Why Are So Many Children Dying to Dogs in the UK?
And what we can and must do about it
‘I still have terrible flashbacks. I still see the animal and its teeth. I hear the barking. You relive it multiple times a day – it’s torture.' - Mother of 10 year old Jack Lis who was killed by an American Bully XL
It is common to start these kind of pieces with a malcolm (a kind of emotive, engaging story to appeal to the audience). I have tried writing such an introduction but the stories are so horrifying I cannot begin to describe them. Whether it’s a 10 year old boy mauled to death, having injuries so horrific that his mother cannot shake the image from her mind at every moment she closes her eyes; to a 17 month old girl that ‘lost her life in the most unimaginably terrible circumstances’, the stories are beyond comprehension. The pain of the parents, the horrifying last moments of those children's lives, it is all beyond description.
In the past two years, the number of fatal dog attacks in the UK has increased dramatically. Between 2001 and 2021 there were an average of 3.3 fatalities per year - with no year reaching above 6. In 2022, 10 people were killed, including 4 children. Optimistic assumptions that 2022 was an outlier will likely not last: there have already been
4 fatalities 5 fatalities to date (one more occurred in the time it took to write this article).
This is “just” fatalities. Dog attacks on humans are also on the rise, increasing from 16 000 in 2018, to 22 000 in 2022, and hospitalisations have almost doubled from 4699 in 2007 to 8819 in 2021/22. These hospitalisations make for difficult reading. 70% of injuries on children are to the head; nearly 1/3rd require an overnight stay. In Liverpool there are 4-7 dog bites a week, with most injuries to the face. One doctor recounts dealing with a “near-decapitation”. The MET is currently dealing with one dangerous dog incident per day. We do not have reliable data on dogs attacking other dogs, but I would wager those have increased as well.
Despite an increase in both the human and dog populations of the UK over the past four decades, fatalities have remained consistently low until two years ago.
What’s going on?
‘Innocent people are dying. The Government needs to act now. It’s out of control and there are people losing their kids because of this. I want to stop this happening’ - Mother of Jack Lis
Looking through the list of fatal dog attacks in the UK, a notable pattern emerges. In 2021, 2 of the 4 UK fatalities were from a breed known as the American Bully XL. In 2022, 6 out of 10 were American Bullies. In 2023, so far all fatalities appear to have been American Bullies. In other words, without American Bullies, the dog fatalities list would reduce to 4 for 2022 (within the usual consistent range we’ve seen for the past 4 decades), and perhaps none at all for 2023 thus far.
American Bullies are a breed resulting from modern mixes of the American Pitbull Terrier. They are known for very high muscle mass, biting power, and impressive strength, and come in several variations. Those that are bred for the greatest strength, weight and size are known as a part of the American Bully XL variety. Whilst Pitbull and some Pitbull-types are banned in the UK under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 (more on this later), the American Bully XL is currently permitted.
Given this, what we are seeing in the UK might not be such a surprising pattern. In the US for example, 60-70% of dog fatalities are caused by Pitbull and Pitbull crosses - the very, very close relatives of the American Bullies.
It is not just fatalities however. The very recent relatives of the American Bully are also responsible for the vast majority of dog-on-dog aggression (including bites, fatalities etc). In the Netherlands the majority of dogs seized by police for dog attacks on other dogs were Pitbull types. The same is true nearly wherever you look. In New York Pitbulls were responsible for the highest number of bites in 2022.
From this and a cursory look at the recent spike in dog fatalities we can draw a pretty clear conclusion: dog fatalities in the UK disproportionately result from one breed: American Bullies (particularly of the XL variety).
This is a highly controversial statement to make. Despite the figures, and the recent media attention, if you argue these dogs are dangerous, you will get a flood of comments from people (and even organisations like the UK Kennel Club) saying it's the owner's fault, not the dog's. You might even be thinking this yourself, right now. But this is wrong. Whilst many Brits would contend that “
Guns American Bully XL’s don’t kill people, people do”, the reality is different.
Designing Man’s Best Friend
Dogs - unlike humans - have been bred for various, very specific traits. Their traits, appearance and behaviour has been directed in a way comparable to how we’ve moulded plant and other animal life over thousands of years. Watermelons and bananas used to be mostly seed; now they’re mostly not. Chickens were not always walking meat-packets, now they are. These weren’t natural events but the result of humans directing evolution through deliberate cultivation and breeding.
