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The American Bully XL and the problems with banning dog breeds

When the UK bans the American Bully XL this year, it won’t rely on science to identify them.
An American Bully dog with a leash in the woods.
Credit: Artur / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • In mid-September, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced that American Bully XL dogs would be banned under the Dangerous Dogs Act by the end of the year.
  • Enforcing the ban on these large, muscular, and big-headed dogs will be unscientific at best.
  • The main reason is that it’s extremely difficult to accurately identify a dog’s breed based on appearance alone.

In mid-September, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced that American Bully XL dogs would be banned under the Dangerous Dogs Act by the end of the year, calling them “a danger to our communities.” The move came in the wake of the death of a 52-year-old man after he was attacked by two American Bully XLs while walking on the sidewalk.

Once banned, American Bully XLs will be prohibited from being bred or sold in England, Wales, and Scotland. Any of these dogs currently owned will have to be neutered and insured, as well as muzzled and leashed when in public.

The large, muscular, big-headed dogs weighing in excess of 100 pounds were bred by mixing Pit Bull Terriers with other stocky breeds, including various bulldogs and the American Staffordshire Terrier. American Bully XLs will join Pit Bull Terriers, Japanese Tosas, Dogo Argentinos, and Fila Brasileiros on the UK’s ban list.

Unverified reports blame the breed for a significant proportion of the UK’s couple dozen or so deaths from dog bites since 2021. American Bully XLs, which aren’t recognized by The Kennel Club in the UK or the American Kennel Club, have exploded in popularity of late, especially after the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Identifying dog breeds

The American Bully XL’s lack of recognition as a distinct breed underscores what will be a key problem with the ban: identifying the dogs. As with the other breeds currently prohibited in the UK, American Bully XLs will be singled out by dog legislation officers purely based on appearance, which means that a lot of muscular-looking mixed-breed canines will also face onerous restrictions as well, even if they are not “purebred” American Bully XLs.

On her blog, the eminent dog behaviorist Dr. Patricia McConnell, who is “adamantly against” breed bans, shared a story about how a group of dog experts at the Interdisciplinary Forum for Applied Animal Behavior was asked to look at a couple dozen photos of dogs and assess whether the pups were purebred or mixed, and to identify their breeds. Despite their prodigious expertise, the experts didn’t do very well. The architect of the survey, Dr. Victoria Voith, a Professor of Animal Behavior at Western University, shared the dogs’ genetics, and most were highly cross-bred, hailing from all sorts of breeds. The takeaway? It’s exceedingly difficult to recognize a dog’s breed from appearance alone.

Thus, even if a dog looks a lot like an American Bully XL, it’s impossible to be sure that it is one. When the ban rolls out, chances are good that a lot of large, muscular, and big-headed dogs and their owners will be sanctioned. This could very well be the intended purpose of the UK’s ban, of course.

Breed and behavior

Scientists have previously compared the behavior of banned dogs and permitted dogs. In one study, researchers performed behavior evaluations on 61 shelter dogs, 21 of whom had been identified as “pit bulls.” The pit bull types showed no more aggression over food or handling than the non-pit dogs, although the bully-type dogs were more easily aroused.

Another study compared the behavior of banned dogs with the behavior of Golden Retrievers, perhaps the quintessential family dog. No statistically significant difference was found in aggressive behavior.

Last year, a team of scientists examined a large database of dog genetics to study whether breed is linked to behavior. They found only a paltry association. Environment and upbringing seem to play larger roles than breed.

“Every dog should be evaluated as an individual,” McConnell wrote. “I have met stupid, slow Border collies, and incredibly aggressive Golden Retrievers.”

A legitimate point in favor of the ban is that when powerful, large-jawed dogs like American Bully XLs do bite, they can inflict far greater harm.

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“In [American bullies] it’s a crushing or a tearing injury,” Richard Baker, an NHS consultant surgeon, told BBC News. “Once they grip they don’t let go. That kind of injury is more damaging than smaller dogs.”

Still, the overall effectiveness of breed bans is far from certain. Since the Dangerous Dogs Act was passed back in 1991, dog bites in the UK have continued to increase with no sign of slowing.

In public parks in the UK, even in busy London, it’s very common for dogs to be off-leash, while in the U.S., free-ranging dogs in city parks are frowned upon and often expressly prohibited. Moreover, in the UK, dogs are not required to be registered while most U.S. cities mandate licensing. To reduce dog bites, the UK might need to re-examine its cultural relationship with canines rather than unscientifically blaming specific breeds.


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