The footage is shocking. A man in shorts and a T-shirt screams in agony on a petrol station forecourt as he tries in vain to fight off a dog almost as big as he is. Police later confirmed it was an American Bully XL cross who randomly went on the attack in Birmingham last Saturday – another man and an 11-year-old girl were also injured in the incident.
Rishi Sunak has since vowed to ban American XL Bully dogs by the end of the year after another fatal attack. The Prime Minister said he had brought ministers, police and experts together with a target to “outlaw” the breed under the Dangerous Dogs Act as a matter of urgency.
In the past two years, the number of fatal dog attacks in the UK has increased dramatically. Between 2001 and 2021 there were an average of 3.3 fatalities per year, but in 2022, 10 people were killed, including four children. Six of those cases involved American Bullies. This year, there have been at least five fatalities so far and all were from Bully attacks. And the dog has not just been attacking people. Earlier this month an American Bully was linked to an attack near Wrexham, in North Wales, which left 22 pregnant sheep dead.
“The Bully XL is not recognised as a breed, it’s just a type of American bulldog,” explains dog behaviourist Debbie Connolly. She regularly acts as an expert witness in court cases involving dogs who have injured people or other canines. “Bully XLs have been bred relatively recently by people who want a larger, stronger American bulldog. They can stand up to 50cm tall and weigh as much as 65kg.”
Proving that a particular dog belongs to a banned breed is difficult because the legal definition is based on physical characteristics.
“It’s not a DNA test, it’s a description,” says Connolly. “Some are markers such as height and weight but others are more subjective, such as a springy gait. In many cases, police time and money is getting wasted when they seize a dog, claiming it’s a pitbull, and the owner challenges this and is able to prove it’s not [in court].” Banning one dog type can lead to a kind of “whack-a-mole”, where breeders are able to mix in different dog breeds to get around the ban.
Even if the American Bully XL gets banned, this might only increase its desirability among certain types of owner. “Pitbulls were banned in 1991 and there’s more of those than ever on our streets,” says dog trainer Ross McCarthy. All banned dogs including pitbulls must be neutered and wear a muzzle and leash in public, but in practice this is hard to enforce. “People like the element of danger. It’s all part of the look to have these illegal dogs straining on their collar and barking at people. But they’re not trained, they’re not exercised properly or fed correctly, and that’s when you get problems.”
A search on the classifieds website Gumtree for an American Bully XL puppy throws up many pictures which look like they’re advertising a boxing match, with horror movie fonts and names such as Scythe. And they’re not cheap – prices average around £2,000 although Connolly says it’s not unheard of for people to pay up to £10,000, and for criminals to use them as currency. Although ear cropping in dogs is illegal in the UK, the practice is still widespread in this breed because it is thought it makes the dog look more aggressive. Litters of puppies are imported with cropped ears from abroad or people do it themselves at home. Connolly says she has even heard of ear-clipping kits available to purchase on Amazon.
Unregulated “backyard breeding” is also an issue. “If the mother was stressed when she was carrying the puppies, those stress hormones will predispose the puppies to be more fearful and reactive,” says Connolly. “And the puppies are kept in garden sheds where they have no exposure to the noises and rhythms of family life in a home which can make socialisation very difficult.”
“The solution isn’t to ban more types of dog,” says a spokesman for the Dog Control Coalition, which includes the RSPCA. “The Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991 has coincided with a troubling increase in dog bites and fatalities. The increased popularity of Bully XLs has resulted in irresponsible breeding and ownership, which can contribute to increased aggression, regardless of breed. The Government needs to focus on the improvement and enforcement of current breeding and dog control regulations, and on promoting responsible dog ownership and training.”
Other experts believe a ban on American Bullies is urgently needed. Dr Lawrence Newport, a lecturer in law and criminality at Royal Holloway, University of London, says: “This is a uniquely dangerous type of dog responsible for 50 per cent of all attacks on people and other dogs. They were bred in the US from prize-winning pitbulls who had won three-hour dog-on-dog fights in a pit. This is the stock they come from and there’s heavy in-breeding. We know that banning a breed works. Since pitbulls were banned in 1991 fatalities remained low until 2022 when American Bullies were starting to be bred.”
American Bully XLs are not recognised or registered with the UK Kennel Club so it’s not known how many there are in the UK, although estimates suggest about 2,000. Dr Newport doesn’t buy the argument that it’s not dogs that are dangerous, but their owners. “The American Bully XL is 270 times more dangerous than your average dog, and it’s not just down to mistreatment or lack of training,” he says. “Look at Natasha Johnston, the dog walker who was killed by her own American Bully. Or Treysharn Bate, who had owned her American Bully just a week when it ripped her 17-month-old baby from her arms. Are we saying these are simply bad owners? Just as Pointers are bred to point and Retrievers to retrieve, Bullies are bred to attack.”
However, McCarthy says he has worked with several Bully XLs and if trained correctly from eight weeks old, they can be “sweet and loving companions”. Connolly agrees but warns that people shouldn’t get bogged down with the idea that it’s only American Bullies which are dangerous. “I was just dealing with a case of a woman’s cockapoo who had bitten eight people,” she says. “Of course, the issue with a larger dog is that it can do more damage and it’s harder to dislodge and its bite has more power.”
Whether Bully XLs get banned or not, Connolly says dog ownership as a whole in this country is in crisis. “It’s not just fatal attacks which are obviously tragic, it’s backyard breeding and a total lack of enforcement of the law. It’s much too easy to own a dog. Dog shelters are seeing unprecedented numbers of strays and dogs needing to be rehomed. I’m concerned that Suella Braverman’s comments will lead to even more dogs being dumped.”
Connolly is sceptical of some of the methods to control dangerous dogs used abroad. In Queensland, Australia, certain breeds are required by law to wear a red collar to alert people that they might be dangerous. “This is fine as an extra precaution but it’s not the solution,” she says. “Children don’t always recognise these warning signs.” Instead, Connolly thinks the police need better training in how to deal with the “constant” calls they now get about aggressive dogs. Figures released in June show that the Met deals with one dangerous dog a day. She also believes we need more designated dog areas in parks and to incentivise dog training with council subsidies.
McCarthy doesn’t think subsidies would help with the American Bullies problem. “There are already boroughs in London which offer subsidised or even free schemes for dog training but people aren’t interested,” he says. “People don’t want to invest the time to properly train their dogs.”
Either way, those who have been subject to an unprovoked dog attack, such as Ana Paun, the 11-year-old who was mauled this week on her way to the shops, tend to have definitive views on what should be done. “I think all dogs like this should be banned, and the owner should be in prison.”