It’s been a year since Lennox was killed by the Belfast City Council. Lennox was an American Bulldog mix that was taken from his home because he looked like a pitbull, a breed type that is banned in Northern Ireland. He’d lived without incident as part of the Barnes family for five years. He had been licensed, DNA tested and ‘legal’ until the council decided he was a banned breed and locked him up, keeping him in a secret location away from his family while they desperately fought for his release. Sadly Lennox lost his life on July 11th 2012 after a two year battle to save him. His devastated family has tried to pick up the pieces ever since.
Lennox became a tragic symbol of the pain and suffering created by Breed Specific Legislation (BSL). He was an innocent dog that was persecuted for the way he looked. However hard the Barnes family fought to get their dog back, Lennox was doomed as soon as he was taken from his home. Belfast City Council did everything they could to ensure they would ‘win’ the fight and no amount of expert testimony from the defense could sway the courts into thinking any different. Human ego battled truth, and ego won.
A year after Lennox had been taken, the Barnes family got in touch with me and I agreed to give a truthful evaluation of his behavior after reviewing the entire video of Lennox’s first behavioral assessment performed by behavior expert David Ryan. I read his detailed written report as well as the report provided by the council’s expert. Interestingly, the council’s expert was only brought in to take Lennox’s measurements and not to assess his behavior. He wasn’t a trainer, nor was he versed in the complexities of canine behavior. In his written report, however, he not only concluded that Lennox was of pitbull type but also finished the report by giving his opinion on Lennox’s behavior, saying that Lennox was a ‘dangerous dog.’ It was this opinion that was given more weight by the courts than David Ryan’s detailed behavioral assessment and the subsequent second thorough assessment given by dog trainer and behavioral expert Sarah Fisher. Their combined years of experience in canine behavior and their detailed and truthful findings far outweighed any behavioral expertise by the council’s expert, but these findings were dismissed and devalued by the courts. Even though I submitted my report, I was never called in as a witness nor was I allowed to go and evaluate Lennox myself, even when I expressly asked for access months before his death.
I was impressed that Lennox let himself be handled by people that were strangers to him even though he was in a terrible state. Here was a dog that had been taken from his family and put in a shelter surrounded by strange people and other dogs. The sudden transition must have been very traumatic for him as well as the resulting loneliness and depression he felt. The Barnes family told me that Lennox had sensitive skin, which they managed well, so when he was taken from them his coat was in good condition. A year later his body was covered in bald patches and wounds that were red and sore and even though he was in considerable discomfort, this ‘dangerous dog’ still didn’t bite a single person. He was put on the drug amitriptyline, a tricyclic anti depressant that helps ease depression and is also used to manage pain. The fact that he was put on this drug was clear evidence that Lennox was in a bad way, both physically and mentally. Sarah Fisher also noted during her assessment that Lennox was very sensitive around his neck and that he was holding himself in a way that clearly told her he was in some discomfort. When dogs are stressed or feel pain they can respond aggressively especially when touched in a sore area. Lennox lunged at David Ryan once when he had him in a corner and bent over him to attach a leash to the collar he was wearing around his sensitive neck. At such close proximity Lennox could have severely bitten Ryan but chose to warn him out of his space instead. This showed me that Lennox had incredible bite inhibition. This was his only lunge throughout both assessments. I reiterate again that during his two years of stress, pain and being handled by strangers he never bit anyone, yet the council’s expert, a large, imposing man with a strong voice who handled Lennox himself while measuring him, called him one of the most dangerous dogs he had ever seen. He did so because he misread and misunderstood some of the seemingly strange behavior Lennox displayed during his time with him. Lennox laid down with his back to the man and didn’t move even when the man came into his kennel run. He allowed the strange man to leash him, lead him out of the run, measure him, bring him back, unleash him, walk out and only then did Lennox lunge at the kennel door as he walked away. This behavior concerned the man and he wrote his report accordingly. I have worked in rescue shelters for nearly twenty years and this is very typical kennel behavior especially from dogs that are stressed and fearful.
