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Animal charity slams 'obsolete' laws that could see gentle giant Hank destroyed by the council

By Allan Preston

Published 19/07/2016

Leonard Collins and Joanne Meadows with Hank the dog
Leonard Collins and Joanne Meadows with Hank the dog
Hank the dog
Hank getting a kiss from Joanne

Laws that could see an east Belfast dog put down for resembling a pit bull are outdated and blunt, the USPCA has said.

Pet dog Hank was seized by police and council officials on July 14 on suspicion of being the breed, which is banned here.

His owners, Leonard Collins and Joanne Meadows, have denied that Hank is a pit bull and that he is dangerous.

They said he thinks he is a puppy, sleeps all day and even runs away from cats.

A campaign to raise money to challenge Belfast City Council - which has yet to make a decision on the dog's fate - has so far hit almost £9,000.

The Dogs (NI) Order 1983 gives authorities the power to seize certain dogs based on their breed and looks, regardless of their temperament or behaviour.

But a USPCA spokesman called the law an "outdated and blunt means of dealing with a problem whose roots are in owners and not animals".

"Any dog has the potential to cause injury, but very, very few ever do," he said.

"The USPCA and others have seen the aftermath of irresponsible pet owners deliberately goading dogs to attack one another or unfortunate humans encroaching on their space.

"Laws were brought in as a knee-jerk reaction to public revulsion at these shocking events, and this virtually impossible task was handed to dog wardens to enforce.

Hank as a pup
Hank as a pup
Joanne Meadows with Hank

"We need a root and branch review of legislation that criminalises the breed. Put the irresponsible owners before the courts, not the animals."

Susan Finlay, who runs the Owenbeg Dog Behaviour company in east Belfast, was called in by Leonard and Joanne to help train Hank. She agreed it was time to rethink laws targeting certain breeds.

"The legislation doesn't fulfil its purpose - from my point of view, the dimensions or type of the dog don't dictate its behaviour," Susan said. "The dog warden did not think Hank was aggressive, and he's not. I saw him and assessed him and he's not at all aggressive, but the fact he can be put to sleep because of how he looks is fundamentally flawed."

Owner Leonard said he bought Hank from a friend of a friend in good faith, and explained that after seeing pictures of the animal's parents, he believed he was a Staffie-Labador cross-breed.

The council is due to assess Hank's breed by measuring his physical dimensions. When completed, he could be deemed at least part pit bull.

Susan said that even if that turned out to be the case, it should not be enough to force the animal's destruction.

"Pit bulls can be raised to be safe pets," she added. "Unfortunately, certain dog breeds go through this phase for people who want a status dog. They have the choke chain and the studded collar to make themselves look hard.

"The German shepherds went through that, the rottweilers and the Staffies. It's the other end of the lead that's the problem."

Ulster Unionist MLA Andy Allen added to the calls for new legislation, branding the existing arrangements "unhelpful and counter-productive".

"Through a series of Assembly questions, we were able to reveal that dozens of dogs are investigated each year, with over 240 animals being affected over the last four years," he said.

"By enforcing the current deeply flawed legislation, healthy and safe dogs such as Hank are unfairly being placed at risk.

"Four dogs have been put to sleep over the last four years, and the legislation is clearly no longer fit for purpose."

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