Modern-day dogs are very clearly also a result of this directed breeding - just look at how a whole industry of dog shows have sprung up around Kennel Club pedigree lines. No one would deny that we have moulded them for particular traits - both physically and mentally.
Broadly, we selected dogs for traits very much unlike wolves. Unlike their wolf ancestors, dogs are - broadly - naturally loyal to humans, even above their own lives and those of other dogs. Indeed, a trait like this in dogs might actually cause some of the original aesthetic changes to them. When Russian scientists bred foxes over generations for ‘tameness’ to humans they found the foxes began to express different colours in their fur, have floppy ears and to look, well, more dog-like (though there is some debate on this).
Dogs have deep underlying intuitions, desires and drives that we have selected for over generations. All dog owners are aware of this fact - even if they don’t admit it, and even if they would never usually express it in these terms (though they will happily, and excitedly, read out the traits of their favourite breed from any website that describes them, and select their dog breeds reading carefully the “temperament” descriptions on those same sites).
A key responsibility of dog ownership is knowing the breed, understanding that breed’s likely traits, and preparing for those. Not all individual dogs will show these breed-specific traits, but a great deal will. Some hound-breeds (Whippets, Greyhounds etc.) have a prey drive and chase, or even try to kill, small vermin. Some can be trained out of it; many can’t. Like many of the hound breeds they are ancient, bred over centuries (or even millennia) to seek comfort in humans and to hunt only very specific animals - be that small vermin for whippets and greyhounds or deer and wolves for the, well, deer and wolf hounds. Hounds are brilliant family pets bred to be highly affectionate to humans, as after all, you don't want your hunting dog attacking you or your family. That would rather ruin the point.
Labradors retrieve. Pointers point. Cocker Spaniels will run through bushes, nose to the ground, looking as if they are tracking or hunting even when just playing - even when they have never been on a hunt of any kind.
This is not controversial. Breeds have traits. We’ve bred them to have them.
Pitbulls were bred to be set on a bull and indiscriminately injure and maim until the bull - or the dog - died. After bull-baiting had been banned, Pitbulls were instead locked in a pen with large numbers of rats to kill. This required more speed, so they were interbred with terriers to make Pitbull Terriers. In addition to this, they began to be used for dog fighting: bred specifically to have aggression towards other dogs, and to be locked in a pit to fight (some are still used for this today). These were dogs likely kept in cages, away from humans, and bred for their capacity to earn money for their owners by winning fights. These were not dogs bred for loyalty to humans, these were dogs bred for indiscriminate, sustained and brutal violence contained within a pit.
As mentioned, Pitbulls have been banned in the UK for over three decades. However, Pitbull crosses have been used as a loophole for some time. Recently, that loophole has resulted in the rise of the American Bully XL.
This large, heavyset and strong breed, originating from the American Pitbull Terrier, has risen rapidly to become the leading breed in dog attacks. It is singly responsible for the dramatic difference in 2022 - to recap, being guilty of 6 of the 10 fatal attacks, and all
45 of them thus far this year.
The Nanny Dog
The refusal to believe a breed of dog being more capable of violence than others is incredibly widespread. In the wake of a recent video showing two American Bully types being shot by police in London, hundreds protested and over one million people - yes one million - signed a petition for the police to be prosecuted for killing the animals. The dogs had attacked other dogs, and a woman had gotten tangled up in the fray - finding herself thrown to the ground. This is a smaller situation, but then, the owner, refusing to comply with the police’s orders to relinquish the dogs to their custody instead deliberately unleashed his dogs to rush at the police. The owner had been previously banned from owning dogs, and these two dogs have already previously attacked at least one person and another dog. Again, over one million people signed this petition calling for the police to be prosecuted.
Not only this but the woman who had her dogs attacked by the pair said she was ‘mortified’ that they had been shot and had been ‘crying ever since’. There are plans for a nation-wide vigil for the dogs.
