Who will defend dog owners like me?

Who will defend dog owners like me?

It was one of those blissful days we’ve had lately when you can almost feel the earth waking up. Dozer was playing in the orchard at the back of his house with two small children when all hell broke loose. Across the orchard fence came a bunch of dogs. There were 10 in all, and their leader was a muscular Staffordshire bull terrier. The Staffie began to rip Dozer..

It was one of those blissful days we’ve had lately when you can almost feel the earth waking up. Dozer was playing in the orchard at the back of his house with two small children when all hell broke loose. Across the orchard fence came a bunch of dogs. There were 10 in all, and their leader was a muscular Staffordshire bull terrier. The Staffie began to rip Dozer apart and the other dogs piled in. Deborah Bower, who is the housekeeper to Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, was startled when she heard Dozer howling. It was a cry unlike any she had heard before. Dashing outside, she found her grandchildren, aged eight and 10, screaming. Their beloved Dozer, a mess of torn flesh and blood, was being dragged by his ears from one end of the orchard to the other. Deborah then spotted the owner of the crazed hounds, a local man from the village; he was kicking two of his Jack Russells, trying to get them off Dozer. But the dogs were deaf to everything, except the thrill of their frenzy.

Dozer, I should probably explain, is a black labrador. As docile a creature as you could hope to meet. Even though he is six years old, he still likes to sit on Deborah’s knee, or tries to at any rate. After the horrific attack, which took place just over a fortnight ago, the Somerset village of West Harptree was in shock: “People kept saying, ‘It could have been a child,’” Deborah says, “But he is my child. Dozer is part of our family. He shouldn’t have to go through something like that. That man’s dogs have attacked before. How can you have 10 dogs off the lead and control them? It’s appalling.”

As the law stands, you can punish an owner whose dog harms or frightens a human being. But in a dog-on-dog attack like Dozer’s, there is shockingly little to be done. Deborah Bower didn’t know that as she called the police and looked on helplessly. “The big Staffie wouldn’t get off Dozer till he thought he was dead,” Deborah recalls. Miraculously, when Deborah’s husband, Rick, got home and wrapped the dog in a towel, there was still a heartbeat. The vet predicted that Dozer, swollen to the size of a bull seal, would die of shock.

But that night, when they went to visit him – “He’s never been left before, I didn’t want him to think we’d abandoned him” – the dog lifted his head a fraction to greet his family and the tail went up and down. The next day, after a three-and-a-half hour operation, to everyone’s amazement Dozer pulled through. Now Deborah has started a petition to change the law so that dog owners can be held responsible for attacks on other animals as well as on humans. “I don’t want revenge,” she says. “I want justice. Justice for Dozer.”

What struck me about Dozer’s story is how little protection responsible, loving owners like the Bowers have against malevolent, anti-social brutes – and I’m not talking about the dogs. In my eight years as a dog owner, I have witnessed a marked deterioration in the manners and behaviour of certain hounds and their masters, to the point where my walks across Cambridge’s glorious Grantchester Meadows can be laced with as much apprehension as joy. Since a new poodle puppy joined my family back in November, I find myself scanning the horizon for a pair of dobermanns, among others, whose male owner not only lets those whippy thugs off the leash, but actually seems to relish the fear they inspire in more considerate owners. My Maisie could be a canapé for those dobermanns and there isn’t a damn thing I can do. It makes me feel vulnerable and angry.

“We are seeing more and more people in denial about the behaviour of their dogs,” says Stan Rawlinson, one of Britain’s leading dog behaviourists. “The Jesuits used to say, Give me the child and I’ll show you the man. Now I say, Give me the owner and I’ll show you the dog.”

Stan, who works on a lot of high-profile police cases, including the recent dreadful incident where a blind woman’s labrador was savaged by another dog, agrees that the situation is getting worse. “Ten years ago, people would have apologised profusely if their dog attacked yours,” says Stan. “Now, it’s more likely to be, ‘Yeah, wanna make something of it?’ I think it’s [corresponded with] a change in the way we bring up children. There are people now who think they have a right to do whatever they want when they want and sod anyone else. Our habit of letting our children run wild has smacked us in the face. No human and no animal can learn without controls, without someone saying ‘No’.”

Like me, Stan says that on his daily walk he checks out the humans more than the dogs. “If they’re on the phone the whole time, if they’re wearing sunglasses and taking no notice of their dog, then I’m on the alert.”

A third of households enjoy the privilege of sharing their lives with one of Britain’s 10.5 million dogs. How many of us have had bad experiences at the hands of beastly, negligent owners and their barking accessories? I was walking on the Meadows one day, when my Django, not so much a poodle as a tortured French existentialist in a red furry coat, was bitten by a dog he’d bounded up to. As I staunched the wound on his head, the owner of the offending dog said brightly, “Oh, she always gets nasty when she’s got a stick.” And whose fault is that?

Stan Rawlinson says the aggressive dog owner’s most common excuse is, “Oh, he’s never done that before.” Even when, what Stan calls a “West Highland Terrorist” bites the postman or another pooch on a daily basis.

Last autumn, I was walking with my mother and her border terrier, Poppy, on a beach in Wales. I spotted a pair of Parson Jack Russells in the distance with an owner I didn’t like the look of. I told mum to put Poppy on the lead, but my mother is one of those people who sees only good in man, but especially in animal. “It’ll be fine,” she said. Seconds later, the Jack Russells had a squealing Poppy pinned down on the beach. When I remonstrated with the owner and suggested he should muzzle his pets, he snapped: “Those dogs have got attitude.” The note of pride was unmistakable.

Stan Rawlinson and other experts believe such dog owners present a growing menace to society. In cities, police are seeing young guys, who don’t want to risk the jail term that gun or knife possession would bring, taking another weapon out on to the streets: the status dog. The hastily passed and widely derided Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991 banned four breeds, but one of them, pitbulls, are still being imported from southern Ireland – they’re known as Irish Staffies.

The expert view is that we need to see another Act which would cover a dog attacking another animal, not just a human being. Introducing dog licences is deemed to be a waste of time because only decent owners will bother to buy them. A forthcoming move to ban professional dog-walkers from taking more than four dogs at a time into London’s Royal Parks rather misses the point. As Stan Rawlinson points out, dogs like the ones which savaged Dozer will only act like a pack if they actually live in the same house. That rules out most dog-walkers.

Meanwhile, down in West Haptree, thus far Dozer’s treatment has cost £1,400, though he is very much back to his old self. Deborah Bower is determined that the owner of the dogs who did the damage will pick up the bill. On previous occasions when owners have complained to him that their animals have been hurt by his hounds, she says his surly response has been, “Prove it.” “He is not going to get away with it this time,” says Deborah. So far her petition has got 400 signatures; if they reach 1,000, Jacob Rees-Mogg has promised to take it before Parliament.

I am glad to report that Dozer’s local dog-walking community is showing proper defiance in the face of the hounds from hell. These days, I hear, one lady carries a pitchfork when she walks her dog.

The problem is not that Britain is going to the dogs. It’s worse than that: it’s going to bad owners. Dog-walkers of the world, unite! Take a lead! Justice for Dozer!

To add your name to Deborah’s petition, please drop us a line voicing your support to [email protected], or alternatively send a letter to Features Desk, Daily Telegraph, 111 Buckingham Palace Road, London SW1W 0DT

8:26PM BST 09 Apr 2012

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