Anguish as 'big softy Hank' seized under dangerous animals law
He's a big dog who thinks he's a puppy, sleeps all day and runs away from cats.
But two-year-old Hank has been seized by police and council officers on suspicion of being a pit bull terrier - a banned breed under the Dogs (NI) Order 1983.
Owner Leonard Collins was at work when his dad rang to say he had gone to his house on Belfast's Woodstock Road to walk Hank, but the dog was gone.
And Leonard was left in shock when he discovered from a neighbour what had really happened.
A team of police officers and staff from Belfast City Council arrived, seized the dog and took him away.
The council is now refusing to let Leonard and partner Joanne Meadows see their pet while it is established if Hank is a pit bull.
Leonard and Joanne insist he is a Staffie-Labrador cross and fear they may never see him again if the process drags on for months and ends in his death, as happened in the case of a dog named Lennox in 2012.
Leonard said Hank is just under two years old and is a typical dog and is not aggressive.
"He's a big dog who thinks he's a puppy. He's never attacked anyone, he's never bitten anyone. He lies on the bed for 90% of the day," he said.
He's very, very smart and he picks things up incredibly well."
Leonard added they had been working with an animal behaviourist to stop Hank being over-affectionate with visitors he didn't know and she was very pleased with his progress.
"As far as she's concerned he's not a pit bull," he added.
"She says he might have some Weimaraner in him, which might account for the shape of his face. But she categorically says he's not a pit bull."
Joanne described Hank as her "baby" and said he runs away from cats.
"He's just a wee honey - he's so loveable. He has a big grumpy face and I just love it," she said.
"After this happened, I just felt numb. I just walked into Leonard's house and I expected Hank to run and meet me just like he always does."
Leonard said they got Hank from a friend of a friend and were keen to get a staffie-cross after babysitting one for a friend who was on holiday.
"He's the first dog I've ever had. Since this happened I've done a lot of research online and to me he doesn't look like a pit bull, he looks more like a staffie-Lab," he said.
Even the dog warden has told him that Hank hasn't been acting in an aggressive way.
Leonard's dad had gone over to his house on Thursday to walk the dog but phoned to tell him Hank was missing.
Then when Leonard was on his way home from work his dad phoned again to say a neighbour had seen a team of police officers and council staff seizing the dog.
"Joanne met me there and there was a warrant taped to the inside of the front door to explain that a district judge had authorised them within 30 days of July 11 to seize him and anything related to banned breeds," he said.
"The neighbour said there were eight police officers and four dog wardens, but another neighbour said later it was more like five or six police officers. But it seems incredibly excessive."
Hank suffers from allergies and a skin condition and these may flare up if he doesn't get his specialist diet and medication.
"He's with people he doesn't know, in a situation that isn't familiar.
"His intolerance is triggered by food allergies, and given a stressful situation that could flare up again. I would be surprised if it doesn't," he said.
"I spoke to the dog warden and my understanding is that somebody has made a complaint that a pit bull-type dog is living in my property, and they came with a huge number of police officers (with the intention of) breaking into my property to take Hank."
Leonard said the dog warden admitted that they hadn't yet taken measurements from Hank - one of the means by which dogs are assessed as having traces of pit bull in their breeding.
"Have they done anything else other than subjectively look at the dog and decide that this is a pit bull? It seems insane that they come to my house to take him and they don't measure him up, they take him without doing any of the tests that the legislation requires.
"All of this has started from one person's opinion and they won't let me see him, won't tell me where he is."
A Belfast City Council spokesperson said: "The council has a statutory duty in relation to the enforcement of the Dogs (NI) Order 1983 as amended. The dog known as Hank has been taken in for assessment, and it would be inappropriate to comment further while this assessment is ongoing. We would like to assure those who have expressed concern about the dog's welfare that he is being well looked after and his needs are being met."