The UK Bully Kennel Club (not to be confused with the similar-sounding historic and prestigious UK Kennel Club) describes the American Bully XL as having a “gentle personality and loving nature”. Whilst the United Kennel Club does not recognise the American Bully XL variant breed, it describes the wider breed (not the XL variant) as “gentle and friendly”, but goes a step further, recommending that the breed “makes an excellent family dog”. Again, the XL variant of this breed is responsible for the most fatalities of any dog breed in the UK for the past two years, and for killing several children. Similar apologetics are popular for Pitbulls as well - with at least one site claiming that Pitbulls are the second best breed for temperament and recommending them for families with children.
Worse still is the nickname of “nanny dog”. There is a myth amongst advocates for the breed that Pitbulls were once known as “nanny dogs” for their loyalty to children in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, this isn’t true. The name originates from Staffordshire Bull Terriers (not Pitbulls) which were named “nursemaid dogs” in a 1971 New York Times piece. There is no evidence of “nanny dog” or similar descriptions before this. Stories of 19th or early 20th century origins for the nickname are likely the result of advocates wanting to believe in a more family-oriented origin for the breed, rather than the cruel reality.
American Bully XL’s are the heavyweight result of breeds born out of brutal human practices that sculpted generations of dogs to respond with terrifying violence. This is a terrible, awful shame. It is not the dogs fault, anymore than it is the fault of a sighthound to chase squirrels, or for pointers to point. They bear no responsibility. But it does not change the reality. The foundational breed for American Bully XL’s were bred for violence and we should not be surprised to find that this new, muscular, massive version still exhibits these behaviours, and to the horrifying cost of children’s lives.
(Some) Owners Bear Blame Too
Having said this, I do think it possible, however, for owners to bear some responsibility. American Bully XLs are not cheap. At the lower end of their costs (several hundred pounds for a puppy), they are essentially similar to other dogs, but at the higher end they are some of the most expensive dogs you can buy. Golden Retrievers, the archetypical family dog, are so desired that it is common for breeders to have long waitlists for litters that have not yet even been conceived. A representative cost for a Golden Retriever is around £2 000. American Bullies may start at a few hundred to nearly £3 000 per puppy. The higher end costs are often accompanied by graphics that put early 00s rappers to shame, akin to fight promotional material, can involve violent metaphors and include text written in Horror-Movie Blood Fonts.
Given this kind of marketing, what do prospective owners think they are purchasing here? Indeed, it bears asking what kind of owners are prepared to pay vast sums for a dog presented in this way? The dog is clearly a status symbol for many - a large aggressive, powerful animal to be used either for intimidation or self defence. It is for this reason that many owners have their dog’s ears cropped to look yet more aggressive - a practice illegal under UK law, but still nonetheless practised. And of course, some owners are simply unexplainably bad.
More so than this, potentially good owners are left at a severe disadvantage by the statements of advocates for Pitbulls and American Bullies. If an owner is aware of the breed's past and the risks in their behaviours, they are far more likely to be able to anticipate issues and control the dog. For example, hound owners are generally aware that they will often have to emphasise recall in their dogs to try to prevent them running off after squirrels - it is a well-advertised trait. This is started very early, far before the dog may even be interested in chasing. However, owners of American Bullies that are not aware of the breed’s past, that instead rely on the supportive descriptions they read, are potentially worse off. They are actively told, from sources all over, that American Bullies are naturally good with kids and family, that they are naturally non-violent, and that this isn’t a risk. Positive descriptions of American Bullies (and their XL variety), de-emphasising their violent tendencies, run the very real risk of obfuscating future owners of the traits in the breed and thereby stopping those owners from correctly understanding and controlling their dog.
This encourages ignorance from owners that are ill-equipped, such as the owner that saw her dog “Cookie-Doe” kill her father-in-law by ripping apart his leg. Her response? It wasn’t an aggressive dog, it just liked to ‘play too rough’.
