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They're being dumped in record numbers and branded a "yob dog", yet
Staffordshire bull terriers are ideal family pets, say experts. So why
is this nation of dog lovers turning against them?

Extremely reliable, highly intelligent and affectionate,
especially with children. It's not a description most of us would associate
with Staffordshire bull terriers, but it's how the UK Kennel Club sums
them up.

In fact, the breed is one of only two from over 190 it recommends as
suitable with children, the other being a Chesapeake Bay retriever.

But while the thought of a doe-eyed retriever makes people feel all
warm and fuzzy inside, a Staffie - as they are commonly known - often
leaves them cold.

Somehow these little balls of muscle have gone from being considered
good family pets to canine outcasts among large sections of this nation
of dog lovers.

Staffies and Staffie crosses are being dumped in record numbers and
not enough people are willing to give them a new home. So how did the
sociable dog that likes to be loved fall out of people's affections?

The breed is a bit of a contradiction and that is a big part of the
problem, says the Dogs Trust. While their natures are loving, their perceived
physical similarities with banned breeds - such as pit bulls - has resulted
in them being tarnished with the "dangerous dogs" label.

"Because of their appearance, certain types of people think they've
got themselves a fierce dog and in fact they'd far rather be in front
of the fire having their tummy tickled," says breeder Veronica Brown.

A result of this misguided association they have become a "macho" fashion
accessory among some young men, say welfare groups. They are a "psuedo
pit bull" for those who want to look hard.

Cashing in

"They have become a status symbol among some youngsters and the type
of person who gets one for that reason is not likely to be the most responsible
owner," says Ali Evans, from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home.

The consequences for the breed are worrying, say animal charities. Selling them
has now become a lucrative business among certain groups and people wanting to
make some quick cash are intensively breeding them.

"Some people now consider them as a source of income and are breeding them
in their back gardens," says Ms Evans.

A pure-breed puppy with documentation to prove its Kennel Club registration
and a health certificate costs around £600, so there is a market for cheaper
dogs. Many are cross-breeds but still look the part. And looks count as the
dogs are also being used as a protection, say animal charities.

That's not to say that Staffies can't be aggressive and dangerous. They can.
Like all dogs, there can be moments of aggression which, coupled with the Staffie's
strength, can lead to serious injuries. There have been many reported cases
of Staffies attacking children, but these days the dogs are often trained to
be more hostile. Owners build up their strength, making them hang off sticks
to increase the power of their jaws.

It all fuels the negative image the dogs have now acquired and makes them
harder to home if they are dumped by owners.

Mistaken identity

Birmingham Dogs Home says pure-bred Staffies and their crosses make up at
least 40% of all dogs that end up with them. They make up a third of all dogs
handled by Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, which has branches in London, Berkshire
and Kent.

The media also has a part to play in attitudes towards the breed.

"Sometimes if there's a dog attack, they'll use a photo of a Stafford in the
paper before the true identity of the dog has been made," says Ms Brown.

The dogs are being villainised, say responsible owners.
Lorien Hill is mum to a five-year-old, Lucas, and has a Staffie, one
of three she has owned over the years.

"Billy looks all rough and tough on the outside, yet
he's the most gentle dog ever and in touch with the emotions of those
around him," she says.

"They call them nanny dogs and that's because they're
like babysitters. When Lucas is in the garden, Billy sits near him
just watching."

She agrees they are often just a status symbol. As a
result people assume Staffies are aggressive and make assumptions about
why she owns one.

"Someone at the school gate was sarcastic to me about
my dog," she says. "They said 'good you didn't get an aggressive muscly
dog then'. People just assume.

Villainised breeds

"I think things are changing and they're beginning to
go out of fashion as the hard boy thing. That might be why there's
so many in the shelters, because a lot of people are put off because
they're seen as a chav dog."

Staffies are not the first breed of dogs to be villainised.
German shepherds, dobermans and rottweilers have all suffered bad press.

"What they all have in common is they are big and strong," says
the RSPCA's chief vet, Mark Evans. "A smaller dog could be just as
aggressive but there is less chance of it being a life-threatening

As a result it does not make the headlines, he adds.

""We need to educate people about how to care for Staffies
and also the wider population to dispel some of the myths," says Mr
Evans. "What a dog is like is not down to their breed it is down to
their owner."

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