If looks couldn't kill

Archie a BSL dog

On 12 August 1991, the Dangerous Dogs Act came into force, banning four types of dog. We were told it would prevent dog attacks, but twenty-five years on, injuries caused to humans by dogs are at an all-time high and pet dogs are killed every month simply because of how they look…

“He is the most affectionate dog I’ve ever had. He’d get under your skin if he could,” says Jo-Rosie Haffenden of her beloved pet Archie. “He loves to snuggle up at night and just wants to puts his paws around you.

“But I once had a guy shout at me in a train station, ‘You shouldn’t have that type of dog, they’re dangerous’, which was quite intimidating.”

Eight-year-old Archie is a pitbull type. Under the eyes of the law, his looks make him ‘dangerous’, but in reality he is no more a threat to society than any other dog of any other breed. Despite suffering unimaginable cruelty in his past, Archie has a wonderful temperament, is well trained, and has a devoted and responsible owner who loves him and makes sure he is a well-adjusted member of society – just as she does with her other three dogs, none of whom are illegal types.

Section one of the Dangerous Dogs Act (1991) outlaws four types of dog; the pitbull terrier, Japanese tosa, dogo Argentino, and fila Brasilerio. The law makes it illegal to own, sell, breed, give away or abandon one of these types of dog.

This is often referred to as ‘breed specific legislation’, or ‘BSL’, but actually the law doesn’t recognise a dog’s family tree, or pedigree.

Instead, UK legislation bases the decision on whether a dog is illegal on looks alone – a dog’s breed, a dog’s parents’ breeds, DNA testing and behaviour don’t come into it.

Archie, Pit bull dog under a tree

Classing a dog as illegal based on looks alone means that half of the puppies in a litter of crossbreeds could be illegal types, when the other half of the litter is legal types.

Archie Pitbull dog playing with a toy
Archie loves to play and is happy to sit nicely until the fun and games can begin!

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has given guidance to law enforcers on what to look for when ‘typing’ a dog. Pitbull terrier types are defined using measurements based on an American breed standard for show dogs from the 1970s. Enforcers use a tape measure for this test.

No information has ever been issued to enforcers about how to identify the three other banned types by the UK government.

Under this law, a dog that looks like an illegal type can be seized and killed based on looks alone – the dog doesn’t have to have behaved aggressively or injured anyone.

When looks could automatically kill

Up until 1997, being born to look like one of these types signalled an automatic death sentence for these dogs – even if they had never shown any aggressive behaviour. Death was mandatory. Looks could literally kill.

An amendment to the law that year meant that dogs who were found guilty of looking like a banned type could be ‘exempted’ if they passed a court behavioural assessment and proved they could live happily and peacefully in the community.

Jo-Rosie is a dog behaviourist and works as an expert independent witness for the courts in Dangerous Dogs Act cases. She also had personal experience of the exemption process, having been through it with her own dog, Archie.

Archie the Pitbull dog sitting on a chairand his friend

[Above: Archie and his best mate, Ella]

Jo-Rosie explains: “Just like any other dog believed to be of an illegal type, Archie was measured by the dog legislation officer. They come to your home and take about 60 measurements using a tape measure. If a substantial amount of these measurements meet the American breed show standard, the dog is a pitbull type.

“The number of measurements is open to interpretation, but case law suggests if 60 per cent of the measurements meet the standard then the dog is of type. There is no standard set of measurements on which to benchmark the other three banned types; it is open to interpretation."

[Above: don't despair if your dog needs to wear a muzzle. You can make muzzle training fun and simple. Watch our video to find out how!]

“The process of taking the measurements is incredibly intrusive for the dog,” says Jo-Rosie. “You have to measure things like the circumference of the bottom of the back leg, from the nose to the tip, from the tip to the top.

"All of these measurements are taken by a stranger who the dog has never met before. A lot of dogs take umbrage to this, and this can cause lots of problems. ”

The Dangerous Dogs Act is often cited by lawmakers as an excellent example of how not to enact legislation. It passed through the Houses of Commons and Lords much more quickly than legislation usually does, and is considered by legal experts to have moved through too fast to be subject to the normal levels of scrutiny.

I once had a guy shout at me in a train station, ‘You shouldn’t have that type of dog, they’re dangerous’, which was quite intimidating. Archie's owner, Jo-Rosie Haffenden
Pitbull Archie and owners going for a wall
Tattooed Archie Pitbull dog
Exempted dogs had to be tattooed until the law changed recently. Archie had a wart removed from his leg last week. Thankfully he's ok. It is impossible to get health insurance for illegal types, even if they have been exempted.

[Above: Archie must be muzzled in a public place. He loves going for walks with his friend Ella. Ella doesn't have to wear a muzzle, even though Archie is the one of the two of them who has proved he is well-behaved in the courts.]