But for every owner like this, there are other experienced, diligent owners that nevertheless find themselves, or their children, under attack from one of these dogs. Whether it’s an experienced dog walker that warned others to stay away to save themselves whilst she was mauled to death, or the killing of an experienced dog and cat kennel owner described as ‘the most caring man’, or a mother that had the American Bully for a week before it killed her baby by taking it directly from her arms. It is not the owners. It is the breed. Indeed, I find rejections of this galling. Could we imagine that the Kennel Club would stand by its own words and would tell the mother who had her child stolen from her hands and ripped apart by their new American Bully XL that: ‘all dog owners must take responsibility for their dogs, as any dog in the wrong hands has the potential to be dangerous’.1
I do not blame the dog breed for how they were bred, maintained and for what they are still being selected for. They were bred out of cruel origins, and still face ear cropping and some find themselves owned by people that select dogs for their ability to intimidate and attack. Nevertheless, none of this changes that the breed itself is a result of cruelty, that violence is a deep part of their traits and breeding. Nor does it change that they are responsible, singly, for the greatest jump in dog caused fatalities the UK has seen in decades.
What Can We Do?
Ban The Breed
The answer for the UK is legislatively incredibly simple. The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 does not require additional breeds to be added to the banned list via a vote in Parliament. It is essentially within the power of Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to add a breed to the list and it is banned.2 That’s it. This would take very little time and immediately save all the dogs, adults and children yet to be harmed, maimed or killed, by giving police the authority to seize all American Bully XL’s - unless the owner can prove that their dog is not dangerous - under which conditions the dogs must be neutered, and kept on lead and muzzle at all times in public spaces.
That being said, simply banning the breed is not enough. We need to actively enforce the laws we already have, as well as any new additions. The Dangerous Dogs Act has powers to imprison owners for failing to keep their dogs (of any breed) under control - this includes if the dog even just injures another animal. But for any of this to be useful, police need to follow up on attacks on people and dogs, and courts need to provide serious sentences as a result.
The original Act has had a mixed reception, largely due to a lack of enforcement. Indeed, of the relatively low number of fatalities in the UK in previous decades, many were committed by already banned breeds. But, controls seem to have kept that number consistently low whilst dog and human populations of the UK have grown (ie, there has probably been a fall in fatalities per capita). It has taken nearly three decades since the passing of the Act for the UK to host another breed that is so disproportionately dangerous. If we need only deal with such a horrid scenario every thirty years, that seems a success compared to the alternative of yet more deaths. But the key - of course - is enforcement.3
It is nevertheless very easy to find severe rejections of this solution. Indeed, the UK Kennel Club considers the Dangerous Dogs Act to be unacceptable insofar as it bans any breeds, arguing instead that “no breed of dog is inherently dangerous’ and, instead, as already quoted above: ‘any dog in the wrong hands has the potential to be dangerous’. Much of the rhetoric on this reminds me of UK citizens encountering US gun laws. To misquote the NRA: American Bully XL’s don’t kill people, people do.
In 1996 the UK banned handguns after 16 children and a teacher were shot in a school in Dunblane. The vast majority of handgun owners did not commit crimes or mass shootings. However, the risk to life was considered far too high to justify continuing to allow any handgun ownership. Of course, guns don’t commit crimes, people do - but if you ban guns, those people sure can’t shoot up a school.
Despite Brits being thoroughly confused and bemused by US gun law supporters, that same NRA logic is applied by a great deal of Brits to Bully XLs and similar breeds: These dogs don’t kill people, people do. Or in other words, it's the owner’s fault. But despite the ways in which owners are let down by misinformation about the breed, it seems unfortunately necessary to state: unlike guns, dogs have their own mind. Yes they are also trainable, and restrainable, but they have traits, desires and complexity that weapons do not. It is possible for a dog to be the cause of an incident in a way that a gun cannot be.
However, even if the owner is at fault, banning the breed still solves the issue. Much like Brits would say of US gun laws, it doesn’t matter if it’s the gun or the person, if you ban the method (be it gun or breed), you get rid of the means and children don’t die.
A common response here is to argue that Chihuahuas and other, smaller, breeds also have reputations for being aggressive or otherwise violent - and that if we wouldn’t ban them, we shouldn’t ban these dogs either. It should be quite clear though that the difference between a Chihuahua and an American Bully XL is the massive size, muscle-mass and jaw strength. Even if a Chihuahua wanted to kill someone (which I’m sure, having met many, some almost certainly do) it would have difficulty doing more than scratching a hand. American Bullies are dangerous because they have the propensity to violence against dogs and humans and are physically large enough to cause devastating harm and death to us, our pets and our children.
