For those of you who don’t follow dog-related news, there has recently been a debate in Parliament over whether or not to ban Staffies (Staffordshire Bull Terriers). The mechanism for this was whether or not to add the breed to section one of the Dangerous Dogs Act, along with the Pit Bull, the Japanese Tosa, the Fila Brasileiro and Dogo Argentino. The decision was made not to amend the law to include the Staffie, and I for one am glad – in this blog I’m going to explain why, and why I don’t think that breed specific legislation (or BSL) is fit for purpose.
Why was it debated?
A petition on the official government site to add the breed to the banned breeds list received more than 170,000 signatures. Any petition receiving 10,000 signatures gets a formal response, and any petition reaching 100,000 automatically gets debated by Parliament.
Some figures suggest that 80% of dogs in rehoming centres are Staffies – and certainly they are a breed with an image problem. The reason is probably because they have become a sort of “status symbol”, meaning that a lot of people have obtained one to look macho or tough. Unfortunately, not all of these people are able to look after the dogs properly; and a small number have abused the Staffie’s willing and highly trainable nature to train them as attack animals.
As a result, the breed gets a lot of (in my opinion undeserved) bad press – because if there’s a nasty incident, there’s often a Staffie involved somewhere, so people get the impression that all Staffies are dangerous. You can read more about the breed’s image problems here.
In reality, of course, almost any dog is the product of what its owners have made it – and I’ve met too many lovely Staffies to believe that they’re all (or even mostly) dangerous.
What would the effect of adding them to the DDA have been?
A breed or – horribly – type of dog listed in Section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 cannot be bred, sold, exchanged, given away, rehomed, allowed off a lead in a public place or abandoned. Most such dogs are euthanised (put to sleep) on the order of the government. Some existing owners of “Dangerous Dogs” (in the legal rather than actual sense) can get an Exemption License, whereby the dog must be neutered and kept muzzled and on a lead at all times in a public place (even inside a private car!).
Essentially, breeds of dog on this list are illegal, and will disappear unless illegally bred.
Why was there a petition in the first place?
This is where things get a bit weird. The “animal rights” group PETA – who’s avowed aim is to ban the breeding of all dogs, as they are in principle opposed to keeping animals as pets – launched the petition. While they argued it was because there were so many Staffies facing cruelty, I wonder if they felt this would be an easy milestone in their quest to abolish pet ownership. You can read their justifications on their website, but personally, I fundamentally disagree with them on many points (not least their shameless anthropomorphising).
Why does the Dangerous Dogs Act exist?
It was passed in something of a panic by the government in the early 1990s, following a series of horrific incidents involving children. Unfortunately, like so much else in life, knee-jerk responses have led to a number of unintentional consequences. You can read more about this on my blog from last year.
Are there any advantages to Breed Specific Legislation?
In some ways, yes. Genetics are important – and it’s certainly true that some dogs are more likely to show certain characteristics. We have been carefully selecting for physical and behavioural characteristics for so many (dog) generations, that yes, there is a higher than average chance that a Labrador will be greedy, or a Collie hyperactive, or a Pit Bull aggressive.
What are the problems with it?
It’s too blunt an instrument! All of these behavioural characteristics are capable of modification by training, and exist on a spectrum – I’ve met enough neurotic Labradors, greedy Bull Terriers, and aggressive Collies to know that the breed just determines the raw material. What happens next depends on the owner. There are plenty of perfectly decent dogs in all breeds, and a few really nasty ones too. Banning them by breed isn’t going to solve the problem – not least as it only takes a couple of (again, dog-) generations to breed any Bull Terrier into a “Pit Bull Type”, banned under the law.
What’s the way forward?
Personally, I believe we should remove the breed-specific component legislation, and instead target dogs that show particular behaviours – such as aggression. These are behaviours that are either:
- One-off genetic flukes and uncontrollable. Pretty rare, but I can believe it might happen occasionally.
- Deliberately or accidentally trained into them by their human owners, either with malice or ignorance.
I believe that the dog is not to blame for what we’ve made it. Logically, it therefore follows that banning or exterminating whole breeds will not improve dog, or human, welfare, while the people who caused the problem go on to do it to another breed. Surely the answer is to educate the ignorant, and punish the malicious, not wantonly destroy the dogs who get caught in the middle.