We’ve probably all heard the saying “there’s no such thing as bad dogs, only bad owners”, is that really true though? What if there are actually bad dogs?
You can’t escape the news in the UK surrounding XL Bullies and the proposed ban of them, they’re rumoured be the latest addition to the list of Dangerous Dogs following the well documented attacks in recent weeks. There has been debate for many years about Breed Specific Legislation and whether it’s right to ban whole breeds of dog.
Without doubt, something needs to be done because the current situation is scary for everyone.
But banning a whole breed is surely like sticking a plaster over a broken leg, it won’t do anything to fix the damage below the surface.
Without dealing with the cause of the problem, this situation will repeat over and over.
In 2023 it’s the XL bully, but what’s to say in 2030 it’s not another breed of dog hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
It also goes without saying, every breed of dog is capable of displaying aggression and causing harm, it’s not only the ‘scary’ looking dogs who are a potential danger, but what makes breeds like the XL Bully so dangerous is their size, strength and power. With any large dog, not having control over their behaviour is considerably more dangerous than in a small dog. There’s no room for error when you own such a powerful dog.
The XL Bully
The XL Bully can be a mix of a variety of breeds, including Pitbulls, American Bulldog, English Bulldog, Presa Canario, and Cane Corso. In the UK it’s not a defined breed which makes it harder to distinguish which dogs fall into the XL Bully category.
Bull Breeds were originally bred for bull and bear baiting, and then for dog-fighting. They have a genetic predisposition to enjoy jumping, biting, holding and tugging, which is what made them good for their original ‘job’. These same behaviours still exist in the breeds today, and are behaviours which they find intrinsically reinforcing. Without appropriate outlets or control, these behaviours can pose a risk, but in the right homes and with good genetics, they shouldn’t be problematic traits.
Bull breeds aren’t usually predisposed to be aggressive towards people but poor breeding can lead to increased nervousness around people or a lack of arousal control which is where their tendency to enjoy rough play could get out of hand.
These dogs often get a thrill from provoking reactions, from other dogs or people, especially during adolescence. If this isn’t handled carefully, it can quickly turn from play to aggression.
Having an understanding of these traits and how to give suitable outlets or train more control is essential, especially if you own a dog with stronger tendencies to display these behaviours.
The 'backyard' breeders and 'breeding kennels' of XL Bullies are usually most interested in size and colour, and breeding for looks is often at the cost of health and temperament. Many of these dogs will be suffering from health issues, including joint problems which will be painful, and anyone who has experienced chronic pain will know the impact it can have on your mood and tolerance of situations.
A dog in pain is more likely to react negatively to situations, they may feel more anxious and fearful, and their ability to cope with stress will be considerably lower. All of this results in a dog who may appear to react aggressively with minimal warning or be triggered into a reaction very quickly.
Add into this the lack of care for temperament when breeding and you may well have a dog who is genetically predisposed to not cope well under stress, prone to fear-related issues, have a low threshold for aggression, and be physically incredibly powerful. This combination, in the wrong hands, is a dangerous dog.
There are high levels of inbreeding in XL Bullies, this means genetic behavioural traits are being bred repeatedly into the breed. Unfortunately, breeders may be unaware of this, or even seek out ‘status’ dogs to breed into their lines, knowingly breeding from dogs with genetic behavioural issues.
There are many examples in the UK of XL Bullies who are the most docile family pets and countless owners who take care to manage their dogs carefully and reinforce appropriate behaviours. When you own such a powerful dog, it’s important to consider the impacts on those who encounter your dog, a 60kg dog running and playing in a busy park can pose a risk simply from a clumsy moment and knocking into a person or another dog. These dogs may not intend to cause harm but we can’t escape the fact they are big dogs with that comes a responsibility to maintain control and keep everyone safe.
It seems unfair for a whole breed to be tarred with the same brush when many individuals will never be a danger to anyone. This unfortunately is where we have to consider why this breed seems to be displaying a higher propensity of aggression and has been involved in numerous attacks on people and other dogs in recent years. How much can we blame the genetics of the breed and how much do we blame the breeders and owner … most likely all these aspects are contributing to the issue in varying degrees in each dog.
