They call them ‘lock-down puppies’. These are the dogs that people bought during the time of Covid restrictions and lock-down. They were bought as puppies and are now becoming mature, adult dogs. And that’s the problem.
I learnt about them when speaking last week to two South Yorkshire police (SYP) officers who have responsibility for those dogs that the police seize as a result of an incident.
I said I thought there had been an increase in the number of dogs in my community over the past couple of years. I look out from my flat onto an open grassy area of the Bole Hills in Sheffield. During the restrictions, the number of people walking dogs seemed to have grown. The officers confirmed that there had been an increase in dog ownership. The number of dogs nationally had risen from about 9m to 12m during the pandemic. In 2021, 3.2m people had bought a dog, many of them for the first time. In some cases, this was now creating a problem.
On the one hand, some of the puppies bought were not always well suited to the circumstances of those buying them. There were certain breeds that should not really have been placed in homes with babies and small children. The police had found dogs with fighting breeds in their genetic makeup where children were encouraging them to growl or to jump and bite at sticks or pieces of cloth. Without training, some of these dogs could suddenly turn and become aggressive, literally biting the hand that fed them. And this could be quite unpredictable. They were a popular type of dog – relatively small with squashed faces and pointed ears. Many found them cute.
But also, many of the lock-down puppies had never been socialised. They had spent their earliest years confined to houses which had received few if any visitors during this time. They were unused to having people other than immediate family members around them. They had little or no contact with other animals. They were unable to go to puppy training classes. Now that they were mature and off the lead in public spaces they could be quite aggressive with other dogs and other people.
These, then, are the ‘lock-down’ puppies, now mature dogs.
Some of the statistics for incidents with dogs are frightening. 2022 was the worst year nationally for deaths caused by dogs and there are currently about seven incidents involving dogs every day in South Yorkshire with about one in seven being seized.
When the police seize a dog, for whatever reason, it has to be taken to kennels. Where a dog has been aggressive, the police cannot destroy it – unless it is so aggressive that it constitutes a clear and present threat – but must take it to a kennel while the incident is reviewed or while owners are contacted – for which there is a cost. If a case goes to court, then the police have to wait for it to be heard and concluded – which can be a long time. At any one time, there will be between 40 and 50 dogs in kennels, though this summer that number is expected to rise substantially. And from time to time, an officer will check on the welfare of the dogs. None of this is cheap.
I asked whether the law around dangerous dogs could be amended to include the type of dog that is currently causing the most harm. The officers said that the problem with any definition is that most dogs are of mixed breeds, so it would not take long to breed dogs that fell outside any new category of a dangerous dog. Some of the dogs that they see now have prohibited breeds – aggressive, fighting dogs, American pit bulls – somewhere in their genes. The best hope is to educate those who buy dogs to understand better the importance of socialising a puppy and not teaching it to behave aggressively.
But there was one further development that occurred during the lock-downs that was quite sinister. Some of the organised crime gangs, whose drug dealing was severely disrupted by the restrictions on travel, began to turn their hand to the illegal breeding of dogs. Female dogs were kept in generally squalid and cramped conditions simply to have puppies which they then sold for substantial sums – £2000 to £3000 per dog.
When we come to look back on the time of lock-down and restriction, we should not overlook what happened to the lock-down puppies and their subsequent history and the need, therefore, for better education – something that SYP hope to do at the Lifewise Centre.
For sorrow and for hope
In 2015, when I set up a panel of victims of child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, one of the first things they told me was to distinguish between victims and survivors. Survivors were also victims but they were gradually beginning to find a way to a better future. They were slowly, and not without considerable mental and psychological pain and effort, re-building their lives.
One of those who has done so with considerable success is Sammy Woodhouse. Sammy was not a member of that original panel, but she is someone we have come to know over the years. While many have not wished to speak about their past experiences or to make themselves known publicly, she has and you will have often seen her on television and in the media. And she has helped police in various force areas get a better understanding of grooming and exploitation. Her latest venture is a BBC documentary called Out of the Shadows: Born from Rape.
In this she looks at a violent crime – rape – and asks about the experiences not of those who were raped, but of those who come into the world as a result of their mother being raped. (She has a son for whom this was true.) We often hear from women who have been sexually assaulted but very rarely if at all from the children of raped mothers. How do they deal with the discovery that these are the circumstances in which they were conceived? How do they handle the fact that their father is in gaol for rape, or that he could have been anyone from the gang who attacked their mother, or that their mother’s rapist is her father as well as their own?
These are the difficult themes that Sammy’s documentary explores with some people telling their story for the first time. Those stories are all very different – from incest to rape in war – but it served to remind me that when I think about the services we offer to victims of crime, there may be more victims than we at first think about.
I commend Sammy’s documentary Out of the Shadows. It is by turns shocking, moving, disturbing, yet also hopeful. You will experience your own tears of sadness, tears of hope, as you watch. You can find it on the BBC iPlayer.