Putting the ‘underclass’ on a tighter leash

Dangerous dogs are back in the news, and as always it’s their allegedly dangerous owners who are being demonised.

Patrick Hayes

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‘It’s time’, declared the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals on last week’s BBC Panorama, that we spoke ‘more openly’ about the problem of dangerous dogs in Britain. The Met Police, various local councils, dog charities and rescue centres agree. All think we should be talking more about so-called dangerous dogs and more specifically, in the words of Tory MP Angie Bray, about their ‘dangerous owners’.

Bray introduced a discussion about dangerous dogs in parliament last month. She described the ‘growing menace’ of ‘young men with large fierce dogs attached to a lead and usually fitted out with full studded collars’. ‘They are called status dogs’, she continued, ‘and that is all about machismo or certainly about displaying potential aggression’.

The allegedly reckless way in which these young men – mostly from rundown parts of Britain – treat their dogs can no longer be tolerated, we are told. These ‘feckless Neanderthals on inner-city estates’, as Sue Carroll from the Mirror described them, have to be brought under control. The real target here is clearly not the dogs themselves but the ‘underclass’ people who own them – it is them whom the authorities want to tame.

A major theme of Panorama was that dogs are the innocent victims of our ‘broken society’. The programme followed the journeys of two abandoned Staffordshire terriers – Scar and Brandy – after they arrived at Battersea. Scar – thrown out by owners who no longer felt that he suited their lifestyle – was deemed fit for rehoming after intensive monitoring and was rebranded with a nice middle-class name: Scamp. However, Brandy was considered too violent to rehome and instead was placed on ‘death row’ and given a lethal injection. Battersea says it is seeing more and more such hopeless cases.

Pro-canine campaigners argue that Britain’s 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act, introduced by John Major’s Tory government, must be replaced. Not because, in the words of Lord Tyler in the House of Lords, the act ‘is cited by political students, not just in this country but all over the world, as a classic case of the danger of a kneejerk response to events producing a law that seeks to remedy a situation at speed’. No, because the act legislates against the dog rather than against the owner. Rather than focusing on mad dogs, the law should focus on mad Englishmen, they believe.

The main aim should be to ensure that the owner is sufficiently tamed and housetrained. The RSCPA recently argued that all dog owners need to be educated, claiming ‘we want to focus on early intervention and prevention rather than reacting to incidents’. A Dog Ownership Suitability test has been proposed to ensure that owners are good enough citizens to be allowed to own a ‘best friend’. Many campaigners want compulsory microchipping of dogs, so that if a dog does anything bad, the owner can be had up for it. As vet and newspaper columnist Pete Wedderburn puts it: ‘It’s said again and again, but it’s so true: this problem is the fault of the humans, not the dogs. How do you make the humans responsible? Forge an unbreakable link between owner and dog with a microchip.’

Before being ousted in May, the New Labour government was on the brink of passing legislation requiring all dog-owners to have licenses and to microchip their pets. Such an approach is being resisted by the Lib-Con government, with agriculture minister James Paice arguing that ‘the majority would be paying for the sins of the minority’. The Lib-Con government is still considering the recommendations in the New Labour-led report into the fatal dog attack on four-year-old John Paul Massey in late last year, but it seems that many of New Labour’s authoritarian proposals, such as compulsory licensing, mandatory third-party insurance and branding certain dogs as ‘anti-social’, will be scrapped.

We do need some perspective in this debate. A recent study by Bristol University found that 10.5 million dogs are now kept as pets in Britain. However, only a tiny number of these animals are ‘put to sleep’ due to behavioural problems. At Battersea, for example, the largest dog rescue centre in Britain, fewer than 2,000 dogs a year are put down due to ‘temperament’. Battersea has euthanised 321 under the Dangerous Dogs Act over the past 19 years. There are an average of 2.3 human fatalities from dog attacks each year in Britain – far lower than deaths on horses, for example.

Compulsory microchips and licenses may not be imposed on a national scale, but local councils are taking their own initative. Lambeth Council in London, working with an ‘expert panel’ from their ‘Dog Scrutiny Commission’, recently announced that it would target certain dog owners. Not the nice, middle-class ones, of course. ‘We are not against people keeping dogs as pets – far from it. We want to address the problems created by irresponsible dog owners.’ Lambeth’s proposal? That there should be mandatory dog chipping amongst dog-owners who live in social housing. Other councils are looking to replicate this socially snobbish approach to punish certain dog-owners.

‘I think society has failed this dog’, said a vet on Panorama as he examined a ‘Staffie’. The prevailing view today is that we live in a society packed with fickle, irresponsible yobs who are not fit to own a dog; whose own animalistic tendencies and lack of emotional development is expressed through the bad behaviour of their pets. These people must be trained out of their feral habits, be forced to apply for licenses if they want to own a dog, and must be tied to that dog through an Orwellian microchip. Rather than succumbing to the sentiments expressed by crying vets on TV or by pictures of sad dogs on ‘death row’, we should instead ask serious questions about the misanthropic, snobbish motives of the anti-dangerous dog campaigners, and challenge their claim that society has, literally, gone to the dogs.

Patrick Hayes is a co-founder of the Institute of Ideas’ Current Affairs Forum and one of the organisers of the Battle of Ideas festival.

Previously on spiked

Helen Birtwistle interviewed owners of ‘dangerous dogs’. Brendan O’Neill saw the term ‘dangerous dogs’ as a code for underclass Britain. Tim Black thought dog-fighting videos was a free speech issue. Or read more at spiked issue Animals.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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