Dog lovers were outraged to see a Facebook post by Alan Tobin, an Irish politician, about his delight that breed specific legislation had been brought in, affecting owners in his constituency. This was in Dog World on 25 May 2016.

As many of you who read this column regularly know, I’m not the biggest fan of the internet age and social media. Obviously it has brought us huge benefits, not least being able to track down the girl that played Nancy in your junior school production of Oliver.

But along with these dubious benefits of ‘connectivity’ comes some serious negatives. There’s the time many of us waste maintaining the numerous casual relationships fostered on social media sometimes at the neglect of our most important and meaningful relationships here in the ‘real’ world. And, of course, we have the growing incidences of cyberbullying, witch-hunts and the wildfire-like spread of malicious gossip that we all too commonly see in various forums. All very nasty and something I’ve actively tried to avoid.

However, there are some good things to be gleaned from what can be a very dark and depressing place. My last article, written about the very vocal social media demand for ‘proper justice’ in the appalling abuse case of Baby the Bulldog seriously made me question my jaundiced view of social media. Hundreds of thousands of people signed an online petition (and the news of this dreadful case and the shameful ‘slap on the wrist’ the perpetrators received) went all around the world. Hopefully our united outrage will eventually see justice served in this awful case.

And along with campaigns for justice on the internet we are often also seeing it used to shine a powerful spotlight on ignorance. 

Viral post

Such a campaign happened last week over in Ireland and the action was reported in the Irish Mirror (May 9). A Fine Gael councillor, Alan Tobin, shared a picture on social media of new signs in his constituency warning the public against ‘dangerous breeds’. Now, as someone who grew up under the very protective eye of a huge German Shepherd and two Rottweilers I was particularly interested by this story.

The breeds featured on the ‘warning sign’ were the American Pit Bull, Bull Mastiff, Bull Terrier Staffordshire Bull Terrier, German Shepherd, Dobermann, Japanese Akita, Rottweiler and Japanese Tosa. I suppose we should be grateful that those who created this infamous sign didn’t consult the RSPCA or who knows we may well have seen the Pekinese heading this list of reprobates!

The post by Mr Tobin read: ‘As a dog owner I’m absolutely delighted that signs I’ve asked for, with pictures, showing the dangerous breeds of dogs have been erected over the past week. It still amazes me that some people think these dogs are ideal family pets.’

Of course, the post quickly went viral, and in a very short space of time (after just three days at the time of writing) there were over 188,000 shares and almost double that number of comments left, many of which were, to put it mildly, very angry!

One top rated comment by Maeve O’ Donoghue illustrated the strength of feeling by receiving 50,000 ‘likes’ read: ‘what an un-educated statement to make… mind you I’m not surprised considering Fine Gael are completely ignorant when it comes to animal welfare in Ireland. Good luck to you because you have just made a HUGE mistake by posting such a stupid comment.’

Mr Tobin responded, ‘It’s not a statement it’s the law Maeve.’

This action only seemed to stoke the fire further as Martina Roche retaliated, ‘Well done Alan. You have managed to illustrate to everyone not only how uneducated you are about dogs and dog behaviour, but also how that ignorance is not going to stop you pushing ahead with something!’

Hundreds of people then put up photos of their dogs (and many were breeds featured on Mr Tobin’s ‘restricted’ list such as Rottweilers and German Shepherds) nuzzling cats and playing with children. Several other put their Photoshop skills to creative use and Photoshopped Mr Tobin’s face onto the sign instead.

However, it was interesting to follow the online debate and watch some cooler heads steer it away from the childish pranks and general abuse that usually follows such incidents and brought it back to some meaningful discussion. Following Alan Tobin’s controversial Facebook comments, the website  BreakingNews.ie decided to ask a ‘dog bite expert’ his opinion on the matter and put it up on the forum – and this is the perfect way to deal with such ignorance and prejudice. A Q&A was set up with NUI Galway psychologist Paraic O Suilleabhain (a published author in the area of human-animal interaction).

Stereotyping

A question was asked, ‘you described Alan Tobin’s post as ‘outrageous and damaging’. Why do you feel that?’

Paraic replied, ‘I felt his comment specifically ‘It still amazes me that some people think these dogs are ideal family pets’ was outrageous given the number of owners that consider these breeds family members. Indeed these breeds are used in disability assistance and therapy roles around the world.

‘Regarding why I thought it was damaging, it is well known in the scientific research that stereotyping a breed of dog can have a hugely negative impact on everything from public safety to their welfare. It creates a false sense of security around non-restricted breeds that they are of a lesser risk. In reality there is no difference in aggression and risk for biting between dog breeds.’ 

And then it presented a long list of well-respected organisations from around the world that were unanimous in their condemnation of the use of BSL (breed specific legislation). With this post, without resorting to threats of violence or aggression, they completely won the argument. They demonstrated the complete failure of BSL and one of its many failings is of course the positive identification of a breed. Targeted dogs are often subject to BSL not because they belong to a specific breed but because they happen to look like a breed on the BSL list. Identification is terribly difficult in a number of cases and as we’ve seen again and again, even ‘experts’ in rehoming shelters quite often get it completely wrong.

BSL has been proven to be totally ineffective in preventing dog bites, it is also very costly to implement and as usual it punishes the responsible dog owner. One of its worst failings in my opinion is that the legislation is skewed to make the dog (and it is always the dog that really suffers in matters like this) wholly responsible and does little to make the irresponsible owner accountable. It would be far better for the likes of Mr Tobin to use their influence to press for proper sentencing for the thugs who use and abuse these breeds. It is true that ‘dangerous owners’ are disproportionately attracted to the breeds that appear on Mr Tobin’s ‘sign’ however when these idiots come to the attention of the authorities they need to be dealt with the full force of a robust law, not just slapped on the wrist. The environment these idiots create for their animal will in turn influence the personality and behaviour of their dog. We see it again and again in dog attacks, the poor animal(s) kept in completely unsuitable conditions, abused, given very little exercise or mental stimulation. And it is equally common (in those cases where a fatality has tragically occurred) to hear of neighbour’s concerns and complaints that have been ignored until it is far too late. Quite contrary to Mr Tobin’s assumptions it actually speaks volumes for these maligned breeds given the widespread abuse they suffer that we don’t actually see more dog biting incidents involving them. Any dog, regardless of breed or more likely nowadays mix of breed, can be dangerous, it all depends on the owner.

Sadly, despite the mountain of evidence and its many glaringly obvious failures, BSL is still being implemented around the world. However, one thing this story has demonstrated is the power of our united voices and of course the extraordinary power of the internet. Yet another way forward is to see more of these breeds featured on popular TV shows like Gogglebox. I wonder if Mr Tobin watches it? It is an extraordinarily popular show and I was surprised to learn from some Aussie friends it even has a following Down Under! One of my favourite families are the Malones, and their five dogs, from Manchester. I watch especially to see Dave the Rottie; usually all you get to see of him is a big tan hind foot waving at the screen. This family demonstrate exactly how these dogs should be kept as part of a family and what a wonderful addition the breed can make to a home that understands their needs.

Tune in Mr Tobin – it could be a revelation!

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