What really makes dogs dangerous?

In the past two years, the RSPCA has recorded "a huge increase in the number of calls regarding 'dangerous dogs', dog-fighting on the street, or the use of dogs for intimidation or as weapons". RSPCA inspectors, meanwhile, have noticed a massive rise in the number of "tough-looking" varieties in urban areas – particularly Staffordshire bull terriers, mastiffs and the illegal pitbull terriers. The problem of dogs being used for aggressive purposes has now reached epidemic proportions in some parts of Britain. So what has been going wrong?

For years, laws designed to tackle the issue of antisocial animals have been in place. And for years they have failed. In 1871, the Dogs Act stated that any person may make a complaint to a magistrates' court that a dog is dangerous, or report the matter to the police. But there is no power of immediate seizure accompanying this legislation. A court has to be satisfied that the dog is "dangerous and not kept under proper control" before action can be taken, making this a complicated and time-consuming process.

Over time, this "responsive" rather than preventative measure proved insufficient, and eventually, after a number of high-profile cases involving dog attacks, the Dangerous Dogs Act was passed in 1991. This criminalised the ownership of four breeds in the UK, including the pitbull terrier. But the Dangerous Dogs Act has been criticised by the Kennel Club, in its recent Dangerous Dogs Study Group. Not least, it says, because the law still allows a number of crossbreeds to slip through the system.

According to a Kennel Club spokesperson: "There are a number of "pit"-types in Britain at the moment. While breeding a pitbull is an offence, breeders flout the law by advertising their puppies as Staffie-crosses." This not only enables irresponsible owners to buy "pit"-types, but criminalises responsible owners, too. "A number of unwitting buyers get hold of these dogs, and if the police choose to seize them, they can do so – even when the dog has been well looked-after and poses no threat to society."

The real problem with the legislation in place, according to the Kennel Club and the RSPCA, is that it penalises "breed rather than deed". They say it is not the breed that makes a dog inherently dangerous, so much as the way it is treated. If irresponsible ownership is the threat, banning certain breeds is not tackling the real problem. If you consider that a large number of the dogs complained about by members of the public are Staffies – which are legal – then clearly the present legislation is missing the mark.

The law as it stands also fails to protect the animals themselves – making them the silent victims of this trend. According to David Grant, a vet with 41 years' experience and the director of Harmsworth RSPCA Hospital, the dogs are suffering significantly. He says that "on a regular basis, [his hospital] sees dogs who have been beaten, stabbed or shot". The most common breed involved in violence and maltreatment, by a long stretch, is the "Bull terrier-type", many of them Staffs. At the Putney RSPCA Hospital in London, these cases make up 80 per cent of dogs seen.

Many of their injuries are fight-related, while road accidents resulting from dogs being let off the leash, as well as diseases caused by indiscriminate breeding, are commonplace. Such is the demand, too, that dogs are being produced in massive numbers by incompetent breeders. This not only leads to infection among pups and mothers, but also to a huge rise in abandoned pets: 2,677 pure or part-bred Staffies were taken to Battersea Dogs & Cats Home in 2007, a third of all the abandoned dogs left there.

Back in north London, Jethro reckons these are the lucky ones. His Staffie, two-year-old Terror, was one of a litter of five. All the pups were born small and docile, and because of this, the teenager he bought it from couldn't flog them all. Instead, the other pups were tied in plastic bags and chucked into the nearby canal. Other unwanted dogs are regularly set upon by bigger, stronger animals, for the amusement of their owners. At Harmsworth RSPCA Hospital, David Grant regularly tends to unwanted animals, many of which have been subjected to vicious attacks.

Another problem, organised dog fighting, is far from being a new trend in Britain. But according to the RSPCA, the number of reports it receives has risen rapidly over the past few years. And yet very little is being done to combat the problem. In 2004, the charity received 24 reports from the public of separate incidents, with only four successful convictions being made. By 2007, the number of reports had grown to 358, with only 63 convictions being made.

There are a number of offences being committed by people in possession of pit-type dogs, but almost all seem to stem from the same violent, inner-city culture. In response, the Home Office has recently proposed an amendment to its Policing and Crime Bill to include a clause related to the improper use of dogs for violent purposes by gang members. As part of this power, courts would be able to impose an injunction against certain individuals being in charge of an animal in a public place.

The Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, has said she wants to "stop gang members from intimidating their community by using dogs as a weapon a leash". But Jethro doesn't fancy her chances. "Where I'm from," he explains, "the law don't mean nothing." Pointing to the nearby high-rise estate that is his world, he says: "There, people get stabbed and shot on the road every day, for nothing. Getting done by police is the risk you take. It ain't stopped the killing, so what man's going to fret about some dog law?"

Jethro has a point. For although a new law governing vicious dogs in public places would be welcome (given that, according to NHS statistics, the number of people treated for dog bites at hospitals in England has risen 40 per cent in the last four years, to 3,800), such a law, it seems, would do little to combat the mentality at the root of the problem.

The issue, many argue, is indicative of a sinister aspect of the society in which we live. There are countless cases of extreme animal cruelty that beggar belief. "Last weekend we had a typical case," Grant recalls. "A puppy who had been dumped in a local park. The animal had been attacked by a bigger dog and had half of its face ripped off." Setting animals on each other for entertainment purposes, something Jethro says is commonplace among his peers, must lead us to conclude that the people involved are severely mentally disturbed in one way or another.

Grant believes that social deprivation and rising levels of animal abuse go hand-in-hand. "Nine times out of 10, the people committing these crimes feel short-changed themselves. They haven't been given the chances and opportunities that everyone deserves. Someone can only behave like this as a result of their own neglect." Using a dog as a weapon is not much different to carrying a gun or a knife. And as Grant points out, "when an animal becomes a status symbol, cruelty is not far behind".

While the ready availability of any weapon contributes to the problem it causes, it is generally accepted that the real answer lies in educating the people who choose to use the weapons in the first place. If the old adage "guns don't kill people, people kill people" is to be believed, then surely this applies equally to the case of vicious dogs and their owners. Animal cruelty, therefore, is merely a symptom of a much deeper problem, and it is not difficult to deduce that targeting specific breeds is not the answer.

Grant agrees. "In my experience," he says, "the same people who carry knives and guns are buying into the fashion of having dogs as weapons. People buy these dogs without knowing how to look after them." And this inevitably results in problems. "On the one hand, it leads to dogs running wild, which can cause accidents, and on the other it can simply mean cruelty and aggression."

Around the country, the idea of education as the way forward is catching on. Merseyside Police and London's Metropolitan Police have been particularly pro-active. A series of localised projects– which started in the London borough of Brent, hence the name Brent Action for Responsible K9s (BARK) – is said to be making a significant impact. BARK, a partnership between local councils, police and animal-welfare officers, aims to educate citizens about responsible dog-ownership. Once a month, the team visits houses in its area, offering tips on looking after your pet and providing free micro-chipping.

Since BARK began in Brent in 2007, there has been a 20 per cent decrease in the number of bite-related incidents, a significant increase in the identification of banned breeds in the area, and a 300 per cent rise in public tip-offs regarding badly treated animals. The Met, meanwhile, is soon to launch the Status Dogs Unit, to target – as the name suggests – the use of animals as status symbols.

A team of six trained officers will provide a central point for advice and expertise. They will also conduct specific operations to tackle illegal breeding and organised dog-fighting. But as a spokesperson admits: "This is just a team of six; they can't solve this problem on their own." And again, enforcement of existing laws is not the only issue.

A new drive from Government suggests that finally there is an acceptance that what is needed is centralised action against the terrifying culture that leads young people to carry guns or knives, or to use a dog as a weapon. The Home Office has recently suggested compulsory participation in "positive activities" for those convicted of offences under its proposed anti-gang policy, which would include clauses on being in charge of an animal in a public place. Jacqui Smith mentioned the power this legislation would give the courts to "require those given an injunction to take part in community-outreach programmes ... to ensure they are provided with alternatives to their gang lifestyle." But is it too little, too late.

As Jethro observes: by the time someone is so deeply immersed in this culture that they are involved in a gang, there is little to be done that can extricate them from that. Better services and representation for marginalised communities are the only ways to ensure their members have the opportunity to pursue other paths before it gets too late. "You can't put a plaster on a scar, and hope it heals," he sighs. "You need to stop the injury happening in the first place."

