XL Bully ban leaves owners of other dog types fearing for their pets' lives

Milo's owner Tyrone Sidley said his dog is an American Bulldog, not an XL Bully - but has said it still meets some of the criteria set out by Defra. Credit: ITV News

By Olivia Mustafa, Multimedia Producer

Two years ago, 27-year-old Jack* adopted his American Bulldog Murphy from a rescue centre.

A careful regime of structured training since has led the pair to come first in several canine obedience competitions. 

But after the government announced in September it would ban XL Bully dogs, Jack is one of many owners of similar breeds who have found themselves caught in the crossfire. 

Jack maintains Murphy is not an XL Bully - but because he is from a well-established line of working American Bulldogs, some of his dimensions meet the legal criteria for the government to consider him one. 

Those criteria were compiled by Defra, which has listed a set of physical characteristics used to define an XL Bully dog. 

It describes the type as large and powerfully built, with a muscular body and blocky head.  

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced he would ban American XL Bully dogs 'by the end of the year' after several attacks linked to the type. Credit: Instagram / _bullyxl

Jack will now have to choose between registering Murphy as an XL Bully – a type which he is sure his dog is not - which would mean a total ban from training facilities and competitions, something he says is fundamental to his dog’s quality of life and enrichment.

If he chooses not to register him, a report from a member of the public could see Murphy seized and potentially euthanised by the authorities. 

“It’s just terrifying,” he said. “It feels like I’m having to choose between ruining my dog’s life or potentially never seeing him again, even though he doesn’t meet the type.” 

The rules make specific reference to a dog’s height, with an adult male measuring at least 51cm, and a female a minimum of 48cm, at the highest point of its body (also known as its ‘withers’). 

The department has also released images to give further guidance on what dogs could come under the label of an “XL Bully type”. 

Defra has distributed images to help owners identify whether their dog could be an XL Bully Credit: Defra

Owners of these animals must register their dogs before January 31 2024, or having one will become a criminal offence. 

Jack, who works in the mental health field, said trying to interpret the government’s guidance has left him feeling suicidal. 

He has been referred to a crisis helpline, and fears the consequences of a potential criminal conviction on his employment. 

“What if I make the wrong decision? That’s my career over, that’s my dog dead,” he said. 

“I’ve been left in a state of complete terror since the announcement of the ban. I’ve not had a day where I haven’t had to go off and cry at some point. 

“I struggle to do anything now because it’s all I can think about. I’ll be going on every single walk thinking it could be his last.” 

On December 31 2023 it will also become illegal to breed, sell, advertise, abandon, exchange and rehome XL Bully dogs in the UK. 

The rules were announced following several fatal dog attacks linked to the XL type. 

Owning one will be illegal from February 1, 2024 – unless owners follow the registration process and abide by a set of rules, including keeping them muzzled and on a lead in public. 

Defra have released guidelines for owners of the XL bully type, but some have accused them of stirring confusion. 

Jack said: “The typing criteria is really drastically broad. I feel like I have to make an incredibly painful choice without the right information to make that decision.”   

Defra has acknowledged other dog breeds could meet the XL Bully criteria. If the animal is considered an 'established breed' by the UK Kennel Club, the ban will not apply.

However, the American Bulldog is not recognised by the organisation.

For owners in a similar situation to Jack, the consequences could be even further reaching.  

Tyrone Sidley, 26, lives in council housing in Stoke-on-Trent with his dog Milo. Uncertain over whether his pet should be registered or not, he fears he could be left homeless.  

“My dog’s brilliant, he wouldn’t harm a soul,” he said. “He’s scared of his own shadow.” 

Mr Sidley says Milo is an American Bulldog, not an XL Bully - but he does meet several of the government’s criteria defining the XL type. 

Tyrone Sidley with his dog Milo

According to Defra, a suspected XL Bully breed type does not need to fit the physical description ‘perfectly’. 

The department has warned if the minimum height requirement and ‘a substantial number of the characteristics in the official definition’ are met, it could be considered an XL Bully. 

Mr Sidley believes dogs on the list of banned breeds, set out by the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, are prohibited in his council accommodation. 

He said: “If I were to register him, I would be saying Milo is something that he isn’t and would risk getting evicted - leaving me homeless. 

“But if I don’t register him, it could risk further implications if someone were to report him as an XL bully. 

“If it’s a choice between my dog and my home, I am sleeping on the street with my dog. 

“There’s so much uncertainty. He’s not just a dog to me. He’s part of my family.” 

Mr Sidley has said Milo is not an XL Bully, but meets most of the measurements set out in the government's legal definition..

A spokesperson from Stoke-on-Trent City Council told ITV News they were unable to comment and are awaiting further guidance. 

