Dangerous Dogs

There’s been a lot of talk in the media recently about dangerous dogs, specifically the American XL Bully, following recent attacks. It’s believed that 6 of the 10 fatal dog attacks in the UK last year are linked to XL Bullies and 3 of the 7 fatalities this year, too. Figures for non-fatal attacks are less clear, but campaign group Bully Watch claims that 43% of all dog attacks this year have been caused by ‘large Bully breeds’.

In response to the recent attacks, and pressure from the media and campaign groups, the Government has announced that the American XL Bully breed will be added to the list of banned breeds in the UK, according to the Dangerous Dogs Act. It’s expected that by the end of this year the XL Bully will join the Pit Bull Terrier, the Japanese Tosa, the Dogo Argentino and the Filo Brasileiro on the banned list. It is illegal to own, sell, abandon, give away or breed from a dog on the banned breed list. There are some exemptions so, if a court believes that your dog is not a danger to the public, you can be given a certificate of exemption and allowed to keep it. This is valid for the life of the dog, but comes with certain conditions – your dog must be neutered, microchipped, kept in a secure place where it can’t escape, and kept on a lead with a muzzle when in public. One of the real difficulties with dogs on the banned list is unequivocally proving the breed. According to the Government’s website: “Whether your dog is a banned type depends on what it looks like, rather than its breed or name. For example, if your dog matches many of the characteristics of a Pit Bull Terrier, it may be a banned type.” If a dog is seized by the police because they believe it matches the characteristics of a breed on the banned list, then it is the owner’s responsibility to prove to the court that it is not a banned breed.

So, does the ‘banned breeds list’ work? Will it actually help to protect the public from dog attacks? Well, a number of groups and charities have joined together to form ‘The Dog Control Coalition’, comprising Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, Blue Cross, the British Veterinary Association, Dogs Trust, Hope Rescue, RSPCA and the Scottish SPCA, and are calling for an end to this Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) because it’s solely based on how a dog looks and whether their appearance meets certain characteristics of the breed as outlined in the law. According to an article on the British Veterinary Association’s website, the coalition “wants BSL repealed and replaced with legislation that better protects public safety and dog welfare, and allows better education to keep people safe around dogs while allowing early intervention to help dogs with behavioural concerns.” RSPCA #EndBSL campaign manager, Shelley Phillips, said: “We shouldn’t judge a book by its cover; but that’s what BSL does. It says that dogs who look a certain way are more likely to be aggressive or dangerous than other dogs. This is completely unfair and untrue, and also lulls the public into a false sense of security that only certain types of dogs can bite. There’s no robust scientific evidence to suggest that these types of dogs are more dangerous, more likely to use aggression or have a unique bite style that could cause more serious harm, than any other type of dog.”

In essence, the coalition argues that this breed specific legislation is unfair, ineffective and misleading. Crucially, they are concerned that animals are being euthanised when they really don’t deserve to die. Shelley suggests that instead the Government should “focus on helping dog owners be responsible, providing support to dogs who have shown early signs of behavioural difficulties, and educating the public on how to safely interact with dogs.”

While you can’t buy or breed from dogs on the banned list, people who currently own these breeds (and this will apply to XL Bullies when the law alters to include them) can apply for a certificate of exemption, but these dogs cannot by law be rehomed therefore any that end up in shelters have to be euthanised, no matter what their behaviour, background or temperament. This is crucially what the coalition is fighting against. Dog’s Trust CEO Owen Sharp said: “Dogs seized under the

Dangerous Dogs Act can spend protracted periods of time in kennels during the court process, often in poor conditions, and too many healthy dogs are put to sleep because they are prohibited and cannot legally be rehomed. We believe in ‘deed-not-breed’; dogs should not be judged on what they look like and should have the chance to live a happy life, free from the threat of unnecessary destruction.”

The Breed Specific Legislation was introduced 31 years ago with the intention of reducing the number of dog attacks in the UK, but it appears the legislation has had no impact on this figure – in fact it has increased dramatically in the 3 decades since the Dangerous Dogs Act was brought in. NHS data shows that the number of admissions due to dog attacks has increased by over 30% in the last 10 years alone.

But clearly there is a problem. So how do we tackle this and help to keep the public safe whilst also protecting innocent dogs? Well, the argument is that ANY dog can potentially be out of control and dangerous in the wrong hands if it’s not trained and cared for correctly. This focus on certain breeds is demonising dogs for the way they look and also making these breeds more attractive to the wrong people. There needs to be tighter rules around breeding because unscrupulous types who try to breed particularly strong and aggressive dogs will do this from any breed, by choosing certain characteristics. The American XL Bully is a cross breed that emerged in the 1980s from a cross between American Pit Bull Terriers and American Staffordshire Bull Terrier. The breed is not officially recognised by the UK Kennel Club or its American counterpart, the American Kennel Club. While this breed may be banned, it’s not to say another cross breed won’t emerge in its place …

In addition to tighter controls on breeding, focus certainly needs to be placed on owners and specifically training and treatment of their pets. Dogs can be deliberately antagonised and made to act in an aggressive way. The suggestion from the coalition is not to repeal the Dangerous Dogs act but rather to make it non-breed specific to protect the public from any breed of dog that is dangerous rather than labelling particular breeds or appearances. They argue that certain breeds are not inherently more dangerous but the way dogs are treated, cared for and handled in public should be scrutinised and dog control notices should be used proactively.

The focus on breeds has made people hyper-aware of dogs that look a certain way, while we actually need to understand that all dogs are animals with powerful instincts and be very conscious of the way we treat them and act around them. These 4, soon to be 5, breeds on the list are not the only ones capable of harm. While your pooch may be the softest, cuddliest, daftest dog on the planet, if it’s frightened or feeling threatened its ‘fight or flight’ instinct will kick in and no-one, not even the dog, will know whether this will result in a warning nip or a dash for the door. Trust me, I’ve seen the most docile little fluff-ball bare their teeth when I approach their back-end with a thermometer (and who can blame them!). A Shih Tzu is unlikely to take my arm off in this scenario but a bigger, more powerful breed may do more damage (we learn early on in Vet Med School how to hold them to ensure this isn’t a risk!). We can never say with 100% certainty how any animal will behave and, while the vast majority of dogs aren’t likely to harm a human, we do have to respect the fact that, in situations where they feel threatened, scared or excessively antagonised, any dog is capable of doing so. Education, respect and responsible ownership is key.