Dog owners are now so terrified of attacks by vicious ‘bully’ breeds after seven people are mauled to death this year alone they’re buying pet armour and taking their pets for walks on treadmills
- Number of attacks in the UK have risen by more than a third in the past five years
- Last year, nearly 22,000 cases of out-of-control dogs causing injury reported
Bradley Davis has got used to hearing what he calls ‘horror stories’ from his dog-loving customers in recent years.
‘It’s no exaggeration to say that some of them are literally terrified,’ says the Lincolnshire businessman.
‘They are so afraid of their dogs being attacked — or of being hurt themselves — that, crazy as it sounds, some have taken to walking them on treadmills at home.’
Bradley, 51, is well-placed to know quite how frightened members of the public are.
Seven years ago, when he was living in Essex, he learned that former The Only Way is Essex star Bobby Norris’s Yorkshire terrier Beau had been mauled to death by a bigger dog.
The number of attacks recorded by police in England and Wales has risen by more than a third in the past five years, with nearly 22,000 cases of out-of-control dogs causing injury last year, compared with just over 16,000 in 2018
Bradley was so affected by the incident that he set up a company to produce ‘doggy armour’ — and, after months of research, came up with a lightweight, bite-resistant coat that protects pets if they are attacked by another canine.
Word quickly got around and, while the venture is non profit-making, he was soon flooded with orders. In the past few years, he’s had a near 50 per cent rise in enquiries (he also provides free ‘armour’ to assistance dogs).
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‘My customers are all saying much the same thing,’ says Bradley. ‘They’ve noticed that, since the pandemic, people have got these big dogs and not socialised them properly. Now they’re out on the streets and in parks, and their owners don’t know how to deal with them.
‘And it’s not just the UK — we export worldwide and there has been an increase in dog attacks everywhere, from France and Spain to Canada and Australia.’
Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the UK is seeing a steep rise in canine aggression towards both dogs and humans.
The number of attacks recorded by police in England and Wales has risen by more than a third in the past five years, with nearly 22,000 cases of out-of-control dogs causing injury last year, compared with just over 16,000 in 2018.
Fatality statistics are equally grim. There have been seven dog-related deaths already this year, compared with ten in the whole of 2022.
Both figures, though, are a dramatic increase on the relatively stable average of around three deaths a year that prevailed between 2001 and 2021.
Behind these numbers, of course, are the devastated families who have to live with the fact that they lost their loved ones in the most gruesome way imaginable.
Natasha Johnston, 28, was walking eight dogs near her home in Caterham, Surrey, on January 12 this year when several of them turned on her in a frenzied attack.
An inquest later heard that she had died from shock and haemorrhaging after receiving ‘multiple penetrating dog bites to the neck’, including one that pierced her jugular vein.
Natasha’s own dog, which is thought to have played a leading role in the attack, was later put down. Later that month, four-year-old Alice Stones was killed in her back garden in Milton Keynes by a dog the family had acquired from a rescue centre six weeks earlier.
Five more deaths have followed since, among them Wayne Stevens, 51, who was killed in the early hours of an April morning by a dog owned by his brother at his home in Derby; and father-of-five Jonathan Hogg, who was mauled to death the following month by a ‘dangerously out of control’ dog near his home in Leigh.
The 37-year-old suffered devastating injuries and died in hospital several hours after the attack.
Five more deaths have followed since, among them Wayne Stevens (pictured), 51, who was killed in the early hours of an April morning by a dog owned by his brother at his home in Derby
Some of these tragic stories — along with the increase in the number of people hospitalised with dog bites — can be attributed to a sharp rise in the number of dogs in the UK. It is estimated there are now 12 million dogs owned by British families — up from 9 million five years ago.
Yet as dog behaviourist and trainer Debby Lucken points out, this increase is still not enough to account for the more than three-fold increase in attacks last year.
Father-of-five Jonathan Hogg (pictured), who was mauled to death the following month by a ‘dangerously out of control’ dog near his home in Leigh. The 37-year-old suffered devastating injuries and died in hospital several hours after the attack
‘There are lots of factors,’ she says. ‘With demand so high, many people got dogs from unofficial breeders, meaning that in some cases they were adopting dogs with unknown behavioural and health issues.
