How did the Staffordshire terrier fall in with the wrong crowd?

The Staffordshire terrier is fast becoming the weapon of choice for urban thugs. Malcolm Macalister Hall reports

It looks moody, tough and mean, and it loves a scrap: stocky, muscular, big head, strong jaws, and short, no-nonsense coat. Put a heavy studded collar on it, clip on a chromed chain-link lead, and it's the street-accessory of choice on estates across Britain. The Staffordshire bull terrier looks the part: uncompromisingly urban, hard as nails.

And now, 15 years after pit bull terriers were banned under the Dangerous Dogs Act, reports from all sorts of sources - from dog-walkers to politicians - are warning that Staffordshires, mastiffs and other pugnacious dog breeds are once again becoming the accessory - and occasionally the weapon - of choice on Britain's urban streets. Typical new breed of owner: young lad, aged 15-22. Typical purpose for having the dog: to gain respect, to intimidate, to use as a form of protection, and sometimes for crime.

It's the Staffordshire's misfortune that, of all breeds, it most closely resembles the fearsome pit bulls which, in the 1980s, were the favoured side-arm of drug dealers, hard men and general riff-raff alike. And, though if treated kindly and properly trained, Staffordshires are good with young children, they are feared.

"A lot of people look at them horrified, like you've got Satan himself on the end of your lead," says Marian Waller of Dulwich, south London, owner of a Staffordshire bull terrier named Teddy. "They look at you like you're taking the Hound of the Baskervilles for a walk." She adds, "They'll cross the road to get away. I don't know why, because they're great with people. But they're not too good with other male dogs. They do like to fight them."

Like everyone else, she says the problem is not with the dogs but with some of the owners. "It depends who's got them," she says. "They might be naff owners who bait them, which is a bit frightening when you see young lads holding them. And some idiots only want to fight them..."

Across town, in Wandsworth, the council's senior dog control officer, Mark Callis, says that he and his five staff have been getting increasing reports of informal dog fights staged in playgrounds, tennis courts and football pitches, often between dogs owned by rival gangs from Wandsworth and Peckham estates.

"This kind of fighting is known as 'rolling' - and it's not like the prizefighting where you bet on which dog's going to win. This is just a macho thing: it's a case of 'my dog's better than yours', 'OK, let's see....'"

Callis continues: "We've heard that it also occurs in lifts in tower blocks , where they put two dogs in at the top floor, press the ground floor button and leave them to fight it out and see who's the winner when they get to the bottom. It's barbaric."

The apparent sudden increase in young lads toting aggressive-looking dogs was first noted by Cindy Butts, deputy chairwoman of the Metropolitan Police Authority, at its meeting in April. This was just days after a terrifying incident in west London, when a 39-year-old man was bitten in the street by two dogs - a Great Dane and a Staffordshire bull terrier - and was then attacked with a meat cleaver after he had remonstrated with the two (omega) male owners about the dogs not being on leads. He lost three fingers, and his arm was almost severed in the attack.

Butts says she raised the issue because of this incident, and because she had noticed more young people with intimidating-looking dogs in her home area of Shepherds Bush. She agrees that having a tough dog could be regarded as a perfectly legal equivalent of carrying a knife.

"I think it's partly to do with fashion, and partly to do with the fact that the rules of engagement for young people have changed on the street," she says. "I think the stakes are higher now, with more young people carrying knives, and more people carrying or having access to firearms than ever before.

"Now, it seems to be about 'tooling themselves up', in a way that I don't think existed before. It's not in preparation for a fight; it's tooling yourself up as you go about your daily business. That says something about our society, doesn't it? That young people feel the need to do that? I think it's partly a status thing, and partly about using dogs for protection." She warns, too, that this may in some cases morph into using the dog as a tool to commit crime.

While there is growing evidence that owning hard-looking dogs is a big buzz among urban youth - and that it may be seen by many adults as intimidating - that doesn't necessarily mean it's a crimewave. After Butts had raised the issue, Metropolitan Police research showed that in the 12 months to the end of March this year, there were 24 reports of dogs being actively used in crime in the London area (mostly robbery and actual bodily harm). All but one offence involved a dog being used either to threaten or attack the victim. Where there was a description of the dog, the majority were Staffordshire bull terriers.

But many incidents will, of course, be unreported, and Liberal Democrat London Assembly member Graham Tope says he is seriously concerned. "There's been a noticeable rise over the last few years in the ownership of certain types of intimidating dogs, and we are seeing a worrying pattern develop across London, involving dogs as weapons of anti-social behaviour," says Lord Tope, the Lib Dems' London Assembly policing spokesman. "Clearly there is a problem here, and this is the time for action to be taken before it gets out of hand. We're rightly concerned about guns and knives being used, and we're seeing people using dogs as weapons - not yet, thank goodness, on the scale of knife crime. And the excuse often given for carrying a knife is: it's for my own protection - and everybody recognises where that leads . It seems as if the use of dogs is starting to go the same way."

Back in Wandsworth, where the council's six-strong dog control team is one of the largest of any local authority in Britain, Mark Callis agrees that dogs have now become an element in anti-social behaviour. "We have a culture at the moment where youths are obtaining mainly Staffordshire bull terriers - but sometimes bull mastiffs, and occasionally English bull terriers - and they're using them like a status symbol; and on occasions they will use these dogs to intimidate people," he says. In the last two years, he adds, reports from residents concerned about groups of youths with dogs have increased.

"If you've got a group of lads with their dogs all wearing body harnesses or big gold chains, pulling at the leash, and you couple that with the kids perhaps wearing hoodies, then the problem becomes a fear of crime," says Callis. "People only have to see these lads out and they're on the phone to us: 'There's somebody out here with a dangerous dog: I'm scared to let my kids out...'"