What makes a dog who they are?
Dogs are a product of many factors; they aren’t born as blank slates and they aren’t solely shaped by training or experiences that happen to them when they arrive with their new owner. It’s wrong to assume people have made their dogs bad because of a lack of training or socialisation, there’s far more to it than that.
Breeders will select dogs to breed based on various factors, if they breed with looks in mind then the focus is on producing certain colours, body shapes, muscles etc.
When looks are at the forefront, other factors aren’t considered a priority which means dogs with concerning behavioural traits may be bred from, in turn producing puppies with similar traits
Traits such as nervousness, anxiety, resource guarding, and low aggression thresholds can all be passed onto future generations
If health isn’t a priority, dogs with joint issues or other health concerns can be bred and pass these problems on. Meaning they are more likely to suffer the same conditions
Inbreeding isn’t uncommon in the world of dog breeding, especially in breeds under high demand or with smaller genetic pools, the XL Bully is a prime example of this
This is where behaviour and environment can change how genes work or which traits are expressed
Some traits may be enhanced by the environment a dog lives in or the experiences they have
How a puppy is raised and socialised in the first 8 weeks of life with a breeder can have huge impacts
Learning and socialisation doesn’t begin at 8 weeks with an owner, it begins before the puppy is even born
A breeder should gently exposing the puppies to novel experiences, habituating and desensitising them to various sounds, sights and situations
A good breeder will get to know the personalities of each puppy over their first 8 weeks, enabling them to match up the best homes or prepare owners with some ideas of socialisation and training geared towards their puppy’s unique personality
Puppy’s personalities are shaped even before birth
Stress levels in pregnancy can impact puppies, a mum who is exposed to high stress is more likely to produce puppies with low stress tolerance or puppies predisposed to stress or anxiety related behaviours
Behaviour of the mum towards or around the puppies can impact them, they may copy behaviours or pick up on her stress levels
When the puppies reach their new owner at 8 weeks, their personality is already developing rapidly and being shaped by their early experiences and genetics
From 8 weeks onwards, life experiences, training, and socialisation can continue to have huge impacts
Socialisation and early experiences should be positive and never forced, it’s not about throwing a puppy into loads of experiences, it’s about gentle exposure and positive learning
Understanding the puppy at this age is vital to ensure their confidence grows and they learn appropriate behaviours
Early training is important but it doesn’t stop with puppy classes, training is a lifelong process which needs to adapt with the dog and behaviours they display
Why does it seem like we’re suddenly in a country threatened by out of control, dangerous dogs? Is it just media coverage? Or is it the culmination of events of recent years?
There’s no way to really know, but there are a few things which are likely to be contributing to the rising issue of out-of-control dogs.
Covid and Lockdowns
Dog ownership increased hugely during Covid
Socialisation was limited in this time, with fewer visitors and minimal interaction with people outside your household, puppies growing up in this time may have lacked socialisation with a variety of people
The impacts of limited socialisation may not be seen until the puppy begins to mature in adolescence and behaviours develop further. What was a quiet, calm puppy may now be barking and lunging to display their fear of people
With very visitors, for many of these puppies, the idea of people coming into their home is novel and scary
The demand for puppies rose during Covid, the price of puppies increased and so did the profits for anyone breeding dogs
More and more dogs were bred to meet demands, with people looking to make money from the increased demand
Breeding for money and because of high demand, means less thought is put into the dogs being bred and the puppies they produce
These puppies are less likely to come from stable parents with good temperaments and good health. Leading to puppies with genetic predispositions to behavioural problems and health issues
With the focus on money, breeders are unlikely to assess potential owners or pair their puppies with appropriate homes, meaning inexperienced owners end up with complex dogs, or puppies are growing up in unsuitable environments
Many of these puppies bred during various lockdowns and in times of high demand, will now be reaching adulthood where problem behaviours become more evident and harder to undo
Adolescence tends to span from 6 months to 2.5 years (or older in some dogs), so puppies born in 2020 are heading towards the end of this stage and into adulthood
Problem behaviours tend to become apparent during adolescence, but if they aren’t dealt with carefully then these behaviours can be well-practiced by adulthood
A lack of understanding of the reasons behind problem behaviours can lead to using harsh training methods or methods which only exacerbate the problem
With the cost of living rising, it’s harder for new dog owners to dedicate money for training or behaviour support, they may turn to Internet advice or cheaper trainers and receive advice which does more harm than good
More people may view their dog as a deterrent for crime, having a large powerful bull breed to protect them or their family
In these cases, they may like that the dog is aggressive towards people and it’s a behaviour they encourage further
People may choose a puppy from a genetic line which is advertised as being suitable for ‘protection work’, in many cases this will simply be dogs bred from more aggressive parents … no wonder the puppies develop aggression problems too
What should we do?
