The UK has long been a country of dog lovers, but numbers - and safety fears - are growing. Are irresponsible owners ruining it for everybody, or are other issues at play? Sophie Morris asks the experts

woman sitting on shingle beach with a dog.

Britain’s dog experts were predictably exhausted when I began calling them last Monday morning. They’d been working around the clock following news of an upcoming ban on the American XL Bully breed, announced the Friday before. It came after the death of Ian Price, who was attacked and killed by two suspected XL Bullies in Stonnall, Staffordshire.

The Dog Control Coalition, an alliance of dog charities including the RSPCA, Dogs Trust, Battersea, Blue Cross and the Kennel Club, all of whom are against breed-specific legislation, released a statement saying the ban will not make the public safer by reducing the number of attacks, but will most likely glamorise ownership of a hard-to-get banned dog.

While fear of this powerful and aggressive breed - indicated in 10 of 21 dog-related deaths since 2021, according to news reports - grows, I wonder if the bigger problem isn’t a small number of dangerous dogs, but the surge in dog ownership overall.

Our love of dogs has long been part of our national identity. The narrative is that this country is a safe haven for dogs. They are our friends, protectors, guiding lights. We condemn the way other countries mistreat dogs and campaign to prevent similar abuse on these shores.

The National treasure Clare Balding has admitted that she loved dogs so much when she was a child that she thought she was one.

To make up for the disappointment, she explored the country for her upcoming book Isle of Dogs: My Canine Adventure through Britain (12

October, £22, Ebury), to find out just what it is that makes Britain’s bond with dogs so strong. Almost a third of UK adults own one, an incredible number for an animal that can terrify, maim and kill, and even turn on its own human. The UK dog population has grown from 8.3 million in 2011 to 11 million in 2023, according to the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals’ Paw Report, or 13 million, according to the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association.

While the Paw Report emphasises that the increase in dog owners has been gradual, it now stands at 29 per cent - many of whom bought puppies that they weren’t able to train or socialise during lockdowns.

Plenty of others buy dogs because they are cute, fashionable or confer a certain status on the owner, just as a car or watch or pair of trainers might. What makes us desire a particular dog? My best friend Penny the Irish terrier appealed because she seemed similar to the Airedale terriers I grew up with. But we never really know how our dogs will turn out.

Maria Murray, an associate director at Dogs Trust, tells me that the charity received 50,000 enquiries from owners asking to rehome their dogs, which she attributes mostly to the cost of living crisis. “That was the highest year on record for us,” she says. “Not all translated into handover - in some cases we were able to support with training and behaviour advice and other solutions.”

Is Britain falling out of love with dogs? “I don’t think so,” she says. “We’re a nation of dog lovers.”

Are there people out there who shouldn’t be dog owners? “Maybe I think too positively [about owners], but I don’t think anyone goes into it thinking, ‘I’m not going to bother with training’. They just underestimate how hard it is, that there’s not an overnight fix. It’s months of hard work.”

She points out that help is available: Dogs Trust has a free helpline and offers low-cost training. She doesn’t want to talk about Bullies, but does say that supporting owners will be a key focus for the rest of the year, as they’ve had loving owners on the phone, terrified of being forced to give their dog up. “They want to be responsible and are coming to us for advice.”

On the 10-minute walk from my house to where I can let my dog off the lead, there’s a run of laminated signs from residents begging owners to clean up after their dogs. Predictably, the route remains littered with abandoned dog poo and, arguably worse, filled plastic bags hanging from branches or balanced on walls. Approach bins in the town centre, and the smell will hit you at 10 paces.

Online, I’ve seen new parents complaining of how hard it is to let toddlers play safely when there are so many dogs around. I’ve also noticed that as many adults as children are afraid of our furry friends. Can we sustain Britain’s long-standing love affair with cute canines, or might the rise in irresponsible owners affect our relationship with dogs?

According to hospital data for England, 8,819 people sought medical attention for a dog-related injury in 2021-22, an 88 per cent increase in the 15 years since 2007. By another measure, hospital admissions for dog bites in the UK increased by 154 per cent between 1999 and 2019. Between 2001 and 2021, the average number of deaths by dog bites each year in England and Wales was 3.3, but that rose to four in 2021, 10 in 2022 and seven so far this year.

