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Leash the Hounds of Hell: an Examination of the XL Bully Dog Legislation

Scotland has officially joined England and Wales in implementing new rules regarding XL bully-style dogs with The Dangerous Dogs (Designated Types) (Scotland) Order 2024. Northern Ireland plans to do the same later this year. This order, mirroring The Dangerous Dogs (Designated Types) (England and Wales) Order 2023, was presented to the Scottish Parliament on January 31, 2024. It accompanies other legislative changes, collectively altering ownership rules for specified dog breeds. The new legislation has sparked a great deal of controversy within the United Kingdom, opening up a heated discussion on canine behaviour, pet ownership and public safety.


The law's implementation occurs in two stages. Starting from February 23, 2024, the offences outlined in section 1(2) of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 now apply to XL Bully dogs. This makes it illegal to sell, give away, abandon, or breed XL bullies. Owners are required to keep these dogs muzzled and leashed in public spaces. By August 1, 2024, owning an XL Bully without a Certificate of Exemption becomes a criminal offence, with a deadline of July 31 for owners to apply for the certificate.


To obtain the Certificate of Exemption, owners must purchase insurance, microchip their dog, pay a £92.40 fee per animal, and have the dog neutered. Unwilling owners must have their dogs euthanised by a registered vet. Violating these rules can result in fines or imprisonment. Police have the authority to seize unregistered prohibited dogs, which will then be placed in kennels until a court determines whether they should be destroyed or deemed safe.


The decision to ban XL bully dogs  stemmed from concerns about their potential danger and their disproportionate involvement in fatal and non-fatal dog attacks. Campaign groups advocating for the ban such as Bully Watch UK argued that XL bullies are inherently dangerous, citing potential inbreeding issues that could exacerbate aggressive behaviours and arguing that their size and strength increase the likelihood of serious harm in attacks or bites. Furthermore, the ban targets loopholes that allowed owners from banned areas to rehome their dogs in regions without such restrictions, as evidenced in Scotland. Recent high-profile incidents, like the attack in Walsall and the death of a 65-year-old grandmother in Liverpool have brought to light the pressing need for immediate action regarding dog attacks. These incidents were not isolated occurrences but rather symptoms of a broader issue, as evidenced by the alarming statistics revealed in a BBC investigation. Over the past five years, the number of dog attacks recorded by police in England and Wales has risen by more than a third. In 2022 alone, there were approximately 22,000 reported cases of injuries caused by out-of-control dogs, a significant increase from just over 16,000 cases in 2018. There were four fatal dog attacks in 2021, two involving an XL bully-style breed. In 2022, there were 10 fatalities, six of which implicated an XL bully.


Throughout history, dog legislation has evolved to tackle the challenges posed by dog attacks. In ancient Rome, the 'lex Pesolania' set an early precedent by holding owners accountable for their dogs' behaviour. A significant turning point in UK dog legislation occurred with the Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991, which was a response to a spate of horrific dog attacks, including the tragic case of 6-year-old Rucksana Khan. These incidents prompted parliamentary action, leading the then home secretary to introduce a bill promising “to rid the country of the menace of these fighting dogs”. The Act marked a radical change in addressing the dangers associated with specific breeds, banning four known for their aggression and history of being bred for fighting: the pit bull terrier, Japanese Tosa, Fila Brasileiro, and Dogo Argentino. The XL bully is set to become the first addition to this list since then.


The new law has faced criticism and controversy, particularly regarding the actual definition of an XL bully. The breed is not officially recognised by the UK Kennel Club, but the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) has published guidance on helping to identify the animals. They are described as large dogs “with a muscular body and blocky head, suggesting great strength and power for [their] size”. Male XL dogs stand from 51 centimetres high at the shoulder with female XLs only slightly smaller. The guidance also states they have a “glossy coat” and a “medium length and low set” tail. This ambiguity may complicate accurate identification of these dogs, leading to enforcement disputes. Assistant Chief Constable Mark Hobrough, the lead on dangerous dogs at the National Police Chiefs' Council, highlighted logistical challenges faced by law enforcement. He mentioned that forces are gearing up for increased kennel capacity and additional training for officers responsible for dog legislation to assess animals accurately.

Evidence suggests that while banning a breed may reduce numbers, it does not eliminate the problem entirely. Metropolitan police data from 2015-16, 25 years after the Dangerous Dog Act, revealed that banned pit bull terriers were still responsible for 19 per cent  of dog attacks across London. The RSPCA also pointed out that despite bans, hospital admissions for dog bites increased by 154 per cent between 1999 and 2019, indicating that adding another breed to the list may not solve the underlying issues. There is also concern that banning one breed may lead to the development or introduction of similar breeds as seen with the rise in popularity of the American bully following the ban on pit bull terriers.


Animal welfare charities such as the RSPCA, Blue Cross and the Kennel Club oppose the ban, advocating for a “deed not breed” approach. They argue that judging dogs based on their behaviour rather than their breed is more effective in addressing aggression issues. They also point out the link between breed popularity and irresponsible breeding practices, often associated with unlicensed breeders and organised crime.


As the second phase of the XL bully dog legislation comes into effect this summer in Scotland, it will be intriguing to see whether the ban succeeds in lowering the number of fatal incidents or if the mass culling of thousands of innocent pets, in an attempt to rid the UK of a few poorly trained dogs, was a tragic and ultimately futile endeavour.


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