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Man's best fiend?

Man's best fiend?

The figures tell their own story - in the financial years between 2002 and 2006, the MPS Dog Section seized an average 42 animals each year of types deemed illegal under the Dangerous Dogs Act.

In the year 2006/7 it seized 173 such dogs. In 2007/8, 481 dogs were seized.

The year after that saw 719 seizures. And provisional figures for the last financial year, which began in April 2009, show that well over 1,100 animals were seized.

The scale of the problem can be looked at in a different way. In 2002, the Met's budget for kennelling seized dogs was £145,000. For the current financial year - 2010/11 - it is £2.85 million.

Then again, consider the fact that, in 2008, prior to the establishment of the Met's Status Dogs Unit, 20 dog handlers were wading through the hours of paperwork generated by the 719 seizures of that year instead of being out on the streets catching robbers.

Illegal dogs - or 'status dogs' as they are now known on account of their close association with gang members - represent a multi-faceted problem.

BIOLOGICAL WEAPONS

Man's best friend has always been - for some - man's best fiend. But London, like other parts of the country, has never before witnessed them being deployed in large numbers as biological weapons of mass intimidation and financial disruption.

The Status Dogs Unit, which comprises a sergeant and five constables, was established to spearhead the Met's response to the rapidly burgeoning problem with a budget specifically approved by the Metropolitan Police Authority.

All the officers are what are known as Dog Legislation Officers - in effect, expert witnesses on dog breeds and types and recognised as such by the courts (the Met's Dog Support Unit has 16 other dog legislation officers).

In its first year, the unit has executed hundreds of warrants and helped other officers to bring successful prosecutions. But it is aware that the problem cannot be solved simply by taking dogs out of circulation, even in ever-increasing numbers.

For too much is at stake at the criminal end of the dangerous dogs business, in terms of that all-important personal prestige of the owners and cash to those people who have turned the breeding and supply of the dogs into a highly profitable illicit enterprise.

Said Sgt Ian McParland, who heads the unit: "Unless we change the social attitudes prevailing among the people who own most of these dogs, we are not going to eradicate the problem.

WAY OF LIFE

"Violence is a way of life to them and the dog is simply an extension to their violent lifestyle.

"If you are a gang member you can elevate your status by getting a 'hard' dog."

So there is an education programme to be undertaken, which the Unit is pursuing in partnership with the RSPCA and other charities with an interest in promoting dog welfare.

"The gang members who own these dogs don't even know how to train them properly to carry out the tasks they want them to do while still keeping a balanced temperament," Sgt McParland said.

"A police dog will attack on demand but on other occasions it can happily play.

"But owners of status dogs simply want aggression.

"The dog will be restrained and then teased or struck by gang members. It can't flee so its only option is to try and attack. In the end, that's how it lives its life - it will always attack first.

"And yet the vast majority of owners actually love their dogs, which are often their one and only companions."

But education programmes don't remove the need for enforcement against the dogs and dog owners and those who supply them.

BIG MONEY

Breeders of status dogs can earn big money and 'animal welfare' are two words not found in their lexicon.

"Some of them just breed litter after litter," said Sgt McParland. "On one occasion, we took 30 dogs out of a two-bedroom house in Tottenham. There was also a case involving a one-bedroom maisonette which contained 15 pit bull-type dogs in cages.

"There are lots of people breeding for profit."

Each desirable pup will sell for between £300 and £400, Sgt McParland explained. "About half the litter will be sold for that sort of price," he said. "The remainder start to grow and become less attractive, so the price begins to come down.

"Some dogs will sell for more, such as a type known as a red-nosed pit bull, which has a ruddy colour and, of course, a red nose."

Such is the thoroughly businesslike nature of status dog breeding that some breeders will happily agree to purchasers paying by installment.

Some dogs are also imported, mainly from Ireland and eastern Europe. The latter usually enter the country through Dover and the Unit has worked with the Port of Dover Police in moves to counter this.

But it's out on the streets that these dogs generate fear and media headlines, where they are used as weapons or deterrents to keep the public away from public spaces, such as parks, which the gang members want for their own exclusive use.

SAFER NEIGHBOURHOOD TEAMS

"The vast majority of our work is done alongside and in support of Safer Neighbourhood Teams," said Sgt McParland. "They are the ones who find the dogs when they're threatened by them or when they're dealing with anti-social behaviour in parks where children can't use the swings or other facilities because of dogs.

"If they ring us, we'll do the seizures for them and then guide them through the legal process. We will give them a full pack of information telling them everything they need to know in dealing with the law."

Sgt McParland has also written a guidance for the Courts Service to help it progress cases more swiftly - an important consideration when it costs £20 a day to keep a seized dog in kennels.

"It used to take an average of 182 days to process a case," he explained. "But the dogs we've seized have been dealt with in an average of 67 days, which represents a huge cost saving.

"Prior to the Unit being set up, it could take up to a fortnight for a dog to be seen by a dog legislation officer. Now all dogs are seen on the day of seizure or the day after."

The Unit is pro-active as well as re-active and targets gangs. Last year it also attended 15 London festivals, including the Notting Hill Carnival, at which all 21 dog legislation officers from the Dog Support Unit were deployed.

Inevitably on these occasions, innocent members of the public whose pets appear like pit-bull types come to the unit's attention.

WRONG PLACE, WRONG TIME

"Often, it's not hard to tell that these are simply people who are in the wrong place at the wrong time," said Sgt McParland. "For example, if the dog's name is Hazel… well, Hazel the pit bull terrier isn't likely to be owned by the sort of person who calls his dog Asbo.

"Individual dogs can be exempted from the Dangerous Dogs Act by the courts.

"We had a case of a man who acquired a puppy from a dog rescue charity which later suspected that they had given him a pit bull-type.

"He was a really nice guy. He had won the Kennel Club Good Citizen Bronze Award, the dog was being properly trained, it had been microchipped and he had a secure garden.

"A court exempted it from the Act, subject to a few conditions.”

But there is another group of innocents which are causing the unit more concern.

Explained Sgt McParland: "More and more, we're finding young girls out with potentially dangerous dogs.

"They are provided by their parents who think that if their young teenage daughters are going to be walking home on their own through an estate with a bad reputation, they need some protection.

"There was a case of a father and his 12-year-old daughter who took a dog to the vet, who advised that it be neutered. The father left it to the young girl to decide whether the dog had the operation or not."

The unit works closely with the RSPCA, Battersea Dogs Home, the Mayhew Animal Home and other charitable organisations which are involved with dogs.

COMMITMENT VARIES

It would also like to work closely with each borough council in London who these days are responsible for dealing with stray dogs.
But the local authorities' commitment to tackle the problem of dangerous dogs varies widely across the capital.

Some are very good. Wandsworth, for example, claims to have the largest local authority dog control service in the country, with wardens regularly on patrol throughout the borough and an education programme to encourage responsible dog ownership.

It is currently implementing a scheme to microchip all dogs on borough housing estates.

Others have much less commitment - in one borough, responsibility for stray dogs falls on the shoulders of a single environmental health officer who spends just one day a week on this duty.

Said Sgt McParland: "My officers must be among the busiest in the Met. Since the Unit was formed, we've seized over 1,100 dogs, executed 300 warrants, seen 350 jobs through court and dealt with the Met's 640 Safer Neighbourhood Teams.

"Then there's the Freedom of Information requests from the public, press and local authorities. They all want the same figures but they want them presented in slightly different ways.

"My phone goes off quite a lot at home."

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