Little Ella McKevitt was innocently playing in her aunt’s garden with her friends. One can easily imagine the scene; it’s one that plays out up and down the country, the two year old happily running around and the ensuing sounds of childish laughter and excited squeals of delight.

And then four dogs from a neighbouring property suddenly come crashing through a hole in the fence…

Little Ella was only saved from death by the heroic actions of her aunt but not before she was severely bitten on the face, neck and body. The terror and agonising pain that little girl must have felt simply doesn’t bear thinking about.

Merseyside police confirmed that Andrew McGowan, 35, had been charged with being responsible for four dogs which were dangerously out of control and for the injuries sustained by a two year old girl and a 57 year old woman.

The police also confirmed that there were eleven dogs in the three-bed mid-terraced property; apparently five were adults and six were puppies. Two of the five adults were later destroyed.

Supt Mark Wiggins of Merseyside Police confirmed the breed of dog to be ‘American Bully XXL Dogs’ (a cross between Pitbull-types with Cane Corso/Neopolitan Mastiff) which ‘were not banned breeds’. He also added that there were ‘suspicions that the owner was breeding the dogs.’ Neighbours seemed to confirm these suspicions and it was reported in the Daily Mail that the ‘XXL American Bully dogs were being bred for sale’ and that they were ‘being kept in cages at the back of the house.’

As I read all this I was overcome by a strange sense of déjà vu; I was sure I had seen and heard all this before…and indeed I had. Almost exactly a year ago a six year old, also In Liverpool, was left with deep bite wounds (the pictures in this case are particularly distressing – ‘bite wounds’ is a term that doesn’t do justice to the severity of the injuries suffered as the child looked as if they’d suffered a shark attack) and had to undergo emergency surgery. Kayleigh Nimmo’s four year old American Bulldog, Tyson, attacked the six year old after it got through a gate. The dog then locked onto the child’s right leg until the mother valiantly managed to prise it off. The child in this case was left with fifty nine scars.

Nimmo was given a 10 month prison sentence, suspended for two years and disqualified from owning a dog for five years. Tyson was later destroyed.

In March this year, Millie Purcell, 5, was left with horrific injuries after an attack by American Bulldog, Cheech. The pensioner from Norris Green, Liverpool, was spared jail after her granddaughter was mauled by their eight stone American Bulldog. Joan Purcell, 69, was caring for the dog for her grandson when it suddenly attacked little Millie.

But this isn’t solely a Liverpool problem, remember last August and the horrifying incident in Essex, where three year old Dexter Neale was mauled to death by an American Bulldog or back in May 2014, when two American Bulldogs attacked six year old Ellie Hall in Ashington, Northumberland. This little girl had part of her ear ripped off and lost a chunk of her arm when she was set upon by two escaped American Bulldogs as she rode her bike.

If you go through the long list of attacks by these kind of dogs you will soon see a disturbing pattern emerge – one that always involves the owner’s ignorance, recklessness and irresponsibility. When one looks into the story often you often find the dogs involved have been kept in completely unsuitable conditions, in cages/shed/garages, or kept in high numbers. Eleven big and powerful dogs in a mid-terraced city home must be wrong?

Again and again in many of these cases you will find that neighbours have made complaints or expressed concerns over these people’s dogs appealing to various authorities for help and again and again these complaints often don’t appear to have been listened to. I wrote about this problem several years ago. About the breeds of dog that were used as a form of legal weapon, brandished by skinny youths on leads of rope. The dog of choice back then were Dogue de Bordeaux/Presa Canario and their various crosses, these were quite commonly seen around various estates in East London, barking down from the balconies of tiny flats. The wrong kind of dogs, bought for the wrong reason, in the wrong kind of environment in completely the wrong kind of hands. I wrote that the owning and breeding of dogs isn’t an inalienable right. There are often times in many of our lives when owning a dog isn’t suitable or right, however much we’d want like to. Of course, when I wrote this piece I was immediately labelled a snob for daring to mention this, funnily enough most of the negative comments came mainly from those firmly ensconced in the space and safety of the Home Counties often with absolutely no experience of what life is like on a rough inner city housing estate. We can’t all keep burying our heads in the sand, only speaking about the thorny subject of exactly who should own what whenever a child is mauled or killed. We need to start looking at the startling similarities in these horrific stories, however uncomfortable that is, and no, I’m not talking about the ‘breed’ involved; I’m talking about the owners of these dogs. Far too often people seem to get these dogs and miserably fail to provide them with the mental and physical stimulation they so desperately crave. These are immensely intelligent dogs that are, in many cases, allowed to go ‘stir crazy’. The looks of these dogs sadly act as a magnetic pull to exactly the wrong kind of owner – the kind of person who needs to use the muscular/powerful look of their dog to enhance their own sorry status or to use them as a form of home/personal protection. From puppyhood they are then pushed into and encouraged to be aggressive. I’ve seen it in local parks, where young men ‘spar’ with their dogs, encouraging them to bite. Many of these dogs (as we have seen in the horrific stories above) go on to live thoroughly miserable lives tethered or pacing around postage stamp sized gardens – causing hyper-reactivity. When they finally manage to break out, as they invariably will do, is it any wonder that all hell breaks loose?

Pictures of these ‘American Bully Dogs’ were recently published and the images throw up even more questions. A couple of the dogs ears appear to been very closely cropped…something else I have seen in several dogs in cities across the country. Have these dogs been imported or worryingly, is cropping being illegally carried out. Also, isn’t it about time that the mumblings that a number of these dogs are being given steroids (to build up an overly muscular body) are thoroughly investigated?

I watched as the journalists clamoured simply to ask the police spokesman whether the breed involved in the Ella McKevitt incident was from ‘the banned breed list?’

Does that really matter?

The incidents involving American Bulldogs/American Bully (which aren’t on the list) just goes to show how ridiculous ‘breed specific legislation’ and the Dangerous Dog Act is.

When I was a kid I grew up in a household that owned Rottweilers and German Shepherds. This was in the Eighties at the height of their popularity/infamy. Every other day seemed to bring a headline-grabbing report in the media involving a Rottie (or ‘Devil Dog’ as the breed was infamously dubbed by the press). Instead of putting people off of owning and breeding them, the media hype and stories swirling around this breed simply fuelled the desire of exactly the wrong kind of owner to keep them. Numbers soared and so did the terrible incidents involving them. Eventually, as is always the case, the breed fell out of favour – production of the puppies were no longer a lucrative proposition. The breed returned back to the hands of those who truly loved and protected it and lo and behold (touch wood) incidents involving these gorgeous dogs are now rarely heard of. Proof if proof were needed that it wasn’t something inherently wrong with the breed rather something lacking in a number of those attracted to it. Bringing back the dog licence isn’t going to solve this crisis. Bizarrely it was claimed microchipping would help stop these dog attacks; no one at the time could explain exactly how this would be achieved and it quite clearly hasn’t worked. We don’t need the wholescale banning of breeds or to create new laws however what we could do is properly enforce and ‘beef’ up the laws we currently have. People need to see some harsh sentencing.

Now is the time to study the striking similarities in where, how and who are keeping and breeding the dogs involved in these terrible incidents. This is where the solution to this problem lies and until someone is willing to put their head above the parapet and starts to speak some home truths tragic events like those suffered by Ella McKevitt, Dexter Neale and Ellie Hall are sadly going to keep on happening.

Published in Dog World on 17th May 2017