In a bizarre turn of events last month, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced that he would ban American XL bullies, a type of pit bull-shaped dog that had recently been implicated in a number of violent and sometimes deadly attacks.
“These dogs are dangerous,” Sunak said. “I want to reassure the public that we will take all necessary steps to keep people safe.”
That came shortly after videos emerged of a dog attack that injured an 11-year-old girl named Ana Paun in Birmingham, England. Paun suffered injuries to her arm and her shoulder during the attack that required her to go to the hospital for stitches. Two men nearby helped Paun and chased the dog away and ended up in the hospital, too.
That same month in the United Kingdom, two of these dogs attacked and killed a 52-year-old man.
XL bullies are perceived to be dangerous — but is that really rooted in reality?
“We’ve been having a lot of dog attacks, or it seems that we’ve been having a lot of dog attacks, over the last couple of years,” says Tom McTague, political editor of UnHerd and a host of the podcast These Times. “And it seems to be a large proportion of these attacks are down to the American XL bully — a dog that looks very much like a large pit bull — which is a kind of new sort of dog from what we can all understand. And it’s so new, in fact, that we haven’t really identified it as a breed, and that is part of the problem.”
After Sunak’s announced ban, owners of these dogs took to the streets to protest. Animal protection groups condemned Sunak’s announcement. “Breed is not a reliable predictor of aggressive behavior in dogs. Any dog has the potential to bite,” said Samantha Gaines, a dog welfare expert with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, in a statement on behalf of a coalition of animal welfare and veterinary organizations opposing the ban. “We need solutions that aren’t discriminatory — but promote responsible pet ownership” rather than banning dog breeds.
Noel King, host of Vox’s daily news podcast Today, Explained, wanted to know more about why this dog breed is so controversial. So she reached out to journalist Bronwen Dickey, author of Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon. A partial transcript of their conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows. Listen to the full conversation wherever you find podcasts.
Before writing your book, you had to have known something about pit bulls, right? There must have been some sort of reputational knowledge that you had. What did you know about these animals?
I had heard that the only reason anyone would have a pit bull is if they were interested in dog fighting, that all pit bulls were fighting dogs, that something was genetically wrong with them, and that they might seem nice one minute, but then something would happen and they would snap and attack you. That they were kind of biological mutants and that they were only acquired as weapons by violent people. I very much took it to heart. I had no experience with the dogs otherwise.
I didn’t know enough to know that that wasn’t true. So the more I looked into it, the more I realized that the science around why people feared these dogs was really terrible. There really was no science. It was all kind of folklore, myth, and media sensationalism — and that gave me a window to talk about a lot of other different subjects, using the pit bull as a lens.
What is a pit bull? We’ve heard about this American bully XL in the UK and how it’s a mashup of a few kinds of dogs. But they’re having trouble pinning down what this dog is. Is it a breed? Is it a sub-breed? Is it something different?
When we say pit bull, we are talking about a shape of dog. We are not talking about a specific breed of dog. It’s a lot like the word hound — it can mean a lot of different dogs. It’s like saying “sedan.” A Honda Civic is a sedan, but not all sedans are Civics.
Within that category of pit bull — which is vaguely a dog that has some kind of lineage connected to bulldogs and terriers — you have four pure breeds: the American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier, and the relatively new American bully. There are many, many, many mixes of these dogs and crosses of these dogs.
We’re really talking about a very vague shape when we say pit bull. “Pit bull-shaped” is probably more accurate.
Are pit bull-shaped dogs born inherently violent, born ready to fight, born stronger than other dogs?
It depends on what you mean, and it depends on which dogs you’re talking about. The group has gotten so diverse at this point. There are so many breeders, there are so many mixes, there are so many accidental litters that it’s almost as specific as saying what are Americans like, or what are Britons like, or what are people from North Carolina like? Within that large, diverse group, you may have people who have neurological or biological problems or disorders. You may have people who are living in stress and trauma.
The [dog] group itself is so large, you really can’t make any pronouncements about it. If you go back to the breed’s history or the original breed’s history, there were very well-known fighting lines of these dogs, but there are also many that never saw a dog pit.
