Throughout 2022 and 2023, there have been several high-profile, tragic deaths caused by dog attacks – as well as numerous injuries. Some have suggested adding more dogs to the list of breeds to the banned list of the Dangerous Dogs Act, but is this truly the right approach?
The UK has a status dog problem.
The Society for Companion Animals Studies defines status dogs as dogs that “are encouraged by their owners to learn/adopt aggressive behaviour, and are used as ‘weapons’ in fights, or as ‘tough-looking’ status symbols”. In short, they are large, strong dogs, who have been acquired by the absolute worst people to handle them: someone who wants a tough dog to use more for clout than anything else. They don’t want a pet, they don’t want a companion: they want to train potential weapons.
The portrait of your average ‘status dog’ has changed throughout the decades. German Shepherds were the to-go ‘tough dogs’ for a time; then there were Dobermanns and Rottweilers – all big, strong dogs at risk of winding up in the worst possible hands. Around the time, a list of banned breeds was introduced with the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act (DDA) – Pit Bull Terrier, Fila Brasileiro, Dogo Argentino and Japanese Tosa
Dogs classed as banned types can easily be someone’s beloved pet as well as an animal bred and trained for aggression. The law treats them, and their owners, precisely the same.
There was, however, a crystallisation of this portrait. With most attention on the Pit Bull, this dog – or rather, this ‘type’ of dog – was set to become and remain the ultimate status dog. They were feared enough to be banned, and that was precisely the kind of dog someone looking for tough status would want to own… and train to become aggressive. Even dogs who resembled the banned breeds are included in the DDA – breed-specific legislation targets any dog who looks a certain way, regardless of what DNA is in the mix.
As a result, dogs classed as banned types can easily be someone’s beloved pet – a lot of people do not realise their dog may fall into a banned type until their dog is seized – as well as an animal bred and trained for aggression. The law treats them, and their owners, precisely the same. Over 30 years later, despite thousands of family pets killed for no reason other than their looks, the failure of this legislation couldn’t be more glaringly obvious.
The breeding of these dogs has become a lucrative market, and there is no shortage of Pit Bull ‘types’ in the UK – whether through unfortunate crossing or by design. Remember, a cross between a Staffie and a Labrador can very easily come out looking like a ‘type’ and be persecuted for it, and proving they have no Pit Bull DNA would not be considered proof enough to spare them; it is all based solely on the dog’s measurements. That is how unscientific BSL is.
Since the list of banned breeds was introduced, biting incidents have gone up. According to NHS data, there has been a 32.8 per cent growth in hospital admissions between 2011 and 2022. Between 2021 and 2022, there was a total of 8,819 admissions for dog bites. Even taking into account the fact that the UK’s dog population has grown by 9.7 per cent between 2017 and 2022, data shows that bite cases are growing at a faster rate than the dog population.
As cases grew, so did concern – and it didn’t take long for authorities and the public to realise there is a new status dog, similar to the Pit Bull but larger, stronger, and entirely legal to keep: the American XL Bully. More and more people looking for a ‘status’ dog are turning to these dogs, who are often bred for strength and trained to be aggressive.
“The American Bully breed developed as a natural extension of the American Pit Bull Terrier,” says the United Kennel Club. “The APBT has maintained a characteristic appearance and temperament for over 100 years. As with any long-standing breed, several types evolved from the parent breed, with one in particular taking on a specific build and structure that is so unique it was wise to recognise it as a different breed altogether. That being the American Bully breed. “The American Bully breed was subtly influenced by the infusion of several other breeds, which include the American Bulldog, English Bulldog, and Olde English Bulldogge.”
TV Vet Marc Abraham said in an interview that these dogs can be ‘nightmares’ in the wrong hands – and that very few people have the right hands. However, he added, the issue is responsible ownership: blaming the dog and banning the breed, as we have already banned the Pit Bull, would do absolutely no good. Dog behaviourist Hannah Molloy, of Amplified Behaviour, agrees with this view.
“I feel that if the legislation didn’t work for Pit Bulls, I don’t think it’s going to work for XL Bullies,” she says. “It would simply push their breeding even further underground, making it increasingly difficult to keep an eye on it – and putting up a barrier between breeders and professional trainers. Banning breeds was the wrong approach in 1991 and it is the wrong approach now. People looking for a status dog can ignore the law or turn to other non-banned breeds with the same features, as we are already seeing with the shift to XL Bullies.”
As canine behaviour consultant for the All-party Parliamentary Dog Advisory Welfare Group (Apdawg), Hannah had been gathering information and statistics for the Apdawg event ‘The dog bite problem part 2: is it the dogs?’ which took place in Parliament on 21 March. What she found reinforced her belief that banning breeds will not solve the issue.
