The DDA makes owning certain dogs illegal. We report on how this law means that innocent, gentle dogs are being euthanised
Can you imagine someone taking away your beloved companion dog – keeping him or her kennelled away without visits, and eventually euthanizing the animal – all because of how s/he looks? You could even end up convicted of a crime, and imprisoned for up to six months.
Thanks to breed-specific legislation (BSL) which is part of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, this horror scenario has happened to a number of innocent dogs, cutting their lives short and leaving their families devastated.
BSL makes the ‘possession’ of four types of dog illegal in the UK. These dogs are; pit bull terrier, Japanese tosa, dogo Argentino and fila Braziliero. When the legislation was passed, the penalty for ‘possession’ (under law, dogs are considered possessions) was mandatory destruction. If you already had one of these types of dogs, the animal could be exempted if s/he was registered on the Index of Exempted Dogs and complied with a number of conditions. These include being muzzled and on a lead in public, and being neutered. The index closed to owner-led registration a few months later.
There have been changes made to the legislation over the years; in 1997, mandatory destruction of banned breeds was removed. The same year, the Index of Exempted Dogs re-opened for dogs the courts believed posed no risk to the public, and there are now over 3,000 live dogs registered on the index.
The intention behind this law was to protect people and other animals from dog attacks from so-called ‘dangerous’ breeds. Two beliefs underpin the idea that these breeds are particularly vicious: firstly, the idea they have the potential to be dangerous because of their physical characteristics and functional history, and secondly a history of high bite frequency means these types are aggressive towards people.
But according to recent research, most experts do not believe breed has a significant impact on how aggressive dogs are to humans. In fact, the vast majority of experts blame aggression on the way the dogs are brought up by their human companion, or the way they have been brought up by a breeder prior to being ‘sold’.
Earlier this year welfare charity the RSPCA published a 32 page report called A Dog’s Dinner. According to the report: “BSL is now widespread with restrictions and bans in place for example in Australia and across the USA. Within the USA the situation is very complex with some areas having adopted BSL, others having repealed it and in some places there are pre-emptions which mean BSL cannot be enacted. Legislation in the EU is devolved to the member states that differ as to whether they have BSL. For example, Denmark, France, the Republic of Ireland, Croatia and Lithuania do have some sort of breed based regulations while Latvia and Bulgaria do not. Within some countries such as Germany, there are also regional or state differences. Italy, the Netherlands and Lower Saxony Germany have repealed their BSL legislation.”
In the countries where BSL is applied, those found in possession of a non-exempted prohibited type of dog are committing a criminal offence. This is true if the dog is bred from, sold, or given away.
But not everyone believes this legislation actually achieves its aims.
An RSPCA spokesman said: “Despite many countries using BSL, there is a lack of evidence to show that it reduces dog bites. Several studies have shown that BSL has not reduced dog bites in countries abroad. In the UK, an assessment in 1996 – five years after the DDA was enacted – found there had been no significant reduction. In fact, the number of hospital admissions due to dog bites rose from 4,110 (March 2005) to 7,227 (February 2015)2 and continue to rise.
RSPCA dog welfare expert Dr Samantha Gaines added: “The police, the RSPCA and other animal rescue organisations have to deal with the consequences of this flawed law by euthanising hundreds of dogs because legislation is forcing us to due to the way they look, despite being suitable for rehoming. Not only is this a huge ethical and welfare issue, it also places significant emotional strain on staff.”
Battersea Dogs and Cats Home has also published a report on the topic called Dog Bites: what’s breed got to do with it? A spokesman for the charity says: “Battersea has to put down healthy and rehomeable dogs because of this law. Indeed last year we were required to put to sleep 91 Pit Bull type dogs, despite our experts stating 71 per cent of them would have made great household pets.
“Our report found that 74 per cent of the UK’s top canine behaviour experts do not believe that breed is either relevant or only slightly important in determining dog aggression levels. With our detailed evidence we called on the government to repeal Breed Specific Legislation, as Battersea does not want to see dogs condemned for what they look like, but instead judged on what they have actually done.”
In other words – it doesn’t matter how gentle or loving the dog is, if s/he looks like a forbidden breed, it is legal for the state to kill the animal.
In addition, this legislation can also be harmful to the welfare of dogs who aren’t euthanised. The ASPCA is an American humane society. A spokesman said: “Breed-specific laws must also be evaluated from a welfare perspective. Although intended to improve community safety and comfort, ultimately these laws can cause hardship to responsible guardians of properly supervised, friendly, well-socialized dogs.
