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?
By Fiona Wickham and Denise
BBC News Magazine
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?
KENNEL CLUB DEFINITION OF THE STAFFY TEMPERAMENT
Affectionate, especially with children
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.
"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.
Child friendly dogs... many wouldn't think so
"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.
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.
Staffies are often mistaken for pit bulls, such as this
"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.
"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 attack."
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."
A selection of your comments appears below.
I recently encountered an owner of a Staffie who told me I should put my dog (a labrador) on a leash otherwise the Staffie would attack. Why should it be my responsibility to protect my dog from his? Surely if he knows his dog is potentially dangerous he should not have been walking it in public, let alone off the leash.
Matt MacLeod, Radcliffe-on-Trent, Notts
As a professional woman, mother of a 12-month-old and the responsible owner of three pedigree Staffordshire Bull Terriers I have absolutely no desire to 'be hard'. I have Staffies because they are the most delightful company. To suggest an outright ban on this breed is ridiculous.
I own a labrador puppy and the majority of Staffordshire bull terriers she comes into contact with go for her. If it wasn't for my intervention it would have been a bloodbath. This is the reason why they have such a bad reputation; how can you say that they are loyal loving animals?
Sarah, West Midlands
Is it possible that your dogs started it? If they get attacked on a regular basis I'd suggest monitoring their behaviour, it could be that your dogs are eyeballing other dogs which is essentially an invitation to a fight but one which a lot of people don't pick up on and so the dog that reciprocates gets the blame.
Jaime, Manchester, UK
Walking our Staffie-cross in the countryside, a man walking two labradors saw that our dog was a bull-breed and let his dogs off their leads. What was he trying to prove? The two labs came over and growled at our dog (on a lead) and a fight broke out. I was so scared as the two labs were biting my Connor's face so he had to bite one of them in the cheek. Because of his breed he got the blame and ever since certain people shout abuse at me in the street. They shout "Those dogs don't deserve to live".
Kate, age 14, Gloucester
For all of those living in cities and sick of seeing snarling Staffs with an idiot on the other end of the lead, try getting out into more rural areas and you'll see what wonderful dogs these are when paired with responsible owners. They're eager to please their owners but some idiots take advantage of this by praising aggressive behaviour.
John, Dartford, Kent
In my local park, many people walk their dogs off leads. It is not acceptable, my children have the right to safety. I also think it should also be brought into the school curriculum to teach children how to behave around animals, in closed and open spaces. I have owned many different breeds, as I love dogs. I would not want to own a strong powerful dog. Dogs like people can be unpredictable. Laws, strong regulations and big licence fees should be as standard in owning any dog.
I work with young offenders who insist on getting these dogs in the hope of adding to their reputation and image. They are very often disappointed that the dog does not want to attack everything in sight and indeed would rather be played with and given lots of attention. Press reports attempt to induce some kind of moral panic.
Michael McBride, Motherwell, Scotland
I'm just waiting to encounter a Staffie round here that isn't called Tyson... or Killer... Maybe unless you can think of a better name you should be banned from keeping one of these dogs?
Sarah, Brixton, London
I really would prefer that reporters stop referring to us as a "nation of dog lovers". It is not only extremely likely that over 50% of the population has no interest in dogs, my experience tells me that it is also very likely that many people would be happy to never see a dog again.
Our Staffordshire bull terrier was taken from the garden on Friday, 8 February in Knowsley, Merseyside. He is such a trusting dog that he went without so much as a bark with the four lads (in hoodies and on push bikes) that took him. He hasn't been neutered so we hope he's been taken for breeding... any other reason is just unthinkable.
I love Staffies! My sister has one and I want one too. Unfortunately my wife won't allow it as we have a two-year-old and a second on the way. I've told her their reputation is not the correct image to have but to no avail.
Barry Murphy, Dunfermline
I've had people cross the road away from and my dog - which is very rude. On one occasion a lady picked up her little dog and carried it past me, because she thought my dog would be aggressive. Nothing would be further from the truth, he's as soft as jelly. Her dog, on the other hand, was a yappy Yorkshire terrier - with a bad case of the little-big-dog syndrom. The press never comment on their aggressive nature?
We have two Staffies. The oldest is very large and often mistaken for a pit bull, but if you broke into our house you'd only be in danger of being licked to death.
Sharon Partington, Birmingham, England
I do not agree that Staffies are not dangerous dogs. I have two Jack Russells and walk them twice a day. The only dogs which have attacked them without provocation or advance warning are Staffies. In our local park a Staffie has recently attacked children playing football, one of them so badly he needed stitches. Staffies may be good dogs at heart, but because of their strength if they are not trained properly they get out of control and then become dangerous.
Soline Druffin, London
It's great to see Staffies getting some true press for a change. I have been the keeper of my Staffies for nine years now and they have proven to be highly affectionate towards people especially kids and very sociable with other animals. They are able to take an accidental knock with no fear of retaliation and they are really great characters. It's a shame this trait goes unrewarded for so many of them.
Like most things in this world it comes down to intent. A screwdriver is a handy tool when you want it to be a tool... they can also be a vicious weapon when intended so. Staffies are naturally peaceful, watchful, intelligent and loving. One of the few dogs in the world that will sit there and have its ears tugged on by a child - and not react badly. A breed I look forward to having as part of my family again one day.
I own two Staffordshire dogs and they are the most affectionate dogs I have ever owned. They prefer to sit on our laps and go to sleep than go out for a walk. The hoodie culture gives this breed a bad name.
Jill Shurey, Welwyn Garden City, England
Thank you very much for this story. I don't own a Staffie myself but there are several people in my family who have one and they are all very friendly and loving dogs. Hopefully this story will help raise awareness of their true personality.
John, Aberdeenshire, UK
These dogs should be banned full stop. They are like walking around with a loaded gun. My puppy was attacked by one recently, a five-month-old cocker. Did the Staffy just bite? No! It bit and clamped on and would not let go. I had my hands in the Staffie's mouth but could not release its jaws from my puppy's leg, even with all my might. My hands were obviously cut and I have a vet's bill for hundreds of pounds for repair to my dog's leg. They are dangerous. Even my vet is sick of treating other animals attacked by them. Who buys them? People who want to be hard. I don't need a dog for that...