon their pets at the side of the road (or worse still, move house and leave them to starve to death). It seems wrong to refer to such an amazing and enjoyable event as cruel, with no evidence of malnourished or abused dogs. There are undoubtedly many flaws when it comes to The Kennel Club and its breed standards, but there are also positive sides to the organisation too, as pointed out by ‘Supervet’ Noel Fitzpatrick on the show. In my view, the heart of Crufts is a celebration of dogs. There has to be other ways of putting pressure on the Kennel Club to change its ways; boycotting the whole event for fear of ‘supporting cruelty’ really would be barking mad.
As summer officially begins, dog lovers spread the important message ‘Dogs Die in Hot Cars’. It is one of the few campaigns that is supported by both the Countryside Alliance and the RSPCA, and every welfare organisation and animal charity in between. Police issue warnings and posters can be seen in shop windows across town. But there is another danger to dogs that becomes even more widespread during summer and is one that is not widely discussed or often prioritised; extendable leads.
We’ve all seen it. A dog so far in front of its owner that from a distance it appears to be walking freely, yet on closer inspection the thin cable attached to a plastic handle becomes visible. In an open field or park location this is not usually a problem, unless of course the dog in question is being kept ‘under control’ for reasons such as aggression (how can you possibly control a reactive dog if it is miles in front of you?). If the dog is on an extendable lead simply because it has an unreliable recall and the owner is concerned that their pet would disappear into the undergrowth if it was running free, then there is no real issue with the use of an extendable lead. What is definitely an issue, however, is the use of these devices when walking on footpaths, particularly those adjacent to busy main roads. This is a surprisingly common sight. About a week ago I witnessed what was nearly a horrific accident when a Staffie on an extendable lead strolled out, cool as you like, straight out into the path of an oncoming car. Its owner didn’t react quickly enough to press the ‘stop’ button function on the lead, and if the driver of the vehicle had been distracted for whatever reason, she wouldn’t have been able to react quickly enough either. Thankfully her eyes were on the road and she managed to brake in time. Worryingly the owner didn’t seem at all bothered that his pet had almost become roadkill and he continued on his walk without so much as a pat of his dog. This isn’t the first time that I’ve seen first hand the dangers that extendable leads present; I was once a passenger in a car when a Labrador decided it fancied a change from the footpath and walked out into the road, its owner helplessly clutching the extendable lead to which it was attached. Again the driver, my mum, managed to avoid hitting the dog, but only by a fraction. The incident left us both quite shaken and certainly angry. Most people wouldn’t think twice about having their dog off the lead next to a main road, so why is it acceptable to have them on an extendable lead, which offers such little control?
It isn’t always a happy ending. Earlier this month reports of the death of a Jack Russell, which ran into the road when the ‘lock’ mechanism failed on her lead, were included in local papers in Hampshire. Yet this is a message that needs to reach the public on a national scale. There have been instances of whiplash and broken bones linked to the use of extendable leads. Owner injuries have also been documented, including burns and sliced fingers from the cable. From my own, admittedly little, experience with these leads (we have never used one with our own dogs), it appears impossible that, should the need arise, you would be able to regain complete control over your dog. Our own reactions are just not quick enough, and once the dog is in a potentially dangerous situation, it is too late.
So here’s another doggy safety message for this summer – If you’re going to use an extendable lead, make sure it’s in a safe, open area, and always keep your dog under close control at the side of a road. Just like not leaving a dog in a hot car, it’s common sense, yet worryingly this is not always applied.
Do you agree? Have you had a similar experience with extendable leads? Comment below!
Channel 4’s ‘Going to the Dogs’ documentary was causing controversy long before it aired. Created by award-winning filmmaker Penny Woolcock and featuring actor Dylan Duffus, the programme’s subject was one that stirs up emotions few other topics can: dog fighting. An online petition aiming to prevent the programme from being aired reached 20,000 signatures in just one week. Despite this and the numerous complaints received by Ofcom, Going to the Dogs and its stomach-churning content was still shown last night (Thursday 12th June).
