The following article is created in an effort to give a greater insight as to my role as a Dog Expert Witness carrying out dog behaviour assessments on dogs of all breeds throughout the UK. Many of the dogs that I assess for the courts will have either bitten a person (or alleged to have bitten a person) or caused reasonable apprehension in a person that he or she may be bitten at the time of the incident with a particular dog in question.

I would particularly like to take a deeper look at the assessment of American Pit bull terriers and to provide the reader with a greater insight as to the various elements that I have to consider when trying to establish if the dog is of the Pit bull type or not, as this involves measurements and a physical assessment on the individual dog and its physical traits.

About two thirds of the dog assessments I conduct are carried out with the local police force that relates to the area the dog is in and these are usually at either a police force headquarters where you might find a police dog section based, a local police station, or at a kennel that is contracted by the police force I am working with. The remaining third of these assessments are when the police have not seized the dog and have remained with the owner. It is always preferable to assess the dog with its owner in the home and various public spaces, as this provides a greater insight as to the dog’s behaviour on a day-to-day basis combined with the owner’s ability to safely control the dog.

The most significant factors that appear to affect whether a dog that is not a banned breed being seized further to a complaint on its behaviour are as follows:

  • If the dog has bitten a person – especially if a child and the severity of the bite.
  • If the dog is clearly an ongoing risk to the public, based on the dog’s behaviour when the officer attends the property.
  • If the owner is not a fit and proper person to care for the dog.

In short, if an offence has been committed and the act reported to the police, legal proceedings will take place, but the dog may or may not remain with the owner based on what the police find and the seriousness of the offence. If the police suspect the dog to be a Pit bull type, it will always be removed for further assessments with the local police force at which point I (or another dog expert witness) will be contacted by the defence to carry out an independent assessment. 

I answer a number of questions in relation to this aspect of my work at the foot of my Dog Expert Witness page here.

Discretion when seizing dogs

A police officer has a degree of discretion in such cases, and in my experience, it’s not unusual to find that large dogs of bull breed types stand a greater chance of being seized over let’s say a Border terrier, Pomeranian or another breed that would meet the stereotype of a smaller, relatively harmless looking dog. The decision to seize or not will be based on the dog’s history (if there is any recorded), the severity of its aggressive behaviour towards a person in or out of the home (both are now seen as public places under the Dangerous Dogs Act) or if the dog was aggressive towards a child.

The dog will always be seized if the attending officer or DLO (Dog Legislation Officer) believes the dog to be ‘of type’ (a Pit bull type – one of the four banned breeds here in the UK) and different forces appear to have different criteria on whether they will seize a dog or not when they attend an owner’s property based on what they see and experience when they get there. More on the police's powers to seize a dog can be found on the website under the subheading 'If you have a banned dog'.

If you have a banned dog

Should you have a banned dog, the police or local dog warden can take your dog, even if:

  • It isn’t acting dangerously.
  • There hasn’t been a complaint.

The police may need permission from a court to do this. If your dog is in:

  • A public place, the police don’t need a warrant.
  • A private place, the police must get a warrant.
  • A private place and the police have a warrant for something else (like a drugs search), they can seize your dog.

A police or council dog expert will judge what type of dog you have and whether it is (or could be) a danger to the public. Your dog will then either be:

  • Released.
  • Kept in kennels while the police (or council) apply to a court. The owner of the dog will be charged kennel fees for ther duration of its time in custody.

You will not be allowed to visit your dog while you wait for the court's decision.

Making the best of the current Breed Specific Legislation

I have worked with 18 of the 45 police forces in the UK and they have all varied in one way or another regarding the criteria they use for seizing dogs (Pit bulls aside) all the way down to how the assessments are organized and carried out. All of the DLO’s I have encountered and worked with have the dog’s and the public’s safety and welfare at heart. The system and breed specific legislation (BSL) is far from perfect, but all of the officers including myself in my own capacity as an expert witness work as hard as we can to process each dog as quickly as possible and on its own merits.

