Britain's Hidden Dog Crisis

During the annual summer lull, when Parliament is in recess, tabloids and broadsheets are often left with scant few stories. This year, one caught our collective attention. Following a cluster of deaths from violent dog attacks, we were suddenly alerted to a new danger – a killer canine called the XL Bully.

The Bully is a cross between American Pitbull and Staffordshire terriers. It is a muscular dog with the fighting characteristics for which its Pitbull ancestors were bred - and it shows. An American XL Bully easily weighs 60 kilos and since lockdown, its popularity has soared.

British legislation has changed a lot. The Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991 (DDA), was passed after a wave of Pitbull attacks and it allows the government to ban dogs bred for fighting. Despite four breeds currently outlawed, the XL Bully has slipped through the cracks and last year was responsible for six of the ten fatal attacks in Britain; surgeons have testified to the BBC of the power of their jaws, worse than a typical dog bite: “it’s a crushing or tearing injury”, “Once they grip, they don’t let go”. One harrowing story (whose details are unprintable) involved the death of a 10-year-old boy attacked by a Bully who at 15 months old (a puppy), weighed over 50 kilos. Shocking as this trend is, FOI requests to 37 police forces reveal that between 2018 and 2022, the UK dog population grew by 15%, yet attacks climbed by a third.

In the summer, the government announced it would act – so far, they have only outlined that Bully owners will not have their dogs euthanised, but they must be kept on leads, muzzled, and neutered. Though they have not yet been officially banned.

Is this sudden attention justified? Bullies are bred for their muscular, ‘mean’ look, and many have clipped ears, an aesthetic and harmful surgery illegal in the UK. Extreme breeding to exaggerate features also causes serious harm as many puppies are visibly muscular at birth, and rescued puppies have had to be euthanised because of warped and twisted legs that cause constant pain.

Their breeders operate a decentralised, informal network without breeding licences on social media, arranging viewings via direct message on Facebook and Instagram, where puppies can easily be sold for over £20,000. These unregulated breeders exploit several regulatory loopholes: entire networks of ‘co-owning’ allow a single breeder to house dozens of dogs with others who get a share of the profit. An undercover BBC Panorama investigation in January found one couple breeding bulldogs for ‘extreme characteristics’ who were previously convicted for illegal and dangerous breeding but were still operating as they do not need to obtain a licence from the council if they are studding (with male dogs) rather than keeping bitches. Some breeder’s Instagram accounts featured videos of XL Bullies being trained to attack men dressed as police.

So, will a ban on Bully’s work? Remember that defining a ‘breed’ is arbitrary – and Bullies have increasingly been crossed with other breeds. The Dog Control Coalition, which represents Battersea Dogs Home, Dogs Trust, and the RSPCA, among others, testified to a Select Committee in Parliament that the DDA is “reactive and breed specific”, “[Breed Specific Legislation] needs to be replaced with breed neutral legislation”, like targeted “Dog Control Notices” served by police to out of control dogs’ owners, a “preventative, evidence-based, and proportionate” policy.

Further, Professor Carri Westgarth, a Human-Animal Interactions researcher, says there is “little consistent evidence” that any breed is inherently more aggressive. Though she admits it is too early to tell about XL Bullies, the most popular breeds in a region are roughly responsible for a corresponding proportion of bites. There is an untold story, however. As in the ‘90s, rottweilers, German shepherds, and malamutes were frequently the highest causes of fatalities. Westgarth cites Ken Baker, Tory Home Secretary when the DDA was passed, admitted later that banning popular dogs who frequently kill would have “infuriated” middle-class voters, while “powerful breeds have long been linked to deprived communities”.

In sum, the last 30 years of BSL policies have failed. New breeds fill the gap left behind, while deprived communities are under-prioritised. The root of the problem is breeding networks, which must be regulated with a lifetime ban on breeders regardless of dog’s sex if they aren’t registered with a licence, keep thorough sales accounts, and have regular inspections for animal welfare and to ensure ‘extreme characteristics’ are not bred. Further, Parliament must ensure targeted approaches to individual dangerous dogs, as breeds like German Shepherds continue to cause fatalities, empowering police with control notices as a preventive measure, rather than the sticking-plaster politics of reactionary bans.

However, any dog which was bred for fighting poses a disproportionate risk. There is a clear moral argument that, like knives or guns, no one should legally own and parade a dangerous weapon. Yes, BSL is ineffective, but XL Bullies cannot continue to stalk our streets.

All articles and opinions posted give the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Leeds Think Tank, the Leeds University Union, or the University of Leeds.