A ‘dick on a string’?

Those calling for an extension of the Dangerous Dogs Act - 'the worst piece of legislation ever written' - seem most frightened of 'dangerous owners'.

Helen Birtwistle

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Topics Politics

The tragic death of five-month-old Cadey-Lee Deacon after an attack by two Rottweillers in England in September this year prompted a flurry of media commentary and a resurgence in public concern about dangerous dogs.

Dog-lovers, dog-haters and the new professionals of the moment, dog therapists, have come out in droves to endorse an extension of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. Introduced after a spate of dog attacks and a strenuous tabloid campaign persuaded John Major’s Conservative government that the public needed to be protected from ‘problem dogs’, the Dangerous Dogs Act was deemed, even at the time, ‘the worst piece of legislation ever written’.

Yet despite being one of the most mocked political follies of recent years, London’s Metropolitan Police and the Dogs Advisory Committee were in secret consultation throughout this summer, drawing up proposals to extend dangerous dogs legislation. Updates include enabling officers to raid homes where dangerous dogs are suspected to be kept, prison sentences for dog owners defying muzzle or lead orders, and the power to rehome dogs. The definition of ‘dangerous’ is also under review. Now owners are liable if someone is afraid that their dog might become dangerous, so the onus of ‘dangerous’ has shifted from dog to owner.

Commentators have suggested that the once noble motivation for dog ownership – having dogs as companions and amusing creatures in the midst of the family home – has been superseded by more sinister designs. According to animal psychologist Dr Roger Mugford, people are using dogs as ‘status symbols’, as accessories with which to ‘intimidate and terrorise their neighbourhoods’ (1). Tales of dogfighting also abound, with gangs apparently using dogs to ‘settle scores’ in local disputes.

Loefah, a pioneer of south London’s underground dubstep scene and owner of Vinton, a 10-month-old Staffordshire bull terrier, calls the new legislation, and the applause that has greeted it, an example of middle-class fear. Explaining that he chose Vinton because ‘Staffs are “the dog”’ in his area, Loefah suggests that an extension of the Dangerous Dogs Act would make explicit what has, up until now, only ever been implied: that in the eyes of both the law and the general public, ‘the wrong people have dogs’.

The problem, of course, is in identifying bad owners, although, for some, this doesn’t seem too difficult. Michele Hanson, writing in the Guardian, managed to find a few culprits: ‘Round here, the fashion among boys is for hoodie or shaven head, hanging down trousers and a Staffordshire bull terrier. A vet I used to know used to call such dogs a dick on a string.’ Hanson conceded that ‘anyone can have a nuisance dog – it doesn’t have to be a working-class boy with silly trousers’. Mindless dog owners are to be found anywhere, ‘they just want a guard dog, an extra dick or a fashion accessory’ (2). But references to dogs on balconies and groups of taunting boy hoodlums show where Hanson believes the real problem lies.

In search of a ‘problem owner’, I visited my neighbour Randolph. Young, hooded and living in a small flat with his Staffordshire bull terrier, ‘Rudey’, he seemed the perfect candidate. But I didn’t find the selfish, status-seeking owner described by some. Stroking Rudey all the way through the interview, Randolph is every bit the devoted owner. Likening his dog to a little brother, he talks about how exciting it is watching him develop and what a comfort it is to have a dog around. Like Loefah, Randolph is sceptical about recent stories pertaining to a rise in dog violence and, more particularly, owners who train their animals to behave aggressively. Contrasting British attitudes with those of his home country Guyana, where he suggests organised dogfighting is common, Randolph says that here the relationship between owners and their four-legged friends is ‘all about the love’.

But the authorities don’t seem to share Randolph’s confidence. In London, Wandsworth police submitted the report on Anti-Social Behaviour By Youths With Dangerous Dogs for the inter-borough Safer London Problem Solving Awards 2006 (3). Wandsworth police and community members had identified youths and dangerous dogs as a serious problem undermining community safety and cohesion. But having dished out some anti-social behaviour orders, rigged up a few more CCTV cameras and forced some Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) educational officers on ‘offenders’, the police reported success all round. To top it off, they also managed to come runners-up in the prestigious awards ceremony.

Reading through the various reports, articles and campaigns that surfaced following the Cadey-Lee tragedy, it is clear that there is a perceived correlation between anti-social behaviour and violent dogs. Taken to be a further example of societal breakdown, a dog is no longer just a cute familial creature, but a symbol of belligerent individualism. Young people in particular are thought to be buying innately dangerous dogs and then purposefully training them to behave aggressively. Yet no one seems able to explain why this happening, if it is happening.

