I’ve put off addressing the issue of the new XL Bully legislation for weeks. However, having become increasingly frustrated by the guff circulating on the internet – some of which has come from people in positions of assumed authority – I feel like the time is right to open Pandora’s Box in the hope that it simply highlights what dog field owners and dog field users should consider before the legislation changes.
To try to present a balanced article, I’ve spoken to XL Bully owners ( and owners of dogs that may be affected by this legislation), vets, groomers, kennel operators, dog field owners, dog field users, and the three largest dog field insurance companies in the UK. I’ve spent hours trawling through relevant Facebook groups to see the general feeling of the nation regarding this matter and tried to consider the lens through which these people are commenting.
The simple purpose of this article is to encourage dog field owners to think carefully about how they navigate this really tricky issue.
If there’s one thing I can be certain of, it is that far too many stakeholders involved in the XL Bully debate are viewing the situation through blinkers, focusing on their own narrow view of the situation.
I’ll share what I’ve learned about XL Bullies in relation to dog fields, and I hope that if you read this with an open mind, you might be better positioned to draw a more rounded judgement of the challenges every party will face come the passing of this new legislation.
Firstly – the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 is not new, control ordered dogs are not a novel concept and what many dog field owners are realising is that they have been operating without a real understanding of who is using their fields and what that means from a business, legal and insurance standpoint.
This most recent spotlight on banned breeds and their freedoms and restrictions in society is just putting the magnifying glass on the pet industry, and that includes dog fields.
NOTE: This article is dealing specifically with the consequences of this change in the legislation and is not a debate about the legislation itself.
A Little Context – What is The Situation?
Following what appeared to be an increase in the number of incidents involving XL Bullies, the PM proposed an amendment to the Dangerous Dogs Act that means that from 1 February 2024, it will be a criminal offence to own an XL Bully in England and Wales unless you have a Certificate of Exemption for your dog.
I think the least jargony article I’ve read has been on the Dogs Trust website and you can see that here.
To reiterate – this article is dealing specifically with the consequences of this change in the legislation and is not a debate about the legislation itself.
I have tried to view this under the umbrella of the following stakeholders:
- The parents of a mutilated child
- As any canine business owner
- As an advocate for reactive dogs
- As a dog owner
- As a dog field user
- As someone opposed to breed-specific legislation
- As someone who might be frightened of dogs, in support of the legislation
It needs to be Black and White – We Have No Clarity
Everyone needs to know where they stand. The reality is that when it comes to dog fields, nobody does.
- Those of you who believe they have been given definitive answers from your insurance companies have been misinformed – nothing is set in stone with the degree of certainty that many believe to be the case
- Those of you who have cited legal commentators and are categoric about your position are misguided
- Those of you who think that this is simple, dog fields are secure private land so you can operate under those parameters, are wrong.
The reason I can say this unequivocally is for the following reason:
THERE IS NO SET STANDARD FOR A SECURE DOG FIELD.
All the political shouting and virtue signally about how dog fields are helping these XL Bully owners does not change the facts.
What has happened is that the vocalisation of the dog field community has led to the entire industry coming into sharp focus with the authorities far sooner than any of us would really have liked, and trust me when I say, that change is ahead.
Let’s talk about Dog Field Insurance Policies
I’d like to quote a good friend and dog field owner –
“People need to understand what they are insured for and under what circumstances this insurance applies?”.
If you are a dog field owner and you are reading this, do you know the details of your insurance policy?
I come from a professional background where I spent a good chunk of time assessing risk and despite this, many years ago, I did something I would now consider unthinkable.
I purchased a cheap online policy that did one thing and one thing only…. allowed me to check the ‘insurance’ box on my ‘to-do’ list.
Without going too deeply into dog field insurance, all the policies I have reviewed have gaping holes in them. I’ve lobbied several insurance providers for the last few years now to tighten their policy requirements to fall in line with what is reasonable to assume would be best practice (no regulation = no formal best practice).
One of those items is a notable absence of any reference to dogs with ASBOs (as I like to call them). This is a complicated bit of the law and I’d rather not get embroiled in a debate about what Control Orders and CPNs are….. let’s just be sensible – these are dogs that have had a bollocking from the police and as a result, have some sort of restrictions placed on them or their owners.