“Clearly, with organised criminals involved in the breeding of status dogs, police need to hit them in their wallets”
“We have been working on gathering evidence about the entire dog bite problem, to get a full picture,” she says. “This can be difficult, due to different record keeping among various hospitals, but we can tell that bites have tripled in the past 20 years across all breeds. All dogs can bite; it is interesting to note that the data between 2001 and 2021 shows no increase in deaths to match the increase in injuries.
“I don’t think DDA is the answer, we’re looking to understand the law, the application, and whether it has been misused. This is a multifaceted issue. Should we go for a dog licence for certain breeds? It would be good, but we would need to regulate dog trainers and behaviourists, and regulate breeding – there would be a lot to do.
“Clearly, with organised criminals involved in the breeding of status dogs, police need to hit them in their wallets. Currently, any fine they may incur – for breeding without a licence, for example – is too low: they will simply factor it in as an expense in their business plan, so to speak. Higher fines, proportional to the money these criminals make, would also lead to more funds for further prosecutions. The dogs are victims too.”
The research also notes that the issue of dog biting is not a national or even regional issue: it is a community issue, with over a third of bites occurring in the 20 per cent most deprived communities in the country. Also, the vast majority of bites take place at home: this adds up to 80 per cent of bites on adults, and 91 per cent of bites on children. A recent tragic case was that of Alice Stones, a four-year-old girl killed by her family dog in the back garden of her home in Milton Keynes on 31 January 2023.
The dog, who was later put to sleep, was described as “not a banned breed”. Only 15 per cent of adults and 6 per cent of children are bitten in the streets. Overall, bite rates in children have shown no growth between 1998 and 2018. The bite rates have, however, tripled in adults, with middle-aged women as the fastest-growing group. Dog bite victims are more likely to be white than any other ethnic group.
“There is more that can be done in specific geographical regions where this is happening most often,” Hannah says. “We need local solutions. Plus, the vast majority of bites happen at home; any intervention or policy should keep that in mind.”
With so many bites occurring at home in deprived areas, there is a chance some are acquiring these dogs for personal protection
There is another aspect to the issue of dogs trained specifically for aggression and intimidation. Up to now, we have spoken of the individuals who choose powerful dogs and train them to be aggressive for status; however, with so many bites occurring at home in deprived areas, there is a chance some are acquiring these dogs for personal protection.
The subject of protection dogs is steeped in controversy for several reasons. Firstly, the industry is severely unregulated; there is no body overseeing the kind of training these dogs receive in order to be marketed for personal protection. Secondly, there is reason for concern when dogs who have been quite literally trained to attack on command are left in the hands of members of the public; again, there is nothing in place to regulate their use.
When owners of these dogs lose control, consequences can be dire. In August 2021, a child was severely injured in a dog attack at a park in Pontypridd, Wales. The dog who attacked, named Chief, was a German Shepherd Dog who had been previously trained as a protection dog in Germany; he had then been rehomed to a member of the public, despite the fact the man had no experience with such dogs and did not know the German commands the dog had been trained to respond to.
And then there are the people who, rather than turning to someone else to train their dog, try to do everything by themselves – teaching their dog to turn aggressive on cue and react to perceived threats, in a misguided attempt to keep themselves and their loved ones safe. Unfortunately, this is likely to backfire.
“Even when it does work, the dog will be killed,” Hannah says. “It’s something a lot of people seem to ignore when they make the decision to turn their pet into a DIY protection dog. It’s not like protection dogs get a different treatment by the law as a normal pet would. If they bite someone even in your own home – if they do the job they have been trained to do – they will be put to sleep.“
Intervention in the deprived areas highlighted in the research can be a starting point not only to tackle the problem of status dogs, but also to make sure people no longer feel the need to turn to ‘protection dogs’ in order to feel safe.
“I am of the view that a fundamental rethink of legislation regarding dangerous dogs is needed so there are not further tragedies”
All this was discussed at the Apdawg event in Parliament on 21 March. Among those present was Wayne David, Labour MP for Caerphilly. It was in his constituency that 10-year-old Jack Lis was killed in a XL Bully dog attack on 8 November 2021. The incident resulted in two convictions – that of the owner of the dog, called Beast, and that of the person in whose house the dog was staying. They were sentenced to four and a half years in a young offender institution and three years’ imprisonment respectively. Beast was killed by officers at the scene.
Commenting on the outcome of the court case, Wayne David said, “The mother of Jack is, understandably, of the view that the sentences received by the two individuals were far too lenient. I intend to voice her concerns and reinforce them, and I will be demanding that the UK Government brings forward legislation to change and strengthen the law in this area.
“I am of the view that a fundamental rethink of legislation regarding dangerous dogs is needed so there are not further tragedies.”