Most dogs assess well and can be registered (when found to be of type as a Pit bull) and returned to owners in a reasonable period of time. Equally, some dogs are overtly aggressive, unmanageable and may be destroyed as a result. Thankfully, this is not a common outcome.

Assessing Pit bull terriers for the courts

A part of my role in working with dogs is to carry out assessments on dogs that are thought to be what can be termed as an American Pit bull Terrier (APBT). This function is known as ‘typing’, which means I am establishing if the dog is ‘of type’ or not, which is a broader meaning of the word ‘breed’. The difficulty is that there is not a Pit bull breed as such and this is why the assessor is trying to establish if it is of the ‘type’, or has a majority of elements within its make up to say that it is of the type known as the Pit bull terrier within Section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. This also brings in the subjective aspect of the person carrying out the assessment, as the independent expert witness may not always agree with the findings of the police officer or force that seized the dog on its breed type, or vice versa. Complicated isn’t it? As a quick aside, DNA tests on Pitbull terriers are not permissible in the court as evidence to prove or disprove a dog’s breed type.

There is a unique aspect of assessing American Pit bull terrier type dogs, in that I am providing an opinion on the dog that approximately amounts to, is near to, or had a substantial number of the characteristics of matching the breed type as set out in the breed standard as specified by the American Dog Breeders Association (ADBA) as published in the Pitt Bull Gazette, Vol 1, Issue 3 in 1977. This is the standard used in the stated case of R v Dunne on 2nd July 1993 at the divisional court, Knightsbridge. The link above makes for interesting reading. The quarterly Gazette is still being published after 42 years and the American Pit bull standard was set out in its third issue.

During the dog assessment, I am also making observations on the dog’s behaviour so as to enable me to provide feedback for the court as to whether the dog is suitable to return to public life, should the court deem the owner to be a fit and proper person.

A Pit bull type returned to its owner will have the following impositions: Muzzled in public. To be kept on a short lead in public. To be insured. To be registered with DEFRA. To be microchipped. To be neutered.

During my dog behaviour assessments I am looking at the following elements:

  • To establish if the dog is a dangerous dog by nature.
  • To establish if the dog is uncontrollable or out of control.
  • To establish the dog's general demeanour towards others and me.
  • The suitability of the dog being returned to its owner with a number of recommendations being put in place to ensure that the dog is deemed to be safe and under control at all times when in public.
  • To establish the conformation or otherwise to the Pit bull breed standard.

The last line refers to the Pit bull breed standard and as mentioned in the paragraph above I am using the American Dog Breeders Association’s notes as published in the Pitt Bull Gazette, Vol 1, Issue 3 in 1977.

The following is an example of an assessment of a dog that was found to be of type. I have given this dog the fictitious name of Diesel. You will see how I refer to each part of the dog so that it mirrors the Pit bull gazette’s layout. I have seen this done in a number of different ways, but this method works for me, as I like to keep my own notes straightforward and to feel confident that it is clear and understandable for people at all levels of experience and easily consumed by all professions.

A) Initial visual impression of the dog

Diesel had a red coat with a white chest blaze starting under the chin leading under the chest between his front legs and white tips on all four feet. His coat was rather scurfy. He appeared to be of an athletic, well-muscled and balanced appearance. He struck me as a little underweight. He was uncastrated.

B) Side profile of dog

Diesel’s profile appeared to be square in nature when viewed from the side. Two measurements specifically confirm this. One from the ground to the top of his withers, which I found to be 54cm, and the other from his shoulder to the hip, which was 56cm. He was reluctant to stand still, so there may be a slight variation in my measurements.

C) Neck

A good length, demonstrating strength. Well muscled to the base of the skull.

D) Hips and rear quarters

His hips were long and sloping. His hips were broad and well muscled.

His back had a gradual fall away towards the tail.

E) Rib Cage

Diesel has a deep rib cage, which was well sprung at the top and tapering at the bottom.