The popularity of Staffordshires has, he says, led to indiscriminate breeding. "I've seen adverts for them in Quiksave: Staffordshire bull terrier puppies for sale, £150. Go to a breeder and a decent puppy will set you back £500. There's a number of ways some people will try to toughen them up - and some are downright horrible. Sometimes they're kicked and beaten into submission - that's usually the way - or I've heard stories where people will ask friends to call on them at home and attack the dog, so that it learns to go for anyone who comes near the owner. That's usually when the owner is perhaps going to be carrying drugs. But the sad thing is that, treated right, Staffordshire bull terriers are lovely dogs. But it's the potential damage that they can cause which makes them attractive to thugs - they do have jaws that will lock. If a bull terrier bites your finger and doesn't want to let go, you're probably going to lose it."

Despite the ban on pit bulls under the Dangerous Dogs Act 15 years ago, there are reports that some still change hands in London. Last week police seized a group of nine dogs, which they suspect may be pit bulls. And Mike Butcher, chief inspector of the RSPCA's special operations unit, says it has had increasing calls about large, mastiff-like Canary dogs. "They're the new sexy breed at the moment," he says. "But if you've got a dog and you want to get some status from it, the chances are you're going to train it to do what it shouldn't be doing. Therefore you're going to get issues of it attacking other dogs and people."

But it's Staffordshires that are top of the league. They are the most-stolen dogs in London. Thefts of dogs in the capital in 2005-2006 jumped by 74 per cent on the previous year, to 511. And ahead by a mile at the top of the list were Staffordshires - 284 dogs stolen, 56 per cent of the total. (Next were Rottweilers at just five per cent). And last year Battersea Dogs Home took in a total of 1,192 Staffordshires - more than any other type of dog, including even mongrels. Despite the best efforts of staff to socialise and retrain these dogs, a proportion have been so brutalised or trained to attack or fight that they are impossible to rehome. The Dogs Home says that a "very small percentage" have to be put down.

Among the recent victims of London's "hard dog" culture are legal advocate Rocky Fernandez, 42, and drama voice coach Victoria Fairbrother, 61, who were attacked by two dogs - one of which they believe was an American pit bull - as they walked their German Shepherds on a Saturday morning last month on Wormwood Scrubs. In a lengthy attack - about which, they say, the owner and his female companion seemed unconcerned - Fernandez's dog was savaged, and, after she tripped and fell during the attack, one of the dogs bit through and ripped Ms Fairbrother's ear. She underwent an operation later that day.

Ms Fairbrother says that the dogs' owner responded to Fernandez's plight by hurling abuse at him. After she had taken refuge by crouching in the corner of a children's play area behind some railings, with blood dripping from her ear, the dog's owner had shouted to her, trying to claim that his dog had been muzzled. 'Then I took my hand away from my ear and the woman who was with him said: 'Hold on, her ear's flapping about...' and they then both scarpered to the car park."

Fernandez describes the attack as "absolutely horrifying". And Fairbrother says she will no longer walk her dog on Wormwood Scrubs. She had seen the man there before. "He would be brutalising the dogs for no reason at all, hitting them with a strap, and kicking them. I kept well away from him."

She says she has noticed many more aggressive-looking dogs in the area. "I thought the fashion for Staffs among youngsters would disappear. But it hasn't. It's got worse, actually - it really has. It's sudddenly increased again, and it's very threatening.

"Even puppies of eight or 10 weeks, they're trying to rile them and make them go for each other. It's incredibly sad, for the dogs, because the way they do it is quite a torture-like process, where they starve the dogs and taunt them. I've seen them now and again in the street, pushing the dogs to fight. My neighbour and I are always trying to stop them. And Wormwood Scrubs is a lovely area for dog-walking. But I won't go back there again."

At the time of going to press, police were still searching for the dogs' owner.

Down, boy Six hard-biting, street-fighting canines with criminal cachet

Staffordshire bull terrier

Height: up to 16in

Weight: up to 40lbs

Originally bred in Staffordshire for bull- and bear-baiting, by crossing bulldogs and terriers. Intelligent, brave and loyal. If properly trained, good with people and children (and thus nicknamed Nanny Dog) but instinct is to attack other male bull terriers. Very strong jaws.

Canary dog

Height: up to 25in

Weight: up to 100lbs

Bred in the Canary Islands in the 19th century for dogfighting. Strong, powerful heavyweights, they may be dangerous in unskilled hands. Will repel intruders.

Mastiff

Height: around 30in Weight: up to 200lbs

Used by the Romans for gladiatorial contests; later for hunting, guarding livestock, and bull- and bear-baiting. Fearless and highly loyal and protective. Requires experienced owner.

American Staffordshire terrier

Height: up to 20in

Weight: up to 70lbs

Bred in the US from English Staffordshires; said to be closely related to the American pit bull. Very protective. Makes good guard dog.

American pit bull terrier

Height: around 22in

Weight: most up to 60lbs

Among the strongest and toughest dogs of all - and the one with the worst press. Originally bred in the US from bulldogs and terriers for pit-fighting. Desperate to please its master, it will fight to the death. Although banned in Britain in 1991 by the Dangerous Dogs Act, there remains a thriving black market in the breed.

Japanese Tosa

Height: around 25in

Weight: up to 200lbs

Massive and very strong; originally bred for dogfighting in Japan. Can be aggressive and unpredictable with strangers and other dogs. Banned in 1991, a handful are still kept illegally.

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