21 July 2023

Barking mad: why have we not banned American Bullies yet?


There’s a common refrain online bemoaning what human meddling has done to the appearance and temperament of man’s best friend. Observe the tortured wheezing of the Pug, the trembling rage of the Chihuahua, and the Habsburg inbreeding of the English Bulldog. What, if anything, do these nightmarish creations have to do with their wolf ancestors?

As unfortunate as these specimens may be, the principles behind their creation are hardly new. The history of targeted breeding, driven by a desire to select for certain traits and discard others, stretches all the way back to our very first encounters with early proto-canines. Man changed, and so too did  our best friend: in this spirit, the Cockapoo is no more of a designer dog than the millenia-old Shih Tzu, and each could be said to fill the role of a ‘working dog’ in some sense – even if their ‘job’ is now more likely to be full-time child substitute / social media influencer than sheepherder.

Dogs exist as a testament to the changing fashions of man, a living relic of the recent past. Even the most well-trained Labrador will struggle to resist the urge to chase after stray tennis balls. They are, after all, retrievers. The long, slender Dachshund retains the desire to dig, recalling its original purpose of flushing out voles and rabbits from their subterranean burrows. And those with small children may have witnessed the adorable spectacle of a sheephound attempting to ‘herd’ their little ones around.

And what about the fighting dogs? With its rippling muscles and cavernous jaw, few could reasonably argue that the American Bully is meant to convey a family-friendly attitude: this is a dog designed to intimidate. A close relative of the banned Pit Bull Terrier, designed to maul in popular (and often illegal) dogfights, the Bully breed has exploded in popularity in Britain. Creating and selling Bully XL dogs can be big business, with prices for a purebred pup averaging around £1,500. Some breeders even announce new pup lines as if they were dropping the latest rap album, complete with flashy graphics and ‘crossover’ collaborations.

This is in no small part due to a legal loophole: while Pitbulls were banned in Britain in 1991 under the Dangerous Dogs Act, the Bully breed – and its larger ‘XL’ variant – has not been. But the distinctions between the two dogs are blurred at best, given their shared genetic heritage and aggressive traits. Research by Lawrence Newport has linked the rise in fatal dog attacks to the Bully XL breed, with 6 of the 10 attacks of 2022 being connected to the dogs. Given their close biological connection to the Pitbull, this shouldn’t be surprising. Pitbulls make up approximately 6% of the American dog population, yet are behind 70% of all deadly maulings.

Once you become aware of the Bully XL menace, you may find yourself developing something of a sixth sense when reading media stories about dog attacks. The high-profile case of the 28-year-old dog walker Natasha Johnson, who was killed in January in a particularly horrifying attack on a Surrey high street, exemplifies this. Early reports focused on the presence of two dachshunds, which were the only breed named, other than a Leonberger. Accompanying articles prominently featured images of Dachshunds, adding to the bizarre horror of the story. Was this aggression spurred on by pandemic-era poor socialisation? Have dog owners failed to recognise the danger of the pack mentality, even amongst smaller, less physically intimidating dogs?

Pandemic puppies do have a tendency towards behavioural problems, and Dachshunds are indeed more aggressive than the average breed. But these factors are not directly to blame for Ms Johnson’s death. Later reports confirmed that she had died as a result of catastrophic injuries to her neck inflicted by her own dog, a Bully XL who had turned on one of the smaller dogs. It was the Bully XL that was destroyed by authorities, which would appear to confirm its culpability for the attack.

The idea American Bullies can be managed like any other breed is the logical conclusion of a particularly pernicious strain of blank-slatism – as if a dog specifically bred to maul and eventually kill other creatures can just as easily adapt to modern domestic life as one who was designed to be a lap-warmer. It’s easy to mock the trend of seemingly delusional American ‘pit-mommies’, insisting that their salivating 150-pound beast is actually just a big teddy bear, hardly more aggressive than a Chihuahua. But downplaying the role of breed instinct can have fatal consequences.

Take the case of Joanna Robinson, who was brutally mauled to death by her Bully XLs she believed to be ‘gentle giants’. A cursory Google search throws up hundreds of results baselessly claiming that the breed is no more dangerous than any other, that the owner is to blame rather than the pet. But if owners are being told that the breed is safe even by respected institutions like the Kennel Club, how can they be blamed for believing it? The transatlantic import of ‘Pitbulls are dogs like any other’ rhetoric, facilitated by government inaction in closing legal loopholes, is putting British lives at risk.

It’s time for common-sense dog control. Expanding the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act to include American Bullies would be quick, easy and effective, and would at the very least halt the lucrative breeding trade. If the reaction to the Metropolitan Police’s shooting of two aggressive Bully dogs last month is any indication, there will certainly be something of a backlash – but if a few disgruntled dog-lovers is the price for being rid of these extremely dangerous animals, so be it.

Dog-loving Britons would do well to remember that our four-legged friends cannot transcend their biological impulses, however much we might wish them to. Putting a dog in a buggy does not turn it into a baby. And giving a Pitbull mix a new name does not make it a safe pet.

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Poppy Coburn is a writer and journalist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.