To define the dogs by the people who abused them [for dog fighting], I think, is unfortunate. It’s very much true that that history was there. But it was also true for a lot of dogs that don’t get drawn into this [controversy]. The boxer, the shar-pei, the Boston terrier, the English bull terrier — those all had histories of fighting. Yet we don’t get as worked up about them because we don’t have the kind of cultural firestorm around the types of people who own those dogs and what that all means.
What is the history of “bad” or “problem” dogs?”
The first dogs to be demonized, at least in the United States, were not pit bulls. They were small, fluffy, white dogs that were then known as German spitzes. The first breed ban in America was in New Jersey, and it was against the German spitz. And they were very, very popular. The same kind of fear mythology grew up around them because of all kinds of ways that society was changing. They were known as ladies’ pets, and there were editorials [arguing] that women were having pets instead of having children and that society was going to hell because of that.
Because they were popular and they were associated with these social changes, people believed that they bit more and that they were kind of poisonous and they transmitted rabies. We didn’t have the science to know that that wasn’t true.
And then you had these cycles of demon dogs after that. In the 1920s, you had a huge storm of fear around what was then called the German police dog — now we call it a German shepherd. They were coming back with veterans who had served overseas. They were associated with bootleggers who were hiding alcohol stashes during Prohibition and that kind of thing.
In the ’50s and ’60s, you had a Doberman scare. Then there was a Saint Bernard fear cycle: Cujo was a Saint Bernard. So it’s a very cyclical thing. As society changes, there’s always going to be a dog that’s considered the monster dog.
And in the ’80s, it just happened to kind of coincide with the emergence of hip-hop and the emergence of street culture and the commercial popularity of street culture. So in the Reagan ’80s, when there was a lot of moral panic, [pit bulls] were just kind of the next demon dog on the conveyor belt.
It sounds like it became racialized, as so many things do in the US, right?
Because if we’re talking about hip-hop culture, urban youth, we are talking about Black Americans.
Without a doubt.
So tell me about what we see. You say, to some degree, it’s the same as the demon dog trope, but to some degree it’s different. Where are the differences? What makes the situation with the pit bull unique in America?
Its association with hip-hop culture and street culture and people of color has, as far as I’ve been able to tell in my research — and I’ve been looking into this for a very, very long time — become a proxy for a lot of other social concerns. People don’t just fear the dog in the way that they have feared other dogs in the past. They want to eradicate them. They want to get them out of their communities. They talk about them in terms that are borrowed from the one drop rule — that they don’t want those dogs out in the gene pool, adulterating the good dogs of the neighborhood.
You have landlords, rather than saying they don’t want certain people in their apartment complexes, they’ll say they just don’t want people with certain dogs, and that’s kind of a way to get around other things. In the early ’90s in Boston, there was a pilot program where ownership of a pit bull was used as kind of an excuse for a stop and frisk with law enforcement. Law enforcement would go to certain neighborhoods and see young men with pit bulls and say, “Give me your license,” or, “I need to get all this kind of information” about them that they wouldn’t otherwise be entitled to just because they had a pit bull. It has become absolutely a culture war, another casualty of the cultural wars.
Is it still that way in 2023?
Yes, less so, but still yes. The good thing that’s happened in the past decade or so is that now these dogs are so popular and people are so used to seeing them everywhere with every type of person from every type of background that they don’t have the kind of shock value of 20 or 30 or even 40 years ago. But in other places, as we’re seeing in the UK, that outrage cycle has now repeated itself.
Have you ever owned a pit bull?
Yes. Well, I mean, a mixed [breed]. Her genetic testing is Australian shepherd, or something, and American Staffordshire. But I mean, who knows? She is a wonderful dog. She is our heart. She is very snuggly and wonderful.
That doesn’t mean that I deny that other people have had really, really bad experiences. I never want to erase that or invalidate their fear, which I think is completely understandable. A lot of times, this is like a war of anecdotes, where people will say, “I’m terrified of these dogs. My neighbor had one and I always felt menaced,” or, “It went after my dog.” And for me to say, “Well, but mine’s really lovely,” doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t really help. Fear doesn’t work that way.
So I never tried to take people’s fear away or invalidate their fears. But I think we can do better. For those people who want more information, who want real science, who want empirical policies and real data, I think there is a lot of space to replace that fear with information.