30 years of BSL: It's time to end dog death row

30 years of BSL: It's time to end dog death row

We've joined forces with other leading dog welfare and veterinary groups to launch a fight against legislation that gives dogs a 'death sentence' due to the way they look.

We've teamed up with Battersea, Blue Cross, British Veterinary Association (BVA), Dogs Trust and The Kennel Club in a bid to lobby for changes to Section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act, which applies breed specific legislation (BSL) prohibiting the keeping of four types of dogs.

End BSL © RSPCAOur chief executive Chris Sherwood said: "It's been 30 years since the Dangerous Dogs Act was introduced on 12 August 1991. It was brought in to keep the public safe following a number of tragic incidents involving dogs but was never well thought-out or based on scientific evidence.

"Since then, thousands of innocent dogs have lost their lives simply because they happen to look a certain way and not because of their temperament or behaviour. Hospital admissions due to dog bites have increased dramatically in that time which means the legislation has failed, not only to protect dog welfare, but also to keep people safe."

What is BSL?

BSL prohibits the keeping, breeding, selling or giving away (including rehoming) of four types of dog in the UK:

  • Pit bull terrier
  • Japanese Tosa
  • Dogo Argentino
  • Fila Brasileiro

How does it work?

Dogs suspected of being a prohibited type are assessed against a standard which describes what that type of prohibited dog should look like. If he matches a certain number of characteristics then he can be identified as being 'of type'. This is predominantly appearance-based and can be very subjective. It has nothing to do with DNA, a dog's parentage or breeding.

Once identified, it is illegal to rehome, sell or give away that dog to a member of the public. This means rescue centres must put healthy, happy, friendly dogs to sleep. If the dog is owned then their owner can have them exempted but a court must be satisfied that they are a fit and proper person and that the dog is not dangerous.

Thirty years of death sentences for dogs

August 12th is the 30th anniversary of BSL in the UK. In 2016, we launched the #EndBSL campaign calling for a parliamentary inquiry into the legislation, which took place in 2018. The Efra Committee published its findings that year and said a change in the law would be desirable, achievable and would better protect the public.

The Government, however, remains committed to its view that these four types of dogs are more dangerous than others. Defra's Action Plan for Animal Welfare, released earlier this year, states that it will "ensure dangerous dogs legislation continues to provide effective public safety controls". 

Exempted dog TobyIn 2018, Defra commissioned further research into dog control measures, the causes of dog attacks and how to promote responsible dog ownership. We are yet to hear the findings of this research. In the meantime, hospital admissions due to dog bites continue to rise and dogs continue to lose their lives.

Battersea chief executive Peter Laurie said: "The Dangerous Dogs Act was created to keep the public safe. However, since it was introduced 30 years ago it has actually done very little to protect the public from dog attacks, with hospital admissions for dog bites having increased by 154% between 1999 and 2019.

"Every year many friendly dogs are unfairly condemned simply for the way that they look. Ultimately it is rescue organisations like Battersea who care for these dogs and that have to deal with this flawed and unfair legislation. We urge the Government to review the law properly; and work with welfare groups and dog owners to craft new legislation that puts the focus on a dog¿s actions rather than its appearance."

Friendly, loving dogs are losing their lives

It's impossible to know how many dogs have lost their lives as a result of BSL across all of the UK's police forces, pounds and rescue centres but, between 2016 and 2021, Battersea, Blue Cross and RSPCA were forced to euthanise 482 dogs because they'd been identified by police dog legislation officers as prohibited types. Many of these were friendly, loving dogs who could have easily been rehomed to families.

Our dog welfare expert - and lead author of the Breed Specific Legislation: A Dog's Dinner report published in 2016 - Dr Samantha Gaines said:

This legislation is outdated, draconian, ineffective and unjust. For 30 years it has judged and punished dogs for how they look and not on their own, unique personalities. It fails dogs, it fails people and it's time it was repealed and replaced with legislation that is based on robust scientific evidence.

She added: "Aggression is such a complex behaviour and whether a dog chooses to show aggression or not comes down to their breeding, rearing and early-life experiences, as well as the specific circumstances in which they may bite. Any dog has the potential to be dangerous and we need to be focusing our attention on responsible dog ownership and educating people - particularly children who we know are more likely to be bitten - on how to safely interact with our dogs."

We're calling on the UK Government to commit to ending BSL and, until that time, to allow rescue groups to rehome Section 1 dogs to members of the public.

Sky's story: A two-year fight for her life

Exempted dog SkyEleanor Singer and her mother, Barbara, spent two years and £20,000 fighting to save the life of an exempted dog, Sky, who ended up in kennels when her owner moved abroad. Defra said keepership could not be changed even though the duo had been helping to take care of her for two years.

They took the case to the High Court and won, helping pave the way for more exempted dogs to be saved.

Eleanor said: "Dogs should be judged not by how they look but by how they behave and irresponsible owners should be held accountable. It's tragic that so many dogs aren't as lucky as Sky; we're so glad we kept fighting for her and that she's helped to save other lives since but it's so wrong that they have to go through this in the first place.

"Sky lost many years of her life due to BSL but, thankfully, she's still with us and we hope to have her for many more years to come. Many other dogs don't get that chance and that's why we're supporting the #EndBSL campaign and are calling for the Government to review and repeal this law."