Time to tame our four-legged fiends

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The Dangerous Dogs Act was supposed to put a stop to the proliferation of aggressive 'devil' breeds on British streets. Instead, the problem posed by four-legged fiends is worse than ever. Alan Selby and Kevin Rawlinson investigate

Abbie Varrow was happily jumping up and down on her friend's trampoline when she was attacked. "She was only out in the garden for two minutes," her father, Tony, said. "The dog came over the fence at the bottom of my neighbour's garden and took one bite out of my daughter's face. She's probably scarred for life."

In that brief moment last month, Abbie, aged five, became the latest of a growing number of victims of dangerous dogs; the numbers have risen by 30 per cent over the past four years, according to NHS statistics. More than 6,000 people were treated in hospital in 2010-11 because of a dog attack with one in six of them involving children under 10.

The Kennel Club says the rise in attacks has been caused by the increased attractiveness of banned breeds, which it said are looked upon as "status dogs". Bill Lambert, a senior official with the Kennel Club, said the maligned Dangerous Dogs Act has "highlighted certain breeds as being particularly dangerous, which has attracted some people towards these dogs". A spate of high-profile cases has given added impetus to a campaign by families and animal-welfare groups to persuade the Government to rewrite the discredited Dangerous Dogs Act, which bans four breeds but has been criticised by dog owners, victims' families, police and breeders for being unworkable. The Metropolitan Police alone spends about £2m a year on kennelling dogs that have been seized under the Act.

The parents of four-year-old John Paul Massey, who was mauled to death by a pit bull in 2009, handed in an appeal to Downing Street last week calling on David Cameron to give "urgent and immediate attention" to the issue on behalf of the "children and adults who have lost their lives and the thousands of people who sustain injuries, often serious".

They said the attacks highlighted the flaws in the law, which bans the pit bull terrier, the Japanese Tosa, the Dogo Argentino and the Fila Brasileiro; many of the attacks have involved dogs not banned under the Act. Last week, a Staffordshire bull terrier – which is not banned – bit a 12-year-old girl and evaded attempts by police to stop it with Tasers until it was shot dead in a park. More than 1,500 dogs from banned breeds are also still allowed to live legally in the UK, because magistrates ruled that they did not pose a threat to the public, according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). They have to be muzzled in public, kept on a lead, microchipped, registered, insured and neutered.

Steve Goody, director of external affairs at Blue Cross, said: "The current Dangerous Dogs Act is totally inadequate. We need new legislation with tougher measures covering out-of-control dogs wherever they are and whatever the breed, allowing authorities to step in before attacks happen."

Animal-welfare groups claim that the increasing numbers of attacks are linked to the rise in aggressive dogs being bred and trained for hunting and dog-fighting. Some groups said that they were training more investigators and bringing in former police officers to try to stem the practice.

"We're increasingly picking up gangs who are urban-based but going out in the country, often with firearms and dogs, hunting and shooting wherever they can," Joe Duckworth, the chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports, said.

Mark, a former special branch detective with 30 years of policing experience on anti-terrorism and organised crime who is now working in the field, said that websites show owners posing with their pet's prey to show them off or command a high price for an aggressive animal. "The big explosion has been through social networks," the investigator said. "Now you can show what you've been doing on a fairly secure social network and show thousands of people what you've been doing."

In one of the most recent cases, a dog mauled five police officers in east London. The pit-bull-type dog named Poison was later shot by firearms officers. Five days later in Essex, Abbie Varrow was attacked.

Recent research by the injury lawyers First4lawyers suggested that nearly 30 per cent of people in Britain have been bitten by a dog, with attacks by Alsatians the most common. A Defra spokesman said the department will present proposals to reform the act.

Pit bull terrier

The pit bull was bred as a dog to use in bull-baiting, a sport banned in the UK just before Queen Victoria ascended to the throne. Despite its ferocious nature, it is often considered friendly.

Japanese tosa

The dogs can weigh more than 50kg. They are believed to have come to prominence in Britain as a result of attempts to breed more ferocious fighting dogs in the 19th century.

Dogo argentino

Has been likened to the American pit bull terrier, but at 55kg it is much larger. It was originally bred as a hunting dog and is known for its devotion to its owner and willingness to fight to the death.

Fila brasileiro

It can weigh at least 50kg, and is often described as fiercely loyal to its owner and fiercely aggressive towards anyone else. Owners say it is a good family pet but its temperament varies.

Case studies: 'aggressive' dogs just need puppy love

By Mark Branagan

On Scarborough's Barrowcliff Estate the howling of dogs is nearly as common as the cries of the seagulls. So when Samantha Lee wheels her two young sons across the fields which border the estate, she keeps them safe in their buggy.

In July 2010, Ms Lee, 25, was attacked while six months pregnant by a large dog which sank its jaws into her belly. Fortunately the young woman's jumper prevented the teeth breaking the skin and she did not need medical treatment.

Standing with one-year-old Ronnie and Macauley, two, less than 100 yards from where the attack took place, she recalled: "I just do not like dogs, full stop, now. I was walking to my sister's house. There was an old man playing with this big sheepdog in the field. It bounded right up to me and bit me.

"Luckily, it had not gone through to my skin. I would like my boys to play in the field but I can't with all these dogs running about. Half the time, you don't even know who the owners are.

"There are dangerous dogs and they do roam. I was bitten in the belly and the only reason it did not get through to the skin was I had my jumper on. Otherwise it would have got my skin. The man with the dog just said, 'Sorry,' and walked off."

In another corner of the field a teenage girl screams as she and her friends are barked at by Sasha, a 13-stone pure-breed Rottweiler. But owner David Roberts, 24, a delivery man for Iceland, who has reared the four-year-old dog from a six-week-old puppy, is quick to reassure the girls his pet's bark is far worse than its bite.

He said: "She is petrified of dogs because she was attacked as a puppy by an Alsatian. But she is fine with humans unless she gets startled, or someone comes in the house, when she goes mad – but that's what guard dogs are for.

"Give her a bone and she will sit there for hours in her own little world. People do give Rottweilers a bad name. I get a lot of dirty looks from people around here when I let her off the leash and people will cross the road when I'm in the street. She's trained to stay by my left side and will run away from people anyway. I keep her for friendship, really. It's nice to have someone to greet you after work."

Tracy Tillotson, 41, says her six-year-old Staffordshire bull terrier is "as good as gold". "Any dog that comes up to her, she runs away because she does not like dogs – just bones," she continued. "When I mention to people I have got a Staffie they say, 'Oh no'. But Meg is the best dog I have ever had. You do get some nasty dogs but it is because they have been brought up badly from [when they were] babies."

Shellie Smith, 24, is also devoted to Buck, a one-year-old Staffordshire bull terrier who has grown up from a puppy around her children, Alicia, six, Lennon, five, and Demi-Rae, three. "He makes me laugh. He is friendly and great with kids. Staffies have got a bad reputation but when he sees anyone his tail starts wagging," she said. "He is great entertainment and a fun-loving dog. It is all down to the way they are brought up, the way they behave."

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