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Opinion – UK XL bully ban will ultimately fail to prevent dog attacks

The UK prime minister, Rishi Sunak, has announced a ban on the American XL bully breed following a rise in serious dog attacks last year. Here’s why I believe the move is short-sighted, tokenistic, and ultimately destined to fail.

Does the UK government enjoy anything more than a knee-jerk reaction these days? Here I sit, exasperated, pleading that policymakers adopt a holistic and sensible approach to addressing a serious issue – for once.

If you live in the UK, you’ll no doubt have seen newspaper headlines and TV reports in recent weeks describing a sharp rise in dog attacks since 2020.

Several distressing videos and eyewitness accounts have emerged on social media revealing fatal attacks involving adult and child bystanders. The government has hastily responded with measures it hopes will diminish the volume of incidents whilst sating a growing sense of public hysteria.

Currently bearing the brunt of this onus is a breed unfortunately named the ‘American XL bully’. First emerging in the 1990s as a result of crossbreeding involving pit bulls, English bulldogs, and American bulldogs, the XL bully has become an increasingly popular pet of choice for big dog lovers since 2014.

To look at, they’re essentially a more heavy-set, muscular version of a Staffordshire bull terrier typically weighing anywhere between 40kg and 60kg. Like the majority of bulldog breeds, they’ve become something of a modern fashion symbol with pups selling for thousands at a pop from licensed and unlicensed breeders.

As of 2024, however, owning one of these dogs will be considered illegal – barring exceptional cases – due to a nation-wide ban implemented last week by Rishi Sunak. Hours after a man succumbed to injuries inflicted by two dogs believed to be XL bullies in Staffordshire, the PM announced the new measures.

This represents the first time a dog breed has been added to the Dangerous Dogs Act since the pit bull in 1991, and will inevitably lead to hundreds of dogs being seized and euthanised in the coming years if the bill remains instated in its current form.

The ruling claims that exemptions will reportedly be granted for some, though that will depend on ambiguous terms and an on-hand officer’s personal discretion.

If an animal is deemed ‘not to be a danger to society’, has a fit and proper owner, is neutered and micro-chipped, and is covered by physical harm insurance, preemptive action may not be taken.

Knowing full well that several hundred dogs will not be brought forward in this official capacity, the government continues to assure that an ‘amnesty’ approach is to be taken and not a cull. That’s a funny pledge, considering banned dog breeds cannot be re-homed in the UK.

Statistics shared by the government claim that American XL bullies have been responsible for three of the last seven fatal dog attacks in the UK, though data on the subject is far from infallible and details are consistently challenged by outsider organisations.

When looking to see which breeds are responsible for the majority of non-fatal dog attacks, for instance, there is a glaring lack of available information.

Having researched the loose protocols in place, personally, I’m absolutely not satisfied that emotionally driven bias isn’t playing a significant part in the decisions being made.

What Metropolitan police files can ratify is that hospital admissions for dog bites soared by 154% from 1999 to 2019 despite the prohibition of several ‘dangerous’ breeds and the ensuing euthanisation of thousands of animals.

Understandably contentious and divisive as the subject is, one cannot deny that this statistic represents anything but abject failure. Therefore, surely it bares asking: are national dog bans a short-sighted waste of time, and what is the alternative?

A government survey conducted in 2010 asked a total of 67 organisations if they believed breed-specific UK legislation to be effective in protecting the public from dangerous dogs. A resounding 88% of 2,850 responses said no.

In the specific case of American XL bullies, it’s openly acknowledged that the breed isn’t even legally recognised and that there’s no real clue just how large the population is within the UK – not even a round-about estimate.

Given this, how is it fair to make any concrete assertions about the breed having inherently aggressive tendencies without considering the caveat that the number of bites recorded may be disproportionately skewed.

In laymen’s terms, there may be way more XL bullies currently in the UK than other large breeds featuring highly in fatality lists, like rottweilers, dobermans, alsatians, and malamutes. Until the population-size is better established, attack regularity stats are essentially worthless.

Many dog safety evaluations have suggested that breeds reported to bite ‘the most’ are simply the most popular breeds present within a certain region. Furthermore, there is little scientific evidence to support the notion that any breeds have an aggressive or dangerous disposition.

Animal welfare charities such as the RSPCA, Blue Cross, and the Kennel Club instead argue that dogs should be judged on their ‘deed not breed’ and blame external factors that, for whatever reason, aren’t being addressed.

XL bullies have become a ‘valuable commodity, resulting in irresponsible breeding, rearing, and ownership, which can contribute to an increased likelihood of aggression,’ a joint letter reads.

An undercover investigation by the BBC in January revealed extensive links between unlicensed XL bully breeders and organised crime, where hundreds of dogs are bred specifically for exaggerated characteristics like large heads and overly muscular bodies.

Now, for a moment consider the types of people using these dodgy networks to buy bullies and their motivations.

This is where inflammatory colloquial terms like ‘devil dog’ start to enter the public consciousness and spread, gradually making people feel fearful and stand-offish. This also further entices the types of delinquents that should never be allowed to own dogs in the first place.

Love and discipline should always be the most basic pre-requisites for owning any domestic animal, and yet many large dogs are viewed as a mere tool for intimidation, are neglected, and miss crucial social milestones in their early development.

I personally have zero qualms with people wanting governmental action to ensure safety for themselves and their loved ones, but I vehemently believe the brunt should be bared by the root cause of the issue – not the animal in the collar, the animal holding the leash.

Why instead of pursuing futile breed bans, which have proven to be unfit for purpose and a tragic waste of life, is the government seemingly opposed to undertaking a holistic approach to incentivise and punish those responsible for their dogs?

The concept of dog licenses isn’t new. In the Canadian city of Calgary, all dogs over three months old are required to be registered and micro-chipped, or the owners risk regular fines.

Not only does this detail deter potentially unfit owners from reaching out to breeders or shelters in the first place, but it has led to 90% of Calgary’s entire dog population becoming registered. For context, the city has a population of roughly 1.336 million people and some 135,000 dogs.

A subsidised spay and neuter program is smartly offered as part of the deal too, ensuring low-income families can afford to sterilise their dogs and that local authorities get the owner’s details locked into the system.

This is an astute move considering a reported 85% of fatal attacks globally have involved un-neutered dogs.

Now, obviously, you’d be foolish to expect such a sparkling success rate if mandatory dog licenses came into effect in the UK, but surely efforts to know where dogs of interest are residing and who they’re owned by is a preferable tactic to worthless bans.

The crux of the issue, I believe, is that irresponsible owners are raising generation upon generation of large and powerful dogs on fear and neglect. And, speaking frankly, most of these people couldn’t give a solitary shit about any ban. The illegal breeder networks must be targeted.

As someone who previously rescued a 70kg cane corso who categorically could not be mixed with strangers or other animals, and provided him with a wonderful life without incident, I’m unwaveringly convinced that owners are responsible for their pet’s actions at all costs.

Until animal welfare and ownership accountability come to the forefront of the conversation, I’m convinced the annual uptick in dog attacks, tragically, will continue.

For the foreseeable, however, it looks as though we’ll have to grit our teeth through Sunak’s feeble, lip-service soundbites.