Watch: Rishi Sunak promises to ban American XL bully dogs by end of 2023
It’s been a week characterised by serious dog attacks.
At the weekend, an 11-year-old girl suffered shoulder and arm injuries in an attack by an American bully XL and Staffordshire bull terrier crossbreed puppy in Birmingham.
On Wednesday, a 10-year-old boy was set upon by a dog as he played football outside his home in Walsall. It took a minute for the Staffordshire bull terrier to be prised away, with the boy sustaining bites to his arm.
And a man was attacked by two dogs, also bully XLs, in Stonnall on Thursday. The man, named as Ian Price, died on Friday.
Now the prime minister has got involved, with Rishi Sunak saying American XL bully dogs will be banned by the end of the year.
However, the Animal Behaviour and Training Council (ABTC) has warned the stories can be “whipped into an anti-dog frenzy”, warning: “We have to keep it in proportion.”
But while dog attacks remain relatively rare events, it's important to know what to do. With the help of the ABTC, Yahoo News UK sets out the signs to look out for, and how to keep safe.
XL bully dog breeders 'abandoning them due to bad press', say campaign group (Yahoo News UK, 5-min read)
What happens to banned dogs in the UK and which breeds are illegal? (The National, 2-min read)
First of all, how common are dog attacks?
The BBC reported earlier this year there were 21,918 cases of out-of-control dogs causing injury in 2022. This is a 34% rise since 2018, when there were 16,394.
Given the UK has an estimated dog population of 11 million, this suggests the proportion of problematic dogs - and owners - is small.
But still, they are on the rise. And ABTC trustee Jane Williams believes this can be linked to COVID and the economy.
She told Yahoo News UK: “Every single time things get tough financially, unfortunately that lends itself to people turning to criminal behaviours.
“Unfortunately there is an increasing criminal fraternity who are training dogs to be aggressive: to protect themselves, protect their money, protect their drugs… whatever it is. A lot of times they are actually using physical violence towards the dogs to make them more aggressive.
“Another factor is we have a more anxious population as a result of COVID. Dogs are very sensitive to the emotional state of others. More anxious people equals more anxious dogs [which can cause aggression]."
She added: “We don’t want to belittle or diminish - in any way - what has happened. But at the same time, domestic dogs that are cared for, whose needs are being met, where owners are responsible and do something when they see signs of fear or anxiety… these are not the dogs which are causing the sad situations we have seen all too frequently recently."
What are the signs of aggression in a dog?
WIlliams, referring to the canine “ladder of aggression” adapted from the work of dog behaviourist Kendal Shepherd, explained: “It starts with low-level signals: things like the dog’s ears going down, licking its lips, tightness at the side of the mouth, turning away, looking away, lifting one front foot off the ground - which a lot of dogs do as they are getting ready to do something.
“Those are the low-level things that people miss because they are quite subtle.
“Sometimes people do notice if they see the white’s of the dog’s eyes, known as whale eye.
“These are all associated with a dog becoming anxious and fearful. That fearfulness is then the cause of aggressive responses. Most dogs which are aggressive are frightened. There are very few dogs, in a domestic setting, that are being aggressive because they want to get you.”
How can you keep yourself safe if a dog is aggressive?
Williams said a key rule is to keep still. “This is a really difficult one, but don’t run. Stand there.
“It’s really, really hard but running is one of the worst things you can do because it stimulates the dog to chase. Even if the dog wasn’t thinking about chasing, if it sees that movement and it’s in a frightened, heightened or aroused state, it is likely to stimulate a response.
“The RSPCA talks about being a tree: standing still and putting your arms around important parts of your body."
Williams also advised against eye contact, which is a confrontational action in many animal species including dogs.
Meanwhile, avoid the age-old tradition of stroking adorable-looking dogs in the pub or the street. “You shouldn’t do that without speaking to the owner," Williams said. "People do it all the time, walking up to random dogs and sticking their hand out. That’s a sure-fire way to potentially frighten a dog and get a reaction you don’t want.
“I’m not saying avoid dogs at all costs, but be sensible.”
What do you do if a dog goes for a child?
Clearly, if a dog is running towards you and a child, their safety is paramount.
So "you put that physical barrier up between the dog and child," Williams said.
"If that means you're injured, that’s what you have to do. An injury to an adult will tend to be less than to a child, not least because the dog can more easily reach the more vital parts of a child’s body than it can an adult’s.”