In 1991, following a series of savage dog attacks on children, Parliament took the decision to enact bans on four breeds of dog in the UK.
This included the notorious Pitbull Terrier, the Japanese Tosa, the Dogo Argentino and the Fila Brazileiro (the bans also extended to their mixes and any dogs boasting typical characteristics of the breeds). The Dangerous Dogs Act made it illegal for anyone to own, breed, sell or exchange these animals unless a Certificate of Exemption was granted.
Since then, much has been said about the suitability and fairness of breed bans, which label an individual breed as ‘aggressive, unpredictable and predacious’ rather than considering an individual dog.
Animal charities such as the RSPCA have always contended the Act, arguing that no animal should be demonised on the face of its breed alone. They, like so many others, pose the question whether it is in fact the animal’s nurture, rather than its nature, that has led to the aggressive displays.
'All breeds can attack people, just as all breeds can produce wonderful dogs,' summarised an RSPCA spokeswoman.
By crediting aggression to the independent nurture of an animal (i.e. the way it is trained and socialised) rather than the collective nature of the breed, blame is removed from the dog and placed on the owner. James Beaufoy, Secretary of the Staffordshire Bull Terrier Club, addresses how 'the law hits hard at the dogs, [and] needs to start hitting harder at the owners.'
Whilst dogs are usually destroyed following an attack, the owners of these animals might just be fined. Under the Dangerous Dogs Act, if a dog attack occurs on private property (i.e. in the home) rather than in a public place, only limited charges can brought against the owner. As the majority of child fatalities from dog attacks occur within the family home, suitable controversy surrounds this aspect of the law.
A report conducted by PAW found that a mere 21% of owners that kept aggressive dogs admitted to having adequately trained and socialised their animals before they were six months old. A lack of early training and socialisation with children makes an animal more likely to behave aggressively when confronted with an unfamiliar situation and, if never taught the ground-rules, this aggression can manifest in a fatal attack.
In a number of cases where young children have been bitten by dogs, the child has either been a visitor to the home, a newborn, or has behaved in a way that the dog isn’t used to. If a dog is well trained and has been gradually introduced to children and other domestic animals from a young age, unpredictable behaviours that are typical of youngsters would not usually prompt a savage response.
In the case of 14 year old Jade Anderson who was viciously mauled to death by four dogs in March 2013, the animals were thought to have been crated for long periods of time during the day and had to compete for human attention in a cramped environment. The fact these dogs were Mastiffs and Bull Terriers is looked upon as a chief cause of the incident, rather than the negligence of the owner in properly training and socialising her dogs. Are the breeds to blame for the attack here, or the owner?
I think nurture plays a larger role than nature with these dogs as most are simply not raised and socialised correctly. Many breeds have characteristics which, without the proper training and responsible ownership, would result in undesirable behaviours" - Danielle at VioVet.
When I asked some members of the VioVet team for their thoughts on the discussion, the resounding opinion seemed to be that the owner of the dog(s) is always responsible for the way it behaves. Any breed of dog has the capacity for aggression, but some animals respond less well to a lack of training. Breeds such as the Staffordshire Bull Terrier whose inherent nature is loyalty, obedience and an eagerness to please, are often exploited for this reason and used as status dogs, trained to display aggression and protect their handler.
There are also numerous incidences of dogs behaving aggressively that do not fall beneath the classic ‘dangerous breeds’ umbrella.
Alaskan Malamutes, German Shepherds, St. Bernards, Great Danes and even a Pomeranian have killed and grievously injured children. In fact, it is estimated that up to 30 different breeds have been involved in a violent incident, with 6,000 annual visits to hospital by Britons who have been attacked or bitten by dogs (clearly other breeds are responsible for this figure, bearing in mind the ‘most dangerous’ are now banned).
However, the matter is not as straightforward as that. There are many people, dog-lovers included, that believe the breed bans in place in this country are necessary. While any dog can display aggression, there is no denying that the majority of these aggressive incidences occur in only a handful of breeds, namely Pitbull and Staffordshire Bull Terriers, Bulldogs, Mastiffs and Rottweilers. In America, besides Pit Bulls, Rottweilers and Presa Canarios are the two biggest offenders.
Between 1882 and 2006, two thirds of dog-attack fatalities in the US were the product of these three breeds and in 2013, of 14 human deaths that occurred in the country, 13 were the result of Pitbulls. Before the breed was banned in the UK in 1991, the highest percentage of dog attacks were by Pitbull Terriers. Today, the breed is also banned in Canada, several jurisdictions of the United States, and just recently, Trinidad and Tobago.
Whilst it might not be fair to demonise an entire breed, surely it is safer?
If we were to repeal the legislation banning breeds such as the Pitbull Terrier, would we see a greater number of human fatalities in this country? Maybe not. When it comes to our children, however, some would argue whether it's worth the risks for the sake of free ownership. Perhaps it is more a case of better monitoring the people who own the breed and ensuring that appropriate training and socialisation is governed from an early age.
Having never owned a 'dangerous' dog, I don’t feel I can comment either way on the justice of banning a breed outright based on a universally ‘aggressive’ tendency. If the government decided to extend the list of banned breeds to, say, German Shepherds, I might be a bit more peeved having always wanted to own one, but, again, if it did so because the number of people being attacked and killed by the breed increased significantly, I would trust that the decision was being made for our safety, rather than as a slight against the breed.
What do you think about breed bans? Please let us know! Feel free to email me directly with any further questions or comments: firstname.lastname@example.org
Here are some opinions from the VioVet team:
Liz: ‘It is not the dog’s fault; it is generally the owner’s.’
Craig: ‘Certain people should not be allowed to keep dogs.’
Hannah: 'Breed bans are a shame but I think sometimes they're necessary.'
Danielle: 'I think breed bans are more likely to make the dogs even more attractive to irresponsible owners. They are popular as they look intimidating and have wrongly earned themselves a bad reputation. If these dogs had become popular first with families or the elderly, would the result be the same or would we still judge the owners?'