There is an epidemic in the UK these days. Dogs are disappearing from yards and porches, vanishing from parlors and kitchens. Children’s companions and family friends taken away, more like 1984 than 2011. No, these are not targets of the Thought Police, but nearly as insidious-they are victims of the Dangerous Dogs Act.
These animals are being taken because they “look” dangerous. Not because of behavior. Not because they have bitten and disfigured some poor child. Just because they have a certain “look” that dooms them to imprisonment and, too often, death.
In the classic movie “Casablanca”, Claude Rains tells his officers to “round up the usual suspects” after a shooting, and they do. In 1941 in French Morocco, balanced before the onslaught of the Nazi war machine, that may well have been de rigueur. In Britain, 2011, that is unacceptable and must stop.
The names of the seized are common, but the list is growing. Lennox. Miley. Simba. These have become the “usual suspects” and are being rounded up faster than we can track. All the while, the House of Lords has recognized the failures of the DDA and has proposed legislation revoking the power of the police and animal wardens to seize an animal just on looks. Yet, as the measure works through the Parliament, seizures are continuing.
When challenged by families, the provisions of the DDA allow the animals seized to be held, incommunicado, while the process grinds slowly along. The initial ‘evaluations’ done are not evaluations of behavior-they are conducted with a tape measure and a checklist. Is the dog broad of head? Does he have wide shoulders? Does he have straight legs? As I have pointed out in a previous column, the standards applied to the prohibited physical type apply to many dogs, purebred and mixed heritage. If I shave down a Komondor or Puli is it suddenly a Pit Bull? They are both strong, broad skulled, straight legged and wide shouldered breeds. Can a haircut make a difference between banned and non-banned? If so, then the standard for judgment is terminally flawed.
We have discussed Lennox extensively. Blue has been liberated, thanks to a good decision by a wise magistrate. But let’s look at two more on the hot seat right now. According to reports, Miley is a 15 month old mixed breed that police seized despite the fact that Miley has not been reported aggressive. Miley simply “looks wrong”. Miley has not bitten, threatened, or otherwise shown bad behavior.
Simba is similar. Simba’s crime is to have been running loose on several occasions. This I understand-a dog must not be allowed to run loose. Especially repeatedly, despite the owners excuses for the transgressions. But the onus here falls on the owner, not the dog. If the dog is loose-cite the owner. If it is repeated, fine them more. As I have done in the past, establish legislation that states if a dog is repeatedly loose and the owner unresponsive after proper notification, take civil seizure of the dog to have it rehomed to a more responsible owner. But don’t just kill the dog because the owner is incompetent.
I also have to question some of the official evaluations of the dogs given in custody, particularly the ‘evaluation’ of Lennox. Lennox has been examined by two independent behaviorists, and found to be not a threat. One less than adequately qualified person has termed the same dog “the most dangerous dog they have seen”. Their evaluation is at best suspect. If I lay hands on a dog that I truly want to fail a behavioral evaluation, I guarantee that I can push hard enough to get some sort of negative response from the dog that will justify the result I want. We have had evaluators here in the US that have done so repeatedly, some of which are famous for finding “flaws” that give excuses to destroy animals. Archimedes supposedly said “Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world.” I would edit that to say give me time to work and a lever (of provocation) and I can make any dog-or honestly any animal-display aggression. The idea of ‘evaluating’ an animal by pressing it long and hard enough to get a defensive response is cruel and ridiculous. But that is exactly what is happening with some evaluators, and that is unprofessional and unconscionable.
Where does this leave us-and the dogs in limbo in the UK?
Miley should be simply returned immediately, with apologies to the owners. “Oops-we messed up. Here’s your dog. Go home and have fun”.
Simba is another issue. If Simba has been a nuisance by getting loose, then cite the owners. Make them responsible for their conduct, and correct them by whatever means is locally and legally available. Remember, their failure is not the dog’s failure-punish the right end of the leash.
