Government is barking up the wrong tree on dangerous dogs

Down Fido: not all dogs make gentle family pets. Dominic Lipinski/PA

A new round of public consultation has begun on proposals to increase the sentencing for the owners of dogs who carry out fatal attack from seven years to life. Such moves are prompted in part by the huge increase in dog attacks in the UK, not least the 16 fatal incidents in the UK since 2005. This includes the tragic death of Jade Anderson (aged 14) in Wigan In March.

While such proposals are likely to gain popular approval they are essentially an opportunity for the government to capitalise on the current high profile of the issue and to move them off the back foot where they have been since the introduction of the Dangerous Dogs Act in 1991.

But have the government got the wrong end of the leash again? While it can be argued that the current two-year maximum tariff is too lenient, will tougher sentences, post-event, do anything to address irresponsible dog ownership or reduce the proliferation of aggressive bull breed dogs on our streets, or indeed prevent dog attacks from taking place?

Bone of contention

My four-year research into this highly complex and nuanced topic, recently published in the book Unleashed, suggests it will not. Determined to place this issue firmly on the social policy agenda, I sought to better understand why aggressive bull breed dogs are now visible in such huge numbers in public spaces across Britain. I also wanted to understand why some young people used such dogs to generate status amongst their peers.

To complete this research I undertook 67 qualitative interviews with professionals working with dogs, local residents and gang-affiliated young people in Lambeth, south London. I spent many months interviewing 138 owners/handlers of aggressive breeds outside RSPCA hospitals, in parks and high streets and on public transport. I also undertook the UK’s first focus group with young, Asian dog owners involved in dog fighting.

Though this research was fraught with methodological challenges and ethical issues, I was able to confirm that the public concern regarding the threat to public safety from the increase in bull breed dogs is legitimate. Having witnessed young men with large bull breed dogs in 85% of the 40 London parks in my study, it is also a substantial issue of social policy and public safety.

Several key findings are relevant to the debate on dangerous dogs. First, there has been a shift in social values regarding dogs in the UK. Dogs are increasingly viewed as a commodity rather than as a traditional family member.

Increased commodification has generated increased demand for certain breeds with a reputational brand value for aggression. This demand is met increasingly via a supply of animals from backstreet breeders who hybridise breeding in puppy farms before selling their dogs on the internet.

Pedigree of violence

Dogs bred specifically for their aggressive traits are highly valued by young men seeking to mould them into even more aggressive animals which will dominate public space. Such unregulated breeding calls into question the mantra of Deed Not Breed. Dogs that provide a pedigree of violence generate reputation and status for young men. Some owners capitalise on this high demand, using their dogs to generate an untaxed income from breeding: one 17 year old I interviewed made more than £7,000 a year from a pair of pitbulls.

Others capitalise on the brand values of aggression and violence from, for example, pitbulls: using the dogs to act as heavies while collecting drug debts or to guard the hydroponic cultivation of cannabis. Here my research indicated young men who had their dogs seized by police frequently had an array of previous convictions ranging from drugs, to assault and violence.

Others use the dogs for protection, intimidation or to amplify their public image and fragile masculinity, and by so doing, manufacture a fast-tracked “street capital”, which makes bull breed dogs the must-have accessory to “hood life”. Will such individuals, so embedded in the global imagery of Hip Hop, ghetto violence and gang affiliation, be influenced by these government proposals?

And what of the ordinary family who innocently purchase a bull breed dog or rescue a pitbull/staffie-cross from a homing centre only to find it is more aggressive than they bargained for? It is likely they will seek to distance themselves from such breeds, leading to an increase in abandoned and stray animals.

Pet project

The solution to this doggie dilemma is not to tinker with the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill as the government proposes. Instead it needs to fundamentally overhaul the Dangerous Dog Act 1991 and consolidate the confusing and wide-ranging legislation on this topic.

It should focus more on preventing the 6,000 hospital visits per year caused by dangerous dogs, through educational programmes targeted at young people from primary school onwards. It should give powers and funding to local councils to properly manage these issues, through Dog Control Notices, mandatory microchipping, dog proficiency certificates for children and mandatory dog behavioural training where required.

Dog attacks are by their nature mostly unpredictable, but by tackling backstreet breeding, improved dog socialisation and more responsible dog ownership we can reduce the frequency and likelihood of them occurring before the event.