Is it ever going to be possible to ban the XL Bully?
For the first time in my life, I watched the Farrelly Brothers’ 1998 film, There’s Something About Mary last week. Quite drunk, I decided for no particular reason to let my young spaniel come upstairs and watch it with me. She sat there, completely transfixed, her little head bobbing and weaving, seemingly trying to work out if she’d seen Cameron Diaz kicking around Camberwell anywhere before.
It was, I realised the following morning while driving to Birmingham for a gathering of XL Bullies, the most indulgent evening of Jessie’s eight months so far. Her life is an ascetic one. She trains twice a day: heel work, recall, and basic retrieves. I suspect a lot of people in the park think I’m a freak. ‘Gave up on that ages ago’, a toady-looking owner of a cockapoo said to me recently, when he saw me teaching Jessie not to pull on the lead. ‘I mean, it’s basically impossible, right?’
The world moves on quickly, but I’m sure most of you will remember that before we became obsessed with Russell Brand getting defrocked, the nation was feverishly hung up on the Bully XL and its taste for blood. In late August, things became so spirited that the Daily Star ran a piece on what to do if one attacks you. Apparently, if gouging out its eyes doesn’t work, you should finger its arsehole. On the face of it, the numbers speak for themselves; six out of ten fatal dog attacks in Britain last year were linked to Bullies and the tabloids have recently been doing a tidy trade in videos of them mauling people across the country. It was only ever going to be a matter of time and on September 15, Rishi Sunak addressed the nation. Bullies, he announced, will face the same end as single-use vapes, cigarettes and laughing gas, banned by a government that cares.
The traffic, through town, was hardly moving and even if the motorway was clear, I would only make the last half hour of the meet. The event had been planned for weeks but the details kept changing. Initially, Jake Harris, the 21-year-old organiser, had put out a post on Instagram requesting that as many owners as possible bring every Bully and every child they could find, in order to show the world just how gentle Bullies actually are. Twitter found the whole thing hilarious. ‘No way it could go wrong’, posted one young BBC journalist, prompting a slew of replies focusing on the recklessness of the event, or the social wattage of most Bully owners. ‘Last march of the chavs’, suggested one particularly popular reply. In response to the concern, and after talking to the police, Jake initially decided that the event should be dog-free, then had a further rethink, and asked people only to bring puppies. It would be the march of the baby Bullies.
As I hit the motorway, I called my friend Ellena Swift. Ellena was ‘gundog trainer of the year’ in 2022, and this year was selected for the England gundog team. When she isn’t competing, she often works with troublesome dogs. Her forearms are a map of scars. ‘The thing is’, Ellena said to me, ‘from my point of view, most people shouldn’t actually have a dog of any breed’. Almost every week, Ellena sees cocker spaniels that are aggressive, which she attributes to them being owned by people who don’t understand that they need a lot of stimulation and she was recently attacked and injured by a Golden Retriever.
The whole thing, according to Ellena, is a red herring. If Rishi bans the Bully, she’s sure that those who want aggressive and intimidating dogs will simply move onto another breed. ‘It’ll be Malinoises next, or it’ll be Dutch Herders, or Caucasian Shepherds’. The thing she finds particularly galling is that in banning the Bully, we would be effectively punishing a dog, rather than a subset of the dog breeding community who seek to develop dangerous animals. What she would like to see is breeding, as a whole, being regulated. ‘The other stupid thing’, according to Ellena, ‘is that Bullies in this country aren’t a recognised breed.’ They are simply, ‘a type’, and just as people up and down the country will tell you that their chunky dog is in fact ‘an XL Bully’. It’s inevitable that, following a ban, the same people will tell you their Bully isn’t actually a Bully at all. Ellena thinks that most of them are Staffy and Boxer crosses. Their fuzzy lineage means any notion that the government could simply ban them with ‘the flick of a pen’, as Dr Lawrence Newport puts it, is complete bollocks. Newport, to be fair to him, is an academic who focuses on religious ideas, philosophy, and the history of law, rather than being a dog man.