- Is your dog field insurance policy valid when used by these dogs and under what circumstances?
- Have you been operating without knowing the answer to that and if any of those dogs use your field?
In my opinion, insurance providers need to clarify the following:
How do dog field owners know a dog is an XL Bully? The Government definition of this ‘breed’ is so riddled with guff that a good lawyer could tie the state up in a bow with their teeth it’s so open to interpretation: for example – this (I kid you not) is one of the factors which defines an XL Bully….
- Often having prominent wrinkles on face
Just for reference, this is the meaning of the word definition… (for any policy writers out there)
a statement of the exact meaning of a word or group of words
I’ll just leave that there for consideration.
- Most dog field insurance policies are vague at best
- The majority of people don’t read insurance policies or understand them
- The majority of dog field owners do not know what breeds are using their facilities
- Most dog field owners are not canine geneticists
Question: So – will you be insured if something happens in your field that involves an XL Bully?
We go back to the question – what are you insured against and under what circumstances does that financial protection apply?
Following a recent conversation with an insurance underwriter, the answer to that question is probably not. And once something does happen, it’ll all change and no dog field insurance policy will cover any field allowing XL Bullies or any dogs with ASBOs.
Customer Feedback. Don’t shoot the messenger.
I recently polled a small sample of 900 random dog field users across the entire UK and whilst this is not a significant sample, the feedback was clear.
Almost 100% of respondents said they opposed the XL Bully ban…… (this was unsurprising)
- 89% of those who use multi-field sites would be uncomfortable knowing that the field operator allowed XL Bullies to use other fields whilst they were there
- 57% would not visit a site that openly welcomed XL Bullies
The most common reason given: In case they escaped
In the conclusion of the survey, it was highlighted to participants that dog fields have not had any restrictions on XL Bullies so the likelihood is that many dog fields will have XL Bully customers already.
Another factor that’s worth noting is that as far as I am aware, none of the reported XL Bully incidents serious enough to gain mainstream media attention have been as the result of an XL Bully escaping from a dedicated dog field.
This raises a few questions:
- Do people not trust the fencing at their dog fields?
- Is this because of the weight and size of an XL Bully
- Are we all hypocrites?
Either way, it was interesting – the fact is that based on my limited poll, the majority of dog field users don’t want to be anywhere near XL Bullies.
Irrespective of what DEFRA and your insurers impose on your field operations, you may decide to consider the feelings of your customers and how that may affect your business.
Public Rights of Way
A few things to remember:
When someone buys a session in your field, they will agree to your terms and conditions.
However, someone walking on a footpath near your field has no obligation to comply with the terms and conditions of your field operations. They don’t have to check their dog can’t get INTO your field and they don’t have to keep their dogs quiet or on a lead. They simply have to be under control.
The reason I raise this is in response to the endless discussion people are having about what constitutes a ‘public place’ and therefore do XL Bullies have to be muzzled in a ‘secure dog field’?
My view, for what it’s worth, is that all this is semantics. It doesn’t matter what the case law states, what people should or shouldn’t do or what DEFRA (who to my knowledge don’t have a department of dog field experts) think is a reasonable way for dog fields to operate.
How Do You Monitor?
If you don’t meet and greet your clients on their first visit, you can’t know what breed they have. And even then I couldn’t spot the difference between an ungroomed Giant Schnauzer, a Bouvier des Flanders and a Black Russian Terrier, and yet they have very different temperaments.
Do you ask people to fill in a form when booking and just trust them? Do you try to hide behind terms and conditions? Do you sit in front of your screen all day monitoring CCTV cameras?
If you are allowing XL Bullies to use the fields under the DEFRA requirement that they must be muzzled, neutered etc – how exactly are you intending to manage this? Will you have full surveillance of the field at all times or are you trusting your customers to keep their dog muzzled?
Do you understand the consequences of placing trust in your customer and that backfiring? Do you know who would be responsible if something happened and it was found that you had no monitoring in place?
I don’t know the answers to these questions with any certainty but the cynic that I am, I can take an educated guess.
The More You Shout, The Worse it Gets… for everyone.
