Perfect pets or dangerous dogs? The sudden, surprising rise of American bully XLs


by Barbara Csernai



Of the 10 fatal dog attacks in the UK last year, more than half involved a bully XL. But plenty of British owners love the breed. Should it be better regulated – or outright banned?

On 23 May last year, 65-year-old Keven Jones went to his son’s house in Wrexham, north Wales, to help take care of his dogs while he was away at a football match.

His daughter-in-law, who was upstairs getting ready to go out, suddenly heard Jones shout: “He’s got me!” She rushed downstairs to find him lying in a pool of blood. One of the dogs, Cookie, a two-year-old American bully XL, had bitten him on the leg. Jones later died from blood loss, while Cookie was put down by a vet.

This incident was not a one-off. Dog attacks have risen by more than a third in the past five years – there were about 22,000 cases of injury by an out of control dog in 2022, up from just over 16,000 in 2018. In 2021, there were four fatal dog attacks, two of which involved a bully XL. In 2022, there were 10 fatal attacks and six of them involved a bully XL. These huge animals, which can weigh more than 60kg (almost nine and half stone) were also involved in at least two of the five deaths recorded this year.

In January, 28-year-old dog walker Natasha Johnston was attacked and killed while walking eight dogs in Gravelly Hill, Caterham. An investigation later revealed it was her own dog, an American bully XL, that caused the fatal injuries.

In May, Jonathan Hogg, 37, was killed after suffering bite wounds to his arm, leg and head while he was looking after his friend’s bully XL in Greater Manchester.

Given that there are an estimated 13m pet dogs in Britain, and only a few thousand American bully XLs, there have been calls to ban what looks like an uncontrollable breed. But are they naturally dangerous?

Many owners can’t imagine their pets becoming killers. Daren bought his two American bully XL dogs, siblings Elvis and Priscilla, when they were eight weeks old, after studying the breed for two years. Now two and half years old, they weigh about 68kg each, or roughly twice as much as a labrador.

“They’re just beautiful dogs,” Daren says. “They are a big, strong, muscular dog … so powerful. It has got to the point now where they’re trying to ban the breed and everyone’s thinking: ‘Oh no, you’ve got an XL bully – that dog is an absolute lunatic.’ But I would be more frightened of my dogs licking you to death.”

He does, however, admit that the strength and size of the bully XL mean owners have to be particularly good at training them. “You get snappy jack russells or you get snappy chihuahuas, but if one of them bites or nips you, you are not actually going to be in trouble. If one of these gets hold of you, you’re going to be in trouble.”

After the attack that killed Jones, his daughter-in-law posted on Facebook: “Cookie did not attack Keven, he’s a big boy and plays too rough.”

Daren, who runs his own scaffolding business in Surrey, gets a family friend to look in on his dogs while he is at work, but won’t let them take both dogs out at the same time. “I’m the only person who can walk both dogs together because of their power. They’re 68 kilos of solid muscle and if they suddenly wanted to take off, no man on this earth could hold them,” he says. “That’s why training and voice command is so important.”

He says the dogs live comfortably alongside him at home, although he feeds them in their kennels outside. “They’re great pets but they do need a lot of exercise – you need to tire them out.”

Sarah, an accountant from Lancashire, owns two pocket-size American bully dogs, a smaller version of the bully XL, weighing in at about 40kg, which is similar to a large German shepherd.

Like Daren, she asked to be referred to by her first name only. “It’s sad that it has to be that way. I wish I could just say: ‘This is me and these are my dogs,’ but I don’t want to open myself up to the negativity,” she says. “I have small children at home and my dogs are brilliant with them. I don’t understand why it’s this breed that’s getting all the bad press.”

She puts her dogs, Arlo and Honey, into cages (known as crates) when she is at work and they are at home alone. This is common with dogs, even small breeds, and is said to encourage a sense of security, as well as preventing “accidents” or damage to furnishings. “It’s like a safe space for them – they have nice fluffy rugs and sometimes take themselves off there when they want to,” she says.

Sarah takes them to dog shows organised by the UK Bully Kennel Club (not part of the 150-year-old Royal Kennel Club, which does not recognise the American bully breed). “I’ve seen so many XL bullys at the shows and I’ve never seen any welfare issues or any dogs turning nasty,” Sarah says. “And, bear in mind, at shows they have to stand and have their mouth looked in, they have to be touched by a stranger,” she says.

In recent years, the club has struggled to find venues to host events, with councils intervening or businesses pulling out due to the breed’s worsening reputation. There are a growing number of people who think the American bully, originally bred from the American pitbull terrier, which was banned in the UK in 1991, is inherently or genetically dangerous. The Metropolitan police seized 44 American bullies in 2023 up to May, almost three times as many as the next most common breed, Staffordshire bull terrier crossbreeds.

Conservative MP Sir John Hayes has been particularly vocal on the issue, saying in the House of Commons in June: “We need an urgent statement from the government, not to debate this matter but simply to confirm that this bad breed, bred to kill, should be banned.”

