Monday 23 July 2012

A load of BSL - Lennox, Dangerous Dogs, and Breed Specific Legislation

Okay, I admit it, I'm more of a dog person than a cat person. Now, I'm aware that immediately puts me at odds with the rest of internetdom - it seems you guys only need a quick picture of a cat doing something cute to keep you all happy. All right, you've twisted my arm - here you go.

Maybe it's that you have to look after dogs a bit more - I need to walk them, which, if not necessarily keeping me fit, at least keeps me moving. Maybe it's because my first cat was something of a psychopath. Poppet, our current feline friend, is much friendlier - she yowls for food, she rolls on her back, does all the requisite cute stuff, and a bit less pissing on the carpet than her predecessor.

With Poppet, I can see the pleasure cats bring (she still does pretty horrible things to mice, though). Anyway, the point is, I can see the appeal of cats, and furthermore I can see how dogs can be less appealing. They're smellier, and bigger, and, let's face it, some of them are pretty scary - which is a helpful segue, because scary dogs is what I've brought you all here to talk about.

Much as I like dogs, you see, I've often found myself at the pointy end of some which really didn't reciprocate my feelings. The problem with being a vet - a bit like being a postman, I suspect - is that it's one of those things that seems funny to people. 'Ho, ho, my dog bit the vet,' that sort of thing. The other problem, of course, is that I'm generally being horrible to the dog in question, which doesn't do wonders for our relationships. It might seem like a cliche, but I can't tell you the number of times people have said to me 'Well, he's never done that before!' with a suspicious look in their eye, heavily implying that the attack I have just experienced was probably my fault. When Hitler invaded Poland, I suspect that Neville Chamberlain said 'Well, he's never done that before!' with a similar expression.

So, dogs can be vicious. They can even be dangerous. Cats can too - I've got the scars to prove it - but they generally don't attack members of the public. When dogs do (as I think might have happened right before I started writing this post) it's a problem.


If you haven't got sick of Facebook yet, you may have noticed recently there's been a lot of pictures cropping up recently of proud owners standing next to their dog/cat/lizard, and proudly proclaiming something along the lines of 'Tiddles was a wonderful Chinese water dragon for fifteen years, but today, SHE IS LENNOX'. It certainly confused the heck out of me when I first saw it, but I finally worked out what they're going on about, and it's a pretty sad tale. Lennox is, or was, a dog from Northern Island, that has become another victim of BSL - Breed Specific Legislation.

Now, I'm going to be honest here - I don't know a great deal about the Lennox case. I don't know just how aggressive, if at all, he was - he certainly hadn't attacked anyone. But I can tell you that the legislation that led to his demise and, by the looks of it, martyrdom, is a big steaming pile of doggy plop.

Breed Specific Legislation

Okay, it's probably time to talk about this BSL that I keep teasing you with. Breed Specific Legislation is exactly what it sounds like - legislation which is specific to a certain breed. In the UK, it is the Dangerous Dogs Act (1991), and it is this that is supposed to protect the public from violent dogs.

It doesn't. It can't. The basic premise is flawed. Four breeds are covered under this act (and I can still remember them, because I had to learn them for my public health exam) - the Pit Bull Terrier, the Japanese Tosa, the Dogo Argentino and the Fila Brasilero (okay, okay, I had to check the spelling of the last one. It's been twelve years, all right?). Now, it's entirely possible that you have never heard of three of those breeds. It's even possible that you might think I have got my exams confused and have started reeling of the names of dishes from a Michelin-starred restaurant, but you would be incorrect, they are actual breeds. The reason you might not have heard about them is that there haven't been any documented attacked by any of these breeds except the pit bull terrier since the act was passed. Yay! A success, tempered only by the fact that I can't find any evidence for any attacks by these breeds before  it was passed, either.

Still, don't get me wrong - all the above breeds are scary creatures, and you really would not want to meet any of them in a back alley on a dark night. You probably wouldn't want to meet them on a wide boulevard in bright sunshine, either. I once briefly encountered a pressa canary - a massive slobbery-tooth machine that was considered for inclusion in the act - and described my experiences in this blog post.

So, all the above being the case, what is my (and other people's) problem with the Dangerous Dogs Act, and similar acts around the world the like of which Lennox fell victim to?

Well, there are two pretty major flaws with legislation such as this, both of which have consequences that lead to suffering in the real world. My job is all about reducing suffering, and therefore this makes me unhappy, and has inspired me to write a blog with frequent usage of the word 'legislation' - which was never something wanted to do (and you're reading it now as well; more suffering caused by BSL, damn it!)