The location for the meet wasn’t revealed until the day before it was due to take place. The police had been at Jake’s door all week and he wanted to try and keep control of the whole thing. By the time I got there, there were only 15 or 20 people, families mostly, and no more than ten dogs. The mood was apprehensive – ITV and Sky had been and gone. Jake was next to me, standing with Riz, a Bully that he got as a companion when he was struggling with his mental health, that they hoped the news crews would be fair. A young Alsatian owner who had come along out of solidarity, chipped in to tell me that ‘these TV guys just sensastionalise the whole thing.’ Three weeks prior to the Birmingham meet, a much bigger protest had taken place in London. Jake wanted to go but he didn’t have the money to get there. There was a curious moment, during that march, when the Bully boys bumped into the national Rejoin campaign. It transpired, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the owners of XLs aren’t particularly pro-Europe but seeing them there together, highlighted how powerless they are. No MP is going to fly their flag and no Bully owner has any friendly media contacts. They are a perfect target for a middle-class kicking and they simply can’t bite back.
A lady with two Bullies, not yet a year old, was telling me that we need to work out what the Government is trying to cover up. ‘It’s a diversion you see. Like when they did COVID to put up the 5G masts.’ I didn’t totally follow but before I could press her, she trailed off to admire a new arrival. Jim, gold teeth and an umbrella under his arm, was striding across the grass with Bleu, a 16 month old. The whole thing, Jim explained, was an accident. He had actually always been scared of dogs but his friend had a litter and he ended up falling for one of the pups. The idea, to Jim, that some people want his dog banned is unbearable. ‘Bleu’, he told me, is his ‘right hand man’. Just that morning on their way to the meet, two Jack Russells had attacked Bleu. It apparently wasn’t the first time but Jim thinks it highlights a more general issue with people having wayward dogs. ‘When he gets attacked’, he told me, solemnly, ‘I feel it here’. Jim clenched his fist and bumped it against his chest, looking down lovingly at his boy.
Some days previously, I’d called up Charlie Thorburn, a Scottish gundog trainer who taught me almost everything I know about dogs. As a teenager, I would spend my summers shoveling shit at his kennels in Fife. Charlie thinks there’s a whole list of dogs, from Dobermans to Cane Corsos, that the public shouldn’t be allowed. In his view, people prove time and time again that they aren’t capable of training Labradors, so shouldn’t be trusted with heavy hitters. He even has concerns over the likes of Wirehaired Pointers. They are highly effective, Charlie explained, at bringing down deer but why have them loose alongside a toddler?
Charlie’s take is that the problem with Bullies is to do with the sort of people who own them. He’s not totally wrong – they are currently the must-have dog among wrong ’uns but clearly not everybody who owns one is a crack dealer. There was nobody in that park who Charlie’s going to bump into on a grouse shoot and yet everybody, 5G mast lady included, wanted to talk to me about the importance of training your dog. Were they all capable of owning a Bully? Probably not. But in almost every London park, as I write this, there will be a nice man in a chunky autumnal knit with a dog that he has no control over. Critically, a Bully’s bite force comes in at 300 pounds per square inch (psi), while a male German Wirehaired Pointer’s can be up to 400. A Bull Mastiff’s, while we’re playing doggy Top Trumps, is around 550.
As I started to leave, a crowd of little boys appeared, and Jake handed round treats for them to give to Riz. I asked one of them as he reached his small hand down to the huge dog if he thinks the breed should be banned. He looked up at me and shook his head. ‘It’s not about the dog, bro. It’s about the owner.’ Then he ran off towards the ice cream van.
I wonder if my conspiracy theorist friend was onto something. Is this just an ill thought-out pledge by a government in its dying days? A ban undoubtedly sounds delicious to those who think the Bully is a byword for a sort of feckless skunk-smoking, out-of-work waster. But nobody ever ended up on the straight and narrow because you took their dog away and at the same time, we aren’t even acknowledging the real issue. Britain is a nation of irresponsible dog owners and irresponsible dog breeders – day in day out, poorly bred dogs kill wildlife, ruin picnics, and pursue children. Up until 1998 in this country, every dog owner was required to have a licence. There wasn’t much to it – owning a big dog was never subject to the same rigorous checks as owning one of those big Italian shotguns but why not relicense Britain’s dogs? At the very least, it would mean that irresponsible dog owners could have their licences removed: ‘no licence, no dog’. They could even get an AI version of Bob Marley’s voice to sing a public awareness ditty. A licensing system would also allow the authorities to create tiers. A pair of miniature poodles, for example, would be available to all whereas a man might be asked for a decent reason as to why he wants four Kangal Shepherd Dogs, given that this hypothetical man is an IT consultant from Brent rather than an Anatolian farmer living high in the mountains.
Last week, Jessie (bite force of around 250 psi) pursued my Nigerian neighbour, who does not like dogs, up the stairs of his house. ‘I’m okay’, he shouted, from behind the closed door after slamming it in her face. ‘I believe she was coming for my bread roll’. The training continues.