F) Legs

His shoulders were wider than the rib cage at the eighth rib. His shoulder blade sloped to the ground at approximately 45 degrees.

The elbow of the front leg is below the bottom of the rib cage. The humerus is set at roughly equal angles in the opposite direction.

The elbows lie flat to the body and inline with the spine.

The forearms were strong, heavy and solid – nearly twice the thickness of the metatarsal bone at the hock.

The relationship between the front and back legs is of a heavy front, and a delicate back. His stifle joint was placed in the upper third of the rear leg and was well sprung.

G) Head

The head had a near two-thirds width in comparison to the shoulders.

Distance from nose to stop was 9cm

Distance from Stop to Occiput was 13cm

He constantly moved during measuring, making it difficult to be completely steady.

The bridge of the nose was well developed. The area under the eyes was wider than the head at the base of the ears. His head was wedge-shaped when viewed from the top or side and nearly round when viewed from the front.

His lips were tight, with a little slackness under the chin.

The head had good depth from the top of the head to the bottom of the jaw.

His eyes were elliptical when viewed from the front and triangular when viewed from the side. They were small and deep set.

He resisted me opening his jaw to see his teeth and I did not force the issue.

H) Skin

His skin was thick and loose. It was suitably loose around the neck.

I) Tail

Diesel’s tail was low set and the shape of the tail was like a pump handle pointing to the floor. The length was such that it finished above the hock.

J) Feet

Diesel had small round feet set high on the pasterns. His gait was light and springy.

K) Coat

The coat was shedding a little and a red in colour. The coat was short and bristled along the top of his back.

In summary

This dog has a large number of attributes that make up the characteristics of a Pit bull terrier type, and as such is a good example of the breed.

Pit bulls. Assessing the dog's demeanour

As well as taking the dog’s dimensions and particular breed type traits into account, I am constantly making observations upon its behaviour from the moment I first approach the dog in its kennel or crate in the vehicle the dog is brought to me in, through the physical handling of the dog, through to smaller tests that I am likely to outline in another article at some point in the future and then back into its kennel space.

Thankfully, these assessments are usually not very eventful. The dog is usually easy to manage and allows me to do pretty much anything I ask of the dog, within the bounds of reasonable requests of course. I am not the sort to attempt to agitate dogs or to put them in impossible situations during assessments. In my experience, the easiest dogs to handle and assess are the Pit bull types. They’re usually placid, calm and able to carry out basic commands for me – a complete stranger, under what can be stressful circumstances for a dog behaviour assessment.

Life in a dog kennel is stressful

Any seized dog can find the kenneling experience stressful and one needs to take into account the removal from the dog’s home and being placed in a noisy, strange environment, whilst some dogs will have never had to endure such an experience.

Some dogs are overtly aggressive and it’s usually very clear if it’s safe to get the dog out to be assessed or not. Such dogs might aggressively charge at the mesh and you are left in no doubt as to how it would play out if you did manage to get a lead on the dog and bring it out into an assessment space. I have to consider the safety of others and myself and nothing is to be gained by taking unreasonable risks or to allow the ego to make bad decisions for you. Such an outcome is not a good endorsement for the dog, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the dog will be destroyed.

On the other hand, I’ve managed to place a lead over the head of other dogs, bring them out and then it can be a wrestling match from the outset, as I may experience extreme behaviours such as pulling, leaping up at me, biting up the lead towards me - the list can be long. These are the types of assessments where you lean on experience to bring the dog into a calmer state and to enable me to gain the dog’s attention during our time together. This also means that I’m doing my best not to be nipped or bitten in the process. I do have full Kevlar sleeves for arms and legs, but this is rarely used as I’ve become better at assessing the dog before it is removed from its kennel. A set of elbow length triple-layer Kevlar gloves has remained my preferred protection if any is needed at all. I digress, but as mentioned early on, I want to offer you a greater insight as to my role of assessing pitbull types.

