Friday, July 20, 2012

Behavior vs BSL-A distinction that would have saved Lennox

In the wake of Lennox’s death in Northern Ireland there has been a huge hue and cry against Breed Specific Legislation across the world.  I fully support the eradication of this discriminatory type of legislation, but the fact remains: there are dangerous dogs out there.  We need a strategy on how to identify them and what to do with them.

In this post, I want to try and offer a constructive solution. There is, I believe, a way to address vicious and dangerous dogs, protect public safety, hold owners of dangerous dogs accountable, and place the ultimate responsibility where it belongs-on the humans involved.  And when I speak in this article about Dangerous Dogs, I am referring to dogs that have been legally declared as such after whatever specific procedure a jurisdiction imposes.  There are no such things as inherently dangerous dogs.  Period.

The basis of my suggested solution is that we need to directly address behavior.  Not appearance, not beliefs, not rumor, not myth or fantasy.  We need to base our strategy on facts, direct observation, and sound behavioral principles.

It really doesn’t matter what a dog looks like.  Unlike Medusa, no dog is capable of turning anyone to stone or causing them to fall dead from a look.  For a dog to cause injury it must act.  Action is behavior.  Behavior can be described, measured, quantified.  Dangerous behavior can be dealt with likewise; defined, measured, and quantified.  An animal manifesting specific behaviors, accurately described and quantified, can be dealt with in an appropriate manner, and the human responsible for that animal can be held accountable.

The first thing we need to do is accurately describe and quantify the behavior.  Dr. Ian Dunbar, founder of Sirius Dog Training ( developed a six level bite assessment tool for use in evaluating and comparing dog bites.  The tool is available online here: (
For those unfamiliar with this scale, it rates dog bites on Levels ranging from 1 to 6.   Level 1 is threatening behavior with no physical contact; Level 6 is an incident resulting in a human fatality.  This assessment scale lets us specifically define the parameters of a bite (depth, intensity and number of bites) and gives us solid ground to compare one bite to another, across jurisdictions, circumstances, and dog sizes.  No where in this tool does breed come into play.

By quantifying an incident we can then define our response to these incidents with clear, scalable categories.  We can then use this categorization to develop Dangerous Dog regulations that are based on the number of defined incidents that occur within a specific time period.

A Level 1 incident involves a dog barking, growling, lunging and otherwise clearly menacing a person without physical contact.  A Level 2 incident progresses to minimal skin contact by teeth without puncturing the skin.  A community could establish an ordinance along the following lines.

            “Any dog that commits three (3) Level 1 or Level 2 incidents, when unprovoked and off the owners’ property, documented by the responsible investigating authority and attested to by sworn affidavit, within a period of two (2) years may be deemed a Potentially Dangerous Dog.  Such a dog shall be required to attend an approved obedience class or receive approved behavior remediation.  The owner may be fined up to $X.00 upon the third incident within the listed time period.  Any further incidents by the Potentially Dangerous Dog shall result in the dog being declared Dangerous.
            Any dog that is responsible for three (3) level 3 incidents, when unprovoked and off the owners’ property, within a period of two (2) years may be declared Dangerous and be required to adhere to all regulations of such.  Those shall include (insert various regulations)
            Any dog that inflicts a Level 4 or 5 bite shall be declared Dangerous.”

And so on.  I also like to include some wording that threatening behavior must be held to the standard of a reasonable person.  I had to investigate a claim that a dog, a Bassett Hound, was dangerous.  When I observed the dog he was snoozing in the sun in his front yard.  He barely woke enough to look at me as I stepped over him to ring the doorbell.  When I met with the complainant, she said that the dog “looked” at her and thus threatened her.  Come to find out she was phobic about dogs.  That case went no further as her response did not meet the level of what a reasonable person would perceive as a threat.

