The proposed competence test for dog owners is designed to stop hoodies owning pit bulls, says Brendan O’Neill. But are the dogs, or their owners, really that dangerous?
Some people call them ‘dangerous dogs’. The tabloids prefer ‘devil dogs’. The police refer to them as ‘status dogs’. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals labels them ‘antisocial dogs’ (which is the most bizarre name of all. Since when were dogs expected to obey social etiquette?).
Whatever they’re called, these dogs, monsters, beasts are never out of the news. Whether it’s the pit bull terrier, the Japanese tosa, the dogo Argentina or the fila Brasileiro — all fearsome-looking creatures, and all subject to strict ownership rules under the Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991 — barely a week goes by without one of these big-shouldered, wild-jawed canine crazies staring at us from the pages of the papers next to a report about how they are terrorising communities, mauling postmen, or being used as weapons by drug dealers gutted that they can no longer carry knives. But look behind the headlines and it becomes increasingly clear that the media and political fear of these beasts is out of all proportion to how dangerous they are. Rather ‘dangerous dogs’ has become code for ‘dangerous underclass’.
In an effort to curb the number of ‘dangerous dogs’, this week the government proposed introducing a competence test for all dog-owners. Clearly desperate to squeeze through one more piece of patronising legislation before facing possible public extermination at the polls, the government wants all existing and potential dog owners to undergo a series of tests (of the ‘Walkies! Sit!’ variety?), to have to pay third-party insurance in case their pet attacks someone, and to install a microchip in their dogs’ necks containing the owner’s name and address. The aim, as the Daily Mail correctly surmised, is not only to bring dog-owners into that very big tent of People Continually Spied On By The Authorities, but to weed out the ‘devil dogs that terrorise socially deprived areas’ by controlling the kind of people who are allowed to own such dogs.
This is about redefining dog ownership, splitting it into respectable camps (those who play fetch with Fido on a Sunday morning in St James’s Park) and unrespectable camps (those who play chew-on-this-plank-of-wood with Razor in a deserted parking lot on a Wednesday afternoon). British people’s relationships with their dogs have long been colourful and varied. Some pets are members of the family, some are treated as a rough-and-tough plaything, yet the government seems to want to institutionalise only one acceptable, sanctioned form of human-dog partnership.
Of course it is true — and tragic — that dogs sometimes attack and even kill people. On New Year’s Day in 2007, five-year-old Ellie Lawrenson was killed by her uncle’s pit bull terrier in Liverpool. Last year, four-year-old John Paul Massey, also from Liverpool, was killed by a pit bull. However, we should recognise that fatal dog attacks remain extremely, and mercifully, rare. In Britain, there is an average of 2.3 fatalities a year due to being bitten or ‘struck’ by a dog, and not all of them of the ‘dangerous’ variety. By comparison, about 10 people a year die in horse-riding accidents, including being thrown from or kicked by a horse — yet we rarely read headlines about ‘devil horses’. The so-called dangerous breeds of dogs are not actually the most dangerous on a day-to-day level. A recent study of 6,000 dogs and their owners found that the most aggressive breed — that is, the dog most likely to bite strangers and their owners — was the dachshund, the ‘sausage dog’ originally bred to hunt badgers. It was followed by the chihuahua, beloved of Paris Hilton and other It people, the Jack Russell, the beagle and the Border collie (Lassie!). The pit bull terrier came in at No. 8.
The reason ‘devil dogs’ keep appearing in scary media reports is not because they are unusually dangerous, but because they have become perfect symbols of the alleged animalistic nature of the working classes and the lower orders. In our era of ‘PC gone mad’, it’s no longer acceptable to use the s-words (‘scum’ and ‘savages’) when referring to the kind of people who inhabit those strange, unknowable council estates in inner-city areas. So instead commentators and do-gooders use these people’s dogs as a proxy for expressing a quite hateful snobbery.
Following the tragic killing of Ellie Lawrenson in 2007, Sue Carroll at the Mirror described ‘dangerous dog owners’ as ‘feckless Neanderthals on inner-city estates’ with ‘no concept of restraint or judgment’. Jon Snow, the self-described ‘pinko liberal’ newsreader for Channel 4 who is normally so achingly PC, says lower-income communities ‘provide a home for violent uncontrollable animals as if in some way these beasts fulfil some animal instinct of their own’. In short, the wild and savage dog is merely an extension of the wild and savage human being.
The Guardian’s reports on dangerous dogs read like anthropological studies, except in this instance the heart of darkness is Bermondsey rather than Africa, and the weird people being probed by bamboozled Guardian reporters are shaven-headed young Brits rather than African tribesmen. The Guardian columnist Michele Hanson sneers at dangerous-dog owners as individuals with ‘a hoodie or shaven head’ and ‘hanging-down trousers’ (whisper it: chavs and blacks) for whom dogs are ‘macho status symbols’. But lots of dogs are about status, for the upper and middle classes as well as the lower ones. It’s just that where owning a corgi says ‘I’m posh’ and owning a labradoodle says ‘I’m gay’, owning a pit bull says ‘I’m hard’.
The expression of class snobbery through the idea of demon dogs is not new. It echoes the Victorian period, when nosy groups like the RSPCA were first founded and when the working classes’ treatment of their dogs was first made into a big issue. As one study of Victorian attitudes to animals has shown, back then the divide was between the ‘pure-bred dogs’ owned by the upper classes and ‘mongrel dogs’ owned by the working classes — where today it is between ‘competent owners’ and ‘incompetent owners’ — with ‘mongrel dogs often represented as the sources of both violence and disease and, like the working classes, characterised as a threat to society at large’. In Mad Dogs and Englishmen: Rabies in Britain 1830-2000, Neil Pemberton and Michael Worboys revealed that in 19th-century Britain the massively overblown fear of rabid dogs lurking in working-class communities was frequently used as a pretext for more official interference in those communities, leading to increased policing of the family, ‘lawless streets’ and open spaces. Today the fear of dangerous dogs is giving rise to the same: Harrow Council in London, for example, is considering denying social housing to any family with a ‘dangerous dog’ that has been involved in any kind of ‘violent incident’.
For many people, the dog is a part of their family, part of their home, and yes, some families really do love their pit bull terriers. We should think long and hard before giving the green light to the authorities to interfere in this intimate, private part of people’s lives on the trumped-up charge that ‘devil dogs’ are dragging Britain into hell.