When 16-year-old Seyi Ogunyemi was chased down by a pack of pit bull-cross dogs and stabbed to death by their owners in a South London park, criminologist Simon Harding realised that a crucial new element was missing from his study of gang culture.
“The gang spotted Ogunyemi in the park and unleashed their dogs,” recounts Harding, who was studying at the University of Bedfordshire for a doctorate on London’s gang culture at the time of the murder in 2009. “He couldn’t climb over the fence and the dogs brought him down. The gang then arrived and he was stabbed six times.”
Harding, who is now a lecturer in criminology at Middlesex University, knew about gangs. He had spent almost 30 years working in community safety roles at local councils, later becoming a Home Office adviser on crime reduction and chairing a commission in Lambeth on gangs. But Ogunyemi’s murder exposed a new, emerging side of street culture.
“It became clear that no one had studied the use of dogs in gang culture. There were mountains of sensational media stories about so-called devil dogs, but no academic study examining why they had become so popular.”
Having observed the use of fearsome Staffordshire bull terriers and bull mastiffs during his doctoral fieldwork, Harding resolved to study the phenomenon.
However, gaining first-hand insights into gangs’ use of bull breed dogs – whether for organised dogfights, protection while drug-dealing or an accessory conferring street cred – and into the mindset of those involved would prove a difficult and risky task.
One of the first hurdles was how to approach owners in the first place.
“I had identified several parks in South and East London where these dogs owners went, but you can’t just march up to someone with a Staffie and ask if they own one because they’ve got a status-deficit complex or feel people don’t like them,” Harding points out. “I tried taking a Staffie of my own with me to help strike up a conversation, but that was a disaster because you can’t interview someone when you’re trying to control a dog on a leash.”
Harding spent hundreds of hours in municipal parks and other public spaces approaching dog owners to enquire about their animals before asking if they would take part in his study. “People were suspicious – some thought I was a journalist, others asked if I was a ‘Fed’ – in other words, police,” he recalls.
Eventually he managed to interview more than 200 dog owners with underworld connections – among them low-level drug pushers in rainy parks, amateur breeders looking to sell their latest litter of pups and owners of fighting dogs waiting nervously outside veterinary clinics while their animals were patched up after the most recent bout.
While declining invitations to organised dogfights – attending such events is illegal – Harding also witnessed numerous impromptu examples of “dog jousting” in parks.
“Owners would keep dogs on a leash and lay £20 or £30 on which dog would win,” he says. “They’d let them go at each other and whenever one cowered, money would change hands.
“I’ve thought about attending more serious dogfights, but the risks are too great. These are people who would have no compunction about setting a dog on you and you could sustain horrible, life-changing injuries.”
Harding did speak to several people involved in the brutal world of dogfighting, in which animals are traded for as much as £2,000 each and may even fight to the death.
“I hit researcher heaven in a southeast London park,” he says. “I met four young Asian boys, each with a massive bull mastiff – it was the UK’s first focus group of young dogfighters. Their knowledge of dogs was amazing. They could say exactly how much each weighed, what it ate, its speed, fighting skills – they talked about dogs like other young men talk about cars.”
He adds: “They’d just got back from a big international fight near Leeds attended by 100 people. They knew everything about breeding, training and fighting – it was astonishing.”
Other interviews revealed how owners would try to maximise the value of the dogs by training them to be aggressive. Techniques included injecting them with steroids and filing their teeth in order to give them an advantage.
“Owners are in a competitive free enterprise market, which leads to specialised breeding of dogs to make their offspring heavier, stronger and more vicious,” Harding explains.
Through his conversations with owners, it emerged that some viewed their animals as nothing more than a commodity.
“Some owners admitted using dogs for money. You can breed a pit bull to have up to 15 pups twice a year, so that’s a yield of £4,000 or £5,000 a year – a lot of money if you are unemployed or on a low wage.”
And those who view the animals in these terms can be ruthless.
“Dogs were always part of my family life as I was growing up…They were part of our family, and I thought everyone looked after dogs like that.
“But the dogs I studied aren’t part of the family. They can be traded up or down; if they are not fierce enough, owners will just tie them to a lamp post and walk off,” Harding says.
So what are the most common reasons for owning the dogs? Some people rely on them for protection. Others are involved in breeding or use the dogs in drug deals or to guard cannabis farms. Mostly, however, the animals are owned for the status they confer on the street.
Owners in this category are “looking for dogs to help them generate ‘street capital’”, Harding explains. “They want those with a reputation for violence.”
In one memorable encounter, he ran into “a young man in Brixton Market stripped to the waist, with two enormous pit bulls straining on the end of two chains”.
“He didn’t want to talk to me and told me so in no uncertain terms before stepping into a very expensive car.”
It was clear, Harding says, that “these dogs defined his image”.
The growing market in backstreet breeding has led to an increase in police seizures of illegal dogs. The numbers have risen from 40 seizures in 2005-06 to 719 in 2008-09. Meanwhile the number of dogfights reported to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has soared from 24 in 2004 to 328 in 2010.
Harding believes that compulsory microchipping of all dogs would help to curb the trade in aggressive animals.
He would also like to see those convicted of mistreating dogs forced to take mandatory pet training and care classes once any ban on owning animals has expired. “If you’re convicted of a driving offence, you will often have to do a course to ensure that you are ready to drive again. But there is nothing that requires you do a course on how to look after a dog.”
Primary school children could also be instructed on how to approach and care for dogs, he suggests.
The breeding of more aggressive dogs may help to explain a fivefold increase in hospital admissions for dog bites since 1991, with 6,447 suffering injuries last year.
Harding himself escaped any injuries during his four-year investigation, which led to the publication of his 2012 book Unleashed: The Phenomenon of Status Dogs and Weapon Dogs.
But did he ever feel afraid during the course of his research?
“I was knocked over a few times by some pretty big dogs and had to terminate quite a few interviews because either the owner or the dog got aggressive, or I got scared,” he says.
As for “devil dogs”, the fault lies not in the animals but in their owners.
“Dogs are really what we make them: it is humans that are responsible for making dogs either sociable or aggressive,” Harding says.