Dog assessments. Limitations and recording the event

I also video all of my assessments (and I now find that most forces film me as I carry out the assessments, which I don’t have a problem with). At some point, I’d like to make a video compilation of these assessments, but we have confidentiality and ethical issues creeping in. I shall look into it, so watch this space.

Set out below is another snippet from the report on the dog Diesel and this explains to the court about the filming of the dog behaviour assessment and also a comment or two on the limitations that I encounter when assessing dogs in what is usually a very small, limited and sterile space. The ability to recreate anything natural that the dog might encounter in public life is a challenge, to say the least. This is why the dog’s general demeanour towards me and its environment is always being scrutinised from start to finish.

Limitations of this assessment

During the period of assessment, I filmed the dog Diesel and have produced a DVD of this assessment to reflect my time spent with him. Some periods whilst the camera was running have been removed to improve the viewing experience and its duration, but otherwise, this is true footage and I retain the full original file should it be required.

It is important to view the DVD that has been made as a record of the time I spent with Diesel observing his behaviour and show the dog as it was, during the period of assessment. It will also assist the reader to formulate a better picture in his or her own mind, based on footage of the assessment alongside my written report.

It should be noted that carrying out an assessment of any dog in a secure environment away from its normal home and area of public walking lacks depth and public testing. For example, I was unable to assess Diesel’s behaviour towards members of the public in an open public space such as a park or street.

Having had the opportunity to spend a good amount of time with these dogs, I can see the appeal in such an impressive animal that is able to show a great deal of affection and fun to people. I have come away from numerous pit bull terrier assessments and have felt genuinely moved that the poor bloody dog was being put through all of this stress and process simply based on his looks alone. In many cases, no offence has been committed apart from the dog's appearance. 

However, dogs that go un-socialised, un-trained and not given clear direction day in and day out can become wayward and can in some cases be particularly difficult towards other dogs, not to mention other people - owner included. This can be said of any breed of course, but when you have so much dog on a lead, this is not for the faint of heart. I abhor the idea of putting dogs against each other to fight and this whole subject of the breed type and its current place in our society can become highly charged. I go into the subject of 'Weapon' or 'Status Dogs' in more detail on this recent blog post here.

A snippet from the Pitt Bull Gazette, Vol 1, Issue 3 in 1977 regarding the characteristics of the American Pit bull states the following and is written in a fantastic style imbued with understanding and passion:

His existence today was not because he was bred only for gameness (bravery). He was not bred only for power. He sure as hell was not bred only for his intelligence, loyalty, boldness, round eye, rose ear, red nose, or his inclination for dragging children from the paths of speeding trains. He was bred to win.

That’s right folks, he was developed for competition. The professional dogfighters have made him what he is, the professional dogfighters are improving him and when the professional dogfighters are gone, the real Pit Bull Terrier will gradually fade away. What we will have is something the amateurs have preserved that reminds us of the gladiators of old.

Thank God for the amateurs; professional dog fighting is a dying occupation. Preservation of this grand athlete that was bred to go to war is inevitably going to be in the hands of the amateurs. So, let’s look to the profession of the dog in establishing our standard so that our grandchildren will at least see an authentic physical reproduction of a fighting dog.

If we start with the premise that conformation should reflect the ideal for the dogs usage and that this particular animal is supposed to win a dog fight, we come naturally to the question, what does it take to win?

Most of those who have backed their judgement with hard earned money would agree on the following to some degree or another.

1. Gameness (Bravery)

2. Attitude (Aggressiveness)

3. Stamina

4. Wrestling ability

5. Biting ability

Note that only one of these qualities, wrestling ability, is directly related to conformation. One other, stamina, may be partly due to conformation, but is probably as much reliant on inherited efficiency of the heart and circulatory system. Some people seem to feel that the shape of the head determines hard bite, but in practice, it seems there are a lot of other factors involved.

Earl Tudor said that the great ‘Black Jack’ who killed four opponents in seven wins in big money fights, bit hard ‘because he wanted to bite hard’. That about sums it up. Good biters seem to be where you find them regardless of the shapes of their heads.

