Simon Harding: Bull breed dogs can be risk

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The recent dog attack in West Calder has rightly caused alarm in some sections of the community.

On September 20, pensioners Andrew and Dorothy Russell were in West Calder’s Main Street when an American Bulldog (not a banned breed) broke free from its own owner and knocked Dorothy, 88, to the ground. Mr Russell, 90, intervened and was badly mauled and required skin grafts. Sadly, his condition deteriorated and he died some five weeks later.

A report has been passed to the Procurator Fiscal.

This attack is another reminder of how close the public can be to serious injury from those we have as our pets and often view as close family members.

But do we all still view our dogs in this way or has something changed in our human-animal relationships? For many young men, large aggressive dogs, usually bull breeds, are used simply as a fast-track way to building a reputation amongst their own peer group. Frequently the dogs are poorly socialised and badly trained, used to intimidate others or, by silent threat, to control public space by conveying power and authority on its handler. Some are purposefully mistreated to be aggressive and antisocial.

Large aggressive bull breed dogs, once a rarity, are now commonplace across Scotland, as in England. Pitbulls, which the UK Government had hoped would be bred out by the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, are more prevalent than ever. This increased supply is courtesy of families hoping to make some extra cash but also from backstreet breeders mass-producing dogs from puppy farms and selling them for £50 on websites. Such purchases weaken the value and purpose of acquiring and keeping a dog, making it an easily disposable commodity, like a mobile phone. If the dog is too docile or insufficiently aggressive, tie it to a park bench, walk off and buy another online.

Recent research indicates increased demand for aggressive bull breed dogs has generated a proliferation of these animals across the UK. Some claim the dogs provide protection but others use the alpha-male status of the dogs to bolster their own fragile self-image. Arguments will continue to circulate linking such issues to poverty and a shift in societal values, meanwhile the risk remains to users of public space. Though most fatal dog attacks occur inside the home, the number of street attacks is increasing. Worryingly, this is the tenth fatal dog attack in the UK in two years.

This tragic event should perhaps be a wake-up call to authorities in central Scotland currently more focused on clearing up dog mess. An audit of such dogs should be undertaken to allow the authorities to quantify the issue, plan solutions and if necessary enforce legislation. Without this knowledge we are all in the dark as to how big an issue this really is and the risks posed to the general public.

• Dr Simon Harding, Department of Criminology, Middlesex University