Whilst the majority of those expressing their anger at Channel 4 are dog lovers with a genuine interest in animal welfare, I believe that most of those complaining that it glamorised the ‘sport’ are missing the point. Dog fighting and the lifestyle that goes with it is already glamorised amongst those who participate, or wish to participate, in such events. Would a mainstream television programme featuring sloppy interviews and failed dog fights appeal to future ‘dog men’? Maybe it would. But even more likely to appeal to bloodthirsty youths are the thousands of online videos that were briefly mentioned, and of course the gangsta rap music that makes direct references to tough illegal dogs and actively using dogs as weapons. A clip of rapper DMX in his music video for ‘Ruff Ryders’ Anthem’ was briefly shown; DMX, also known as Earl Simmons, was previously charged with animal cruelty in relation to the neglect of several of his own Pit Bulls. Undoubtedly the rise of the internet and the subsequent easy access to such material has contributed to the “400% increase” in dog fighting cases within recent years, but if the makers of Going to the Dogs are to be believed, the inherent need for ‘blood and guts’ is within all of us, and has existed long before the advent of the computer.
Footage of an organised and apparently popular dog fight in Kashmir featuring large Bully Kutta type dogs was shown, demonstrating that the ‘tradition’ of bloodsports is far from restricted to UK soil. In England, sports such as bull baiting and dog fighting, both outlawed in the Cruelty Against Animals Act 1835, have always been associated with the working classes; the interview with the pheasant shooter was an apparent attempt to demonstrate the social divide and worryingly appeared to be suggesting that if the ‘upper classes’ can participate in the shooting of fowl then perhaps the working classes should be able to fight their dogs. “Each to their own”, said dog fighter El Primo towards the end of the programme.
Comparing illegal dog fighting to the meat industry is dangerous territory, and possibly a part of the programme that should have either been expanded upon or left out completely. Mentioning of the use of animals in circuses would have been a far safer alternative and perhaps a more appropriate link, demonstrating our shift in attitude towards using animals for inhumane entertainment purposes. Does tucking into a burger while deploring dog fighting really make someone a hypocrite? Factory farming may generate a lot of debate but it is a debate that doesn’t seem to effectively tie in with a dog fighting programme. Animal rights campaigners would probably say otherwise, and indeed PETA, the controversial animal rights organisation, commented, “Those of us disgusted by this blood sport should take a look at our own relationship with animals”.
A lot of the controversy surrounding the documentary stems from the attitudes and opinions shown by the filmmaker and crew. Towards the end, Dylan Duffus commented, “it’s what dogs do, I don’t think it’s wrong”, while revelling in his experiences of the fighting ring atmosphere; a disappointing comment that made me wonder whether the programme had the power to encourage the next generation of dog fighters after all. Perhaps even more concerning was the comment made by Woolcock herself, who questioned an owner of a Pit Bull type kept as a family pet why he would have a problem with dog fighting “if the training isn’t cruel and the people are kind to their dogs”. Surely the video evidence of forcing a dog to run on a treadmill to the point of exhaustion, men repeatedly hitting their Pit Bulls and talking about drowning “mashed up” dogs is anything but kind. Perhaps the questioning of morals should have been directed towards other people in the programme, although the owner did make reference to his dog being for protection. He also seemed oblivious and unconcerned by his young child clambering over his dog who appeared to run over its tail with a push along Thomas the Tank Engine toy.