Organisations such as the RSPCA and the UK Bully Kennel Club, however, are campaigning against breed-specific legislation and believe animals should be judged on their “deed not breed”. “Dog aggression is highly complex, and taking a breed-focused approach is fundamentally flawed,” the RSPCA has stated. “We believe focusing on the type of dog, rather than their individual actions, is a flawed and failing approach. We’re very concerned to see more discussions around adding another type of dog to the banned list.”

Earlier this year, a group of dog owners set up Bully Watch, which is working to track which breeds are responsible for the majority of dog attacks in the UK by collating social media posts and news articles. They believe from their research that the American bully XL and bully mix breeds have been responsible for 45% of dog attacks, on humans and other dogs, this year.

“It’s going to be skewed because if you get bitten by a sausage dog or a chihuahua, you’re probably not going to post about it,” says a spokesperson for the group, asking not to give their name due to concerns about backlash from bully breeders. “But our sample size is 450 and growing, and it’s pretty consistent that American bully dogs are the No 1 culprit.”

Daren and others believe some owners are training their dogs to be more aggressive to use them as status symbols or guard dogs.

“You see people post photos on Instagram, and they have got the dogs on their hind legs up in the air with great big thick choker chains and collars and harnesses on them, giving it the big macho look,” he says.

“Unfortunately, some of the people that own these dogs are owning them as a statement,” agrees London-based animal photographer Chris Knight, who has photographed bully XL dogs many times. “They want something that looks big and scary, because they’re using it to intimidate people and to make themselves look tough. They’re giving the breed a bad name for everyone else.”

He has never had a problem with the breed, apart from one photoshoot he did with a bully XL who was running around excitedly and asking for belly rubs. “When he came skidding over to me he almost knocked me over because he is like a cannonball of muscle. If you had seen him down a dark alleyway, you would have probably been scared for your life.”

One of the reasons Daren was first attracted to the bully XL was the money to be made from breeding them – with some dogs fetching up to £10,000 – but he says the market has become diluted and pedigrees have not been maintained.

He decided not to breed his own dogs because he was sceptical of the pedigree of many of the dogs that were suggested as matches.

“People just started throwing these dogs together thinking they were gonna get an easy buck,” he says. “They ended up not being able to get rid of them really, and pups that could have sold between £5,000-10,000, were then selling for under £500. So people kind of ruined the breed a little bit.”

The Bully Watch group, meanwhile, think inbreeding could be one of the reasons behind the violent characteristics, and says most bully XLs in the UK can be traced back to the first few that were imported in about 2014/15, some of which descend from dogs proven to be dangerous.

Earlier this year, a BBC Panorama investigation exposed the links between organised crime and extreme dog breeding, where dogs are deliberately bred to create exaggerated characteristics such as distinctive facial features or large muscles, with American bully dogs being one of the main victims.

“You have people who should never in a million years have bought a 65kg dog because they live in a small apartment or a bad environment,” says a spokesperson for Bully Watch. “But there are also incidents where experienced dog handlers have been hurt when the dog has just turned. So we think there’s something else there and we think it might be genetic.”

Phil Marsden, from Wakefield in West Yorkshire, is a competition judge, specialising in a number of breeds including American bullys, and has just bought his own bully XL puppy. “He’s a naughty puppy, like they all are, but I don’t see any violence,” he says. “With XLs, like with any breed, you get dogs who are nervous and you get dogs who are confident. But I interact with these dogs all the time at shows and they never threaten me.”

Marsden has handled dogs since the age of seven, and following a long career as a stockman in agriculture, has spent most of his life around working dogs, training collies, lurchers and greyhounds. “I think there is a growing problem now with owners not taking responsibility for their dog’s actions,” he says.

“Not everyone understands how to train them properly.”

He says there have been similar concerns about potentially dangerous breeds over the years, such as rottweilers and dobermans, and that banning a breed may only shift attention on to a new one. “You take these off people and the likelihood is they’ll just move on to something else.”

What’s the alternative? “We need to look at getting more licensed breeding, so there is more oversight into where these puppies are coming from … People are bringing dogs in from other countries where regulations aren’t the same as they are in the UK.”

The government’s long-anticipated new animal welfare (kept animals) bill, which would have restricted the amount of dogs imported, was dropped in May, with the RSPCA saying it was “frustrated and disappointed” at the news.

They have previously campaigned for stricter licensing for dog breeders, to ensure puppies are brought up in healthy environments and so buyers have a clear idea of their dog’s parentage. New licensing was introduced in 2018.

Daren says he takes his dogs to a caravan park every summer, where they have become well-known to the families who holiday there. “All my dogs want to do is play. My dogs have been around kids, my nieces and nephews, and they’ve never batted an eyelid, not a growl or a snarl.”

He knows that the same can’t be said for all bully XLs. “If you train these dogs to be anything but obedient pets, you’ve got a massive problem, because they are far too strong and too powerful.”

Credit: The Guardian