Ultimately the various details, such as response numbers and time periods can easily be adapted to the needs and desires of a local community.  Intermediate responses can be more detailed too-say, after the second Level 1 or 2 incident the dog owner may receive a written warning and lesser fine, with a strong suggestion that their dog receive training or behavioral treatment.  A city could provide lesser regulation for a dog with 3 Level 3 bites, but then drop the hammer if a fourth bite, or even threatening behavior occurs. 

I have recommended requiring three minor incidents and a specific time factor for a reason.  Anyone, man or beast, can make a small mistake from time to time.  The first minor incident (not Level 4 or 5) can be understood and is often taken as evidence of a need for training in responsible owners.  I certainly get enough calls from first time incident families.  A second incident is a clue that there is a deficit, human or dog, but still (in my opinion) is in the range of accidental behavior.  By the time we are at three incidents, we definitely have a problem.  Usually we have an owner that is just not acting responsibly and needs to be held accountable, but we also have dog behavior that needs addressing.

As far as the time factor goes, if a puppy has two minor incidents at six months, and then goes ten or twelve years until he nips a person as an aged, grumpy old guy, that does not a Dangerous Dog make.  There should be, for minor incidents, a rational and reasonable time frame.  Level 4 and 5 incidents show a much greater danger and should be dealt with firmly and immediately.

Most importantly there should be sanctions against humans who fail to address dangerous behavior.  Any owner of a declared Dangerous Dog who has another incident should be facing jail, period.  If Sparky has been declared Dangerous for a Level 4 bite and then ever bites again, the owner must be held to account.  The punishment can logically vary with the severity of the incident (using the assessment tool again).  For a Dangerous Dog that is a Level 3 biter, and then inflicts another Level 3 bite, maybe a misdemeanor charge against the owner is appropriate.  A Dangerous Dog that inflicts a Level 4 or 5 bite after the declaration should result in felony charges for the owner.

Once again, the details can be tweaked by the local jurisdiction.  The essential issue here is that the determination of whether a dog is Dangerous must be based on clear, quantifiable criteria.  Those criteria must apply to all dogs, preferable in proportion to their size.  A Chihuahua that sinks his whole jaw into someone’s leg, even though the bite is relatively small in size, is a Dangerous Dog and needs to be regulated as such.  They are a threat, and the damage inflicted is only smaller because they are physically smaller.  A big dog that bites but only leaves a single puncture less than half the length of its canine tooth is a Level 3 biter-no matter how large he is.

We have to discard the notion that breed or type of dog somehow makes them inherently dangerous-or somehow automatically safe.  Every dog has the potential of being either. We must define and quantify behavior that is unacceptable-not looks.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Lennox: The gloves come off.


For those concerned about my comment that I had remained in the background on this up 'till now: I was working along with Victoria for about a year.  We presented me as an independent, unallied and qualified expert to come re-evaluate Lennox.  I kept my prior comments on this blog thoughtful and low key in order to try and be able to do what I do-give a fair, balanced, and professional assessment.  Making a public fuss, even though I already had my reservations, would not have helped to gain the possible access we sought.  And in all honesty (which was expressed to the parties in charge), if I had gone to NI and evaluated Lennox and found him dangerous, I would have publicly said so! Now I am able, since there is no longer a chance of coming in from "outside" as a non-threatening presence, to put my feelings and the story of my/our efforts out there.  My prior reticence was in Lennox' interest; too much said too soon without full access and information would have done nothing to help.  Please know that, out of the public spotlight, I have been eager, ready and willing to step in at any point and bring my professional experience to bear.  Believe me when I tell you that I am sick thinking that, just maybe, if I had gone sooner.....and then, as we all do, I guess myself into a corner.  The BCC has had the controls the entire time.   We can only know go forward and try to keep this from happening again.

First warning: This is going to be a long one.  Grab a drink and settle back-we have some talking to do.

