I’ve owned dogs all my life: labradors, retrievers, yorkies and a large, lovable, spectacularly hairy number whose father could have been anything. ‘Wow,’ people would say when she walked past. ‘What’s that?’ Now, I have a pit breed dog. I wanted to give a good home to a dog that might otherwise not have found one.
So the tale begins:
It’s been nearly 20 years since the dangerous dogs act made it into law – and to the top of our (rather competitive) rankings for misguided legislation. Neither people, nor dogs have come out in front with the DDA: those who know and care for dogs and people are – well, baying for change.
The number of dog-on-human attacks has not altered for the better in 20 years. Some argue the numbers are worse, and others say they’re the same. Nobody says they’ve dropped. The world of dog attack statistics is a maelstrom of politics, misinterpretation, inaccuracy and hysteria: we’ll try to unpick the numbers as we go on.
The act has been no picnic for dogs, either: with its emphasis on banning breeds (the pitbull type terrier, the Japanese Tosa, and the rarely-seen-here-anyway Dogo Argentino and the Fila Brasileiro) the DDA has succeeded mainly in contributing to the global destruction of the reputation of dogs that had – particularly in the pit-type dog’s case – a great history as favoured companions and champions. They were never bred for conflict with people, as we’ll see.
By virtue of their illegality, they’ve become attractive to a small number of dog owners who like the thought of a canine fiend. They’re thrown into pits for illegal dogfights (I know three rescue dogs, Ace, Tazz and Channa, who were rescued from owners who used them as pit bait. Their new owners walk them in Greenwich park, where we walk our dog).
In America – another convert to breed specific legislation – unlucky pit type dogs have ended in the hands of the sadistic likes of Michael Vick. The story of the rise of the pit dog as doggie enemy No#1 in the last 30 years is not, as it happens, about a dog type at all. It’s a story about man’s endless capacity for viciousness and violence, and of his eagerness to hold the animal he tortures responsible for its reaction to him.
Another irony of breed specific legislation like the DDA is that it is difficult to be specific about the breeds it aims to ban.
There’s no breed standard for the animal the DDA describes as the ‘type known as the pit bull terrier.’ There is just a bunch of dogs that might look the part, and have pit-type DNA. There’s the small, strong, courageous American pit bull terrier, recognised by the the United Kennel Club and made famous (in a good way) by Petey on Little Rascals. There’s the American staffordshire bull terrier, which is recognised by the American Kennel Club. There are the ones that confuse a lot of people and are legal here, but not in some states in America – bull terriers and staffordshire bull terriers. Then, there are the thousands of perms and combs of the bull and terrier dogs that were first bred centuries ago to produce pit breeds. There are the thousands of dogs that may have a pit-type heritage that owners don’t know about. There are the dogs bred for size and savagery by psychopaths. There are the thousands of dogs that look pit-typeish to some eyes, but aren’t: boxer mixes, mastiff mixes – anything, really, with a big head, a wide mouth, and/or rose ears.
There is, in other words, good reason why it’s a waste of time trying to decide a dog’s personality on the basis of its face, but that is what BSL wants to do. The upshot is the sort of madness that befits our nervous, but lightweight, age: an obsession with a dog’s type and looks, rather than canine behaviour and the all-important dog-owner relationship, a sensationalising media with an evil-dog fetish that leaves no room for balanced discussion about the many factors that contribute to dog attacks, static, or worsening, dog attack statistics, and a ground (some might say class) war between people who own pit and bull breed dogs and people who don’t (more on that as we go on).
None of which is to say that pit type dogs haven’t killed and injured in the last 30 years, because they have. It’s just that their type is the least of it. They don’t come out of the box as uberkillers with special fangs and an innate inclination to go batshit. Bloodhounds (used to track and kill slaves and convicts), German Shepherds and Dobermanns (associated with Nazis), Rottweilers, St Bernards, huskies and labradors (starving, ill treated sled dogs) have all been accused of the same over the years.
‘The greatest pup in Mongaup today is a brindled Bulldog, as brave as he is hideous. Every woman who meets the brindle pats it, seems disposed to kiss its ugly mug, and says: â€˜Good dog! Good dog!’ Washington Post, 1907
‘They can be absolutely enchanting,’ Dogs trust CE and founder Clarissa Baldwin says of pit breeds. Baldwin is at pains to make clear that her organisation has ‘zero tolerance of dog aggression’: to want to shift the political emphasis from dog breed to dog deed is not to suggest unconcern about canine aggression. Quite the reverse – it’s to know that life will improve neither for dogs nor people until, as Baldwin says, political attention switches from the dog to the individual ‘at the other end of the lead.’
This is particularly true for pit type dogs – the great irony of their reputation today is that they were bred for an unusually trusting, exceptionally good humoured relationship with humans, and to be able to distinguish quickly between people and dogs (some pit dogs are aggressive with other dogs if they’re not socialised, because of their dogfighting history).
Richard Moore, the manager of the Dogs Trust Harefield rehoming centre (and owner of two geriatric staffies) discusses this with me in some detail. The trust-in-people trait was vital for great fighting dogs: when they were wounded in the pit, they had to be able to turn off their aggression the moment someone stepped in to handle them. Pit dogs that were aggressive towards people had short careers and lives.
That left a dog type bred to expect the best from man, and to trust him, even when injured. Make no mistake – the magic is still there. Treated well, pit breeds are notable for a sublime joie de vivre and enthusiasm for people through which, in one’s soppier moments, one may almost glimpse the divine.
