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Dog behaviourist The problem of dog attacks won't be solved with just a ban on certain breeds

Suzi Walsh says banning certain breeds like they’ve done in the UK may not be the way to go.

AT THE END of last year, a ban on XL bully dogs was introduced in England and Wales to address the increased incidence of fatal dog attacks but will it work and should Ireland follow suit?

An XL bully is a type of bully breed, a term used to identify a variety of terrier-type dogs. The types and styles of bully dogs vary geographically depending on individual preferences such as English Bull Terriers, Bullmastiffs, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, Boston Terriers, Boxers, French Bulldogs and breed types such as the American Pitbull terrier. 

The term “Pit Bull ” is a universal term often misused to suggest that the pit bull is a breed of dog, when they are actually a mix of two or more breeds of dog. This is also the case for the XL or American Bully.

An American bully XL, known as an XL bully, is the largest of the American bully types. They are not a registered breed with the Kennel Club in Ireland or the UK but are a breed type that has been bred from several different dog breeds. They are a very large dog weighing upwards of 57 kg and have a muscular appearance. They are often overly bred to create an abnormal shape and structure which can be detrimental to the dogs health. 

  • The Noteworthy team recently reported a rise in dog bite reports across Ireland, with victims of dog attacks saying lax law enforcement leaves them without hope. Read their investigation here >>

What is happening in Britain?

From 31 December 2023, it became illegal to breed, sell, advertise, exchange, gift, rehome, abandon or allow XL bully-type dogs to stray in England and Wales. The ban does not yet apply in Scotland or Northern Ireland.

The XL Bully is the fifth dog added to the banned list which includes the American Pit Bull Terrier, Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argentino and Fila Brasileiro. 

Families with an XL bully type dog in Britain must now keep their dog on a lead and muzzled when they walk in public. All XL Bully types are required to be microchipped, neutered (by June 2024) and have third party liability insurance. From the 1 February this year, it will be a criminal offence to own an unregistered XL bully type dog. Registration costs over €100 and dogs without a certificate of exemption are at risk of euthanasia. 

The decision to ban XL Bully dogs was made following a concerning rise in dog attacks, with 11 people sadly losing their lives in the last three years with an XL Bully type named as the dog. 

There is currently no exact description for an XL bully because XL bullies are crossbreeds: Kennel Club breed standards do not exist. Instead, the UK government created its own specification for the breed, including the size of their head and muzzle, their build and the height and length of their body. Breed name, DNA and parentage are not considered. The main criterion the government is focusing on is a minimum height requirement. For adult males, this is 20 inches and above, and for females, this is 19 inches and above. If a dog does not meet this height requirement, they will not be typed as an XL bully. If they do, they are assessed against the rest of the specifications.

Currently, a judicial review hearing has been scheduled for January with campaigners seeking to overturn the ban. There are approximately 250 XL Bullys in shelters throughout England and Wales who would be euthanised under the legislation.

Didn’t they try that before?

Pit Bulls were banned in the UK in 1991 and since then researchers at Liverpool University have shown that UK hospital admissions for dog bites have risen consistently over the past 20 years. The increase appears to be restricted to adults, where the numbers have tripled over that time.

Despite Pit Bulls being banned in the UK they are still identified in many bite instances confirming that they’re difficult to identify or that banning the breed was unsuccessful. Either way, the statistics indicate that banning a breed does not appear to decrease the number of dog attacks. So instead of banning a breed why not implement a plan of responsible dog breeding, ownership and welfare? 

Are there any banned dog breeds in Ireland?

There are no banned dog breeds in Ireland, however there is a restricted breed list. This is a list of 11 dog breeds with certain rules and regulations that must be followed by law. These are the American Pit Bull Terrier, English Bull Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Bull Mastiff, Dobermann Pinscher, German Shepherd (Alsatian), Rhodesian Ridgeback, Rottweiler, Japanese Akita, Japanese Tosa, Bandog or any combination or crosses of these breeds. In addition to the normal dog legislation, these dogs must be kept on a short lead (under two metres), muzzled in public places and they must only be exercised by someone over the age of 16. 

Is banning a breed the answer?

Bans or restrictions on dog breeds seem good on the surface; if those dogs don’t exist, they can’t attack or bite, but the reality is not that simple and it’s not an effective solution. The new legislation in the UK fails to get to the root of the dog bite problem which ultimately is irresponsible care and mismanagement of a dog. Research clearly shows that breed-specific legislation does not reduce the number of bites. 

A study by the Department of Environmental and Life Sciences at Karlstad University in Sweden showed that breed specific legislation had no effect on the total number of dog bites, supporting previous studies that have also shown no evidence for breed-specific legislation in other countries.

The issue of dangerous dogs, dog bites and public safety is a complex one. Any dog can bite. It is the dog’s individual history, behaviour, general size, number of dogs involved, and the vulnerability of the person bitten that determines the likelihood of a dog causing serious injury.  

Breed-specific bans are a simplistic answer to a far more intricate social problem, and they have the potential to deflect attention and resources from more effective approaches.

Breed-specific laws are extremely difficult to enforce, especially when a dog’s breed cannot easily be determined or if the dog is of mixed breed. A breed identification study by the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine had over 5,000 breeders, trainers, groomers, veterinarians and shelter staff review 119 photos of individual dogs to see if they were capable of identifying breeds.

