Look around a rescue shelter, and it will be almost certain that one of the first dogs you see will be a bull breed. Dog shelters are being over run with these dogs; on the RSPCA website alone, there are over 150 Staffordshire Bull Terriers. Combine this with the number of cross-breeds resembling staffies and the statistics are shocking. The next breed with the most dogs is the Jack Russell terrier at 31. Why are there so many bull breed dogs looking for homes in the UK compared to other breeds, and why do so many end up in kennels?
Before we can go into depth in this article, it will be useful to define the breeds/types of dog I will be referring to:
- Bull breeds- Stocky dogs with broad shoulders, short coats, and often having a square head. Specific breeds will usually have been developed for fighting. Can include pure breeds, cross-breed, dogs listed as dangerous dogs and non-dangerous dogs.
- Pitbull terrier- A group of dogs showing bull breed characteristics and originally bred for blood sports, but often closely resembling an american pitbull. These dogs have strict restrictions in the UK and illegally owned dogs are often used for illegal dog fighting. It is very difficult to determine if a dog is classed as a pitbull or not, as it is not determined by breed or parentage.
- American pitbull terrier- A breed of dog similar but larger than the staffordshire bull terrier, and classed as a dangerous dog breed by the UK government.
- Staffordshire bull terrier- affectionately known as staffies, they are a small, stocky breed first bred for dog fighting, but with the right training can make gentle and loving family pets. Classed as a bull breed, but not as a pitbull terrier. There are no restrictions on their ownership, breeding and sale.
In 1991, the Dangerous Dog Act came into place which banned the sale, breeding and exchanging of certain breeds with a history of being bred for blood sport such as dog fighting and bull-baiting such as pitbull terriers and dogo argentinos. Classification of these dogs is difficult as any dog with specific characteristics outlined by DEFRA could be classed as dangerous dogs, regardless of its genetic history.
“An Act to prohibit persons from having in their possession or custody dogs belonging to types bred for fighting; to impose restrictions in respect of such dogs pending the coming into force of the prohibition; to enable restrictions to be imposed in relation to other types of dog which present a serious danger to the public; to make further provision for securing that dogs are kept under proper control; and for connected purposes.” Dangerous Dog Act, 1991
These dogs can still be legally owned in the UK under strict Breed Specific Legislation; they must be neutered, tattooed, chipped, insured, wear a muzzle in public, cannot be walked by anyone under the age of 16 and deemed not to be a threat to the general public. According to a 2014 document published through Freedom Of Information Act, the current Index of Exempted Dogs stands at a total of 2658 dogs, 2652 of which are classed simply as “Pitbull types”. Like any other dog, with the right training and responsible dog ownership, pitbulls can make loving pets, but tougher regulations mean many people are put off from owning them.
Due to this legislation, breeds resembling pitbulls are often thought to be aggressive, temperamental and dangerous, but in reality, many are described as loyal, gentle and kind. Breeds often facing these prejudices include the bull terrier, miniature bull terr
ier and the bull dog, but the breed with the greatest stigma attached is undoubtedly the staffordshire bull terrier. Unfortunately, due to public confusion between illegally/legally owned pitbull type dogs and staffies, the dog is often confused for a pitbull terrier, despite the fact the UK government classes them as separate dogs. For example, a paper published in 2014 reported that dogs considered pitbulls in the US were often classed as staffies in the UK, but that UK shelters were more likely to euthanise a dog classed as a pitbull than an american shelter (Hoffman et al, 2014). This has contributed to the large number of staffies found in UK shelters, with many dogs spending years waiting for their new homes while other dogs such as spaniel breeds wait only weeks.
Charities such as the RSPCA argue that the Dangerous Dog Act is outdated, and euthanasing or restricting a dog simply on its looks rather than its behaviour is an old fashioned and medieval approach to animal management, and instead, the focus should be on owner education and effective training.
One dog suffering from these pre-conceived ideas is Tank, a staffie at K9 Crusaders, a rescue shelter in Cornwall which takes in unwanted and stray dogs. I first met Tank when I went for an induction before I could start volunteering. He was brought into the exercise field, and as soon as he was let off his lead, he was bounding around, saying hello to us, rolling over for tummy rubs and covering us with slobbery kisses. Never once did I feel worried about him biting, it was clear he was very affectionate, if a little distracted by all the smells! Tank has nearly been adopted several times, but no one came back for him, perhaps because they realised owning a dog is a lot more work than they first expected, or perhaps because they were put off by his breed. Tank isn’t the only bull breed at the shelter, there are other staffies as well as large bull breeds which are less common but sometimes even harder to rehome, all falling victim to negative media attention.
It’s not just the problem of the large number of dogs unable to be rehomed, we also need to address the number of dogs being admitted to shelters, a completely different issue. For example, the Blue Cross alone has recorded a 85% increase in the number of staffies coming through their doors in the last 5 years. Bull breeds have also been subject to irresponsible breeding, breeding being practiced without thorough planning and professional advice and without considering the future of the resulting pups. This can lead to large numbers of litters, inbreeding and dogs being abandoned. Uncontrolled breeding is often a result of a lack of education in owners, with many people not knowing the benefits of neutering and spaying their dog, or seeing breeding as easy financial reward.
“With an 85 per cent increase in the number of staffies coming into our rehoming centres in the last five years, improving the reputation of bull breeds is at the heart of our education work.” The Blue Cross
Staffies don’t deserve their bad press. With the correct training, they can be loving family members, happy to curl up by the fire or sit at the end of the bed at the end of a long day of going on walks and playing with toys. Many animal charities have started campaigns to help staffies shake off their unwarrented reputation, such as the RespectaBULL programme setup by the Blue Cross, and a main part of their efforts is to educate people about dog safety, training and responsible ownership. This seems a good approach to tackle the problem, as researchers have found that dog attacks are reduced by teaching people aggressive signals rather than by banning types of dogs (Olson et al, 2015).
There is still a way to go, but with responsible breeding, dedicated owners and public support, the end may be in sight for the staffie stereotype, and soon, thousand of dogs will be getting the lives they deserve.
For more information, visit websites such as the RSPCA, Blue Cross and Battersea Cats and Dogs Home. Please visit the K9 Crusaders website to read about their important work promoting dog welfare throughout Cornwall and to see their current dogs looking for homes.
- L. Hoffman, N. Harrison, L. Wolff, C. Westgarth, 2014. “Is That Dog a Pit Bull? A Cross-Country Comparison of Perceptions of Shelter Workers Regarding Breed Identification.” Journal of applied animal welfare science. doi:10.1080/10888705.2014.895904
- K.R. Olson, J.K. Levy, B. Norby, M.M. Crandall, J.E. Broadhurst, S. Jacks, R.C. Barton and M.S. Zimmerman, 2015. “Inconsistent identification of pit bull-type dogs by shelter staff.” The Veterinary Journal. doi:10.1016/j.tvjl.2015.07.019