The first problem is, as those heroes at Monsieur Garnier's world famous laboratory might have it, 'the science bit'

The Science Bit - Breeds and Species

Let's take a step back for a moment. Forget about dogs. Let's talk about humans for a sec. You know humans, right? Funny pale ape-things. You've probably met a few around, they're fairly easy to spot, especially when it's sunny. I imagine you're pretty confident in being able to tell the difference between a human, and something that isn't human.

Here's a problem, though. I'd like you to come up with a definition for a human. Imagine I have a really, really big piece of chalk, and based upon your definition, I'm going to put everything human inside the circle, and everything inhuman - parrots, Frosties, Piers Morgan - outside it.

Easy peasy, you say. Humans reproduce with other humans, to make humans, don't they? Well, yes, they do, but there're a couple of problems with that definition. Firstly, it uses the thing you're trying to define as part of the definition, which makes things confusing. Secondly, it means that every child and infertile adult 'human' now has to stand outside the circle, in the inhuman camp.

Okay, let's try again. How about... a human is a creature that has the potential to mate with others of its kind to produce an offspring, even if it can't actually do it as an individual.
Hmm. Not great. How do you measure mating 'potential'? And also, how does this distinguish the human race from, say parrots?

Let's try a different tack. How about 'Humans are the only creatures that wear digital watches, ride motorbikes, and build atom bombs.'

Okay, we've got some merit here. I think it's fair to say that, at least on Earth, no other species has managed to construct an atom bomb, so you haven't got any non-humans sneaking into the circle. The problem is, we haven't all done that, so there's going to be a lot of humans standing outside the circle gazing in jealously at Robert Oppenheimer and his digital watch. The same applies to pretty much any technological innovation you try to use as your definition - there will always be some beings that you consider humans that get left outside, because they don't own a microwave, or can't read, or whatever.

How about genetics? There's got to be a good definition there, surely? Well, here's a basic biological fact - humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes. Shall we try that?

This time, standing outside the circle, we have everyone who has Down's syndrome, Klinefelter's syndrome, and anyone also who has a chromosomal disorder. Also, we've got a few plants that have managed to sneak into the circle due to their own chromosomal abnormalities.

Okay, at this point, let's do what any sane person would do - give up and look online. Here is the dictionary definition of 'human'

'A member of the genus homo and especially of the species homo sapiens'

Hmm. Cop-out, because now we've got to define 'homo sapiens'. Further googling and research could be done at this point, but I'll save you time... there is no line you can draw. There is no simple definition of human, and the reason is obvious when you think about it.

We have evolved, as we all know, from a common hominid ancestor - an ancestor that lived many millions of years ago (if, incidentally, you don't know this, then you really should read more; if you already know this but just don't believe it, then I'm afraid I'm going to have ask you to kindly fuck off, because we're probably not going to get along).

Now, going back to our circle of humans, let's think about that. I'm assuming that you all feel that your fathers, sons, mothers, daughters, brothers and sisters all belong in that circle, and I'm not going to argue with you (unless you're Pier's Morgan's father/son/brother/sister or mother). But think of the implications for our ancestors, slowly evolving into homo sapiens over millions of years.

At every stage along that long, long journey down through time, the hominds were able to breed with each other, and they looked and behaved, by and large, very much like each other. If you explained the circle to them, they would certainly feel the same about their fathers, sons, mothers, daughters and so on; you'd get the same opinion everywhere you went, until you reached a point where you could no longer communicate with the natives, and you'd have to observe them instead, and draw the same conclusion yourself.

The very, very laboured point I'm trying to make here is this - it may seem that the term 'species' is very, aheh, specific, and that it refers to a very definite thing, but it really doesn't. The only reason we find it so easy to tell the difference between ourselves and chimps (who happened to share a common ancestor with more recently than anything else currently alive) is because all the intermediates along the way are dead. If they were still around we would find the concept of a definite 'human' as hard to grasp as it really should be. That simple chalk line that surrounds our species is nothing of the kind - it's more of a gradation, a gradual fading away from humanity into another 'species'.

So, although we generally manage to tell the difference between apes and humans (uncomfortable encounters in nightclubs excepted), when you try and pin it down scientifically - or, more importantly - legally - you begin to realise it isn't a simple task. And we have all this trouble with species! Now try and pass a law against a particular 'breed', and you run into all manner of trouble.

I like to think that I can tell a westie from a daschund, but you could keep bringing me westies that had shorter legs, longer snouts, on and on until at some point I would just say 'Er, he's a westie cross, isn't he?' - and the point that I would say it is different from the point from anyone else. You simply cannot legally define one breed from another - no blood test will tell you, and no two vets, anatomists or breeders would agree every time for every dog.