From the beginning of my involvement with the Lennox case (which dates back almost a year to when Victoria Stilwell brought me in) I have stayed as neutral and professional as possible.  I have resisted criticising the BCC and their evaluator, as we were trying to get me to Northern Ireland and get access to Lennox to give a fair, objective, and behaviorally sound evaluation.  Sarah Fisher had done a great job, but I brought extensive "Pit Bull" experience coupled with unparalleled experience with "killer dogs" (dogs that have taken human lives).  So I kept my opinion considered and low key, hoping that I could have come in as an "outside" expert, supplemented Victoria and Sarah's efforts, and gotten the BCC to listen.  Now that Lennox is dead and the case is over, I no longer have to hold my tongue.

Let's look at the "qualifications" of the only evaluation that the BCC or Court accepted.  The BCC "evaluator" is, admittedly, a former police Constable.  So am I, except that instead of being a Constable, the equivalent here in the US to a base Patrolman, I retired as a Lieutenant and Watch Commander, the UK equivalent of a full Inspector with the Metropolitan Police.  I am also a certified Behavior Consultant (he has no such training), have been certified as a Professional Dog Trainer, and am trained and certified as a behavior evaluator by several organizations-and he is not.  I have further, over the years, worked with, trained, and evaluated what are probably over a thousand Pit Bulls and other breeds prohibited in the UK, certainly more than the BCC evaluator.

In fact, their evaluator, who's evaluation history seems to be summed up by "knows a Pit Bull when he is paid to find one" isn't even a dog show judge.  Wouldn't a conformation expert such as a show judge have been a better choice if we were going to see if a dog physically met a breed standard?

Sarah Fisher, a bona-fide behaviorist, issued her opinion as to Lennox' safe demeanor, but her opinion was spurned.  One suspects that the BCC had issues with the opinion of a "mere woman" despite her clear qualifications.

So another outside evaluator, with credentials, was brought in by the Barnes family, this time a man.  David Ryans conducted a second evaluation, and was also rejected by the BCC.  Rumor had it at the time that they did not consider Ryans experienced enough with prohibited breeds.

All that said, I have looked carefully at the video of Mr. Ryans, and would like to walk you all through what I see.

The video I am referring to is posted online here: The times given refer to the times listed on the running video.

The test starts with Lennox on leash, held by a female Animal Control person, with both the Animal Control person and David Ryans (presumably a stranger to Lennox), a behaviorist, seated in chairs.  Lennox is being petted by the female.  Lennox is seated and seems to be relaxed.

As Mr. Ryans is placing a notebook into a bag at his side, Lennox approaches under Mr. Ryans' leg to see what he is doing.  He shows no fear or reticence towards Ryans, just mild interest in the bag.  Ryans places his open hand directly on Lennox snout to pet him and guide him back from under Ryans' legs.

Lennox returns to the seated female and seeks her attention (about 32 seconds in).  Mr. Ryans then proffers a treat repeatedly to Lennox, extending it and then removing it from Lennox' reach. Lennox is focused on the treat, but allows Ryans to take the treat back repeatedly with no sign of possession aggression or reluctance.  Lennox never snaps, lunges, or does anything other than wait for Ryans to surrender the treat.  Lennox does, for a moment, try to get up and approach Ryans and the treat, but immediately returns to a sit when asked.  Lennox' responses are positive and he readily seeks appropriate, positive contact with Ryans'  Lennox does briefly try to get in Ryans' lap, but responds immediately when asked to get off.  Ryans appears to "pop" Lennox on the snout several times with an open hand (about 1:27) to elicit a response.  Lennox briefly and calmly retreats, but continues to try and make positive contact with Ryans with no defensive or aggressive display.

Ryans then stands up.  Lennox continues to make appropriate positive contact, and shows no negative response to Ryans despite his looming stance over Lennox.  Lennox watches as Ryans turns away and reaches for more treats.  Lennox makes no attempt to go after Ryans while his back is turned.