I know the details of the council’s witness because not only did I read his report but I also sat and talked face to face with him a few months ago about his part in the Lennox case. We had battled each other on radio shows and articles on the internet. He had even tried to bring legal action against me for speaking out and giving my informed opinion about the disastrousness of the case, but we had never met. When we finally sat down with one another it was tense, but we ended up having a civil conversation. It was evident to me that he clearly didn’t understand Lennox’s very typical stressed kennel behavior, but however misguided he was in this case; he was a man that had a desire to keep the public safe from dangerous dogs and truly believed that what he was doing was right.
When it became clear that Lennox wouldn’t be released to his family I provided another option and offered to personally fly him to a sanctuary in the States where he could live the rest of his life in peace. When all hope of getting him home had gone, it was the family’s desire to see their dog happy. Other sanctuaries in southern Ireland and the States had also offered to help and had opened their doors to him. There were many excellent and safe places where Lennox could have been taken, which would have satisfied the court’s concerns for the public’s safety, but all these offers were turned down. The council had a point to make and they weren’t going to be stopped, even when it was obvious how wrong they were.
Appeal after appeal was denied and the date set for Lennox’s death. The case reverberated around the world and more offers of help came flooding in, some from people that just wanted part of the media spotlight and others that genuinely wanted to help. I went to Belfast, met with the family and spent hours speaking with lawyers, trying to procure a meeting with the council. The family’s lawyer still believed there were certain loopholes that meant Lennox could be taken out of the country, but all of these efforts were rejected. Sarah Fisher (who continues to be a beacon of light for the Barnes family) also offered to help and has remained a champion for Lennox’s cause and the anti-BSL movement.
On July 11th 2012 Lennox was euthanized. The courts and the council had their victory. Lennox was dead and the Barnes family mourned their beloved dog. They begged the courts to release Lennox’s body to them so they could give him a proper burial and say good bye. This was denied, supposedly because the council was worried about what the family might do. Lennox’s body was clearly in a poor state as seen during Fisher’s assessment of him, and the last thing the council wanted was to have pictures of a dog they had destroyed circulated around the world. So Sarah offered to pick Lennox’s body up instead of the family, have him cremated and then returned to them. This offer was also turned down. A while later a white plastic bag turned up on the Barnes’ doorstep, and inside was a box with some ashes and a short note stated the ashes were Lennox’s remains, but there was no way to test if they were telling the truth. Amazingly, the unconscionable cruelty shown by the council throughout the case carried on after Lennox’s death.
Lennox was a fearful dog but he was not a dangerous dog. He never bit anyone before or during his incarceration, even when under extreme stress, but he was labeled a liability and killed because of irrational fear, human ignorance and incredible incompetence.
Breed Specific Legislation is a flawed concept that rips innocent family dogs from their homes while failing to address the real issue of dangerous dogs. As a trainer and behavior expert that regularly works with all breeds of dogs including pit bulls and who also investigates bites, maulings and human fatalities from dogs, I have first-hand experience of how ineffective BSL is. Assessing whether a dog is dangerous or poses a risk to the general public is an immensely important process, and one that shouldn’t be based on what the dog looks like or whether he fits certain measurements, but rather by examining the way he behaves in all kinds of environments and situations as well as the way his owners handle him.
The UK’s EFRA (Environment, Food and Rural Activities) committee that is reviewing proposed new legislation in the UK is finally admitting that the Dangerous Dogs Act that came into effect over twenty years ago is not keeping people safe from dangerous dogs. In a statement they “accept that the current ban on certain dog types in the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 has not prevented attacks by dogs either of a banned type or those of types not banned.” But until the laws are truly changed to target irresponsible owners and their celebration of or passivity towards aggressive responses, innocent dogs will still be taken from their homes. People like the Barnes family will have to continue to fight to get their dogs back while reckless owners of all breeds get away with irresponsible behavior.
Lennox is the poster child against a law that is fatally flawed and needs to be changed. His family continues to fight against BSL so that other innocent lives can be protected and so that other families don’t have to experience the pain of having a beloved dog taken away from them, deemed guilty and killed just because of the way he looks.