Dangerous Dogs – a review of the ITV programme

The Animal Care College

‘Caring for people caring for animals since 1980’

 

The assumption that animals are without rights, and the illusion that our treatment of them has no moral significance, is a positively outrageous example of Western crudity and barbarity. Universal compassion is the only guarantee of morality.’ – Arthur Schopenhauer

Social media has been running wild with comments about the documentary shown on ITV about Dangerous Dogs. The Our Dogs Facebook page had over 150 posts within a few hours and dozens of people posted on their own pages many of which generated long and thoughtful threads. Having watched the first programme it is clear why it has created such a furore: it provided an incredible and frightening insight into its subject but more importantly, it shone an uncomfortable light into the dark underside of our society – an underside in which dogs are just one continuing – and increasing – symptom of social and educational deprivation. As a teacher who spent most of his professional career working in large, new town deprived area comprehensive schools with young people who were less able, antisocial and in some cases disturbed, I was immensely sad that so little seems to have changed and, in some ways, much seems to have become considerably worse.
That said, from our point of view (the perspective of the world of responsible dog owners within which we move as committed to dog owners, breeders, exhibitors and others involved in positive canine activities whether it be training, obedience agility and the rest) it is difficult to know where to start in evaluating the programme. It had very little direct relationship to us but we are inevitably seen as a part of it by the media so it might be useful to step back a little and see the problems in context.
Firstly, although the numbers of dogs which are strays and consequently killed because their owners cannot be found and they are unsuitable for rehoming as quoted in the programme are horrific, they are a fraction of what they were 20 years ago. The Clean Neighbourhoods Act of 1992 significantly improved what was seen as an intractable problem so that today although there are strays on our streets the 6,000 collected by local authorities last year is rather less than 90,000 picked up on the streets of London alone just through the Dogs Home, Battersea in the early 1990s.
There were certainly biting incidents , some of them serious at that time but what seems evident today is that the number of people bitten by dogs is increasing – as are serious incidents and deaths. I have written on a number of occasions over the years that the number of deaths attributed to dogs averaged about one each year and until recently this was true. Unfortunately, and tragically, this has shown a marked increase and consequently the number of serious and minor biting incidents will have increased too.
Secondly, most of the 7.5 million dogs resident in the UK are happy pets who give their owners immense pleasure and companionship, do not bite people and contribute to a happier society: ‘The greatness of a nation and its moral progress’, Ghandi remarked, ‘can be judged by the way its animals are treated’ and as a community, we are immeasurably better off through our relationship with our pets.

It’s the owners not the dogs

Whatever the statistics and the total numbers of dogs which must be put to sleep or whose behaviour is antisocial, there is absolutely no doubt (and I was very pleased that the programme made this crystal clear both in the commentary and by the evidence presented by the dogs which had been rescued and rehabilitated) that the problems are directly related to education and to training of both dogs and, more importantly, their owners. And there is a corollary here in that if people are not educated to understand that the freedoms granted by society bring responsibilities for their own personal behaviour, it is little wonder that their homes and the dogs that they own or breed become protective, fearful and aggressive.
It did seem to me that although those both employed by local authorities and rescue centres were committed and caring – and brave too – several lacked the fundamental understanding and knowledge of canine behaviour to carry out their responsibilities effectively. There is no doubt that the young lady who was responsible for rehabilitating the Akita knew what she was about and did a terrific job but the way in which some of the dogs shown were treated and handled, despite their experience, made matters worse not better. One kennel man was shown feeding two near starving dogs together: an absolute recipe for disaster. He was lucky to be able to part them before any serious damage occurred. The way in which restraint equipment was used, too, showed no understanding either of dog behaviour or their correct use.

Better training required

It is all too easy to criticise and blame those who are not properly trained but that criticism should be focused on those responsible for their employees not the employees themselves. Birmingham, where much of the programme was filmed, is one of the few authorities which still directly employ dog wardens (most councils now contract out the service to one of the major local authority service providers) so it was disappointing that they were not better trained. Contracted out companies save authorities money and I suspect that Birmingham has taken a leaf out of the contracted companies’ book. And has made savings through cutting back on education and training.
These days there is a great deal of high quality, professional training available which, I believe, would improve the lives of both those involved in carrying out the duties of a dog warden and the treatment of the dogs themselves.
But the key conclusions of this programme make it absolutely clear that it is the public who sometimes misplace devotion to their dogs which are the problem and not the dogs themselves. The extraordinary scenes depicting people who had no concept of the damage that they were doing to their pets, and their refusal to see what to anyone else was blindingly obvious, was distressing at the very least and in some cases very disturbing. What can anyone of sensitivity do when faced with such misplaced aggression?
If you did not have a chance to see the programme it is well worth a look. Just go to: https://www.itv.com/itvplayer/dangerous-dogs. The man who seemed to me might have mental health problems and had bred a litter of Bull Terrier puppies which he was selling at his local pub for £60 at four weeks old, the behaviour of the partner of a young woman to whom a dog warden was trying to hand out an ‘on the spot fine’ for dog fouling the footpath and the lady screaming that her emaciated dog was ‘perfectly well’ have to be seen to be believed.
I would reiterate at this point that the programme, although naturally focusing on the serious problems that were its subject, was not distorted or in bad taste. It did not mention it but it made a compelling case for the recent initiative to make animal care education an integral part of the school curriculum. Dogs behave badly and bite because they are not properly trained and they are not properly trained because the people who own them do not understand the parameters which have to be in place for the dog to feel safe, comfortable and confident in and around people.

There is much to do.

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