Deadly attacks by dogs soar to record high as campaigners warn ban on XL bullies doesn’t go far enough

Exclusive: Numbers killed double in just a year – fuelled by massive surge in post-Covid pet ownership

Alex Ross
Saturday 30 December 2023 18:49 GMT
American XL bully dog is a danger to communities and will be banned, says Rishi Sunak

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Fatal dog attacks have surged to a record high in the last two years as campaigners, victims’ families and animal charities warn changes to the law do not go far enough.

There have been 16 deaths by dog bites recorded so far this year, more than double the six fatalities in 2022. Between 1991 and 2021, the number never went above five, according to data from the Office for National Statistics.

The increase has been blamed on a rise in dog ownership sparked by Covid – 11 million in 2023 compared to 9.6 million in 2021, according to charity PDSA – with puppies bred and smuggled from abroad with little care for their welfare.

The overall number of dog attacks has also soared. Figures obtained by The Independent from police forces in England and Wales show there has been an almost 60 per cent rise in the last five years.

Emma Whitfield with her son Jack, who was killed by a dog by an XL bully at a friend’s home. She now wants a change of law to tackle a rise in dog attacks
Emma Whitfield with her son Jack, who was killed by a dog by an XL bully at a friend’s home. She now wants a change of law to tackle a rise in dog attacks (Emma Whitfield)

A government ban on the XL bully breed is due to come into effect on Sunday. But experts warn the move focuses too much on a single breed and a complete overhaul of the Dangerous Dogs Act is needed, with calls for licencing and tougher punishments for irresponsible owners.

Concerns have also been raised that the XL bully ban could be undermined by the number of owners receiving an exemption: the majority of 4,000 applications so far have been approved by Defra.

Figures show that up to 31 October this year, there were just over 14,300 cases of out-of-control dogs causing injury, recorded by 26 of the UK’s 43 police forces. This is up from 9,100 in the same 10-month period in 2019, and a year-on-year increase from 2020, when there were 9,300 reported; 2021, when there were 10,600; and 2022, when there were 12,100.

Jack was 10 when he died two years ago in Caerphilly
Jack was 10 when he died two years ago in Caerphilly (PA)

This year’s attacks include the mauling to death of father-of-two Ian Price by two American XL bullies outside his mother’s home in Walsall, West Midlands, in September. In January, four-year-old Alice Stones was killed by a dog in her back garden in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire.

Emma Whitfield’s son Jack Lis was killed by an XL bully as he went to visit a friend in his hometown of Caerphilly in South Wales two years ago. The mother arrived at the house to see her 10-year-old son’s dead body being carried out by police officers.

Since his death and the subsequent imprisonment of the dog’s owner, the 34-year-old has been on a crusade to overhaul the Dangerous Dog Act in her son’s name.

“Jack was a wonderful young boy who was visiting a friend when out of nowhere he was attacked and killed by a dangerous, out-of-control dog – this should never have happened,” Ms Whitfield told The Independent.

“My son was failed at every step; from the breeding of an aggressive dog to the giving away of the dog on Facebook without any checks to the irresponsible ownership before the attack. He didn’t have a chance. All I want is for the government to wake up and carry out a review of the current legislation because it simply isn’t working. The rise in the number of attacks tells you that.”

The ban on XL bullies has been met with strong opposition. Last month, hundreds joined a central London protest over the new legislation
The ban on XL bullies has been met with strong opposition. Last month, hundreds joined a central London protest over the new legislation (PA)

Breeds already banned under the Dangerous Dogs Act are American pitbull terriers, Japanese tosas, dogo Argentinos and fila Brasileiros.

Last month, MPs took part in a fiery debate on the upcoming ban on XL bullies in parliament, with some, including Tory backbenchers, strongly criticising the government’s handling of the legislation.

From Sunday, it will be illegal to sell or rehome the breed before ownership becomes banned without a certificate of exemption on 1 February.

