Guest post: “Is your dog safe” – the most offensive question I’m frequently asked

This month’s guest post is by Louise Merry, a UK-based owner of a Staffordshire Bull Terrier cross-bred dog.

Walking with Rufus

Nothing quite beats a Sunday afternoon walk with my dog, Rufus – especially in these colder months when we return home with flushed cheeks (mine), tail wagging (his) and ready to shamelessly devour roast dinners (ours), with minimal regard for table/floor manners.

Yesterday, however, was altogether more upsetting fare when, upon reaching our favourite woodland crossing that connects Putney riverside with leafy Barnes Common, a Barbour-clad woman who was about to cross our path suddenly stooped down, gathered up a small, mildly startled Yorkshire terrier into her arms and called out: “Is that safe?” My heart sank. She meant Rufus.

Rufus is a nine-year-old Staffordshire Bull Terrier mix. Well, to be more specific he has one pure Staffordshire Bull Terrier line with bits of English Bull Terrier, American Bulldog and Black and Tan Coonhound thrown in on the other side. I had him DNA-tested as a surprise for my boyfriend Nigel (and Daddy to the pooch) just before Christmas, which, thanks to a tip-off from a colleague, I learnt is surprisingly cheap and easy to do with a simple kit that can be ordered online and sent off to a lab for analysis.

We are often asked if Rufus is safe

Unfortunately this was not the first time either my other half or myself have had to vouch for the temperament of our extremely friendly Battersea Dogs and Cats Home rescue pet, or have noticed people crossing the road and shepherding their offspring out of the way. We have, in the past, tried to laugh it off to avoid having to acknowledge how offensive and hurtful it is.

Favourite retorts include the canned response: “Well, unfortunately he swallowed a hand grenade yesterday and I am a little concerned that the pin will come loose as it passes through his digestive system, but you let me worry about that. In the meantime, how about you head home, pick up a book – put down the Daily Mail – and educate yourself on what it means to be a true dog lover.” We shouldn’t have to have a canned response but we do.

If I’m feeling particularly stung (and the situation suits) I might lash out: “Is your child safe? Every terrorist and serial killer was once an infant, you know.” That doesn’t usually go down too well.

I’ve always wanted to pretend that it is the first time I’ve even noticed that I’m holding the lead connecting me to Rufus and drop it on the floor in panic, scream into the face of the person who asked the question and run away with arms flailing wildly. Only my lack of acting skills has prevented me from going that far.

Rufus was adopted into our family when he was estimated by the staff at Battersea to be between one and two years of age but “most likely closer to one”. The notice on the door of his then home read: “Lovely boy! He would make a great pet but know that he’s clingy!”

We understand why people might have concerns upon first recognising that Rufus is a Staffordshire Bull Terrier mix and you can’t ignore the news articles that report horrific attacks by dangerously out-of-control dogs. These often cite the same few breeds, including Staffies or dogs that have visual similarities to Rufus: strong, slightly stocky and with big wide mouths (which on Rufus is largely used for grinning or breaking yawning records).

Rufus is a friendly, loving dog

Rufus is always happy to make new friends with people and dogs. He loves eating raw carrots, hates the rain and is perhaps more loving and loyal than any other dog I’ve had. Of course, strangers do not know this, but that is not the point.

The RSPCA is calling for the Dangerous Dogs Act to be overhauled to focus on irresponsible owners rather than prohibiting certain breeds of dog. This follows a recent report that found that of the 30 people killed by dogs since 1991 – when the legislation was introduced – 21 were by breeds not banned under the Act. It also concluded that the Act has had “unintended negative consequences for dog welfare”, which therefore means it has also impacted negatively on pet owners and their families.

Over the past two years the RSPCA has been forced to put down 336 healthy dogs, while Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, which is also critical of the law, has had to put down 91 in the past 12 months.

So, to the parents who come close to dislocating shoulders in their haste to wrench their offspring from the path of my little “killer”, to the people who cross the road to avoid walking too close to the animal I am responsible for and devoted to, and to the woman who tainted my Sunday afternoon stroll with a good friend, please know two things: EVERY dog has the potential to be dangerous no matter what their breed or size – and bad owners make bad dogs.

Not only that, questioning whether my pet is “safe” means you are questioning how responsible I am as an owner. Some people shouldn’t be parents, some people are criminals unfit for our society and yes, some dogs are dangerous. But the next time you are about to cross the road or ask that offensive question, consider having a little faith in me, as an owner, and the judgement that was made when Rufus was adopted into our family. You may be pleasantly surprised.



  • Elizabeth says:

    In my view asking an owner if their dog “is safe” is fair. Why should you take such a question from a stranger as a personal insult or injury? I have a small/medium sized terrier mix and volunteer that she “is safe” to anyone in her berth who seems to pause at the sight of her. Bull terriers can be fearsome to some people and to owners of small vulnerable dogs.

    • Nicki says:

      Sorry but I disagree. There is a negative connotation about that question. I have a dog of my own and also enjoy meeting other peoples’ pets. I do always ask first, just in case the animal is nervy or anxious, but the question I use is “Does your dog like saying hello to people?” or “Is it ok to say hello to the dog?” If the animal is a bit snappy this gives the owner a chance to say “I’d rather you didn’t” with or without explanation (and a few owners have said that to me) but it is a neutral question which doesn’t assume the dog is aggressive.

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