When we talk of conformation we really only mean one thing wrestling ability. This is the reason the American Pit Bull Terrier varies so much in conformation. His wrestling by itself is not nearly as important as the sum total of gameness, attitude, bite and natural stamina, none of which are directly related to conformation.

Any dogfighter will tell you “if you’ve got a game dog with good air, he’s worth a bet”. I might add “if he can also bite, put a second mortgage on the house and take him to a convention.” In other words never mind what he looks like.

I’d like to answer some of the questions you might have on the Pit bull terrier, as despite being a banned breed in the UK, they still attract a lot of interest:

Wikipedia: The American Pit Bull Terrier is a purebred dog breed recognised by the United Kennel Club (UKC) and American Dog Breeders Association (ADBA). It is a medium-sized, solidly-built, intelligent, short-haired dog, whose early ancestors came from the British Isles.

Are Pit bull terriers banned in the UK?

Yes. They are one of the four banned breeds in the UK. The banned breeds are:

  • Pit Bull Terrier
  • Japanese Tosa
  • Dogo Argentino
  • Fila Brasileiro

    It’s also against the law to:
  • Sell a banned dog
  • Abandon a banned dog
  • Give away a banned dog
  • Breed from a banned dog

More information on the subject of banned breeds can be found here.

Are Pit bulls Dangerous Dogs?

There are many breeds that can be made to be dangerous due to their size and bite should they be trained to do so. All dogs require a balanced set of rules, socialisation and training. A Pit bull is only dangerous if these needs are not met from the outset.

Are pit bull terriers aggressive?

In my own experience I have found the breed to be engaging, willing to please, intelligent as well as athletic and powerful and so in the wrong hands, when actively ‘trained’ to display aggressive traits or behaviours, then yes, they have the ability to demonstrate aggressive behaviour – especially so towards other dogs as this is what they were originally bred for, but this does not make then inherently aggressive. As already stated in this article, any breed can, in theory, be taken and developed to be a danger to the public and other animals.

Is a Pit bull the same as a Staffordshire terrier?

No. Generally speaking Staffordshire bull terriers are smaller and when stood side by side the differences are quite apparent. The Staffordshire bull terrier is a medium-sized, stocky, and very muscular dog, with a similar appearance to the much larger American Staffordshire Terrier and American Pit Bull Terrier. See above for my in-depth analysis of the Pit bull terrier breed points.

Do Pit bulls suddenly snap?

In my experience, a dog will not suddenly snap without a reason or cause and this remains the same for the Pit bull terrier. Any dog that snaps or bites without warning either in a given moment or in the lead up to that moment has not received any combination of the following: socialisation, obedience training, rules for living with people and other animals. Dogs also require safe and secure environments, so that their emotional needs are being met on a day-to-day basis. Dogs, like humans, need a sense of balance and security in their lives so as to be able to experience a stress-free and content life. It is highly unlikely that a dog of any breed will snap or bite when these needs are being met. One should also rule out any possible health problems in a dog that has suddenly started to snap.

Do Pit bulls attack owners?

I refer you to my above answer for ‘Do Pit bulls suddenly snap?’ An ‘attack’ is much more than a snap of course, but when all of a dog’s needs are being met such behaviour should not be feared and this is not something that a well balanced and well-trained Pit bull would do. If however, the owner used high levels of fear-based training, combined with constant exposure to techniques that are designed to elevate the dog’s aggressive responses then this could make an attack on any person far more likely.

Are Pit bulls easy to train?

This is a breed that is bright and highly trainable, yes. Their willingness to please and often work for food gives the advantage to trainers both new and experienced. Early and thorough socialisation should be given in all areas of life, but making a concerted effort with other dogs to create a dog that is well balanced will pay dividends.

There is much more information set out on dog behaviour assessments on this page here.

If I can help you with any of the above elements, then please contact me here.