What really makes dogs dangerous?

Charlotte Philby
Tuesday 16 July 2013 23:02

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."

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