Problem One

So, this is a major - in fact, to me, the major problem with breed specific legislation. I told you it caused real suffering, and it does. Here's what happens - in fact, this is pretty much what happened to Lennox, as far as I can tell (as I say, I don't want to go into the specifics, because I really don't know the case) - the dog warden, or member of the public, looks at your dog, which, whether it is a pit bull or not, has the misfortune of looking like a pit bull - and if this sounds unlikely, bear in mind that a lot of staffie crosses have something of a pit bull look about them. They get picked up, impounded and summarily put to sleep if the 'expert' who looks at them agrees that they are a 'pit-bull type'. If you don't want your dog to be put to sleep, you can challenge the opinion in court. Eventually your dog may be off the hook, but it will have had to spend many months if not years waiting in kennels for an opinion that is just that; an opinion. No one can possible prove that a dog is or is not a pit bull.

The problem is compounded by the fact that, because these dogs are banned, many people are not all that sure what they actually look like. It's a not-infrequent experience for us to have the police, RSPCA or dog warden turn up at our practice asking 'Is this a pit bull?'. If we answer thought that it was, and no owner was present when the dog was found, the dog would probably be put straight to sleep, however friendly/aggressive or otherwise it was (I say 'probably' because I've never had occasion to find out; I've always explained the impossibility of making such a judgement call). Experts, as mentioned about, measure the dog against fifty-seven or so different traits to see if it fits into what we class as a 'pit bull'.

So, we get to the crux of the problem - BSL is legislation that is based in appearance, not demeanour. In effect, the Dangerous Dogs Act is really the Dangerous-looking Dogs Act. The first downside of this is, as we've already discussed, that dogs that happen to look a bit like pit bulls are unnecessarily destroyed or at least put through great suffering, much to the distress of their owners.

Problem Two

Now, if you've made it this far, you've probably figured out the second problem by yourself. No one has been attacked in this country by at least three of the four dangerous dog breeds since 1991 (and, quite possibly, ever). People are, however, still getting attacked by dogs.

Here's a study from 2008 in America about the breeds most likely to bite you. It's a teeny bit dry and wordy, and studies like this are notoriously difficult to do, but cutting through the chaff, you can find the breed most likely to bite you. You know what it is?

The daschund. The loveable sausage dog. Closely followed by the chihuahua. Now, fair enough, these breeds aren't often represented in serious dog attacks, for obvious reasons - that is still reserved for the pit bull. This site has a better overview of dog attacks, referencing the original papers if you're interested in looking into it further. The point I'm trying to make is this; dog attacks still happen, and they are very frequently from breeds not considered 'dangerous' - it might seem funny to be attacked by a daschund, until your Achilles' tendon in severed by a lucky chomp when you're trying to get away from it.

The dangerous dogs act makes no provision for any of this. It certainly takes no action to stop these things happening. With an amendment in the legislation, breeds can be added to it, or even individual dogs in extreme circumstances - and these are the circumstances you'll probably read about in the paper.

So, the basic problem is this - the Dangerous Dogs Act (1991 amended 1997), along with all Breed Specific Legislation - is based on a fundamentally flawed premise. It leads to dogs being put to sleep unnecessarily, and fails to recognise that there are many dogs out there that are a danger to the public but that don't happen to look much like a pit bull terrier.


I do enjoy my moaning - you may have noticed - but I like it do be at least productive moaning. Can anything be done to help the situation?

Here's a very obvious point - it seems absolutely crazy to me that an anatomy should be the key decision-maker into whether a dog is dangerous or not. Surely the more important characteristic is whether the dog is, y'know, dangerous. Behaviourists should be making decisions like this, not anatomists. I understand that there are certain breeds that can be more aggressive than others, but this is trying to solve the problem from a step behind. The legislation should have clear guidelines, drawn up by behaviourists, not lawyers, about the kind of traits that make a dog unacceptably antisocial in our society. If they're taken in, then they should be tested for these warning signs, with and without the owner present, and taking into account the fear and stress the animal is under.

Also, let's not be unrealistic here. We've all heard that there's no such thing as a bad dog, but a bad owner. Now, I have met a few - a very few - genuinely scary dogs that I couldn't imagine any amount of training could ever have fixed, but they are very much the exceptions to the rule above. If we allow dogs in society, then some morons are going to either ignore the warnings that they need better control over their dogs, or they're going to actively train them to attack. There will always be dog attacks (whether they are on the increase or not, is, incidentally, quite difficult to prove, despite what you may have heard in the media. See here for a quick discussion) - all I am asking for is legislation designed with the problems I have outline above in mind; legislation which isn't a rush job (the DDA of 1991 was hurried through parliament after a spate of dog attacks) and which, if at all possible, please, does the frikkin' job it is supposed to do.

Today, I am Lennox. Hope you are too.