“In some localities, the list of banned breeds includes not just American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, Bull Terriers and Rottweilers, but also a variety of other breeds, including American Bull Dogs, Mastiffs, Dalmatians, Chow Chows, German Shepherd Dogs, Doberman Pinschers and any mix of these breeds. Although guardians of these dogs may have done nothing to endanger the public, they nevertheless may be required to choose between compliance with onerous regulations or forfeiture of their beloved companions, and may even be required to forfeit their companions outright. In Prince George’s County, Maryland, where Pit Bull Terriers are banned, the Animal Management Division reports that 80 percent of the approximately 500 to 600 animals seized and killed by animal control every year under the ban are ‘nice, family dogs’.”
The good news is that BSL is now being reviewed worldwide. According to the RSPCA: “It has been reversed by three European governments and many US administrations following studies. A 2010 Defra consultation in England revealed that 88 per cent of respondents felt BSL was not effective in protecting the public, and 71 per cent felt it should be repealed.”
According to the charity, a number of cases from other countries, including Canada, where a reduction in dog bites has been achieved, ‘not by BSL, but by focusing on improving responsible dog ownership. There are already mechanisms in the legislation to improve human safety. These should be prioritised as well as a focused education campaign, particularly aimed at children’.
Television personality and dog behaviour expert Victoria Stilwell agrees that BSL is ineffective, outdated and flawed, saying: “BSL tears apart families while punishing innocent dogs and their guardians solely because of a dog’s appearance. Any dog can bite under the right circumstances, so legislation should focus on protecting the public through responsible pet guardianship rather than targeting a particular breed.”
Claire Horton, Battersea’s Chief Executive, adds: “This new research by Battersea sets out the failings of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 in focusing on how a dog looks, rather than on anything that they have done or the actions of their owners.
“There are of course some dangerous dogs on our streets but for a quarter of a century this legislation has condemned too many innocent dogs to be put to sleep, whilst systematically failing to reduce dog attacks in our communities.
“Battersea is dismayed that this outdated, knee-jerk piece of legislation is still on the statute books. There is a clear need to replace it with a law that targets irresponsible owners.”
If you want to help change this law, you can contact your local MP, asking them to put pressure on the government to change this legislation. Battersea Dogs and Cats Home has put together a letter you can send. To use the letter, visit battersea.org.uk.
If you don’t know who your MP is you can visit parliament.uk – type in your postcode or constituency to see who represents your area in Parliament.
The Law Says…
If you have a banned dog, the police or local council dog warden can take it away and keep it, even if:
- it isn’t acting dangerously
- there hasn’t been a complaint
The police may need permission from a court to do this.
If your dog is in:
- a public place, the police don’t need a warrant
- a private place, the police must get a warrant
- a private place and the police have a warrant for something else (like a drugs search), they can seize your dog
A police or council dog expert will judge what type of dog you have and whether it is (or could be) a danger to the public. Your dog will then either be:
- kept in kennels while the police (or council) apply to a court
You’re not allowed to visit your dog while you wait for the court decision.
RSPCA Case Study: Mason
Mason, lives with Sean Andrews and his family in Enfield, London. He is on the exempted list. He has helped owner Sean through some difficult times. “Shortly after Mason came home I lost my father quite suddenly and was at rock bottom,” Sean says. “I decided I needed something, or someone, to turn to and that was Mason.”
But the family has faced complications along the way too: “The financial implications (of owning an exempted dog) came about a year after getting him, when he injured his cruciate ligament. Because insurance companies wouldn’t insure him, I had to find different ways to raise the funds for his treatment. Luckily, for both of us, we’d made such an impression on the people and organisations we’d met that they offered to pay for his treatment and the vet didn’t charge us for medication. If it wasn’t for the kindness of these people I would hate to think about what would have happened money-wise.
“I believe Breed Specific Legislation should be changed. All dogs have teeth and yes, some have harder bites than others, however I’m sure that the so-called family-friendly breeds have bitten more people than banned breeds. Owners of these dog would like to insure their pet against illness and accident but, because of their breed or type, you can’t and just have to hope nothing happens because it could be the end of the dog’s life.”
RSPCA Case Study: Fudge
Fudge was just five-months-old when his life was ended because he looked a certain way.
His human companion Carole Eden from Liverpool, had rescued him at just six-weeks-old and had no idea he might, one day, be identified as a suspected prohibited type. But a neighbour, who thought he resembled a pit bull terrier type, reported little Fudge to the police.
Carole says: “BSL was something I knew nothing about until the police knocked at my door late one night. Now I no longer respect the law that judges innocent dogs on how they look, even though it’s filed under ‘legal’.
“I am left with a legacy of guilt for being naive and a fear of ever owning a bull breed again in case it happened again. The law is proven not to have worked and needs radical change.”
“BSL simply does not work. It is the cruellest of laws. It destroys lives and kills for no other reason than looks and it needs to end now. 25 years of killing – yet we say we are a country of animal lovers.”