In 1991 the UK government passed a piece of legislation called The Dangerous Dogs Act. The act was brought into place to try and help reassure a worried public after a spate of dog attacks, particularly involving children. The Act made it illegal to breed or own a Pit Bull Terrier, Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argentino or Filo Brasiliero without specific exemption from the court. Even with this special permission the dog must always be muzzled and on a lead in public, registered, insured, neutered/spayed, tattooed and microchipped. They can’t be bred, sold or exchanged. The Act was widely considered to be hurried and reactive, and owners of these dogs were angry that their dogs were being vilified in the press and in law.
Different breeds of dogs can be easily distinguished from one another based on their appearance. They are all subcategorised by type, like Retriever or Spaniel. You can also make broad assumptions as to some of their character traits such as trainability and energy levels. But can you tell more than that just from a dog’s breed? When it comes to man’s best friend can we judge a book by its cover?
The media coverage certainly seems to support the idea that Pit Bulls are vicious. A quick internet search turns up plenty of stories of people being savaged or even killed by Pit Bulls both in the UK and the US. In many cases the same dog is held responsible for a number of attacks over a length of time. If you take only this information at face value then perhaps the ban on the breed makes sense.
However there have been studies based, not on the severity of dog attacks, but on the frequency. These studies assessed how often a dog bit its owner and strangers, and found that the most aggressive dogs are not Pit Bulls, Rottweilers or German Shepherds. In fact the “most aggressive” dog was not a large, imposing breed at all. The top three were found to be Jack Russells, Chihuahuas and Dachshunds.
So, if that’s the case then why are Pit Bulls banned and not Dachshunds? Well, while Dachshunds are statistically more likely to bite someone they are less likely to inflict lasting damage, meaning that their bites aren’t as widely reported. Pit Bulls and Rottweilers actually placed below average for regular aggression in the study, meaning that they are among the breeds least likely to bite people. The problem is that Pit Bulls were originally bred for muscle and tenacity so, though their attacks are rarer, they are more likely to be dangerous, or even fatal.
Staffordshire Bull Terriers are related to Pit Bulls and are not covered by the ban. They used to be nicknamed “The Nanny Dog” because they are so good with children. But they are the most abandoned dog, with around 50% of dogs in rescue centres being Staffies. One of the supposed reasons for this is that people get a Staffie under the assumption that they will be stoic guard dogs whereas they are rather more prone to being soppy, adoring little love bundles. For the same reason you can encounter out of control Labradors because people buy them knowing that they are relatively low maintenance dogs and, as a result, put too little effort into training and care. In fact, Cesar “The Dog Whisperer” Millan’s worst ever bite was from a puppy-farmed Labrador with food anxiety. The dog, named Holly, bit him so badly that he required stitches and a trip to the hospital. Holly now lives in a special home for dogs who need full-time psychological care.
Really, this is a big part of the problem: training and care. While most people take on dogs and treat them well and give them adequate training and tailored attention, there are owners who will buy a dog with very little awareness of their needs. The Dangerous Dogs Act has been amended twice this year. Changes made in January enabled prosecution for attacks on private land to give legal protection to postal workers as well as lengthening maximum sentences and criminalising attacks on assistance dogs. Today, changes come into effect which mean that if a dog is complained about to the police or local council the owners can be ordered to take a number of measures from mending fences, muzzling, microchipping or neutering the dog and attending behaviour classes, not to mention being liable for up to £20,000 in fines. This law applies to any dog, regardless of their breed, size or age. Following reports in the press that a dog named Killer, who killed an 11-month-old baby girl earlier this year, had already been complained about after killing a cat this move has been welcomed by those asking for stricter, more protective laws surrounding dog ownership.
A dog may exhibit undesirable, even aggressive, tendencies as a result of a number of neglectful behaviours by owners such as sporadic socialisation, erratic training and inadequate stimulation. Even something as simple as too little exercise can leave a dog frustrated and with excess energy that can end up being expended in harmful, even deadly, ways. A rescue dog might have nervous tics and negative reactions towards certain stimuli, and even a puppy from a responsible breeder might have phobias that result in snappy behaviour. My Labrador once got stung by a bee when she stuck her nose into a daffodil. When my mum got given a bunch of daffodils and put them in the house my usually perfectly-behaved dog started chewing furniture and shaking because she associated that smell with pain. Recognising triggers like these, consulting a behavioural therapist and/or positive reinforcement to try and reverse the psychological damage can be all it takes to manage fears and phobias. If a dog is consistently taught how to behave by attentive, compassionate owners they should respond by growing into well-mannered, friendly dogs.
Just as any human is capable of atrocious acts (like the recent arson attack on the Manchester Dogs’ Home) any dog is also able to behave violently and attack other animals and humans. We can’t control how others treat their own dogs and though many dog attacks happen within a household, some victims are unsuspecting bystanders. So, whether you’re looking at a Teacup Chihuahua or a St. Bernard you should never make assumptions about the temperament of an unfamiliar dog. Always approach with caution and with the permission of the owner and be extra careful around dogs on leads as they may feel constricted and nervous. That way whether the dog is an affectionate fluffball or a boisterous beefcake you can do your best to keep yourself out of harm’s way. Ultimately, breed is not a reliable indicator of a dog’s personality, either for good traits or bad, because dogs are individuals, just like people.