Conservative MP Sir Christopher Chope said the ban was one of the worst pieces of legislation brought forward by the government, describing it as a knee-jerk reaction to newspaper headlines.

A mother tries to protect her baby and pet after a Staffordshire bull terrier escapes from its owner in Sheffield
A mother tries to protect her baby and pet after a Staffordshire bull terrier escapes from its owner in Sheffield (South Yorkshire Police)

Speaking to The Independent, he said: “Thousands of people, along with animal body alliances and experts, are saying that a ban on a breed is simply not the answer but we’re not being listened to and I’m frankly very disappointed,” he said.

“We are picking on a particular breed instead of doing what all informed opinion is asking for, which is to look back at the legislation itself and legislate against those who have allowed their dogs, of whatever breed, to get out of control and attack people. The problem is not XL bully, it’s a lack of responsible ownership.”

Welsh Labour MP Jack Sargeant suffered a frightening attack when two Staffordshire bull terriers went for him and his dog, Coco, while walking in a park in Cardiff in September.

He wants irresponsible owners to be stopped before attacks take place and says checks should be done on matching dogs with owners by breeders.

Jack Sargeant with his dog, Coco. Both were attacked by two Staffordshire bull terriers in a park in Cardiff
Jack Sargeant with his dog, Coco. Both were attacked by two Staffordshire bull terriers in a park in Cardiff (Jack Sargeant)

He said: “It’s clear we need more than a concentration on the breeds, I’d like to see more of an onus to be on responsible dog ownership and for the police to take incidents a lot more seriously. We have a real problem with dog attacks and the XL bully ban alone will not sort this.”

The RSPCA wants a return to a licencing scheme for dogs, abolished in the UK in 1988, so local authorities and police can keep track of dogs, of all breeds, with training for owners.

Ian Price was killed by two American XL bullies outside his mother’s home in Walsall
Ian Price was killed by two American XL bullies outside his mother’s home in Walsall (Staffordshire Police)

Sam Gains, head of companions, animal science and policy, said: “When we look at what causes aggressive behaviour what we see is that it is down to a very complex mix of ownership, husbandry, genetics and the dog’s life experience. If you ban a dog breed, we don’t see the research to suggest it will improve public safety against attacks.”

Asked about the rise of attacks, she said it was difficult to pin down one reason but highlighted the impact of the pandemic when there was a surge in interest from people wanting to own a dog.

“The UK could not meet the demand,” she said. “And so we saw a large number of puppies brought into the UK. The dogs bred and raised outside the UK were often not bred to the same standard in the UK, and we saw them bred in high volume and low welfare conditions from eastern Europe in particular, which can lead to behaviour problems including aggression.”

Under the Dangerous Dogs Act, it is an offence to allow a dog of any breed to be dangerously out of control. Owners can be jailed for up to 14 years if their dog kills someone.

In Sheffield, a dog walker was pulled into a busy road when he was attacked by an aggressive bullmastiff in September
In Sheffield, a dog walker was pulled into a busy road when he was attacked by an aggressive bullmastiff in September (@onlinesheffield/Twitter)

The National Police Chiefs’ Council said it was focused on tackling the rise in dog attacks. The body, which represents police forces, said there were 1,200 dogs in custody for attacks in September, with 21 per cent being XL American bullies.

A Defra spokesperson said it was focusing on ensuring the existing powers to tackle dog attacks were applied across all breeds of dog, with ownership training offered and data collection being improved.

They added: “We have also taken quick and decisive action to protect the public from tragic dog attacks by adding the XL bully type to the list of dogs prohibited under the Dangerous Dogs Act to reduce the risks to the public posed by this type.”

Police officers can take action against a dog owner under the Dangerous Dogs Act or the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act, introduced in 2014. The RSPCA says the thresholds for pre-emptive action is too low, while magistrates and judges rarely serve the maximum penalties.

The Labour Party says it would review the list of dangerous breeds under the Dangerous Dogs Act but stops short of saying the entire legislation needs to be looked at.

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