Lennox then allows Ryans to approach frontally and back  him up, almost to the wall, with Ryans maintaining a tall, directly frontal stance.  Lennox sits attentively.  Ryans then challenges Lennox with a direct, frontal stare.  Lennox responds peacefully, turning his head, and remains calm, retreating briefly and returning to the handler, then partially turning away to defuse the challenge of Ryan's.  At no time did Lennox show even the most remote aggressive response to this stranger, Mr. Ryans.

Now, please compare my notes here to an evaluation I conducted regarding a frankly aggressive animal we will call "JoJo" (not his name).  Remember-these following notes are an aggressive dog, NOT Lennox!

"JoJo did not allow me to make direct contact.  JoJo is very suspicious of others. When he was out XXX was holding him.  JoJo was tense and alert.   JoJo reacted violently to sustained eye contact, in full lunge and attack mode, teeth bared and barking/growling strongly.  Once JoJo reacted to me he kept a very wary eye on me and did not relax.  WARNING: JOJO HAS DISPLAYED HUMAN FOCUS AGGRESSION.  JOJO MAY BE A THREAT TO HUMANS. JOJO IS A HIGH LIABILITY DOG.  Humane containment and management is the best strategy for him."

Does this look a little different from the objective appraisal of Lennox?  I certainly think so."JoJo" was clearly an aggressive dog, and reading my assessment of Lennox, or watching the video, shows the reality of Lennox' interaction with Mr. Ryans-completely non-aggressive.

For those wanting to see the evaluation of another dog accused of aggression that turned out NOT to be an aggressive dog, please watch the following:

You will see that this evaluation is far more extensive, and is conducted with this "killer" dog unrestrained.  Helo's evaluation included substantial direct contact between me and the dog, and let me see far more of Helo's true behavior.  Mr. Ryan was operating under the constraints imposed by the BCC.  I will bet that the BCC evaluator never interacted freely with Lennox.  I also suspect that the BCC evaluator never grabbed Lennox by the face, never met his gaze eye-to-eye, never tried to take a food bowl away-in fact, I would guess that their evaluator's whole opinion was derived from a closely limited situation like they imposed on Mr. Ryan.  That is not a fair or appropriate evaluation.

The evaluation for that dog, Helo, is summarized here:

"I first observed Helo inhis kennel.  He came to the front of thekennel as I passed and was alert and quiet. I then proceeded to the fenced play area at the facility and had Helobrought out to me to interact and greet off leash.  Helo greeted me readily and appropriately,sniffing and alert.  He approached headup, with no show of shyness or aggression. He readily sought contact but was also interested in checking out theimmediate area.

Helo readily allowed me topet him, and then allowed ready manipulation of his head, ears, mouth, andtail.  He allowed me to manipulate hisrear feet, but was sensitive to handling of his front legs, consistent with theexpected behavior of an animal that has recently received a leg injury.  His right front leg still showed visibleswelling.  I grasped Helo by the sides ofhis face and, at close range, met his gaze directly.  Helo broke eye contact first and did notgrowl, stiffen his posture, or show any typical signs of stress oraggression.  Helo repeatedly allowed meto grab his collar, stand over him, and examine his bite and teeth formeasurements.  I conducted a “squeezetest” wherein the tester grabs handfuls of fur and skin and gently squeezes todetermine the tested dog’s reactions. Helo did turn his head towards my hand as I proceeded down his body, butdid not open his mouth, snap, nip, or muzzle-punch in reaction.  His body posture remained neutral during thistest.

I offered Helo high-valuetreats (Pupperoni) and he took them readily. Helo allowed me to proffer the treats and then remove them from his bitewith no resistance or attempt to guard or protect the treats.  I also gave Helo a bowl of food (he had notreceived his morning feeding yet) and he allowed me to present and remove thefood repeatedly.  Helo allowed me tomanipulate his face while eating, and only gave a minimal grumble when Iphysically placed my hand into the kibble he was eating while he ate.

Helo is fairly wellbehaved, sitting on command fairly often (approximately 70%) and has a lesserresponse to being called (about 30%).

