Professor Claire Parkinson
Over thirty years ago, following sensationalised reporting in the popular press and mounting public concern about dog attacks, the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 (DDA 1991) was introduced. The legislation identified four breeds or types of dog as a particular danger to the public: pit bull terrier; Japanese Tosa; Dogo Argentino; and, Fila Brasileiro. Most people haven’t heard of three of these breeds, which is unsurprising as there have been very few of them in the UK either before or after 1991. Only the pit bull terrier is commonly known, at least by name, to the public. But would you know a pit bull terrier if you saw one? We asked respondents this and other questions as part of a research project on public perceptions of dangerous dogs and dog risk.
The research team (Professor Claire Parkinson, Dr Lara Herring, and Dr David Gould) set out to examine where the public get their information about dangerous dogs, ask if it is shaped by media reporting, and to evaluate public understanding of situational dog risk. This research is needed because three decades after the introduction of DDA 1991, dog attacks, dog bite fatalities and hospital admissions from dog related injuries have all increased. As I explained in evidence to a parliamentary inquiry, dangerous dogs legislation in its current form is not working to protect the public.
Over 1500 people responded to a questionnaire survey and the research team also analysed seven years of UK media reports of dog attacks. We discovered that the main source of information about dog risk is television, particularly entertainment-driven reality programmes. 65% of respondents watched dog training programmes on television. Topping the charts were the Channel 5 programmes Dogs Behaving (Very) Badly and The Secret Life of Puppies, followed by the Channel 4 show Its Me or the Dog and Sky’s The Dog Whisperer with Cesar Milan. A third of people in our study (n=515) followed the advice of dog trainers and dog behaviourists on television.
Nearly all respondents (97%) had seen or read a news item about a dog attack and nearly all could recall the breed of dog involved. The most popularly recalled breed was the Staffordshire Bull Terrier followed closely by pit bulls. The issue here is that media reports more often focus on attacks by large breeds of dog, which can lead people to believe that medium or small breeds of dog are less of a bite risk. Our research also showed that sources for breed identification in media reports on dog attacks tend to be unreliable.
Presented with common situations that give rise to bite incidents, we found that public awareness of situational bite risk was high when asked about dogs in general but low by comparison when respondents were asked about their own dogs. In addition, most respondents struggled to correctly interpret a range of canine body language.
Section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act focuses on particular breeds or types of dog, however breed is not a reliable indicator of bite risk. In addition, public understanding continues to be shaped by mainstream media discourses on dogs which distort the realities of dog risk. The current breed specific legislation is not fit for purpose and whilst it remains in its current form, we can expect dog attacks and dog bite fatalities to continue to increase. At the same time, dogs who have done nothing wrong are being euthanised or put under onerous restrictions just because they happen to look a certain way. And, how many people could spot a pit bull? When presented with photographs of six dogs, only 2% of respondents could correctly identify the two images of pit bulls. We await the government’s response in 2023 to renewed calls for change to the Dangerous Dogs Act.
Professor Claire Parkinson is co-Director of the Centre for Human/Animal Studies at Edge Hill University.