There are a lot of insurance companies who are re-evaluating their dog field policies having become increasingly aware that they have been very exposed in the area of dog fields. It’s not unreasonable to assume, that until very recently, dog field owners lived a charmed life – under the radar of officials and officious regulation – but all this shouting and screaming about what is and isn’t fair has chucked the industry into the limelight and well…. If a lack of autonomy and strict regulation is what these folks wanted, that’s what they’re going to get.
Possible implications for dog field owners:
- CCTV monitoring a requirement
- Breed statements a requirement
- Supervised sites a requirement
- Standardised fencing with regular inspection a requirement
- Costly licencing and monitoring a requirement
- Upgrading of facilities – a requirement
- A whole lot of enforcement notices issued to those fields operating without planning permission
- Unannounced inspections at any time
So What Is The Solution?
How can XL Bullies continue to live happy lives with the exercise and enrichment they require?
There will be a proportion of dog field operators who say boo to the rules and allow XL Bullies to continue to exercise on their sites without adhering to the regulations and conditions of their insurance or the law.
That is a certainty and I’m sure some will also reap the profits from taking this stand. If you established your field as a haven for XL Bullies – where they can run freely without the constraints of muzzling, monitoring and judgement – you will no doubt do well.
I realise this will be a small number of dog field owners and most are simply looking to do the right thing by these dogs however, many dog field owners are simply running businesses and do not wish to get entangled in politically charged and moral discussions about specific dog breeds.
There will also be people who have a number of XL Bullies that use their sites and hope to continue to do so – with new conditions if required.
There are also a lot of dog field owners who simply do not want to have XL Bullies, or any control order dog on their land. I have been inundated with emails and calls from people who are hoping not to have to say anything at all publicly in case they come under fire from those who jump on anyone who opposes their view.
My Solution – For What it’s Worth
Several years ago my partner and I were close to buying a facility that had been designed specifically as an assessment, training and exercise facility for dogs that had been seized under the Dangerous Dogs Act or were somewhere in the legal system being assessed. It was also regularly used by professional service dogs who were let’s just say…. bouncy.
It looked pretty similar to a regular (but well-maintained) dog field. It was far from it.
Concrete fence posts with steel rebar submerged several meters deep. Concrete foundations were half a meter underground encasing the thick gauge, plastic-coated chain-link mesh fencing that stood over 2m high. Atop that, a 45-degree crank supporting an additional half a meter of overhanging fence topped with a high tensile line for extra rigidity. It also had double gates with automatic closing mechanisms.
Otherwise, it was a grass glade scattered with fruit trees and bushes. It was lovely.
It occurred to me, whilst listening to all the arguments going on relating to dog fields and XL Bullies, that there is a really very simple solution. Dedicated, licensed facilities where they and all other control order dogs can be exercised. Heck – the government can put their euthanasia budget into subsidising these facilities.
They could have set standards and monitoring – this would be a huge relief to me as I believe never has the definition of secure been so loosely interpreted than by dog field owners.
They should be focused on areas that have the highest level of XL Bully ownership.
They could also be indoor facilities or repurposed industrial buildings.
Owners could be free of judgement knowing that these facilities are designed for them, by people with their best interests at heart.
The enclosure would need to be secure (assessed) for 80kg muscle machines running at full chat. That means some testing needs to be done. There aren’t many fencing manufacturers and contractors who would stake their reputation on their fence versus a fully grown male XL Bully. Not when the stakes are quite so high.
There would need to be a sizeable buffer between sessions – I personally wish all dog fields would operate and enforce a buffer but we can only hope!
There is No Perfect Answer
What I do know is that there is no perfect solution to this problem. People have died, dogs have died, and the government have had to do something. Their solution has not been met with universal approval (far from it) but it’s been welcomed by more people than you think.
If I could confidently say that I think XL Bullies would be safe in secure dog fields across the country and that they should be allowed off lead, unmuzzled in any facility in the country, I would. But I can’t.
I will say it again – there is no definition of a secure dog field, there’s no regulation and there is no monitoring of secure dog fields so whilst your dog field might be suitable, I can tell you from my own extensive experience of visiting 100s of dog fields across the country, very few would pass muster vs an XL Bully on a mission.
I have received close to 100 emails from dog field owners about this issue to date. Many just expressing exasperation about it all.
If you would like to talk privately about this issue, please feel free to email me.