Laborious search for the elusive pit bull terrier

Stephen Ward reports on how political considerations have rendered the Dangerous Dogs Act toothless
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The Independent Online
The problems associated with the Dangerous Dogs Act stem from the political panic which led the then Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke to rush the legislation on to the statute book in 1991.

The Act followed a series of attacks on small children by Rottweilers and bull terriers, and a growing call by popular newspapers for "killer dogs" to be banned as pets.

Under existing legislation, and under a clause of the new Act, dogs which had already offended could be put down. But the Government hoped to pass a law which would effectively define some breeds as offensive weapons.

Initially, the Home Office planned to ban and slaughter both types of dog. However, during consultation, it realised the Kennel Club, which represents pedigree dog breeders and owners, would throw its considerable lobbying weight against the new law if one of its member breeds, the Rottweiler, was included. To get the Kennel Club onside, Rottweilers, which were widely seen as typifying dangerous dogs, were spared.

The pit bull terrier was a problem of another kind because it was not a recognised breed in Britain. Although the Home Office estimated there were 10,000 examples, without a breed register or compulsory dog registration scheme, which the Government had earlier ruled out, it could be no more than a guess.

The Act defined pit bulls as a "type" without giving a description. So, police can seize any dog with terrier characteristics, say it is a pit bull and leave the owner with the burden of proving otherwise. Many owners of dogs defined by case law as pit bulls had thought they owned mongrels, Labrador crosses or pedigree Staffordshire terriers.

Given the loose definition and the sentiments dogs arouse in owners and sympathisers, there has been a predictable and expensive trail of prosecutions, test cases and appeals.

The expensive component of the Act is the vague wording in clause one, banning two breeds of South American fighting dog unknown in Britain. These are the Japanese Tosa, of which there is one example here, and a phrase which has become a legal nightmare - "the type of dog known as the pit bull".

Owners charged with owning a pit bull who want to save their pet's life have had no alternative but to take their case all the way to the Court of Appeal. The result is that thousands of hours of court time have been wasted.

The Home Office has never collected up-to-date data for the number of dogs seized and cases brought, dropped or pending.

The police have spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on kennel fees for dogs awaiting verdicts, but were given no extra money to cover these costs.

Even the Kennel Club has described the Act as rushed legislation in need of re-drafting.

Successive Home Secretaries have apparently decided the political risk of further bad publicity is greater than the criticism the Act already attracts.