As pet owners across the UK are left reeling by the ban on XL Bullies, vet and animal behaviourist Dr. Kendal Shepherd explains why we need to rethink our legislation around dangerous dogs as well as the way we investigate dog attacks – and why responsible dog owners trying to minimise risks may find themselves in hot water…
Circulating online, there is a video that should have never become public: it is one of the recent, fatal attacks that prompted the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to announce a ban on XL Bullies in the UK – the same type of knee-jerk reaction that led to the ban of four breeds (or rather, types) in 1992.
Just short of a minute long, it shows two dogs – believed to be XL Bullies – as they bite into a man, who later died, while people present hit the dogs in the fruitless attempt to get them to relinquish their grip on the victim.
We will not be describing the video in more detail here. We did however ask Dr. Kendal Shepherd, who often assesses dangerous dog and animal welfare cases, for a professional opinion on the behaviour on display in the short video.
“I’d be perfectly willing to put to sleep a dog involved in a fatal incident. But this should never happen until there has been a proper investigation – one involving vets, forensics experts, and behaviourists”
“Having a video of such an attack is quite extraordinary – even if it means someone chose to film rather than help – but it doesn’t show how the attack started,” she says. “Newspaper reports say that the dogs broke into the garden. Was the owner of these dogs present? We do not know. We can see that people present attempted to get the dogs off the victims – unfortunately, in all the wrong ways.”
In the video, several men are seen screaming and hitting the dogs, as well as trying to put something between them and the victim. While it may be a normal instinctive reaction to witnessing something so terrible, Dr. Shepherd explains it usually has the effect of making the dog hold onto the victim even more.
“In such a situation, a fire extinguisher may have made a difference – it will almost always cause a dog to let go,” she says. “Perhaps the victim may have been saved this way – we’ll never know. Unfortunately, with both dogs dead, there is a lot we may never know.”
According to police, one dog died “after being restrained”, while the other was put to sleep with an injection. This, Dr. Shepherd says, should never happen.
“I am not arguing to keep dogs involved in fatal bite incidents alive for the sake of keeping them alive,” she says. “I’d be perfectly willing to put to sleep a dog involved in a fatal incident. But this should never happen until there has been a proper investigation – one involving vets, forensics experts, and behaviourists. In short, independent experts.
“If you just kill your major witness and suspect straight away, you will never get answers. We need all the behavioural information possible in order to know what’s going on in the dog’s heads; if they’re simply killed after being taken into custody or at the scene, as it happens all too often, we’re not going to be able to learn anything from the incident.”
Not that we seem to have learned all that much in the 31 years since Breed Specific Legislation came into effect. Dog bites have since gone up; study after study shows the ineffectiveness of this legislation – including, in 2021, a report commissioned by the Government itself – only to be entirely ignored. Thousands of pets are detained, and killed, for no reason other than their looks and measurements. Now, this will include XL Bullies.
“Human behaviour is that if something is not working, we keep doing it on the assumption that it will eventually work,” Dr. Shepherd comments. “It’s guilty until proven innocent under Section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act. You may as well toss a coin in court to decide who is going to be believed.”
“What look like responsible precautions – such as taking preventative behaviour advice or muzzle-training the dog – will be presented as that the dog is indeed dangerous and that the owner knew it”
As a behaviourist, Dr. Shepherd is often called upon to assess the temperament of dogs seized under suspicion of being a ‘type’. More often than not, the classification was made by police officers with no expertise, based on tape measurement and nothing else.
“Once they add the XL Bully to the list of banned breeds, it’s going to be a mess – every big, bull type dog is going to be potentially identified as an XL Bully and seized. As is already the case with suspected Pitbulls, police will just ‘decide’ they are a type – it’s a ‘I think it’s a Pitbull, therefore it is one’ kind of scenario, from officers who more often than not cannot tell one end of the dog from the other,” she says.
“Take Dalmatians, for example. Everyone can recognise a Dalmatian – and yet I had a police officer tell me in court that if a Dalmatian fits the measurements, they’ll consider it a Pitbull! It makes you despair, really.
“As a society, we put our trust in people in power to make sensible decisions and laws, but if they can have such blindness to the evidence in front of them, how can we trust them? This legislation is ineffective: it kills innocent dogs and doesn’t protect the public. It won’t become any more effective once another breed, or type, is added to the banned list.”
While there have been suggestions that aggression is genetically rampant in the XL Bully population due to a genetic bottleneck traceable to a single dog, Dr. Shepherd says that without genetic research into each dog, it’s all speculation – and that it may be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“If a certain line gains notoriety as supposedly being particularly vicious, based on word of mouth, then it’s a given that people who want a vicious dog will be drawn to it,” she says. “And these people will not properly socialise their dogs – they want them vicious. They want them to be ready to attack, to bite, to be threatening. Say that these people are getting and breeding dogs from a line known for being aggressive – is aggression really in the dog’s genetics, or are they aggressive because that’s how their owners expect and want them?”
As things stand, the law makes no distinction between these people and a pet owner who finds out, in the worst way possible, that their family dog fits the measurements to be considered a ‘type’ and seized. The lack of clarity over how to even recognise a XL Bully has caused a certain amount of panic among owners of large bully dogs, who are now rushing to get behavioural advice, muzzle train, or neuter their dogs. However, Dr. Shepherd says, this well-intentioned attempt to be proactive might land responsible owners in trouble should their dog ever be considered a ‘type’ and seized.
“Based on my experience in court, this is often used against owners of dogs suspected to be ‘types’. What look like responsible precautions – such as taking preventative behaviour advice or muzzle-training the dog – will be presented as that the dog is indeed dangerous and that the owner knew it.”
Dr. Shepherd has been working on something new: a body of independent experts to investigate dog bite incidents
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t – this is the result of a legislation that assumes guilt and expects owners to prove their dog’s innocence. Plus, Dr. Shepherd adds, rushing to neuter a large dog before it’s at least eighteen months or even two years old is not advisable. She adds, “I suggest picking muzzles that are pink, or flowery, or both – in short, non-threatening. People tend to be scared of muzzled dogs. When it comes to gentle dogs forced by law to wear muzzles, a pink flowery muzzle is the best form of protest.”
The ban on XL Bullies will come into full force as of 1 February 2024, when owning one will be illegal unless they’re exempted. As for fatal incidents, Dr. Shepherd has been working on something new: a body of independent experts to investigate dog bite incidents.
“This group – at the moment it has the placeholder name of Forensic Dog Bite Incident Investigation Group – will be an independent service. Forensic psychologists, doctors, forensic vets, behaviourists, all working together to give each dog bite incident or fatality the kind of investigation that is given to a murder scene.
“Of course, in order to do this, we need the dogs involved alive and available to assess. Unless there is no choice, you don’t immediately kill your murder suspect at the scene; it should be the same with dogs, too. We need a holistic view to see an incident in its entirety, to help inform bite prevention schemes. Until these incidents are properly investigated, we’re not going to learn anything.”