If banning breed after breed isn’t the best way forward, as evidenced by the fact that for every banned breed, there’s a bigger, stronger and more dangerous alternative, what do we do instead?
It’s pretty clear to see that the onus lies not only with the dog themselves but also with anyone involved in breeding and owning each dog. What makes a dog who they are is far beyond attending a puppy class or seeing a trainer once or twice. It’s no good tackling dog ownership issues without first thinking about breeders.
At the end of the day, breeders are the ones who can control the dogs who are bred and the homes they are placed into.
Not all responsibility lies with them, potential owners are liable too, but there needs to be more education about how genetics have a significant impact on dog behaviour and the risks of breeding dogs with concerning traits.
Dog owners also need more education. It’s all too easy to buy a puppy without having any understanding of the time and costs involved in dog ownership. It can be expensive to own a dog, not only due to vet bills, but also for behavioural or training support and if you can’t afford this then it often means living with a dog you can’t understand or control appropriately.
With little understanding of dog behaviour, early warning signs of behavioural problems are easily missed and taking poor advice can escalate any problems further. Especially within the larger and more powerful breeds, or those associated with any form of protection and guarding work, there is a mentality that suggests these dogs need a ‘firm-hand’ and ‘to be shown who’s boss’, but this is wildly inaccurate and does huge amounts of damage. It’s often these breeds who are most sensitive and more at risk of fear-related behaviours, any form of confrontational or aversive training can in fact escalate problems or create a dog who displays an aggressive reaction without any warning.
The dog training industry is a minefield of different opinions and controversies, it’s no wonder dog owners don’t know who to turn to or who to believe.
While the XL Bully is without doubt a breed with some serious issues, it’s also clear that there are bigger problems than specific breeds.
Unless we start to address the underlying causes, there will always be dangerous and out-of-control dogs. XL Bullies are just the latest evidence of this.
If you own an XL Bully, now is a daunting time with so many unknowns about the future of all these dogs. All we can suggest is to take action now and start to prepare yourself and your dog for the imminent changes:
Muzzle train your dog. This takes time and patience, take it slowly and make sure your dog is fully relaxed and comfortable with a muzzle. Choose a custom-made muzzle which will fit your dog as comfortably as possible and then begin gradual desensitisation work
Put management in place. If your dog does show any concerning behaviour around people or dogs, start to work out how best to manage their behaviour and seek help from a professional who can assist further. Look for a force-free trainer who will guide you through the process and not use any aversive or harmful methods
Get insurance. This is highly advisable as soon as possible
Don’t sign your dog over to anyone. If you muzzle train your dog, get insurance and put good management in place, plus a training plan if needed to handle any problem behaviours, then you shouldn’t need to sign your dog over
If you are visited by police or questioned about your dog, be responsible and don’t act in a manner that will cause stress to your dog. Try to stay calm and ideally place your dog in a different room so you can deal with the situation without your dog being involved.
It’s an emotional and stressful time, your dog is likely to pick up on these signals and may act out of character so it’s kinder to put them out of the way if you do get a visit from the police
If you own an XL Bully and need immediate support with their obedience training, lead walking skills, teaching dog/people neutrality or muzzle training, ask us about our special Bully training discounts
Written by Naomi White