On a cold, steely grey day in a farmyard in Essex I meet Spike. Thick-set, broad-chested, narrow-eyed, he has a look that says “don’t mess with me”, and he has tiny, pointed ears that have been cut to make him look more intimidating.
Spike is an XL bully; bully stands for American bulldog, XL means bred to be bigger. They are fashionable among a certain type of dog owner, says Ira Moss, founder of the rehoming charity All Dogs Matter. We’re at its kennels near Waltham Abbey in Essex. XL bullies – along with cuter, “more designery”, says Moss, French bulldogs, dachshunds, cockapoos and cavapoos – “were the top five lockdown dogs”. And they are being abandoned like never before. Sadly, it’s not just dogs. Animal charities and vets have reported everything from cats to cockerels being left. And they are braced for Christmas to be even busier.
But back to Spike. Turns out he is a big softie. When he gets nervous, he wees, and Spike gets nervous a lot. He was imported as a puppy from Hungary, where ear cropping, illegal in the UK, still happens, and was bought by a young couple for £4,000 (prices rocketed during the pandemic). They lived in a flat, so Spike didn’t get exercised or socialised properly, and his owners couldn’t cope. “If they’d sold him online, they’d have had hundreds of offers for him,” says Moss. “Someone with a two-year-old in a flat could buy an XL bully and they are potentially taking home a weapon. There’s no legislation, you can just put them online and you don’t know what you’re taking home.” Unlike many, Spike’s owners did the right thing and gave him up to the charity where Moss and her team will try to find him a suitable new home.
At the other end of Moss’s lead – scuttling around her legs, sometimes demanding to be picked up – is Mimi, another pandemic puppy. Mimi, a French bulldog, was one of a litter of six taken from someone who was breeding dogs in their council flat and handed over to All Dogs Matter by the council. Moss took Mimi home one night, her husband fell in love, and they ended up adopting Mimi themselves. “People think frenchies are cute, because they’ve got big ears, but they can be quite feisty.”
Spike the XL bully. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian
I also meet Ash, a cockapoo with some anger issues; Zara, a shepherd, whose owner had issues of his own; Trigger and Millie, ex-racing greyhounds now happy listening to Christmas music in their kennel; and Diamond, a staffie, who was probably used for breeding then dumped when she got too old. The All Dogs Matter kennels are full to bursting; it has happened in the past few weeks, says Moss, and there’s a waiting list.
The same is happening at all the dog charities. Dogs Trust, the largest dog welfare charity in the UK, has seen a 39% increase in phone calls to hand over dogs since 12 July, when “Freedom Day”, a week later, was confirmed. Traffic to the “giving up your dog” pages of …….