RSPCA special report: The culture of status dogs
The link between Iain Duncan Smith's welfare reform plans and the RSPCA's campaign against dangerous dogs might not be obvious at first. But David Grant, a vet for over 43 years, is convinced there is a link. As the director of the RSPCA's Harmsworth Hospital in Holloway, North London, he believes that wider neglect in society is at the heart of ending the trend of owning and breeding dangerous or so-called ‘status' dogs.
The relationship between illegal dogs and urban environments is clear, he says. He points to a review of health inequalities between Britain's richest and poorest by Sir Michael Marmot. Entitled Fair Society, Healthy Lives it suggests that health inequalities account for lost productivity and higher benefit costs. "The basic problem is a social one, which has not been addressed," agrees Grant. "It's a conveyor belt of social deprivation and education deprivation which begins at birth. Unless you deal with it right from the beginning, I can't see how you can ever solve the problem [of status dogs]."
The government introduced the Dangerous Dogs Act in 1991 to reduce the ownership of certain types of dog, traditionally used in dog fighting. It prohibited four types of dog: the Pit Bull Terrier, the Japanese Tosa, the Dogo Argentino and the Fila Brasileiro.
But Grant believes the legislation is "dead in the water". "It's not succeeding at all," he says. "The only thing that could be said about it is that it offers police some reason to detain someone if they suspect they have an illegal dog. The Act was designed to get rid of the breed [pitbulls], but there are just as many now as since before the Act began."
The role of the owner is key to preventing dogs from becoming dangerous. Grant explains: "There are some bigdogs which if not brought up properly are potentially dangerous. But the inner-city gangs with dangerous dogs want them to be hard, they want them to be nasty and they want to have control over them."
Grant has also noticed more dogs being abandoned since the recession began, especially status dogs. This has proven both costly and problematic. "We have to get dog legislation officers from the Metropolitan Police toidentify whether they're an illegal dog or not. If we rehome a dog that's illegal then we're breaking the law." The numbers of abandoned Staffordshire Bull Terriers has become so extreme that the RSPCA is struggling with the levels coming into our rehoming centres.
So what is the attraction in owning a status dog? There is an obvious financial incentive. Grant claims that some puppies can sell for up to £500. "If you're unemployed, on the fringes of society, and you've got a bitch that produces eight puppies, that's £4,000. If you can do it twice a year, that's £8,000." There is also evidence that certain breeds of status or dangerous dogs are used for protection and intimidation.
With such a daunting task, are there examples of good practice to learn from? Grant points to Wandsworth council and their distribution of resources. "There's a lot of indiscriminate breeding going on in social housing and the local authority social housing providers don't have tenancy agreements with regards to dogs, or if they do they don't adhere to them. Wandsworth is saying that if someone lives in one of their properties [with a dog], that's fine, but they have to register it, microchip it and neuter it. They should not breed from it, otherwise they're in breach of their tenancy agreements."
And when it comes to the government, Grant believes that legislators should listen more instead of charging inwith a new solution. The RSPCA advocates a multi-agency approach, where the police, local authorities, social housing providers and animal welfare providers work together. "The government needs to look at it in a holistic way, rather than trying to tinker with a law which failed. If you just tinker with that law it's going to continue to fail."
He adds: "Unless you deal with the reasons why these young people fail to get through the education system, fail to get a job, what hope is there of any kind of a dog law making sense? You've got to deal with the underlying causes."
This article was first published in Total Politics magazine.