The participants were only able to correctly identify a prominent breed an average of 27% of the time. These results indicate that, regardless of profession, visual identification of the breeds of dogs with unknown heritage is poor and an alternative method for identifying a dog’s breed should be utilised. 

It can be argued that banning specific breeds negatively impacts on the public’s perception of how safe dogs are in general: these dogs are dangerous, others are safe, which is not the case. Many people assume that larger breeds are more likely to cause harm than smaller dogs simply due to their size but that really only depends on the age and vulnerability of the victim. 

What should we do?

The best ways to reduce dog bite-related incidents in a community are multifactorial approaches focusing on improved ownership and husbandry practices, better understanding of canine behaviour, education of parents and children regarding safety around dogs and consistent enforcement of dangerous dogs/reckless owners in communities.

Effective laws should hold people responsible for the humane care, custody, and control of their dogs regardless of breed or type. 

Apart from the misidentification of many breed types, there is always another breed to come to the forefront. If you ban XL Bullys, people buy Cane Corsos. Ban the Cane Corso and people will buy Rottweilers and so on. There is always another breed or type to replace the last. Bans and restrictions are complicated, they are difficult and costly to implement and are a very unsuccessful way of reducing bite statistics.

Banning a breed also has a serious emotional impact on the veterinary profession. Nearly all Veterinary professionals choose their career in order to save the lives of animals and while this is not always possible, euthanasia is usually the last resort. It is unethical for a government to put laws in place where Veterinarians are asked to put healthy animals to sleep based on their appearance. This is especially true when that animal is a beloved family pet with no history of aggressive behaviour. 

Why do dogs bite people?

Aggression is a context-dependent behaviour and is associated with many different motivations. Most dogs that show aggression do so to eliminate a perceived threat to their safety or to protect a resource.

Nearly all dog aggression is fear-based and it is rarely unpredictable. 

The leading causes of fear are inadequate socialisation and undiagnosed pain. When there is increased demand for a particular breed there is usually an increase in behavioural issues and health concerns for the breed as unscrupulous breeders race to meet the demand. 

1. Inadequate socialisation: Bites mainly happen when dogs are poorly socialised. Puppies need to be raised in a home environment, to experience regular and gentle handling from approximately three weeks of age and they need to be exposed to the stimuli they will experience in a pet home. They need people to be affectionate with them and they need to be social, content and outgoing by the time they reach 12 – 14 weeks of age to be adaptable enough to live in a human world. 

The main problem that we have in Ireland is that how we breed dogs prevents adequate socialisation and, worryingly, breed specific legislation exacerbates the problem. Dr Frank McMillan is a US veterinarian and scientist who specialises in animal welfare and trauma in dogs. He studied the long term effects of commercially raising pups and the most consistent finding among studies is an increase in aggressive behaviour. 

2. Health problems: Undiagnosed pain and discomfort are a leading factor in over 80% of dog aggression cases.

Anyone can breed a dog but not everyone should. There is no requirement in Ireland to conduct health checks prior to the breeding of dogs despite clear evidence of genetic conditions pervasive in some breeds. Genetic traits have become so problematic that some countries have made it illegal to breed certain dogs due to welfare concerns. In 2022 Norway banned the breeding of English bulldogs and Cavalier King Charles spaniels on the grounds that it inflicts harm, in violation of Norwegian animal protection laws. French Bulldogs and Pugs have so many physical problems that many of them need surgery just to breathe. 

Uncontrolled breeding and the absence of health screening create a much higher incidence of genetic conditions and unhealthy puppies. Dogs with chronic untreated pain are far more likely to react in an aggressive manner when handled or when they are stressed. 

3. Care and Training: Mistreatment, abuse and training can create an aggressive dog.

Mistreatment and abuse can create triggers that may lead to aggressive behaviour in dogs. Similarly training, both deliberate or through incompetence, can create an aggressive dog.

Misinformation provided to dog owners from unqualified pet professionals or members of the public advising the need to physically correct a dog for “bad” behaviour and other forms of neglect can often lead to a dog biting. 

So is there a solution?

Yes, but the solution needs to start at the beginning.

  • Breeders should be educated on the importance of genetic screening, health checks and socialisation with a competence based exam as a condition of a licence to breed dogs.

  • For-profit dog breeders should be held accountable for breeding dogs with genetic conditions that can be screened in the parents, and for inadequate socialisation. 

  • Education and competence based testing for dog owners should be introduced as a requirement to obtain a dog licence. 

  • The current requirement to microchip a puppy prior to sale should be changed to require the microchip to be transferred to a holder of a dog licence. 

  • People working with dogs and offering professional advice to the public should be adequately trained and qualified in scientifically sound practices.

No legislation is straightforward and there will always be those who break the law but for the general public, this would allow them the opportunity to purchase a dog and professional advice from genuine and ethical breeders, trainers and behaviourists and start to address the current crisis in Ireland. 

Remember, all dogs can bite so it’s advisable to be aware of dog body language and to seek assistance from a qualified dog behaviourist if you are concerned about your dog. 

Suzi Walsh is an expert dog behaviourist and dog trainer. She has an honours degree in Zoology and a Masters in Applied Animal Welfare and Behaviour from the Royal Dick School of Veterinary. She has worked as a behaviourist on both TV, radio and has also worked training dogs in the film industry. 

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