That is why they have a loyal fan base, and descriptors like ‘enchanting’. It is also why – as Baldwin says – the responsibility for the behaviour of these dogs lies so absolutely with the people in charge of them. When a pit type dog attacks a person, you know that someone has turned that dog against type. As Malcolm Gladwell put it in his seminal New Yorker article on the dangers of generalisation, ‘a pit bull is dangerous to people, then, not to the extent that it expresses its essential pit bullness but to the extent that it deviates from it.’
So it is that the Dogs Trust trust is lobbying all three political parties to shift the DDA’s emphasis. Baldwin wants all dogs microchipped at point of exchange, so that dogs can be traced to original breeders – the trust is working with local authorities on a UK wide chipping campaign. Baldwin also wants doggie Asbos – the early identification of dogs and owners that have begun to cause trouble, and compulsory obedience training, neutering, and leads and muzzles for problem dogs.
The Communication Workers Union, which represents postal workers (6,000 of whom are attacked by dogs each year) and keeps numbers on dog attacks, is of like mind. ‘We’re very much of the ‘it’s the deed, not the breed’ point of view,’ says spokesman Karl Stewart. ‘And we’d agree that the DDA’s emphasis on breeds has missed the point somewhat.’
The CWU wants the DDA changed to allow prosecution of owners whose dogs attack on private property. At the moment, the law only targets people with dogs ‘that are dangerously out of control in a public place,’ which isn’t terribly helpful for posties, who by law must deliver mail to all addresses.
No owner can say that their dog will never attack. What owners can say is that they will never encourage aggression.
Malcolm Gladwell again: ‘the dogs that bite people are, in many cases, socially isolated because their owners are socially isolated, and they are vicious because they have owners who want a vicious dog.’
And, as Randall Lockwood, a senior vice president of the ASPCA, told Gladwell: ‘a fatal dog attack… is usually a perfect storm of bad human-canine interactionsâ€”the wrong dog, the wrong background, the wrong history in the hands of the wrong person in the wrong environmental situation. I’ve been involved in many legal cases involving fatal dog attacks, and, certainly, it’s my impression that these are generally cases where everyone is to blame. You’ve got the unsupervised three-year-old child wandering in the neighborhood killed by a starved, abused dog owned by the dogfighting boyfriend of some woman who doesn’t know where her child is. It’s not old Shep sleeping by the fire who suddenly goes bonkers. Usually there are all kinds of other warning signs.’
In January 2002, a teenage girl call Pauline Broughton was walking past a house in a small, poor, rural New Zealand town called Patea when three pit bull type dogs jumped the house fence and attacked her. The dogs did terrible damage – they pinned the girl face down to the ground, and ripped skin and muscle from her arms, legs and buttocks. They probably would have killed her if neighbours hadn’t fought them off.
I was communications manager at South Taranaki district council then – and Patea (and dog control) was in the council’s jurisdiction. The national press was on the phone in a flash, asking about the dogs’ breed, and if they had a history of aggression.
The Patea dog control officer, a local woman who had a couple of kids herself, told the mayor and chief executive that she’d only ever received one complaint about the dogs. That’s what we told the press. It all hit the fan then – Patea locals read that claim of one complaint, and rang the papers to tell a very different story. It turned out they’d been complaining about the dogs and their aggressive behaviour for more than a year.
I went down to the environmental services department to check the records myself. I found the dog control officer there, tearful and shaking and working through a pile of paper that she’d printed out. ‘I wish this would go away,’ she kept saying. ‘I wish it would go away.’
It turned out that Patea residents had made at least 11 formal complaints about the dogs, and mentioned their behaviour numerous times to the dog control officer. The dogs’ history was classic – intact, unsocialised animals, and negligent, aggressive owners who weren’t interested in their neighbours’ concerns, or instructions from the council. The dog control officer had visited the property several times and told the owners to keep the dogs restrained, but the truth was she was too frightened of the owners and their dogs to pursue a stronger course of action. Council set dog control policy: it was ridiculous of the council to think that a lone officer who lived locally would be able to handle such a situation. You need special dog teams for problem owners and their dogs.
Not long after we got him, I took our pit breed puppy out to a small piece of grass next Lewisham’s Coldbath estate.
A bunch of kids from the estate were playing football on a concrete pitch nearby. I didn’t take much notice of them, because I was playing with the puppy, but then I noticed them, all right: they were stampeding towards us like pitch invaders, screaming and shouting with hoodies fluttering and more and more kids joining them…
Aha, I thought. Perhaps this is it. The dog’ll be pinched and I’ll be tomorrow’s Daily Mail lead and office toast – another nice, white, middle-aged lady with her handbag lifted and her old fanny raped by a horde of sweating newish Britons… although things turned out rather lower-key than that. The youths thundered up to us, said hello, then dropped to the grass to play with the puppy. They were absolutely thrilled with him, and just – well, perfectly civilised and polite.
‘Can I pet your dog?’
‘Is that a little pit?’
‘Is that a little staff? Sick, innit?’
‘What’s his name?’ ‘How old is he?’ ‘Where did you get him?’ They kicked their football for the puppy and ran round with it so that he could chase, and he got so excited that he did little piddles all over the place. When it came time to leave, the kids thanked me and went back to their game.
Thus it has been ever after. This kind of dog opens doors, and eyes, to the truth of one’s own prejudices. It is true that there are kids out there who want these dogs and use them as weapons: it’s just that they’re not the whole story. To say that a dog type is inherently evil, or that kids are inherently evil, and that there is nothing else to it, is to take the easy road. On more than one occasion, I’ve watched a bunch of kids in hoodies and my dog race around with each other, playing like kids and dogs do, and I’ve thought -‘it’s awful that these kids and these dogs get such a blanket bad press.’
Next article – a trip to a Dogs Trust rehoming centre and more on attack numbers.