From my ‘Crossing the headlines’ column in Dog World (9th April 2014) where I review the documentary, ‘Dangerous Dogs’.

MY FIRST experience of a ‘dangerous dog’ was back in the spring of 1992. I’d accompanied my mum to Tottenham Cemetery to tidy up my grandmother’s grave after the winter. Her grave lay in front of a low retaining wall and, while we knelt down, clearing away the dead flowers from our previous visit, there came a low, rumbling sound from above. We looked up and, standing on a wall, fixing us with its yellow eyes, was a mustard-coloured dog with a head the size and shape of a breezeblock – a pitbull.

Images of dogs exactly fitting the one that now snarled above us had been splashed across the papers and TV for months.

Mum wanted to run but I whispered for her to ‘stay put and don’t look at it’. So, we crouched there, hearts hammering, frozen like statues, but still its threatening growls grew louder. Slowly I glanced up and noticed that we weren’t the focus of its attention after all; I followed its steely gaze to the flapping cellophane that wrapped our fresh flowers. Tentatively I moved my hand bringing it down firmly upon the noisy wrapping. Suddenly the dog’s owner appeared, yelled some expletives at it and followed these with some kicks and punches before slipping an old piece of rope around the unfortunate creature’s neck and dragging him away.

Frightened to death

Even at that relatively young age I knew that the scruffy, skinny man at the end of the knotted rope should not be in charge of any dog let alone a pitbull and, despite frightening us half to death, my heart went out to that poor animal. I well remember the fear that these dogs generated in the area and the relief of people when the Dangerous Dogs Act was brought in. Many believed  – with its stringent rules on neutering  – that it would lead to the extinction of this type of dog. Of course, it did nothing of the kind; in fact, it may well have elevated the status of them  – a very visual ‘two fingers up to the law of the land’, if you will.

From watching the documentary Dangerous Dogs, it’s obvious very little has changed in 23 years. Still we have the wrong type of person attracted to the most unsuitable type of dog and keeping it in the most unsuitable type of housing – a sure fire recipe for disaster, the results of which we are now seeing all-too frequently.

The documentary included the work of Birmingham’s dog wardens. Kelly Evans was a PR disaster for the profession; I watched dumbfounded as she recovered an abandoned Akita. The poor animal had been left to its own devices in a squalid house. Neighbours informed that the owners occasionally appeared to throw it some food. Now, you and I would probably have shown some empathy for any animal that had had to live in its own faeces and urine for a week but not Kelly and her assistant who stood outside hamming it up for the cameras and laughing about the smell!

What did she expect lay inside? A carpet of rose petals and Moet on ice? However, worse was to come as the poor dog, amid screams and wild shrieks, was almost throttled by the misuse of two nooses.

We also saw the plight of two starved Ridgebacks  – I was literally shouting at the screen as a warden threw in ONE bowl of food and seemed shocked when they fought over it! If this is how they act in front of cameras, God only knows what happens ordinarily.

Some have called for ‘rigorous training courses’ before being allowed back in the job but do you need specialised training to deal with the above scenarios? I would have thought compassion and good old common sense would suffice. Maybe they are simply in the wrong job.

Inevitably, there has been a backlash against these wardens and their actions but, in the clamour of calling for them to be sacked, aren’t we overlooking the root cause of the problem?

Take Mark for example, the shambolic man in the high rise flat with the eight or ten (he couldn’t remember) three week-old bull-breed puppies. Mark clearly had issues and was totally disinterested in their suffering; there was no whelping box, Vetbed or heat lamp, the poor pups looked full of worms and were obviously not fed properly but his intentions were clear; he was “going to sell them to anyone who wants ‘em  – for £60 down the pub”. When Kelly pointed out the plight of the starving runt of the litter and what he needed to do, he just callously shrugged his shoulders. Returning a week later, heartbreakingly, half the litter had been sold  – at just four weeks old.

Cowering dog

A similar case presented itself in the second episode. A woman (banned from keeping animals for five years from 2011) also had a large litter of bull-type puppies. Once again, they had been whelped on what looked like a dirty, old sheet in a crate. Three fully-grown adults charged around as the poor bitch cowered protectively over them, all the dogs’ nails were long and the house was full of excrement and urine. Kelly gave advice and returned two weeks later when, at just five weeks old, most of the puppies had been sold. It’s widely recognised that pups leaving too early tend to be nervous, more prone to barking and biting and less responsive to discipline. These people are creating the next generation of ‘dangerous dogs’.

What I can’t understand is why these puppies weren’t seized. Of course, I’m making a wild assumption but I’m guessing both the above ‘breeders’ are living on benefits in social housing. How is it possible to feed yourself and a dog with a litter of ten puppies on a weekly allowance of £79.15?

Incredibly, Birmingham Council’s policy on keeping dogs in social housing is very forward thinking and accepts the positive attributes pet keeping brings. However, this generosity is being abused. As our cities increasingly become crowded and filled with high-density housing and more restrictions are placed upon exercising dogs in precious open spaces, maybe we will need to look at how places like Singapore cope. Their government’s ‘housing and development’ board approves 62 breeds to live in flats. Maybe a similar list is something the KC and our government can work on?

It’s sad that we can’t rely on owners’ common sense and self-restraint in choosing the type of dog that fits in with their means and environment. I would love an Afghan or Borzoi but I know that I am not in the right financial or domestic situation to keep one correctly so, I cut my cloth accordingly and own a Dachshund. However, for them, ignorance is bliss; as we saw on the documentary, there is always someone to come and pick up the pieces with little reprimand.

These feckless, greedy and lazy owners are fuelling our overburdened rescues because they know that pleading ignorance will result in little more than a slapped wrist. A case-in-point was the Akita owners who got off with a written warning! A written warning for leaving a dog in such a state and putting it through the hell it suffered?

People call for laws to be brought in to deal with situations like this; the laws are already there but just not being enforced. I’m not sure if this reluctance of the authorities is through fear of being accused of singling out a certain faction of society. I was astounded to read comments labelling this programme “yet another attack on the working class”. What rot; very few of the people featured could by any stretch of the imagination be called ‘working’ class and, yes, while animal cruelty certainly isn’t confined to the less-privileged, an undeniably large proportion of Britain’s dog problem is coming from them. Until we remove the PC blinkers and enforce the law with appropriate punishments for offenders, the cruelty of underage puppies being sold, bitches used as breeding machines and large dogs driven crazy by spending their lives in tiny yards and balconies will sadly continue, as will attacks and child deaths.

For far too long the abuse of the bull-breeds has been ignored and, before accusations of ‘snobbishness’ are levelled at me, let it be known that I was born and raised in a deprived borough of North London. Deprivation can’t be an excuse for ignorance and cruelty and the spotlight now needs to move from ‘dangerous dogs’ and focus intensely upon ‘dangerous owners’.

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