Griminal with Sam

Seventeen-year-old Griminal is an up-and-coming grime MC from Plaistow, an area of east London where big dogs are very popular. Sam is the family Rottweiler

Ny with Raine

Raine is a one-year-old Staffordshire cross, who was rejected by her owner after being injured by a car. Ny and Raine are now inseparable — and though Ny's friends have compared her new companion to a piglet, a fox and even a kangeroo, she was inspired to write a song about her, 'Summer Raine'

Mark with Trigger

Mark, who is four-year-old Trigger's second owner, wasn't fond of his new crossbreed's name but couldn't contemplate changing it now. The two are photographed, along with Mark's weightlifting equipment, on the roof of the pub he runs

Nasa with Raj

Nasa talks to his five-year-old Alsatian in a mixture of languages, depending on his mood. But though Raj was playful during our photographer's visit and has a terrifying bark, he was a very good model

Rauri with Beans

Rauri lives with 10-month-old Beans, a Staffordshire-Labrador cross, in a small flat in a block on London's Harrow Road. This photograph was taken in the lift

Ulla with Uno

Although he has his four-year-old crossbreed well trained, Ulla says he's wary that some may be intimidated by Uno's size

Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond delivers his speech at the Scottish National Party (SNP) Spring Conference in Aberdeen, Scotland April 12, 2014.
Arts & Entertainment
Jessica Pare as Megan Draper and Jon Hamm as the troubled, melancholy Don Draper
tvAnd six other questions we hope Mad Men series seven will answer
Life & Style
The new low cost smartphone of Motorola, 'Motorola Moto G', is displayed in Sao Paulo, Brazil on November 13, 2013. The smartphone, with dimensions 65.9mm W x 129.9mm H x 6.0 - 11.6mm D is equipped with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 with quad-core 1,2 GHz CPU, a 4.5-inch display and Android Operating System 4.3 and a suggested price of $ 179 USD.
techData assessing smartphones has revealed tens of millions of phones are at risk of being harvested
David Beckham is planning to build a stadium in Miami’s port for a new football team he will own
news... in his fight for a football stadium in Miami's port area
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
artThe Kelpies are the latest addition to a growing army of giant sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?
Life & Style
US Airways has been at the centre of a Twitter storm after it responded to customer complaints with a graphic sexual image
techUS Airways takes an interesting approach to customer service
Arts & Entertainment
Philip Arditti as Yossarian and Christopher Price as Milo Minderbinder in Northern Stage's 'Catch-22'
Arts & Entertainment
The Purple Wedding: Joffrey and Margaery Tyrell tie the knot
TV The second episode of the hit series featured a surprise for viewers
Life & Style
Back to nature: women with body issues have found naked yoga sessions therapeutic
lifeDoing poses in the altogether is already big in the US, and now it’s landed here – in mixed classes
Property search
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Move from Audit to Advisory

£45000 per annum + benefits: Pro-Recruitment Group: Move from Audit to Advisor...

Management Consultancy - Operational Research Analysts

£35000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus + Benefits: Pro-Recruitment Group: You must ...

Secondary Teaching Assistant

£60 - £70 per day: AER Teachers: THE SCHOOL: This outstanding Secondary School...

Application Support Analyst (MS SQL, java based webserver, batch scripting)

£36000 - £40000 Per Annum On call allowance.: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
The pain of IVF

The pain of IVF

As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal
Supersize art

Is big better? Britain's latest super-sized art

The Kelpies are the latest addition to a growing army of giant sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?
James Dean: Back on the big screen

James Dean: Back on the big screen

As 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star perfected his moody act
Catch-22: How the cult classic was adapted for the stage

How a cult classic was adapted for the stage

More than half a century after it was published 'Catch-22' will make its British stage debut next week
10 best activity books for children

10 best activity books for children

Keep little ones busy this bank holiday with one of these creative, educational and fun books
Arsenal 3 West Ham United 1: Five things we learnt from the battle between the London sides

Five things we learnt from Arsenal's win over West Ham

Arsenal still in driving seat for Champions League spot and Carroll can make late charge into England’s World Cup squad
Copa del Rey final: Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right

Pete Jenson on the Copa del Rey final

Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right
Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

With the tennis circus now rolling on to the slowest surface, Paul Newman highlights who'll be making the headlines – and why
Exclusive: NHS faces financial disaster in 2015 as politicians urged to find radical solution

NHS faces financial disaster in 2015

Politicians urged to find radical solution
Ukraine crisis: How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?

Ukraine crisis

How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

A history of the First World War in 100 moments
Fires could turn Amazon rainforest into a desert as human activity and climate change threaten ‘lungs of the world’, says study

New threat to the Amazon rainforest:

Fires that scorch the ‘lungs of the Earth’
Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City: And the winner of this season’s Premier League title will be...

Who’s in box seat now? The winner of the title will be ...

Who is in best shape to take the Premier League prize?