When we first started to manipulate the breeding of dogs it was to produce an animal that had the very best of physical and mental attributes to do a specific job of work. This production of a particular type became a breed as successive generations established a known shape, size and temperament. Our early ancestors would surely have been shadowed by wolves as they hunted but as agriculture took over and our antecedents saw the potential of training and breeding dogs to work beside us, the division between the domesticated dog and the wolf widened.
Centuries have passed living and working with dogs, as well as producing companion dogs, where we willingly introduced neoteny to provide us with dogs that retained their juvenile appearance. We wanted to enhance all of those attributes that still strike a chord in us, the childlike faces that bring out our softer and more protective selves.
A little experiment for you: Draw two ovals, on the first draw a couple of circles for eyes a quarter of the way down the oval, add a button nose halfway down the oval and a curved smile on the bottom quarter. On the second oval draw the two ‘eye’ circles two thirds of the way down the oval, draw in the button nose and the curve of the smile below the eyes. What do you see? The first is a representation of an adult face, the second of a child or baby.
Those same characteristics and proportions create feelings of nurturing in us, hence dogs with large eyes, domed heads of large proportions, ears that hang down rather than being erect as they are in most adult mammals of that type and soft ‘baby’ fur with round torsos as seen to be ‘cute’. Dogs with these features become to some a child substitute and to others a constant reminder of our ability to defend and foster another being.
Dogs for sport and hunting developed along a quite different path; the size and speed of their prey dictated the conformation of the dog, and how hard the prey would defend itself led to more aggression in some breeds, tempered only by a human’s ability to control the individual animal.
When it came to dogs used for baiting and fighting it was pointless having an animal so fired up that it was incapable of being handled by humans in between fights, so it was down to training and mental conditioning of dogs such as the Bulldog or any of the Malossers coupled with a high pain threshold and an unrivalled tenacity.
My point here is that whatever recognisable breed or type that man has designed and produced, all have been to serve man, with only the possible exception of the independent Basenji who hunted alongside man and not necessarily for man.
The establishment of the Dangerous Dogs Act and breed-specific legislation threw a gigantic spanner in the genetic works of man’s relationship with the breeding of dogs for a purpose. The DDA covers all breeds and types of dog but when it comes to seizure of a dog because of its looks, breed-specific legislation is used.
I’d like to ask all of you who breed to cast your mind back to your last litter, irrespective of breed. Just thinking about the small differences between siblings that you observe as the pups grow, how would it be if the fact that one pup has a tail shorter than another makes it a ‘legally accepted’ type while the one with the longer tail is illegal?
The crazy thing is, in a court, when the future of a dog is at stake, it comes down to a tick list against the Standard of one breed – the American Pitbull Terrier. How do the courts recognise a breed that our Government in 1991 did not consider existed? They took the American Pitbull Terrier Standard, as drawn up by the American Dog Breeders Association, and even though the document has been altered over the years they continue to stick to the first version and declare that if a dog scored enough points against the Standard it was considered of ‘pitbull type’.
The High Court also stated that a dog could be of the ‘type known as the pitbull terrier’ regardless of its parentage and that behaviour was relevant but not conclusive! So, consider a Labrador Retriever crossed with a short nosed, rotund crossbreed... Under the law as it stands those pups could be pulled off the street from the hands of a responsible owner and put to the test as to whether the boxes for ‘pitbull type’ are ticked – and the chances are, the score would be high!
Something I used to do for fun was to have a breed Standard read to me, I then had to guess the breed. Try it yourself, it’s amazing how many breeds of dog fall into your mind as you start to reorganise the information. Because all breeds of dog were devised with a job or work in mind there will be marked similarities. I believe the assessment is unfairly weighted, the expert who stands in a championship show ring and judges a dog against a blueprint is also influenced by a personal preference and opinion. I believe an assessor of a dog who is under suspicion of being a ‘pitbull type’ also labours under the same personal interpretation leaving an ever widening gap of reasonable doubt, especially as they are instructed not to consider the temperament as an important factor.
Lennox, the Belfast dog who languished in official kennels for two years, may have had his life ended but it has raised awareness of the unworkable and, in my opinion, unfair legislation that led him to be seized and taken away from his loving family. This is no way to tackle the problem of unwanted dogs, one glance at the reported attacks by dogs on humans will show legislation has had no effect on those figures.
Our rescue kennels are now so worried about taking a dog in that may be seen as ‘pitbull type’ that their reaction is over the top and Stafford and Stafford crosses, as well as those athletic crossbreeds that have always been on our streets, are being turned away or in some cases being destroyed. Not because they are an American Pitbull Terrier but because in the right light, with blinkers worn, that dog may score on the tick sheet that comes with breed-specific legislation.
Dangerous Dogs Act (DDA) Watch was formed by volunteers to educate and campaign against the unfair elements of the DDA and help those dogs and people affected by it. Its website at www.ddawatch.co.uk is a great source of information and it’s clear when speaking to the volunteers how involved and emotionally draining every case is to them.
Hundreds of dogs have now been destroyed under the terms of the law. Don’t think for one minute that these are all animals trained for fighting and owned by thugs in our urban conurbations, more often they are the ‘soft’ target of family dogs who fit the bill.
Scared and distressed the owners find their way to DDA Watch and they find empathy and practical help. I’m sure we can all imagine being in that position and how essential it would be to have a trusted hand to hold and guide us through the most heart-wrenching moments and the challenges that the law brings. Make no mistake, if we allow the demonisation of dogs to continue in this way all breeds will be affected and Lennox will be just the first of a long line of dog martyrs.