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Breed-Specific Legislation

Updated: Jul 15, 2021

When I was planning to create this new website for my business, Dog Tales, I majorly procrastinated by watching the debate in Parliament earlier this month on Breed specific legislation. After watching the debate, i felt a bit guilty about having made no progress on the website so I decided topic of my first blog. This legislation states that specific dog breeds are banned under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. Specifically, the breeding, sale and exchange of four breeds of dog: the pit bull terrier, the Japanese Tosa, the Dogo Argentino and the Fila Brasileiro are banned.

The legislation was created after a series of dog attacks in which 4 people were killed in dog attacks in one year. It was intended to try to reduce dog aggression towards humans. However, the Act was not based on evidence or science and it was really just a knee-jerk reaction to what was going on at that time. The aftermath of the Act has been one of great suffering for many dogs and their families. And there has been no reduction in dog bites, which was the aim of the Act.

Although a dog is not aggressive purely because of its breed, one of the banned ‘breeds’, pit bulls have traditionally been chosen and bred by people for dog fighting. According to the Metropolitan police, nearly 20% the dogs found to be dangerously out of control in the area that they police were pit bull types. That is despite these dogs being banned. This does suggest that there is a small pit bull population that contributes disproportionately to sometimes tragic incidents. But, and this to me is a big but, the pit bull is not a recognised breed by the Kennel Club or other dog organisation in the United Kingdom. Pit bull types are cross breeds, which is why they are referred to as a type rather than a breed.

Identification of pit bulls is done by measuring several physical characteristics in a system that reminds me of the documentaries I have watched of Nazis measuring the noses of people suspected of being Jewish. It seems to me to be a total injustice when a dog is held to be this type of dog when, in fact, it is a cross between, for example, a Staffordshire bull terrier and a Labrador—a common cross to be seized and identified as a pit bull. Many lab – staffy crosses also won’t be deemed pit bulls. So how can the breeding of this type of dog be banned when it is not known whether the dog will be a pit bull until after it is born?

The law does not allow animal charities and rehoming organisations to rehome banned dog types to new owners. Recently a friendly dog, Rocco, was due to be put to sleep because he was a pit bull. The only reason Rocco was in this plight in the first place was because he was taken to a shelter because his owner had died, not because he had done anything wrong. This meant that the only option was to euthanise. Luckily for Rocco, he was reassessed and deemed to not be a pit bull after all! Vets, people who dedicate their professional lives to protect and help animals, must put down perfectly healthy and friendly dogs like Rocco because of the law. With the suicide rate for veterinary professions one of the highest for any profession it is unfair to add to that stress with archaic laws may eat away at their conscience and serve no positive purpose.

Well-behaved dogs suffer massively at the hands of this law because the seizing of dogs is a traumatic experience, which is handled brutally and heavy-handedly. These dogs, that often don’t pose a risk to anyone, are then being placed in kennels where they are not even allowed to have familiar objects around them, like a blanket that smells of home. It is an incredibly stressful situation for a dog to be seized and put in a kennel, so to further add insult to injury by denying it something familiar is extremely cruel. There is also something self-fulfilling about this as the physical and mental stress caused can mean that dogs then begin to act out and show aggressive behaviour, which would not have happened had they been kept with their family. The dog can then be held in kennels for many months, even years, which will have an even greater negative effect on their behaviour, and many well-balanced dogs have been returned to their families with serious behavioural issues, the most common being separation anxiety.

There has also been photographic and video evidence of injuries and severe malnutrition that dogs kept by the police have suffered. When information about the kennel that they were kept in has been requested, none has been given to allow dog owners to bring forward any prosecutions or legal challenges.

Some owners, at the incredibly upsetting time of having their dog forcibly taken from them, have signed a document that was not properly explained to them. The dog has then been destroyed, only for the owner to claim that they were not aware that that was what they were agreeing to. On some occasions, a dog has even been killed without a court order or the informed consent of the owner.

Owners of seized dogs clearly go through an extreme amount of stress. Removing an innocent dog from the home can also have an incredibly negative effect on any children present. And children have been traumatised by watching their best friends being dragged away by the police. Tragically, but not surprisingly, the experience of having their dog removed and not knowing whether it will ever be returned to them, has led to people committing suicide.

The Government doesn’t want to get rid of this legislation because they will look bad, and the media would have a field day, if changes are made and there is a dog attack afterwards by a previously banned ‘breed’. Even if there were little to no evidence that the attack was related to the decision, it would not look good. They also argue that the law does allow people to keep an individual dog when a court has decided that it does not present a danger. This is based on the dog’s temperament, whether the intended keeper is a fit and proper person, and environmental considerations such as the home environment. But these exempted dogs must be kept under really strict conditions, like always being kept on a lead and muzzled in public. This is so strict that someone has even been prosecuted for taking a muzzle off a choking dog.

As a compromise, several options to improve the legislation were suggested by the people that created the online petition that sparked the Parliamentary debate in the first place. The suggestions include ensuring that the law enforcing a strict limit to the length of time a dog can be kenneled, that owners are fully informed of the process and that the police do not accept an agreement for destruction at the point of seizure. The petitioners also suggest removing the requirement that a dog seized for reason of breed and not for anything it has done must be detained while its case is considered. The dog should remain at home if there is no evidence that it is a danger and there is no reason to believe that the owners would not co-operate with the authorities. For those dogs that must be in kennels, the petitioners suggest working with an organisation to establish a facility where dogs can be detained, staffed by experts in dog behaviour and welfare.

As young children are the most at risk of serious dog attacks. it was also suggested in parliament that better childhood education on staying safe around dogs was needed. However, many incidents happen to babies and toddlers and so I think that education should start with parents. Social media is full of videos and images of dogs and children that, as someone experienced in dog body language and behaviour, makes me cringe in fear at the what ifs. From babies sitting on the backs of dogs to toddles hugging them so many of these interactions involve dogs that are trying to express how much they don’t like this treatment with tense expressions and stress behaviours. Parents would really benefit from being informed of dog-child safe interactions by services like midwife visits and prenatal classes.

Aggression in dogs is a complicated issue, but the breed of a dog is not a reliable predictor of aggressive behaviour. How a puppy is socialised is the most critical factor. The way a dog is brought up by not only its owner but also the breeder is the most important reason why some dogs are more aggressive towards people than others. With the recent meteoric rise in puppy farms it is no surprise that the number of people admitted to hospital because of dog bites has risen from 3,079 in 1999 to 8,859 in 2020. Clearly breed-specific legislation is not fit for purpose, it’s a shame that parliament didn’t take the opportunity to make effective changes.

If you are interested in this topic you might want to check out this facebook group in support of dogs that have been seized.

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