Jo-Rosie says that this means court cases can be long and drawn out with arguments over tiny details: “I’ve been in court before where we’ve spent over an hour arguing over one measurement.

"Think about how ridiculous that is; we’re basically saying the dog is dangerous if the circumference of one part of his leg is over 5.7 millimetres, and if it isn’t, then he’s not dangerous. That’s what it came down to in that case. And when you look at that part of a dog’s leg, you realise that there’s a lot of give, so when you’re putting a tape measure around it you can make it pretty much whatever you want it to be.”

Living within the law

Dogs who prove to the court that they are not a danger to the public are added to the Index of Exempted Dogs. They are allowed to return home under certain conditions, including that they are neutered, kept on a lead and muzzled in a public place.

They must wear a muzzle even when travelling in a car, as this counts as a public place.

Owners must keep the local authority up to date with where they live at all times. When Jo-Rosie moved house recently, she had a visit from the dog legislation officer with 30 minutes of letting them know she had moved.

Although Archie had already passed the court behavioural assessment and his owner had kept up to date with all the paperwork, his measurements were taken again.

For a dog who has just moved to a new environment, to have a stranger come into your personal space can be a bit much. But Archie is a soppy thing, and he’s used to it by now.

“On a logistical basis for a normal person with an illegal type as a pet, it’s incredibly difficult,” says Jo-Rosie.

Archie must also be insured for public liability under the terms of his exemption. Failure to keep up with this could lead to him being euthanised. This costs £25 a year, and just two insurance companies in the country offer it. It is impossible for illegal types to get health insurance – no UK pet insurance company will insure them – leading to hefty bills if your pitbull type becomes sick.

Archie Pitbull dog enjoys a kong on the sofa

[Above: Archie's favourite thing to do is enjoy a Kong while snuggling up on the sofa. It's a dog's life!]

“He is the most affectionate dog I’ve ever had. He’d get under your skin if he could,” says Jo-Rosie Haffenden of her beloved pet Archie

All this for dogs who are the only canines ever to have passed a state behavioural assessment; no other dogs who are right now enjoying an off-lead run though woodlands, or playing a retrieving game in a field, have had to pass such a test, and they live life without these restrictions.

Time for change

Becky Thwaites, Blue Cross Head of Public Affairs, said: “Many dogs that are seized as illegal breeds are in fact well-behaved dogs with responsible owners, who just have the misfortune to have the wrong measurements. Nearly as many dogs - not banned breeds - were seized under section 3 of the Dangerous Dogs Act as under section 1 last year for being dangerously out of control, highlighting how important it is for government to change the legislative focus from what a dog looks like to dealing with irresponsible owners of any breed of dog to keep our communities safe.”

Figures also show that 550 dogs seized under section 1 of the DDA last year were eventually deemed safe and returned to their owners. Sadly, many of those dogs would have been kept away from their owners in kennels for the duration of a costly court case, before being allowed to return home.

Book a free education talk

Blue Cross runs free workshops for schools, youth groups and probation services covering topics including how to stay safe around dogs, responsible dog ownership and the law. Last year, we reached over 65,000 children and young people. Book your free education talk today. 

Blue Cross wants to see an end to legislation that singles out dogs based on looks alone and the focus switched to prevention, and we’re writing to Lord Gardiner, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at Defra, to ask him to repeal the unfair and ineffective law.

Becky added: “We need a piece of specific dog control legislation, enabling enforcers to step in and take action before dog attacks happen, as well as sufficient resources and training to allow them to do so.”

If you’d like to support our call for a repeal of section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act, sign our petition today.


Call on government to repeal BSL by signing our petition

To: Lord Gardiner, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at Defra

Twenty-five years ago, four types of dog were outlawed on looks alone under section one of the Dangerous Dogs Act (1991).

Despite banning pitbull terrier, Japanese tosa, dogo Argentino and fila Brasilerio types in 1991, the number of hospital admissions for injuries caused by dogs is at its highest for a decade according to national statistics from the Health and Social Care Information Centre.

Breed-specific legislation focusses on looks alone – not the breeding of an animal, nor their behaviour. While injuries rise, pet dogs are taken from their families and needlessly killed, or their families are forced through a long, complicated and emotionally-draining court system to have them returned.

Blue Cross believes that focussing on education and responsible dog ownership of all breeds and types is the only way to prevent injuries caused by dogs.

By signing this petition, I ask you to repeal section one of the Dangerous Dogs Act (1991) and instead introduce legislation that will allow enforcers to take action before dog attacks happen, as well as sufficient resources and training to allow them to do so.

— Page last updated 18/01/2017