Helo exhibited nosensitivity to loud noises or strange objects."

Note that my written evaluations of Lennox, "JoJo", and Helo never use language such as "the most dangerous dog I have ever seen" or any of the other nonsense that the BCC's evaluator has used.  Such emotional language has no place in a behavioral assessment.  My evaluations never mention the dogs' appearance, as physical appearance has absolutely no bearing on behavior.  In fact, "JoJo" wasn't even a breed banned in the UK.  Neither was Helo.

Lennox certainly got short shrift in this incident.  The evaluator that the Court relied upon is clearly unqualified to assess temperament and behavior.  He doesn't even have the credentials to assess adherence to a breed standard.

And frankly, if their evaluator thinks that Lennox was the "most dangerous dog" he had ever seen-please come meet some off the guys I have handled and evaluated after they have killed humans.  I have seen more dangerous Cocker Spaniels.  Please, if you are to be considered a professional, try not to embarrass yourself with such twaddle.

I am so sorry Lennox.  We tried to get you a fair shot.  I just hope your death serves to be the seed for change, and that your sacrifice motivates others to fight unfair laws based in ignorance and hate.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Lennox 07/06/2012 from Victoria Stilwell

For my readers who may not be following Victoria Stilwell, who has been involved in the Lennox case in Northern Ireland for many months (and who brought it to my attention first almost a year ago) here is the latest news from Belfast.  I support Victoria's efforts in this case, have been available to back her up in her fight to fight to get Lennox fair treatment, and remain her ally and supporter in these times.  Victoria is Lennox' last hope.  Cross your fingers and keep positive!

From Victoria's post of 07/04/2012-copyright Victoria Stilwell, 2012.

"As most close observers of Lennox’s case now know, the legal process which had been undertaken in an attempt to return the dog to the Barnes family (his owners) has run its course to no avail. I remain in close contact with the Barnes family and continue to be amazed by their resolve and courage while attempting to save their beloved boy’s life. It is important to understand that every possible legal avenue to release Lennox back to the family has been exhausted, and that result is no longer an option. Indeed, the latest news is that he is scheduled to be euthanized next week. My heart goes out to Craig, Caroline and Brooke for what they are enduring.
Over the past year, I have received many generous and kind-hearted offers from those wishing to help on Lennox’s behalf, and I have ensured that the Barnes family and Lennox’s legal team have been made aware of all of these.
Several months ago, I began working behind the scenes with Lennox’s legal team to begin the process of convincing the court system to allow Lennox to be rehomed in the US – a process which I personally am dedicated to overseeing and facilitating if it is allowed by the court. I have personally received the Barnes family’s approval to take Lennox, and while I can only imagine the heartache they would feel at seeing him go, they have said they would prefer him to have a happy life elsewhere rather than see it end next week. My longstanding private offer to absorb all of the cost and organize all of the travel arrangements to transport him at no expense to the Belfast City Council has been with those responsible for making the final decisions regarding Lennox for some time. Indeed, we are currently awaiting a response to the legal team's request to the BCC to meet with me directly to discuss options. As of this morning, we have not had an official response from the BCC regarding this offer.
I’d like to be clear about something: while I detest Breed-Specific Legislation (BSL) and laws such as the UK’s Dangerous Dogs Act which are responsible for the incarceration and destruction of dogs like Lennox all over the world, I understand the difficult position municipalities are put in during situations like this. While I do believe that the BCC and court system have made significant errors in the handling and prosecution of Lennox’s case, I do not ever advocate overturning the rule of law and re-writing legislation on the fly as we see how it affects our personal daily lives. We cannot bend and reshape standing laws in our societies any time we don’t like the outcome they provide. Instead, we must refocus our efforts on changing inappropriate and dangerous laws completely from the top down, which is why I’ve been railing against the UK’s Dangerous Dogs Act legislation for many years. Lennox’s impending euthanasia is but one of hundreds of examples of how this law unfairly prosecutes perfectly well-adjusted pets while failing to truly protect the public from dangerous dogs – the purported aim of the legislation in the first place. We must not allow Lennox’s and the Barnes family’s ordeal to be in vain – let’s all unite behind a concerted, positive effort to overturn the Dangerous Dogs Act in the UK and other laws just like it currently on the books in countless other parts of the world.
So to the Belfast court system and the BCC, I now publicly give you my word that if you remand custody of Lennox to me and allow me to take him to a safe place in the US, I will not disparage the BCC, the Belfast court system, or those involved with this case in any way moving forward. Indeed, I will publicly recognize the courage that it will take to rise above the divisive voices clamoring on both sides of this issue, follow the law, and yet also show some humanity and allow this dog to live out his final years in peace in the US. I recognize that although I wholeheartedly and passionately disagree with the repeated rulings that found him to be a dangerous dog, once he was found to be guilty, you have little choice but to enforce the law. All I’m asking is that you recognize the special nature of this case and allow him to leave the country – a result which still allows you to uphold the spirit of the law while avoiding the death of what I and many others consider to be an innocent dog and averting an even more damaging end to what has undoubtedly become a public relations nightmare.
I’m in Dublin tonight and will be in Belfast over the weekend and at the beginning of next week to visit with the Barnes family and explore any last-ditch efforts to save Lennox. I’ll post any updates here, and I also encourage you to visitLennox’s official page.
Click the links below to read other articles from myself and others:
Sarah Fisher’s Lennox Statement
Jim Crosby’s Lennox Statement
Victoria’s Blog