Several pet charities have condemned the government’s approach to defining the XL type.  

A representative from animal welfare charity Blue Cross said: “It is not only hugely subjective and open to interpretation for the individuals enforcing this legislation – creating a lack of consistency across the country – but it also places a burden on owners to interpret the guidance.” 

The ban is also having an impact on those racing to help distressed owners before the new rules come into place. 

Nina Willis, 52, runs a catering business, but has spent years helping to rescue and rehome dogs in her spare time. 

Since the ban was announced, she has been working alongside kennels and police to try to rehome unwanted XL bullies, before doing so becomes a criminal offence under the new legislation. 

Her team receives around 30 calls per day from people who feel they can no longer look after their dog, many because of reasons linked to the ban. 

“The phone is going constantly. What I hear every single day is people saying they cannot afford to apply for the exemption,” she said. 

“I’ve had people come to me at 2 o’clock in the morning saying they’re going to end their life, because they can’t stand the thought of losing their dog.” 

Ms Willis has received messages from those worried they could face homelessness if they don't give up their dog.

Owners must microchip and neuter their pets to apply for an exemption to legally keep them.  

They will be subject to a £92.40 registration fee, as well as having to take out insurance against their dog injuring others – provided by the Dogs Trust for £25 per year. 

Ms Willis’ team of volunteers are partly motivated by fear that the animals may be euthanised if taken in by the authorities, due to issues with capacity at dog shelters and the impending ban.  

Rehoming XL Bullies after 31 December 2023 will be illegal, even for rescue centres. They will have to apply for a Certificate of Exemption to keep the dogs, or euthanise them.  

Dog shelters will be able to claim £100 from the government towards the cost of euthanising an XL Bully. Individual owners could receive up to £200 in compensation.  

Ms Willis said she receives calls from police contacts and those working in kennels alerting her to emergency cases involving XL types, some of which are found injured and malnourished. 

An XL Bully rescued by Ms Willis' team

She said: “Some dogs have come in with slashes down their backs and legs where they’ve been badly beaten. We have had phone calls where owners have demanded we come and collect their puppies and females within the hour, or they are going to drown them.” 

Ms Willis, who has two XL bullies of her own, said the stories of abuse and neglect are having a personal impact. 

“I’ve not been eating or functioning. It is really affecting my mental health and I am on the verge of having a breakdown. 

“The government needs to rethink this legislation. They are expecting everyone to do everything so fast, everyone is panicking.” 

The ban was confirmed on October 31 2023, but Rishi Sunak first said he intended to make the move in September. 

He announced the plans in response to a 52-year-old man in Staffordshire died after being attacked by two dogs, which police believe to be XL bullies.  

Rishi Sunak said the attacks were part of a “pattern of behaviour”. 

“While owners already have a responsibility to keep their dogs under control, I want to reassure people that we are urgently working on ways to stop these attacks and protect the public,” he said. 

On 9 September, another incident saw a puppy believed to be a crossbreed of an XL Bully and Staffordshire Bull Terrier attacked an 11-year-old girl and two men in Birmingham.  

ITV News reached out to Defra for comment. A spokesperson said: “We have taken quick and decisive action to protect the public from tragic dog attacks. 

“We convened a group of experts and other stakeholders to define the physical characteristics of the breed type. It is up to the owner or keeper to identify whether they think their dog may be in scope of the ban.  

“We are recommending that owners take a precautionary approach if they are unsure if their dog is an XL Bully or if any puppies may grow up to be of this dog type, by complying with the relevant requirements and restrictions as they come into force.” 

*Name has been changed for the purposes of this article 

If you are suffering from mental health issues, help is available. In an emergency, you should call 999.

  • CALM is the Campaign Against Living Miserably, for men aged 15 to 35. Phone: 0800 58 58 58 (daily, 5pm to midnight)

  • Mind: Promotes the views and needs of people with mental health problems. Phone: 0300 123 3393 (Mon to Fri, 9am to 6pm)

  • PAPYRUS: Young suicide prevention society. Phone: HOPElineUK 0800 068 4141 (Mon to Fri,10am to 5pm & 7 to 10pm. Weekends 2 to 5pm)

  • NSPCC: Children's charity dedicated to ending child abuse and child cruelty. Phone: 0800 1111 for Childline for children (24-hour helpline) 0808 800 5000 for adults concerned about a child (24-hour helpline)

  • Alcoholics Anonymous: Phone 0845 769 7555 (24-hour helpline)

  • Citizens Advice Scotland/Citizens Advice Scotland

  • Change Mental Health: Support and advice for those affected by mental illness in Scotland. Phone: 0808 8010 515 (10am - 4pm, Monday Friday)

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