For poor Lennox? Ultimately, I am a pragmatist. I am so sorry, Caroline and Brooke, but in Lennox’s case there is not likely a fairly tale outcome. There will not likely be a Prince, or a Princess, sweeping in on a fair steed to spirit him back home to live happily ever after. The case has gone too far and has muddied too many waters. Even if he is to return home the possibility of a problem looms too large-no one can live under a microscope for the rest of their lives, especially a dog. He, a family member, or some well meaning friend, may make an otherwise minor mistake that will result an express trip back to the dock and onto the euthanasia table.
Or, knowing human nature as I do, some not well meaning person scrambling for their fifteen minutes in the spotlight may allege Lennox has committed some aggressive act, with fully the same result.
Frankly, the local dog wardens will be hamstrung and unable to so their duties no matter what happens if Lennox goes home. If Lennox lives a perfect life and yet is the victim of an attention seeker, the wardens will be under severe pressure to act politically, not professionally. And if Lennox, perhaps as a result of his imprisonment and isolation, truly does bite someone, the wardens will again be vilified and blamed.
So, although my heart is torn for you Caroline and Brooke, and for Lennox, most likely your poor lovely boy can’t go home again. Lennox has become famous, and fame is often its own prison. Just ask your favorite movie star what it’s like to try and pop to the store for a few items.
Lennox doesn’t deserve prison, either at the hands of the Belfast Council or in the glare of an unrelenting spotlight. But he does deserve a chance to live out the rest of his days in peace, within a family unit. So for Lennox, the best we may be able to hope for is that he is released into the custody of a responsible and caring rescue group, that can provide resources to help him recover from his trials, and who can place him in a secure, safe, and understanding home where he can live unthreatened by unreasonable discriminatory laws. The Belfast Council can feel satisfied that they have done their duty by removing such a “serious threat” from their bailiwick. Everyone lives almost happily ever after. Except Caroline and Brooke. Except the rest of us.
It then becomes incumbent on the rest of us, dog owners and non-dog owners, to repair this broken system, a system wherein the good nature of a dog is ignored and the measuring tape decides life or death. Where creatures are summarily judged and executed because they have the “wrong” look.
So how do we fix the issue? I have a few suggestions.
First and foremost, define Dangerous by specific, quantifiable, express action of the dog, not the owner. If the dog has bitten, evaluate that bite objectively. Dr. Ian Dunbar, DVM PhD (London University), has established a clear and quantified Bite Assessment tool for evaluating the severity of dog bites. I have taught and used that tool across North America. It grades bites by specific criteria and is behaviorally linked to the intent and likely severity of the attack. Establish clear rules in law that give consistent consequences for dogs based on the bite; if a dog, unprovoked, inflicts a Level 5 bite to a victim, it is Dangerous. Clear and consistent-whether a Puli or a Pomeranian.
Provocation is often already litigated in a jurisdiction civilly. Use that civil definition-but evaluate the provocation with a full understanding of how the dog sees the event, not how the humans see it. Dogs are not humans in little furry coats. Understand their non-human world view and learning history, and use that to see whether an incident was provoked in the dog’s world. Apply that to the incident at hand after a full, detailed investigation.
Correct, and punish where appropriate, the human actions that lead to dog problems. If a dog is loose and a nuisance, punish the owner. If the owner is unrepentant or unresponsive, step up the punishment. Provide for the seizure of a dog from a noncompliant owner after successive corrective tries so the dog can be relocated and placed in a responsible home. Provide legislative authority to ban irresponsible owners from replacing one nuisance animal with another. But focus enforcement action on the owner, not the dog. Things (and in this case dogs must be lumped in as things) cannot be legislated; effective legislation addresses human behavior.
Finally, if a human has created through negligence or deliberate bad acts a truly dangerous animal, especially if that animal has injured or killed another human, prosecute fully and send the human to prison. In those rare cases the dog should, for practical and legal reasons, be destroyed-but the person responsible for the evil manipulation of a gentle and forgiving animal into a marauding monster must be punished to the maximum allowed by law.
We have an opportunity. The House of Lords in the UK have recognized the deficits in the British DDA. Across the world we have the chance to change laws from irrational, hate based excuses to discriminate against whatever “look” we find objectionable at the moment to clear, behavior based practical and enforceable laws that will truly increase public safety and improve our treatment of the canine companions that have stood by our sides for tens of thousands of years. Let’s take that opportunity and make the right choice.