Michael, 18, of Richmond Road, Dalston, is dressed in baggy tracksuit bottoms and a hooded sweater and is walking with his brown and white female Staffie, Bebe.
He is the cliché image of a ‘status dog’ owner, but when asked whether this is what his animal is, he replies cordially: “yes and no.”
He explains, “I’ve always wanted a dog since I was a child. Because of the day and age we live in you can’t walk the streets without being afraid for yourself or your property. If you have a certain breed, people are less likely to step to you.
“People who know my dog know she’s not going to hurt anyone, but people who don’t will think twice about stating anything.”
Michael is always out in Hackney with Bebe but says he has never seen any fighting. He notes that new restrictions make it difficult to own a pet in a council-owned building, which he thinks has curbed illegal breeding.
But influential figures within the Town Hall and the police believe tougher action must be taken to combat the rise in ownership of so-called status dogs.
In February a man was banned from keeping dogs for ten years and ordered to pay compensation to the Guide Dogs Association after his terrier-type pet savaged a guide dog in Cricklewood. In the same month, a terrier was mauled to death by a mastiff in Greenwhich.
Attacks like these have sparked a return to the debate about dangerous dogs, so fractious in the early 1990s.
Michael believes his dog is more dangerous than, say, a Labrador in that it is more inclined to be aggressive. However, he notes that it is only when the dog is exposed to confrontational situations or continually mistreated that the aggression will come out. “It all depends on how the dog is brought up.”
Ryan O’Meara from Dogmagazine.net thinks the name given to dogs which are used to increase their owners’ status is absurd. He recently made a call to the Metropolitan Police’s Status Dogs Unit hotline to report a status dog he’d seen while in Leicester Square. The dog was owned by Paris Hilton.
O’Meara’s point is valid; the term ‘status dog’ is reminiscent of the ’dangerous dog’ term that led to the infamous Dangerous Dogs Act (1991), seen by most as a failure that lead to the demonisation of select breeds of dogs, Staffies luckily not being one of them.
The Metropolitan Police Status dogs unit have said that Hackney is a very busy borough, in the top three for dangerous dogs removal.
Hackney’s Safer Neighbourhood teams and the Metropolitan Police’s status dogs unit are keen to promote responsible dog ownership.
The local police are working with the unit so that in future the numbers of dangerous dogs seized in Hackney can be recorded.
Cllr Alan Laing, the Council’s Cabinet Member for Neighbourhoods, said, “Hackney Council recognises that the national trend for acquiring ‘status dogs’ is a problem that must be tackled in close working partnership with the police, other agencies and neighbouring boroughs.
“Dealing with dangerous dogs is a police responsibility, while coping with stray dogs is a local authority responsibility. However, status dogs present problems for the community, which can only be solved with the help of residents, who should report stray or problem dogs and take responsibility for their own dogs’ behaviour.
“Like all inner-London boroughs, Hackney Council has seen a shift in the profile of the stray dogs it has found in the borough to reflect the trend for status dogs.”
The Dogs Trust believes the Dangerous Dogs Act needs amending to reflect the ‘deed not the breed’, to adequately deal with aggressive or dangerous dogs based on their actions, and offer the public adequate protection against dog attacks.
A spokesperson for the Trust said, “Many dogs identified as being a ‘banned breed’ by the Dangerous Dog Act 1991 have been beloved family pets with no tendency to aggression and therefore no danger to the public.”
The Trust is keen to see an increased ability by police and dog wardens to issue control orders to owners that are a threat and have acted aggressively before an attack happens, and wants stronger action against owners that have allowed or encouraged an attack to take place.
It believes the introduction of compulsory microchipping for all dogs is needed for more effective regulation of irresponsible owners and to deter casual owners from obtaining a dog in the first place.
The Trust has seen an increase in status-type dogs being handed in to them: “We believe that the current trend of having a dog as a status symbol or as a weapon has sadly led to the increase in the number of Staffordshire Bull Terriers and Staffie crosses in our centres.
“Like all breeds of dog – in the wrong hands and without the right socialisation and training, there can be problems.
“Unfortunately the breed has unfairly gained the reputation of being aggressive and dangerous when in reality they can be excellent family pets as they have a wonderful temperament and are great with people.
“Irresponsible dog owners are buying Staffies for the wrong reasons and don’t take the time to properly socialise them. Because Staffies are powerful, muscular little dogs they can be potentially dangerous if not cared for properly.”
The Dogs Trust is keen to ensure that people know what a friendly and loving breed Staffies are so they are not overlooked at their re-homing centres.
They spend a considerable amount of time resocialising Staffies that haven’t had the best start in life and they have hundreds of happy Staffie re-homing stories.
A new piece of legislation that prevents the mistreatment of dogs is the Animal Welfare Act 2006, under which owners must ensure their animals are given an adequate diet, allowed to express natural behaviour and given suitable housing.
Anyone who does not provide for an animal’s needs in these ways may be banned from owning animals, fined up to £20,000, and sent to prison.
A spokesperson for the Mayhew Animal Home said, “There are many issues that need to be addressed here and one is most certainly the amount of status dog breeds being bred in ‘back bedrooms’ and sold on without thought to where they will end up.”
Stoke Newington resident Ms Barbara Read said, “Animal charities are being inundated by unwanted Staffordshire Bull Terriers, with many being euthanised.
“They are sometimes trained by gangs to be aggressive – if they’re kept off lead they can attack other animals and even people.
“I’m sure in most cases the owners are not mistreating their pets. I’m sure most people I see walking their Staffies are caring dog owners and it’s a minority who are using these dogs to attack.”
Trees around Stoke Newington are regularly stripped of their bark because of irresponsible owners training their dogs to bite them. This strengthens the dogs’ jaws and makes them appear more muscular.
However, as well as being bad for the trees, the practice could cause a dog’s teeth to break, leading to internal mouth injuries, damage to their neck muscles and splinters in their eyes.
Stoke Newington-based Louise Glazebrook is a dog behaviouralist who runs the Darling Dog Company. She believes the problems related with status dogs could be overcome by increased education, and is sure the problem with dangerous dogs lies with owners and breeders rather than with the breed of dog, although she points out there are certain breeds that don’t make good family pets.
She said, “People living in London are choosing the wrong breed of dog for their lifestyle.”
Factors such as exercise and the purposes particular breeds of dog were originally bred for are being overlooked. “A Husky dog needs 12 miles of exercise a day, and people wonder why when they don’t exercise their pets enough they are overactive and under-stimulated.”
Reputable breeders, she says, are those who are breeding the right breeds and from a good line, producing non-aggressive dogs. However, education about dog handling and tougher restrictions on breeders are not the only problems.
The justice system may not be focussing enough on the wider implications of animal cruelty. For example, Stephen Barker, who was jailed over the death of Baby Peter in Haringey, had a previous conviction for animal cruelty – something that research shows doesn’t stop with animals. Figures from the American Humane Association (AHA) shows a strong link between animal and human abuse.
Fortunately, most dogs are in responsible hands. Back in Dalston, Michael acknowledges that Bebe looks dangerous, but he confides that she is really a “pussy”, attributing this to the fact he is a very loving owner.
More on dogs here.
Hackney dog owners interviewed on Radio 4, Tuesday 9 March 2010 here./ 6 March, 2010