For a brief period in the early 1990s, I found myself The Daily Telegraph’s dangerous dogs correspondent. It was that time when several toddlers had been mauled by pit bulls. In the panic that followed, every freelance journalist in the country flooded us with tips about other savage attacks, many of which turned out to be a Jack Russell that had bitten its owner’s finger. One of my tasks was to interview people whose dogs now faced “a sentence of death” for nothing more serious than chewing off a child’s arm.
The thing I recall most clearly was visiting people with large dogs, often Rottweilers, who insisted their hound had been unfairly maligned; their Rotties were gentle giants, although I did notice how often the dogs were called Rocky or Tyson. Animal shrinks said there were no dangerous dogs, only dangerous owners. This may be true, but a bad owner with a bichon frise is less of a worry than one with the Hound of the Baskervilles.
That time came back to me when I read that some TV show had voted the Staffordshire bull terrier Britain’s favourite dog, ahead of Labradors, spaniels and other breeds that would not rip your throat out. Staffies, their fans inevitably assure us, are much misunderstood. Yes, they may be ferociously powerful fighting dogs with vicious jaws, but the Pets4Homes website insists that “their reputation for being aggressive by nature is totally unfounded”.
A well-trained Staffie is loyal and loving. Well, perhaps — but there are also muggers with a terrific sense of humour. For all their merits, Staffies seem disproportionately attractive to angry, socially inadequate men, who train them only to intimidate.
More striking than the poll is Staffies’ apparent over-representation in the gallery of abandoned dogs found on websites of rescue centres like Battersea or Dogs Trust. Despite being Britain’s best-loved breed, they seem to have a higher-than-average propensity to end up in a dogs home.
This fact has been made obvious to me in recent weeks by the long hours my wife and the girl have spent poring over said sites, having finally worn down my resolve against getting a dog. Each “meet our dogs” page is a veritable Tinder of eligible mutts, gazing wistfully at us. But while the dog-surfing merits the odd squeal of delight at a sweet-looking terrier, the most noticeable thing is the rows of Britain’s “best-loved dog” staring out at us like FBI’s Most Wanted.
The marketing of these mutts is heart-tugging. My wife worries about dogs who stay on the pages too long. For weeks, she fretted about some hideous-looking creature who, predictably, was being passed over in favour of dogs that looked, well, like dogs. I fretted too, though for less lofty reasons, waiting with mounting trepidation for the day that she returned with the Frankenhound. Mercifully, one day she broke the good news that the monster had been rehoused and, happily, not by us.
He may, of course, have been charming. Many of the dogs are not unloved, just given up by owners who cannot cope. In fact, to read their bios, you would struggle to find a pooch that was anything other than delightful, playful and loving. Many would make excellent MPs. Some are “nervous around strangers” — code for “go berserk” — but, otherwise, their details would make the average punter on Match.com look modest.
I do wonder if the process might be two-way. The centres seem to require a lot of information from us and demand several visits before they will let you save one of their inmates. You almost wonder if the dogs scan “meet our humans” pages, dismissing their would-be owners because they look odd, and expressing delight when long-rejected humans finally get to rehouse a mutt.
Our search continues, but Britain’s best-loved breed is not going to make the cut — not least because we won’t be taking any dog named after a boxer. While the nation’s affection must be reassuring for the dozens of Staffies ready to be scooped up, my family will be holding out for something apparently less desirable.
If you are a subscriber and would like to receive alerts when Robert’s articles are published, just click the button “add to myFT”, which appears at the top of this page beside the author’s name. Not a subscriber? Follow Robert on Twitter @robertshrimsley or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org