From my Dog World opinion column ‘Crossing the headlines’ (8th May 2013)

With the recent tragic death of fourteen year old Jade Anderson, once again the spotlight has been fully focussed upon the problem of ‘dangerous dogs’. It is a very emotive subject and a difficult one to tackle – so difficult in fact that successive governments (since the disastrous introduction of the Dangerous Dog Act in 1991) have promised action but constantly failed to deliver.

I’ve always believed the core of this problem lies in our cities and recent findings by Dr Simon Harding of Middlesex University seems to bear this out. He said, “dangerous dogs are being bred by young men as a business asset in drug deals, debt collection and for gang image”.

It is something I witnessed on a daily basis when I lived for a short while in Hackney. It was a daily occurrence to see skinny youths being pulled along crowded streets by fearsome-looking Pitbull-type dogs weighed down by oversized, studded collars and chest plates. These young lads had very little control over their slathering charges and I would watch (often with a sense of rising terror myself) as the streets around them cleared to allow them through. And, this was indeed their sole reason for owning such a dog – intimidation.

There was no real interaction between dog and owner; no gentle pats, no exchange of words or smiles given. It was clearly evident that these weren’t pets. As Dr Harding described; “For many young people, dogs are increasingly viewed as something which can be traded up or down like a mobile phone. It isn’t about how it will fit into my family life but more about what it will do for me” and “how much money will it make me?”.

I was stunned (several years back) to see the sudden arrival of Dogue de Bordeaux among the gang members’ usual choice of Pitbulls, Staffs and Mastiff crosses. It seemed the look of this breed appealed to them and, when wearing their spiked collars at the end of thick metal chains, they did indeed present a terrifying sight but, also on more than one occasion, a pitiful one.

For one memory that haunts me was seeing a young male Dogue – no more than a year old – being roughly handled and dragged along Shoreditch High Street by its testosterone-fuelled ‘owner’. The dog looked underfed and thoroughly miserable with a haunting look in its eyes. And, Hackney isn’t alone in its dog problem. A walk through any of our cities will soon show the ‘yobs with dogs’, animals being abused, misused and kept in totally unsuitable conditions. For instance, I have seen on numerous occasions large dogs glaring down and barking from tiny balconies in the many sixties tower blocks that dominate the skyline.

Surely a cramped flat is no place for any large breed of dog, let alone a burly Mastiff? Isn’t this, combined with an incorrect diet, lack of exercise and mental stimulation, the perfect recipe for the creation of a dangerous dog? Also, it’s worth noting that experienced members of the National Dog Warden Association (NDWA) are concerned about “the number of dogs that can be housed at a social housing property as part of a tenants occupancy agreement”.

There are many that advocate ‘education’ for the gang members as a way forward. Indeed, one London council has funded a landmark pilot scheme called DOG (Direction & Opportunities for Gangs) which – it claims – has reduced offences by gang members and their dogs by 100%. They may well be right but, with the selling off of playing fields and parkland (so vital for the exercise of any large dog), the increasing density of housing and the rapid growth in population, are our inner cities the right place for any large breed? Doesn’t this go against two of the RSPCA’s ‘five freedoms’? These, for reference, are the freedom from fear and distress (making sure the conditions and treatment avoid mental suffering) and the freedom to express normal behaviour (making sure animals have enough space and proper facilities).

On a recent trip to New York I was surprised to see very few of the ‘swaggering Pitbull-brandishing’ types that we all-too commonly see on our city streets. As of May 2009, many large breeds (and any dog over 25lbs) were banned from social housing properties. I know breed specific legislation is not favoured over here but maybe it should be considered for our inner city housing estates as it has most certainly worked in New York, given that virtually all the dogs I saw in Central Park were dachshunds, pugs and chihuahuas.

For, if it is indeed true that certain individuals are also “building up their dogs muscles with vitamin and steroid supplements”, then surely it is only a matter of time before one of these ‘pumped-up’ animals escapes and causes carnage on a child-filled city street. We’ve all read the stories of atrocities caused by men after steroid abuse. One can only imagine the horrifying effect they would have upon a powerful dog.

If, heaven forbid, such a horrific scenario were to happen, there would be no more room for debate and, once again, the law-abiding, sensible breeders and owners of these and similar breeds will suffer under a blanket ban demanded by the general public.

The time has come to act now. No legislation is ever going to totally eradicate dog attacks (just as no law will ever stop fatal car crashes) but surely there are ways we can work to minimise them. Our Government and EFRA would do well to stop its obsession with the pedigree dog world and go and tackle the thornier issue of the backstreet puppy producers and work out ways to wrestle these ‘status dogs’ from the ruthless and callous people who own them.

Instead of handing out money to groups for educating gang members and using charity funds to push microchipping propaganda, couldn’t the money be more effectively used to fund fully-trained dog wardens to patrol and properly enforce existing laws. Ironically, dog warden services have been and will continue to be cut in areas that need them most. Even the NDWA claim that they are an “easy target for budget savings”. This is evident recently where Hatfield Council have announced that from June they will replace their dog warden service and incorporate it into the duties of their ‘street team’ – all for a grand saving of £55,000 a year.

Owning a dog is a privilege and not a right and, hard as it may seem, there are some people in our society that should never own one. As Dr Harding concluded, “Dogs are what we make them. It is humans that are responsible for making dogs sociable or aggressive.”

From my time spent in Hackney, I couldn’t agree more.