Despite the publicity generated by Going to the Dogs, the programme left a lot of unanswered questions for those who didn’t boycott it. What, apart from an alleged ‘bloodthirst’, makes men want to treat their dogs in this way? Is it money-focused or maintained mostly out of tradition and fuelled by the internet? Does the Pit Bull breed truly reflect the nature of their owners or are they just a symbol of the power and status they want to convey? If Pit Bulls could be owned legally and found their way out of the underground scene, what effect would this have on their reputation? Could BSL actually be encouraging the ownership of ‘game’ Pit Bulls rather than eliminating it? Is the seizure and euthanasia of Pit Bulls really the authority ‘marking their territory’ or was this just another statement to show the alienation felt by these people? What about the increasing trend in dog fights taking place away from the organised rings and happening directly on our streets?
Since the airing, there have been calls from both the RSPCA and other animal welfare groups such as Animal Aid for Channel 4 to release the identities of those involved in the programme to the police. The questions raised about ourselves as ‘users’ of animals, together with the anonymity of the dog fighters, their faces hidden by balaclavas, was an apparent attempt to lead viewers to consider whether they could see themselves behind the mask. If the outrage surrounding the programme is anything to go by, I’d say the answer is most likely to be a resounding no.
‘Going to the Dogs’ is currently available on 4oD.
Two dog related programmes were shown on both BBC (‘Louis Theroux’s LA Stories: City of Dogs’) and ITV (in the two episodes of ‘Dangerous Dogs’) in the past couple of weeks, with the latter in particular attracting a lot of attention amongst dog loving viewers, perhaps not for the reasons that ITV had originally been hoping for. Neglect and irresponsible ownership featured heavily in both programmes.
The first episode of Dangerous Dogs surrounded the working lives of Birmingham City Council’s dog wardens and the situations that they face on a daily basis. Two wardens in particular caused controversy with their handling of an abandoned Akita who refused to come quietly, leading many viewers to brand the programme ‘Dangerous Dog Wardens’. With cameras following their every move, the women were shown shouting at the frightened animal before struggling to drag it out of the property with the use of two catch poles, leaving the dog visibly distressed and physically exhausted. When dealing with potentially dangerous dogs it is always important to put human safety first, and the use of such equipment is certainly justified, however, seemingly due to the nerves of the wardens, the event took longer than perhaps it should have done, with one of the wardens initially panicking at the sight of a spider in the doorway. The constant opening and closing of the door, together with the shouting (and sometimes screaming) from the dog warden, surely must have heightened the dog’s fear, making his capture even more difficult. Perhaps this quote on how to approach dogs, taken from this RSPCA International publication on dog control guidance, should have been noted;
“Remember that any action from the catcher(s) will provoke the dog(s)… A catcher should adopt a non-aggressive body posture by presenting a low-profile on approach. Their movements should remain calm and slow.”
Louis Theroux’s programme, City of Dogs, also demonstrated the effects of animal abandonment with one animal control officer reluctantly collecting a Pit Bull Terrier to be euthanised. According to those interviewed, many dogs in Los Angeles are simply thrown out when they are no longer of any use for breeding or other money making activities. Without anyone coming forward to claim the Pit Bull, and hundreds more stray dogs requiring kennel space, there was simply nowhere for the dog to go. Unlike the Akita back in Birmingham, the Pit Bull did not show any signs of aggression as a result of its treatment, showing that an abandoned dog doesn’t always mean ‘dangerous dog’ (indeed, once the Akita was nursed back to health at Birmingham Dogs Home, it passed all temperament tests and was rehomed). What was obvious from both programmes was that irresponsible ownership is a leading factor of aggression issues within our dog populations.