Wandsworth youth worker Leon Lee told me that he has noticed a rise in the number of young people with dogs on the Battersea estate where he lives. Not a dog-lover himself, he is both concerned and dismissive about recent comments on vicious dogs. Speaking about the young people he works with at a nearby school, he said: ‘The kids talk about dogs in much the same way as they talk about other fashions, it’s just a trend as far as I’m concerned and will disappear when they move on to the next thing.’ However, while he sees the current playground obsession with pit bulls as another transitory teenage preoccupation, he is nevertheless concerned about what it points to. ‘A frightening looking dog is a weapon, and while I think the issue is being overplayed, it does worry me that kids feel the need to protect themselves in that, or any other, way’, he says.

Two of Leon’s pupils suggest much the same thing. Sharing stories about videos featuring pit bulls on Channel U, a British urban music station, local gangs and classroom banter, their experiences seem to reinforce the view that dogs are being appropriated as machismo symbols of aggression. But when they talk about their own dogs, something altogether different surfaces. Fourteen-year-old Jair gives me an encyclopaedic history of the Rhodesian ridgeback, describing how they were originally bred for line hunting in South Africa, and he proudly tells me that they are the most intelligent and courageous dogs in the world.

But when asked about how other people perceive him and his dog, Aslan, Jair becomes defensive and noticeably uncomfortable about being depicted as threatening. ‘It’s all stereotypes’, he says. ‘If I were an old man with a Labrador everyone would think how great it was that I was taking my dog for a walk in the park everyday, but because I’m young and wear a tracksuit or whatever they see it as intimidating.’ While admitting that he sometimes feel safer having a dog beside him, when probed about what he likes most about Aslan, he becomes a little bashful and says that he likes ‘being able to take care of him and knowing that he will look after me’.

All the young men I approached said ‘responsibility’, ‘looking after someone’ and ‘loyalty’ were the reasons they own dogs. Far from being apparatuses of crime or weapons to ‘intimidate the public’, it seems that in most cases, dogs are indeed ‘man’s best friend’. Although this may be less alarming than tales of ‘terror by dog’, if there is indeed a resurgence of affection for our canine friends, ‘dangerous’ or otherwise, it might well point to a different, possibly perplexing trend.

When I ask my neighbour Randolph how friendship with a dog compares to friendship with a human being, he says ‘it’s completely different’. Randolph seems to afford his dog traits that he is unable to see in man: loyalty, trust and unconditional love, among others. He even suggests that you can trust your dog more than your mother. Randolph seems to be pointing to a fallibility in human relationships that a loving dog can alleviate. Having recently received anonymous notes through my letterbox asking concerned neighbours to report Randolph’s ‘dog abuse’ to the RSPCA, an adage to a longer-term ‘noisy neighbour’ campaign, I can begin to see why he feels that way.

To have managed to reinstate the dangerous dogs agenda as a serious issue is a sign, as it was back in 1991, of a serious political stalemate. To have mapped its extension to include house raids with barely a whimper of reproach, beyond that muttered by animal welfarists, is deeply troubling. But as musician Loefah rather mystically suggests, the legislation, and the lack of questioning about it, is a diversion from ‘the threatening thing lurking in the shadows’.

Whether a dog owner who is more trusting of ‘dog’ than ‘mum’, the dog lover convinced that animal abuse is rife, the anonymous neighbour who doesn’t have the backbone to tell a young man to turn the noise down or, if such a thing exists, the ‘dangerous dog’ breeder who protects his personhood by wild beast, each points both to a disturbing sense of suspicion felt towards other human fellows, and a grossly exaggerated significance being granted to the most common of British pets. Columnist Ross Clark was right to deride our ‘demented national fondness for pooches’ (5). Not because, as he suggests, it makes us blinkered to the threats posed by yelping curs, but because it is a big embarrassment that dogs have informed any serious political, social or cultural discussion at all.

(1) ‘Dog Law needs updating’, BBC News, 30 September 2006

(2) ‘Beware of the dog’, Guardian, 28 September 2006

(3) Safer London problem solving awards, Metropolitan police awards

(4) ‘New Dangerous Dogs’, Law in Action, BBC, 6 June 2006

(5) ‘Blame the Essex dog lovers’, The Times (London), 28 September 2006

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Topics Politics