A Worse Alternative, but Perhaps a Rhetorically Easier Path
Another solution, if the UK government decides it is far too difficult to do a very simple thing, would be to lean into the “it’s the owner” response. If we grant that this response has some truth to it, it is clear that the breed requires a thoroughly attentive owner - and that the cost of a bad owner is horrifying. As such, a breed like this (call it a “vulnerable, stigmatised breed”) requires an owner to have a great deal of training. A licence for ownership and breeding Bullies could be brought in. Owners would need to register, to attend a course, to undertake yearly top-ups at their own expense. They would also need to keep the dog on lead and muzzled at all times in public (with severe threats - perhaps destruction of the dog, and imprisonment if they are found to not comply even once). This would, I think, remove a great deal of the rhetorical difficulties, whilst making ownership of these dogs into a difficult, bureaucratic process. Making things unnecessarily difficult is a prized part of British bureaucracy, this should come as second nature.
This is less preferable, more piecemeal, and risks becoming a wider “dog licence” which is wholly unnecessary for the vast, vast majority of breeds. It also, similarly to the banning option, requires actual enforcement.
Finally: Dogs and Brits
Lastly, a word on dogs more broadly. British loyalty to dogs is admirable and right. Ed West makes the excellent point that Brits have lived for generations without any dangerous animals and so we consider nature to be far more kind than it really often is. As such we defend our foxes - which roam free in vast numbers - and we are desperately loyal to our dogs. Unlike West, however, I count myself firmly on team fluffy animal. I love foxes, despise fox hunting (I decided not to vote for May on the basis of her pledge to reconsider the UK Fox Hunting Ban) and I consider dogs to be one of the glorious upsides in life. I am heartened by British love for these creatures.
Dogs are our companions, raised to work and live alongside us. Our bond with them is the closest thing we have to another intelligence apart from our own. A good dog completes a family. They’re loyal, they protect and love children, they are nigh-on constantly happy. I am, like most Brits, a true advocate for dogs. I grew up with many dogs, have a dog of my own and want my children to grow up around Man’s Best Friend.
However we shouldn’t forget, dogs are not like this by accident but, quite literally, by design. We should respect that reality, be aware that violence can be selected for as much as loyalty, love and protection. If we do this, we can ensure to keep that bond between us and pass it onto the next generation, unsullied by violence. They’re our best friends, forged by our side over thousands of years, we walk together, both metaphorically and - of course - once or twice daily.
Initially, there is a claim that much of this is the result of inexperienced new owners getting dogs during the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite the price increases early in lockdown, it isn’t clear that dog ownership in the UK dramatically increased over 2020-2022. But, even if this were the case, there’s no reason to suggest that inexperienced owners disproportionately looked for American Bully XL’s to the exclusion of other breeds, nor does it contend with the reality that many of these owners would have been at home full time with a new dog - a clear positive for training purposes (as well as a chance for that inexperienced owner to read up and learn). And even if all of this were true, it still doesn’t negate that the breed appears to be a uniquely large risk for harm compared to nearly any other breed. On ownership: it’s difficult to find reliable figures but the PDSA PAW Report (written with YouGov) puts estimates at 11 million dogs in the UK in 2023, up from 10 million in 2019. Whereas the Pet Food Manufacturers Association estimated 9 million dogs in the UK in 2019 but, in 2023 their estimate was 12 million. However, their conclusions are complicated through a change in methodology in 2022 - so much so, that they have made it incidentally incredibly difficult to find their previous estimates (please change this PFMA!).
Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, s1(1)(c): ‘Any dog of any type designated for the purposes of this section by an order of the Secretary of State, being a type appearing to him to be bred for fighting or to have the characteristics of a type bred for that purpose.’ or s2(1) ‘If it appears to the Secretary of State that dogs of any type to which section 1 above does not apply present a serious danger to the public he may by order impose in relation to dogs of that type restrictions corresponding, with such modifications, if any, as he thinks appropriate’
This is perhaps easier to do than when the Act first came into force. All dogs in the UK should now be microchipped. However, it is likely that there are many breeders completely ignoring this. The creation of some kind of online system, or specific number to report incidents would also be helpful, alongside a national advertising campaign making clear about the dangers and who to contact in the event that an owner is not in control of their dog.