‘Financial difficulties are also a factor: proper nutrition, training and the right amount of enrichment is important, as we know that dogs’ behaviour can change if they are physically unwell. Research already shows that more deprived areas of the country have more dog-related injuries than other areas.’
Another shocking pattern underpins the rise in numbers. In 2021, six of the ten UK fatalities were caused by American XL Bully dogs; and this year the trend has become even more marked.
Horrifyingly, all fatalities recorded so far this year can be attributed to American Bullies. (Natasha Johnston’s own pet was a Bully.)
A relatively new breed, American Bully dogs were created in the U.S. in the early 1980s by mixing American Pitbull terriers — a banned breed in the UK — with other heavy-muscled dogs like Staffordshire Bull terriers.
The XL is the largest of the group, intended to be a maximum of 23 inches long and weighing no more than 130lbs (9st 4lbs/59 kilos).
But courtesy of unscrupulous breeders, many are far bigger.
‘Amateurs are tinkering with DNA, giving these dogs enhanced muscles, trying to create monsters,’ says Stan Rawlinson, one of the country’s leading dog behaviourists, whose clients have included property entrepreneur Christian Candy and steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal.
Moreover, while internet fan sites repeatedly describe them as ‘gentle giants’, ‘a welcoming and friendly companion dog’ that ‘adapts well to living with children’, Rawlinson sees them in starkly different terms. ‘These dogs are incredibly reactive and aggressive to both humans and dogs,’ he insists.
In January, four-year-old Alice Stones (pictured) was killed in her back garden in Milton Keynes by a dog the family had acquired from a rescue centre six weeks earlier
‘I have worked with every breed and crossbreed, but, although I have retired now, this breed of dog is one I would totally refuse to work with, simply because of the danger to humans and other dogs.’
The XL Bully is certainly the breed most cited to Bradley Davis, who says the majority of his customers are scared by their reputation and growing presence on our streets.
The breed is not recognised by the main dog associations in the UK, so there are no official figures on ownership rates. However, numbers are estimated to be in the thousands.
READ MORE: EXCLUSIVE – Why more people will die unless the XL Bully is BANNED: Experts warn the American crossbreed can kill in 60 seconds and UK deaths will soar as breeders ‘create monsters’ by changing DNA of the animals to give them ‘enhanced muscles’
‘They are top of the list of complaints we hear about,’ says Bradley. ‘We hear the same story over and over again. People get these huge aggressive dogs, keep them in a tiny house and have no idea how to handle them. Or, worse, they see the aggression as a badge of honour.’
His beloved Pug-Beagle cross Tilly was twice set upon by aggressive dogs, and while the culprits were not XL Bullies and Tilly was protected by her armour, the spiralling numbers of attacks by dangerous breeds in the area led Bradley, a former construction firm owner, and his wife Rachel, who worked for a law firm, to ‘get out’.
‘I was petrified every time Rachel was out walking the dog,’ he says. ‘I was calling her like some crazed husband.’ They left Essex and now live in a rural part of Lincolnshire.
In Caerphilly, meanwhile, grieving mother Emma Whitfield is campaigning for a change in the law following the brutal death of her ten-year-old son Jack in November 2021.
Jack suffered unsurvivable injuries to his neck and head after being attacked minutes from his home by a 7 st American Bully called ‘Beast’.
Two months after Jack’s death, Beast’s 19-year-old owner Brandon Hayden, who had fled the scene when the attack happened, advertised other XL Bullies for sale, including one he’d also called Beast.
‘I felt sick,’ Emma recalled when she heard the news earlier this year. ‘[His actions] showed no remorse.’
Hayden was subsequently sentenced to four years at a young offender institution after pleading guilty to being in charge of the dangerously out of control dog.
But Emma wants to see the law changed to clamp down further on both unscrupulous backyard breeders and those who have no control over their dogs.