Today the focus is on XL Bullies, but I remember how in the 80s we were scared of Rottweilers and German shepherds, with the attention shifting to pit bulls and Staffies in the 90s, culminating in the Dangerous Dogs Act, rushed through Parliament in 1991 after a string of attacks including the death of six-year-old Rukhsana Khan.

The RSPCA agrees to talk to me, on the condition I steer clear of the Bully issue. Does Britain have a dog PROBLEM? Esme Wheeler, a scientific officer in the RSPCA companion animals department, says it’s a numbers game rather than a PROBLEM that can be linked to a specific incident, such as Covid.

“Sometimes I think there’s a culture clash between dogs and humans,” she says. “It’s really important we start thinking a bit more about the expectations we put on dogs and the environments we’re providing. We put higher expectations [on dogs] than on a human child, but often put them in a situation dogs have not evolved to live in, such as leaving them alone all day or using punitive training methods.”

Wheeler also says that we have become so used to dogs that perhaps we have become desensitised to their needs. “A dog is a sentient animal with a complex emotional world,” she explains. “It is very aware of its own life, but it’s not a human.”

I talk to a Bully owner whose dog sounds far better behaved than mine. The owner, who has asked to remain anonymous, says she regrets calling her three-year-old XL Bully Hades but named him after the Disney character with blue hair, like her dog’s grey-blue coat. After growing up with a variety of dogs, her favourites were Staffies. She ended up with Hades when her ex-boyfriend heard of a litter.

“He’s always been the biggest wimp, which is ironic,” she says. “We had to pay a one-to-one trainer when he was a puppy as he was too scared to leave the house for a walk, and I didn’t want a dog that I can’t control or won’t come back to me straight away. He’s been a perfect dog, so loving and well-behaved. The biggest risk is when he’s running back to you, as he gets so excited he doesn’t stop and might knock you over.”

She panicked when she first heard about the ban, worrying he’d be put down, but says after reading more she has no worries about him passing a temperament test. The new rulings do not mean an end to XL Bullies in the UK. Owners will be able to apply for an exemption certificate based on a dog’s behaviour, provided it is neutered and chipped, and muzzled and kept on a lead outdoors. Owners will also need insurance.

As they are a cross-breed, the Government is working to define XL Bully characteristics before the ban comes into effect at the year’s end.

“I can see something needs to be done as there are a lot of attacks involving Bullies and they can be dangerous if they’re not trained or looked after,” Hades’ owner continues. “When I go into Liverpool I see the same kinds of people with them - stereotypical lads, they’ve cut the dogs’ ears and they’re trying to give off the vibe that they’ve got a hard dog. People train them to be a fighting dog, not a loving family pet.”

As we hear more reports of dog attacks on humans, I can only foresee less tolerance from non-dog owners towards all sorts of transgressions, from the poo PROBLEM to unruly behaviour.

Murray, who owns a big dog herself, emphasises the importance of training and being empathetic to other people’s fear or apprehension. But it feels like responsible owners will always behave like this anyway - unlike a woman whose dog was jumping up at my friend’s child at the weekend. When he asked her to put the dog on a lead, she replied: “You should put your kid on a lead.”

Will new laws about keeping dogs on leads emerge? Campaigns such as Taking the Lead in Merseyside aim to educate owners about managing their dogs in public spaces and around children. But a July 2022 UK government and parliament petition asking for dogs to be kept on a lead at all times in public spaces finished with just 757 signatures.

I don’t want to be forced to keep Penny on a lead. Murray recommends the very long leads for training until you have a reliable recall. “But very few owners are able to say, hand on heart, that their dog comes back 100 per cent of the time,” she says. I guess I am lucky that Penny only chases squirrels.

In the US, where most outdoor space is privately owned and most states mandate dogs on leads, there is a dog park culture where the animals can run in secure spaces. I have noticed more of these opening up in my area, but I can’t see bad owners shelling out £15 every time their dog needs a run.

Licensing for all dogs is mooted from time to time, but they are already required to be microchipped, and the RSPCA points out it might “just be another rule for irresponsible owners to ignore”.