Breeding dogs is big business and backstreet breeders have found ways to cash in – earning up to £250,000 salaries – by putting their wealth over animal welfare.
Leading charities have tried to crack down on illicit puppy breeders for years, but careless and uneducated dealers continue to breed dangerous dogs that have the power to kill. It seems a cult has formed around bull breeds online, with an increasingly close relationship highlighted between organised crime and dog dealing.
Devastatingly, this often means mating and selling untrained puppies. Some have even been put through their paces training on treadmills, forced to fight each other, and left alone in dark rooms. When not looked after properly, these poorly bred yet powerful dogs can attack other pets and people, as we’ve increasingly seen in recent times.
Yesterday, an 11-year-old boy saw his grandmother mauled to death by two dogs that the victim’s family say were XL Bullies. Esther Martin, 68, was attacked and died at the scene in Jaywick, Essex. The owner has been named locally as Esther’s son-in-law, Ashley Warren, a rap artist calling himself Wyless Man.
Esther’s daughter Kelly Fretwell, 46, said there were eight “XL Bullies” in the house and the owner shrugged off warnings they were dangerous, saying: “Nobody can tell me what to do with my dogs.” Police have not yet confirmed the breed of the dogs.
A 39-year-old man has been bailed on suspicion of dangerous dog offences and the two animals have been destroyed.
It became illegal to own an American XL Bully in England and Wales without a certificate of exemption on February 1, after the controversial breed was blamed for at least 12 fatal attacks since 2020. While 40,000 owners registered their pets by the deadline, it’s estimated there are 10,000 unregistered XL Bullies that are now illegal.
Illicit puppy breeding
Backstreet breeding refers to the irresponsible breeding of animals in inadequate conditions, often by people with little experience or knowledge of animal welfare. These money-greedy breeders do not meet acceptable standards of care and it’s common for the puppies to have genetic abnormalities, behavioural problems and infectious diseases.
Last month, the scourage of illicit puppy breeding came under the spotlight in Coronation Street. RSPCA inspector Herchy Boal, who helped retrieve more than 80 dogs from an illegal farm in the Midlands, advised scriptwriters on the distressing issue, said: “Puppy farms are more common than people realise.
“They could have 90 breeding female dogs in one barn, in pens next to each other. They never see daylight, they never get any exercise or are walked and they are sometimes fed on automatic feeders, because they are not attended by human beings daily. All the dogs’ poo is in there, too, because the pens aren’t cleaned.”
Herchy warned: “They will also say the puppies are fully vaccinated but they buy up vaccination cards and put fake stamps on. Breeders can also be pushy and say, ‘It’s the last one’. Always take a step back and use your intuition. If alarm bells are ringing, listen to them.” Since Lucy’s Law was passed in 2020, anyone wanting a new puppy in England must buy from a breeder or adopt from a rescue centre.
The dog breeding craze, which erupted during the pandemic, caused the “perfect storm for dog bites”. It prompted the arrival of pet ‘fertility clinics’, offering training on how to become a DIY breeder at home; and dog semen was found being posted with artificial insemination (AI) kits sent by post.
Illegal ear cropping was also discovered being offered by crooks online, specifically to give XL bullies the American ‘look’. A gang from Stoke-on-Trent was jailed in 2022 after puppies were found in a semi-comatose state after cropping their ears.
RSPCA chief vet Caroline Allen said at the time: “Ear cropping has absolutely no positive effect on the dog themself and is done purely for cosmetic reasons because someone wants a specific ‘tough’ look for their dog. Sadly, it’s a trend that, despite being illegal, seems to be growing in popularity.”
In 2022, a Mirror investigation found that new dog dealers were being encouraged to make “monsters” out of powerful dogs to earn up to £250,000. The RSPCA said it had seen animals kept in “medieval” conditions, with “breeding bitches kept in darkness or living in their own faeces” by money-grabbing breeders, making hundreds and thousands of pounds.
Ian Briggs, from the RSPCA’s special operations unit, previously spoke out about the so-called cottage breeders “churning out puppy after puppy after puppy and charging thousands with it with no real knowledge”. He explained (before the XL Bully ban came in): “There are criminal gangs involved – certainly around the Bully XL market – that have obviously seen a way of coining in a huge amount of cash. They are operating outside the licensing rules.
“If you are looking at between £2,000 to £5,000 for a puppy and you get four puppies out of a dog, it’s a lot of money. They are making hundreds of thousands of pounds. It’s not just the XL Bullies though, there are the high value Frenchies too. It’s all about turning over vast profits. But with the XL Bully if they bite you it is likely you will be seriously injured.”
Mr Briggs explained that the new market for puppy bull breeds has attracted a new wave of sellers that lack knowledge and care. “What it’s done is attract certain people to the breeding market that weren’t there before because they can see so much money to be made. You can just see it coming. It’s almost coming in slow motion, a tsunami of welfare issues,” he said. He explained that these dodgy dealers are “exploiting animals and the buyer for financial gain”.
Violent fighting pits
Dog fighting was banned along with all other animal fighting in 1835, and yet illegal dog fights have soared by almost a half since Covid, fuelled by a sickening stream of online videos. The RSPCA was called to 330 fights in 2022 compared to 226 in 2019.
The charity runs stings to take down the violent and disturbing groups at the top level of this disgusting spectacle. The fights – some reported to be worth up to £50,000 – pit dog against dog until one dies or can no longer fight. They are said to attract heavy betting and guns and drugs are often found at the secret venues.
Ian Muttitt, a chief inspector with the RSPCA, said last year that technology now allows these fights to be organised easily and discreetly. The charity believes backstreet breeding and an explosion in demand for bully-type dogs is feeding lower-level fighting, such as chain contests in parks. And they say this is directly linked to the growing number of aggressive “status” dogs on the streets.
Mr Muttitt said youngsters often start with an interest in “status” dogs and progress to the top levels of fighting. Coupled with the rising number of violent videos it was causing a “perfect storm”. He was also concerned about algorithms fuelling interest in fighting after it had been viewed once online.
He advised: “If you see a fight in a park or a public place contact the police and the RSPCA but do not get directly involved. Other tell-tale signs would be a lot of dogs coming and going from a property. If people are keeping dogs locked up and away from public view, or if people hear reports of dog fighting going on in their area, they can report things anonymously to Crimestoppers or to the RSPCA.”
Training on treadmills
Before pitting them against each other, dodgy dog breeders have tethered terriers to makeshift treadmills and forced them to run for their lives – training to either kill or be killed in the brutal fighting bloodsport. This hideous set-up was discovered in a raid in September, when the Mirror joined the RSPCA and police on the covert operation to take down a suspected dog fighting ring.
West Midlands Police said two men, aged 30 and 32, were arrested under section 8 of the Animal Welfare Act and five dogs were seized from a property in Saltley, Birmingham. Dogs, drugs and a machete were pulled from the house on a quiet residential road, and a huge medieval-type contraption was also wheeled onto the street.
As daylight broke, it became clear it was a dog treadmill. Such treadmills are commonly used to train fighting dogs, building both strength and stamina. A spokesperson for West Midlands Police said: “Along with the dogs, officers found dog training equipment and books about dog breeding as well as a machete and a quantity of suspected Class A drugs.”