In Dangerous Dogs, an owner with apparent alcohol issues had lost count of how many Staffie cross puppies he had in his flat, and, despite the advice from the warden, sold many of the puppies as early as four weeks old to “anyone who wanted them”. It is clear that anyone who would even consider buying a tiny puppy from a man down the pub would not be the sort of person to raise a well-balanced family pet, and the future is bleak for the puppies who are likely to become victims both to their poor early upbringing and their unscrupulous owners. In Episode two, a family living in squalor had numerous Staffies which were never given access to the garden nor walked, together with a litter of young puppies covered in their own excrement, cats and kittens locked in a filthy bathroom and various small animals in tiny cages, a murky substance in their water bottle their only source of liquid. It made for very upsetting viewing, and the frustration on the dog wardens’ faces was obvious. The dogs could not be seized under the Animal Welfare Act as they were physically healthy and were not deprived of food and water. Just as with the litter of puppies who were sold at four weeks, the wardens were powerless. The ‘owners’ agreed to hand over the rest of the animals, but the dogs stayed. These dogs may indeed become the next attack headlines, a result of the simple fact that they are unexercised, untrained and unsocialised. But because they are fed and watered, they can not be seized or rehomed to a suitable environment, and the owners are able to continue producing endless litters of dogs.
It seemed very wrong that the family, who could barely take care of themselves, were allowed to keep the dogs, particularly after witnessing the terrible conditions in which their other animals had been living (and the fact that one member of the family had previously received a five year ban from keeping animals). This was only made worse when the cameras showed Gunner, a friendly, well-cared for Pit Bull, being taken away to secure police kennels. Gunner, like many other family pets declared to be ‘type’, had presumably never shown any signs of aggression, and he was allowed to return to his owners as an exempted dog. Another Pit Bull type featured in the programme had been found straying, and was clearly not a danger to those handling it since it was not muzzled and there were no catch poles in sight. Yet because it matched the identification measurements, the dog was humanely euthanised – under the Dangerous Dogs Act it is illegal to rehome Pit Bull types.
While mistreated or ill-socialised dogs have the capability to become dangerous, many dogs in both America and here in the UK are actively trained to show aggression. In City of Dogs, a group of men demonstrated their protection training with a Dutch Herder. The dog had been trained to bite a padded sleeve in a display similar to police dog work but without the control that is achieved through the intense police training course. When the trainer gave the release command, the dog held on. If this apparent lack of control in a semi-professional environment seems worrying, consider the fact that ‘weapon dogs’ are now relatively common in the UK, with many dogs receiving ‘training’ involving physical violence in an attempt to cause aggressive responses. This results in a certain unpredictability, making so-called status dogs a danger to the public. Breed specific legislation has little impact on this trend as Pit Bull types are often used alongside legal breeds to convey status and intimidate others. In the first episode of Dangerous Dogs, a male with a severe attitude problem threatened the dog warden with violence as she was in the process of attempting to issue a fixed penalty notice after witnessing his partner let their Staffordshire Bull Terrier foul. The man, who heard the commotion outside his flat, came downstairs and threatened to “punch the face off” the warden before shouting a stream of profanities at the cameraman. Not, then, the actions of a responsible Staffie owner – the dog was clearly just another status symbol.
“If I rode around every day with a gun, I take the chance of going to jail if the police stop me. I can ride around with my dog all day long. He’s just like my pistol at my side.” – LA protection dog trainer
In both programmes we have seen dogs starved, thrown out on to the streets, deprived of exercise, forced to produce numerous litters and actively trained to bite or intimidate. The chance of any legal breed owned as a ‘weapon’ biting a member of the public is far greater than that of a Pit Bull type owned responsibly causing harm, yet dogs declared to be Pit Bull type are routinely destroyed even if they present no threat to public safety while dogs that are likely to cause problems in the future are not dealt with until after they attack. With no incentive to take care of their animals, and money to be made from the breeding of status dogs, at present there is no reason for irresponsible owners to change their attitude. Since punishments rarely equal their crimes, it is usually the dog that pays the highest price. Future laws need to concentrate on ownership, not breeds. The Dangerous Dogs narrator closed the programme by saying that as a nation we are falling far short of being able to call ourselves dog lovers. Until our laws are improved, this sadly remains all too true.
The two episodes of ‘Dangerous Dogs’ are currently available on ITV Player.
‘LA: City of Dogs’ is also available online and can be viewed via BBC iplayer until April 13.