Gnash For Questions: A Dog Owner Writes
1 October 2006
'I look at Rottweilers and I hate them. When you look at them they have doey eyes but I just see evil.'
- Kevin Kearney, father of 11-year-old boy killed by Rottweilers in 1995
It’s not been the best week for owners of big dogs with scary teeth, but still a better week than the one endured by the two families whose children were attacked by Rottweilers, resulting in the death of a five-month-old baby and traumatic injuries to a two-year old. But two such freakish attacks occurring so close together can only be bad news for what you might as well call the dog lobby. Logic tends to shrink in the face of a slavering tabloid devil-dog.
The subject of dangerous dogs and the legislation protecting the public from them is an enormous and complex one, making dog owners wish they were staunch cat people. (All cats ever do is steal the breath from children, if legend is correct, and it usually is.) Most of the subtlety tends to get trampled in a tabloid stampede at a time like this, since there is something uniquely frightening about the idea of a threat from a domestic animal that defies rationale. It’s particularly true when Rottweilers are involved - that harsh, Germanic name is so evocative, they might as well be called 'Oh my God, the blood, the blood’. If it wasn’t already a synonym for 'pit bull’, which is to 'Satan’s hellhound’ what 'asylum seeker’ is to 'scrounging drug-dealing raping terrorist’, it certainly is now.
We are all supposedly protected by the Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991, a hastily-cobbled together and hole-riddled law which has become a byword for kneejerk legislation, being as it was a response to a spate of dog attacks. The act bans the ownership and breeding of four breeds of dog - the best known being pit bull terriers. This is actually a vague and controversial catch-all term for 'pit bull types’, which has led to many dogs being seized and hung onto for years on end while officials try to determine what their grandmother got humped by.
The others are the Fila Brasileiro (the what now?), the Dogo Argentino (que?) and the Japanese Tosa (um...). To save you from Wiki-fiddling, the Fila is a big brown thing, the Dogo is a big white thing (there’s one in the film 'Bombon El Perro’), and the Tosa is a big brown Japanese thing. They were all bred as hunting dogs, obviously pretty capable of dismantling a child or adult, and so obscure that a ban on them hardly made a difference to anyone. They were there as legislative padding, pretty much. Rottweilers aren’t on the list, but naturally there are now calls for them to be added.
Not that this would make much difference or save any more innocent 'tots’ from being savaged. This is because dog attacks have very little to do with the breed in question, and everything to do with the treatment of the breed in question. The breeding’s got quite a lot to do with it, too - responsible breeders breed out aggressive traits in dogs, while irresponsible ones either breed them in, or don’t pay much attention either way because 'Trust Me I’m A Holiday Rep’ is on. It’s less significant that both of this week’s murder-beasts were Rotts, and more so that they were Rotts kept chained up and/or kept outside. There’s not much in the way of legislation covering fools who want a guard dog to protect their property, but have only the vaguest idea of what a guard dog is. Guard dogs, if you must have them (and that’s questionable to start with), should be trained so as to differentiate between an intruder and a small baby with no intent to do over a pub. Most people’s idea of training a guard dog, however, goes something like this:
1) Acquire massive intimidating-looking dog
2) Put dog outside
3) Pay dog as little attention as possible and/or intermittently antagonise it
4) Wait for dog to get into a permanent state of boredom-induced fucking annoyance
5) Consider job done. Have a fag.
Various suggestions are currently being made, including 'ban all Rottweilers and Dobermanns’ (from the man whose four-year-old son was attacked by, um, either an American bulldog or a pit bull) and 'muzzle all Rottweilers’ (from the woman whose two-year-old was mauled by his grandmother’s dog this week). The former is neither feasible, nor big, nor clever, and only serves to illustrate the kind of hysteria that such attacks induce (not unlike shark attacks, in fact, the rarity of which never inhibited big old piscean pogroms). The latter sounds less unpalatable, but is still bonkers. After all, both attacks this week happened while the dogs in question were at home, so to avert similar attacks there would need to be mandatory muzzling for the breed 24 hours a day. Which wouldn’t be so bad - you could feed them through a straw, and maybe get other specially-trained smaller dogs who like that sort of thing to clean their genitals for them.
The irony is that the DDA doesn’t cover what dogs do on their own property, only in public. Tony Martin would approve. It’s glaringly evident that the DDA was knocked up hastily in response to the understandable but isolated anguish of a few - there are enough examples of this (hello, Sarah’s Law) to create a general worry about how some laws are made, and how much clout the grief-crazed have to this end. (This idea was expanded upon in a relatively sensible Times bit this week, unrelated to the dog story, entitled 'Pain does not lead to judgement’.) The point is that, horrific as this week has been, it doesn’t actually indicate a real rise in dog attacks. It’s just recurrent, consistent human error. The difference between normality and nightmare in these instances was a couple of open doors and a couple of feet of chain. (And, yes, maybe a couple of hundredweight of brain cells, but that’s not for me to say.)
Today’s dog mauling is tomorrow’s pan-assisted scalding or smashed-casserole-dish laceration. Tragic, mundane old human error. Just as there’s no sense making everyone have a thermostat to stop their bathwater getting too hot because a tiny percentage don’t know how not to scald their children; just as 'Top Gear’ shouldn’t be turned into the motoring equivalent of 'Songs of Praise’ in the aftermath of Hammond’s crash; there’s no sense in making orders which cover certain breeds of *potentially* dangerous dog. (Nor in slapping euthanasia orders on dogs that have barked at people, or have had to have their muzzles removed so they could puke. Ah, bureaucracy.)
It’s hard for me to be totally objective about this, as I share my flat with an adopted beast that’s part Rottweiler and part whatever else - a Nottweiler, if you will. I’d like to think I live up to the extra responsibility ownership of such a mutt confers - placid as he is, he’s never going to be left alone with anyone smaller than him, and he’s always muzzled in public. (The Hannibal Lecter jokes are *hilarious*.)
It can be hard work, but if you’re going to keep a big dog whose parents may or may not have been bred to have a go, you’ve really got to get your shit together. The trouble is that many big dog fanciers never will, because they don’t even think it’s their shit - it must be the government’s shit, or our shit, by default. The breeds needing the most care are often attractive to the kind of people who give the least toss. Suggestions that Rottweilers - and maybe Rottweiler 'types’ - should be prohibited only flag up a prevailing attitude that it’s better for all of us to share the blame and responsibility if the people who are really responsible refuse to accept it. Any change in law would mean responsible dog owners would be obliged to suck up being penalised en masse for someone else’s mistakes and misdemeanours. If the government had put their energies into real efforts to combat irresponsible dog ownership instead of banning foxhunting, they might really have achieved something for society.
What’s needed - tedious, complicated, fraught with difficulty and expensive as it may be - is to focus on individuals. There are plenty of little herberts who make it their business to turn agreeable pets of any number of breeds into aggressive accessories, either through breeding or just general abuse, and even more well-meaning fools who just don’t know what they’re doing. Alternatively, there’s always the no-nonsense Chinese approach - dead dogs don’t spread rabies or eat babies. Or advise people not to get a guard dog, but a guard parrot. Those bastards can sock it to you from *both* ends.