Monday, July 2, 2012

Lennox update 07/02/2012

An update from the Barnes family on the Lennox issue: the following was posted this afternoon (July 2, 2012) on the Save Lennox Facebook page.  I want to share this with all of my readers. Please keep Lennox and his family in your thoughts.

Official Statement From Lennox's Family:

We apologise for the silence as we know our many friends and supporters around the world have been desperate for news but until we had further talks with our legal team we had nothing new to share. We needed to explore all possible options before we issued another statement as we did not wish to give those that have campaigned so tirelessly any false hope or for anything to be taken out of context as has happened in the past.

Whilst there may well be errors in the Judge’s ruling from a point of law this has little bearing on whether we can or should progress by taking the case to a higher court. The ruling is based on the Judge’s decision that he deems Lennox to be unsafe despite evidence given by those qualified to assess and understand dog behaviour that contradicts the testimony of the Prosecution that was presented in court. This has given us little room for manoeuvre.

Our concern and priority has always been the welfare of our beloved boy. We have fought to have Len returned to our family from the moment he was seized but we have been advised that the legal fight is at an end. We are obviously distraught but have to consider the impact that any future lengthy legal battle would have on Len if we chose to go against the advice that we have been given. We cannot subject him to any more as there are no grounds for a further appeal and we do not wish to prolong his suffering any longer by engaging in a battle that we simply cannot win.

We have attempted to write this statement many, many times but have struggled to put in writing that the fight to spare Lennox’s life may well be over. It has been almost impossible for us to accept that we have to admit defeat. We always believed that there was some hope and that justice would prevail. We were wrong. There have been many dark days for us since Len was taken and we want you all to know that it is your support and kindness that kept us going through the blackest times.

This is all we can share with you at the moment and we are finding it hard to come to terms with the fact that there is nothing more that we can do from a legal point of view and that Lennox may well be killed. We have one last hope that Belfast City Council will allow Lennox to be rehomed in the USA. The offer is there but we have no say in whether this offer will be accepted. We have never refused to rehome Lennox. That decision was taken out of our hands from the moment Len took his final walk with us from our house to the Dog Wardens van.
If the offer is turned down we will fight for our right to say goodbye. We cannot bear the thought that Lennox will die without being reminded of the hearts and hands that love him.

Thank you.