She believes that not enough is done to police dog owners. The compulsory dog licence was scrapped in 1987 and, while dogs must now be microchipped, in each case the data is stored by the private company that administers the chip, but there is no central database.
Jack Lis was attacked by the XL bully dog while playing with a friend at a house after school in Pentwyn. Two months after Jack’s death, Beast’s 19-year-old owner Brandon Hayden, who had fled the scene when the attack happened, advertised other XL Bullies for sale, including one he’d also called Beast
Little Jack Lis suffered ‘severe injuries to the head and neck’ when he was set upon by the seven stone XL Bully while playing at his friend’s home
‘Innocent people are dying,’ she says. ‘To me, having an out-of-control dog is no different to them having a lethal weapon.’
Yet Louise Hart, who is prevention and community manager at the Dogs Trust, says it would be wrong to consistently demonise a particular breed.
READ MORE: Almost two thirds of Britons want ministers to outlaw the ‘aggressive’ killer American bully dogs blamed for a wave of vicious maulings
‘There is certainly a bigger picture [regarding] where people get their dogs from and around responsible breeding practices, but I don’t think you can say some breeds are more disposed to being aggressive,’ she says.
‘Any dog is capable of aggression. The reality is that some dogs are bigger, heavier and stronger, and the damage they can inflict is greater than that of a smaller breed.’
She points out that, contrary to widespread belief, 91 per cent of injuries to children are caused in a home environment by a dog they know.
The trend for anthropomorphising dogs — promoted by viral videos on social media in which dogs are treated as adorable children — has also played its part.
‘Incidents are rarely around children being teasing or cruel, it’s actually the reverse,’ says Hart. ‘It’s often where children are trying to show human love towards the dog that can actually cause the animal to feel fear.
‘Squeezing them, kissing them on the face, snatching away a toy — all these can trigger reactive behaviours which are natural to dogs.
‘They don’t have words, so their way of showing conflict is to bark or snap to create space, to feel more comfortable. A lot of bites to children are generally on their face and hands — and that’s because they’re leaning over the dog, getting in close.’
Lily-Blu Whitehurst can testify that even a single unpredictable movement can lead to horrific consequences.
In September 2021, the then 17-year-old from Congleton in Cheshire was left with facial injuries when a friend’s English Bull Terrier, which had been lounging across her lap, lunged at her when she moved forwards in her seat. Lily-Blu’s nose was fractured, and she needed 28 stitches.
‘The bite was millimetres from my eyes,’ she recalled. ‘One cut was across my eyelid. I couldn’t open one eye for about two weeks and my forehead swelled up.’
Louise Hart believes education is key. ‘Every year, 35,000 dogs under the age of three are put to sleep for behavioural issues,’ she says. ‘At Dogs Trust we want to improve that figure.
Lily-Blu Whitehurst (pictured) can testify that even a single unpredictable movement can lead to horrific consequences. In September 2021, the then 17-year-old from Congleton in Cheshire was left with facial injuries when a friend’s English Bull Terrier, which had been lounging across her lap, lunged at her when she moved forwards in her seat. Lily-Blu’s nose was fractured, and she needed 28 stitches
‘When a dog bites, it really is the last resort for them and a lot of our resources for people of all ages are about reading body language. Learning, for example, when dogs are showing fear, like having their ears back or their tail between their legs, and knowing there is potential danger around that.’
Those sentiments are echoed by Debby Lucken, who has also founded Kids Around Dogs, an association of dog and childcare professionals set up to educate children in how to be more ‘dog-savvy’.
‘I feel that the owners themselves are not learning enough about dogs,’ she says. ‘Dogs speak to us all the time, but we need to learn their language in order to understand what makes them upset and, ultimately, scared.
‘Almost all dog-related incidents are due to dogs being pushed to their limits.’
Either way, it seems unlikely that this horrifying problem is going to be swiftly resolved — and in the meantime, people remain anxious and worried, both for themselves and for their canine companions.
As Bradley Davis puts it: ‘It’s ridiculous that we’re having to use armour to walk our dogs — but this is where we are at now.’
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