September 13, 2023   6 mins

The first American dog to be awarded a medal was Stubby, a pitbull-type adopted as a puppy by J. Robert Conroy, a military private, after he kept showing up at drill sessions. After a distinguished life of service in the First World War, Stubby died in 1926 an American national treasure, and received a three-column obituary in the New York Times.

But a lot has changed for pitbull-type dogs since then. Once featured in children’s comedies and military posters as the emblematic all-American dog, they are now controversial in the USA, banned in Britain and — in their emerging, larger, American Bully XL hybrid form — facing calls for a fresh round of restrictions.

So why own a dog like this today? Who looks at the whole range of dog breeds, and thinks: “Why yes, the ideal pet for me is a massive lump of teeth, claws and muscle, that weighs as much as a muscular adult man and has a reputation for aggression”?

Even leaving aside those who breed and train dogs for illegal fighting, there are clearly some cases where a fierce hunting dog or intimidating, loyal guardian is necessary and valued. But these aren’t generally the dogs who get loose and cause injuries. Instead, it’s usually dogs with hunting, guarding and bloodsports origins kept in unsuitable environments. And this phenomenon is growing increasingly common, for the simple reason that nearly every environment is now unsuitable for a dog with these origins.

Over the last century or so, life has grown increasingly detached from the material world — and especially from the more visceral aspects of material existence where dogs have historically often played a role, such as hunting or physical conflict. Sergeant Stubby was unusual as military dogs go, in serving only as mascot: as far back as Ancient Rome, the Canis Molossus was a massive mastiff-type equipped with a spiked collar for use in battle and military dogs are still in use today. But such visceral types of employment have grown less widespread — either for canines or humans. Instead, over the last century, even non-violent real-world material work has drained away. In its place has emerged an “information economy”, with associated ecosystems of service, caring, and administrative occupations.

In this brave new world of de-materialised work, our relation to once-working dogs has also de-materialised. Many formerly-working dog breeds are now bred for exaggerated show-dog versions of their working traits, or kept simply as pets, with owners doing their best to meet the dogs’ bred-in traits and behaviours with work-like activities. Similarly, a great many human social traits that once served a useful purpose have come to seem redundant too — especially where these concern traditionally masculine-coded activities and social forms. For while the vast majority of “information economy” jobs can be performed by either sex, in practice, they often favour more feminine skill-sets and social strategies.

And as we’ve come adrift from our own limits, something akin to the exaggerated traits seen in show-bred dogs has become discernible in how we present sex differences, too: a cartoonish Instagram masculinity and femininity that have grown more exaggerated, like show-dog traits, in proportion to their loss of material importance.

This has, in turn, loaded new kinds of meaning onto the dogs we keep, and the reasons (overt or unspoken) why we do so. For as the human-dog relationship has shifted from practical, goal-oriented team-work to an emotional relationship based in affinity, dogs’ traits have increasingly become a means of signalling who we are. In this sense, it has probably never been more true that people tend to resemble their dogs — or at least have some affinity to traits signalled by their dogs.

It’s not a coincidence that pitbull-types — once celebrated for courage, stoicism, feudal loyalty, protectiveness, and capacity for aggression — began falling from favour in the Sixties, the dawn of the mass “information society” and the beginning of the end for “traditional masculinity”. Nor is it a coincidence that their loss of status in America hit a nadir in 1987 with the Pitbull that mauled a California toddler to death while guarding a marijuana field. This was, after all, the point when de-industrialisation began to bite, and thus when traditionally masculine-coded traits also began the same trajectory.

Responsible owners of working-breed dogs will go to considerable lengths to accommodate their pets’ inclinations. But suggesting that we might occasionally need to extend the same consideration to (at least some) men will get you burned at the stake. So instead of seeking outlets for all those human traits we no longer have a use for, they’ve simply become low-status. In tandem, Pitbull ownership, and also what’s left of the style of masculinity it signals, is increasingly associated with the (often criminal) subcultures for whom such breeds are still useful as fighting or protection dogs, and where aggression, loyalty and so on remain socially valued. So, too, they also became symbols for what’s left of this style of masculinity. If they have subsequently become fashionable again, this is via the flashy aesthetic and live-for-the-moment worldview (and sometimes also active participation in the criminality itself) that percolates out of the aggressively macho produced in these subcultures.

The Cuban-American rapper Pitbull spelled out this now deep link between criminal chic and dangerous dogs, explaining that he chose his name because they are “too stupid to lose. And they’re outlawed in Dade County. They’re basically everything that I am.” Pitbull, who resembles a podgy Andrew Tate, propagates much the same aesthetic of conspicuous consumption, priapism and machismo as the notorious pimp-cum-influencer: a worldview that Right-wing commentator Scott Greer described in Tate’s case, as “the rap ethos ‘Fuck Bitches, Get Money’”.

So when we consider who might deliberately set out to acquire a pet whose main obvious role is as a weapon, the most likely reason is that they want to signal an affinity with traits such as agency, power, and a capacity for violence — and, perhaps, also with the flashy, criminal-adjacent subcultures which are now more or less the only fields in which such traits are valued today. Typically, if the monster dog-owner is a man, this is aspirational; or if the dog-owner is a woman, to convey approval of these traits in men.

But even more than the Pitbull from which it was developed, the Bully epitomises the weirdly empty quality of this machismo-as-fashion-identity. It is there in the breed’s evolution toward ever more exaggerated traits, most notably the ultra-wide, low-slung, bizarre-looking Exotic Bully: all ultra-wide chest and short, burly forelegs but correspondingly prone to illnesses. Like bodybuilders who sculpt their torsos for posting physique, even as they neglect functional fitness and skip leg day, such dogs are bred solely for their Instagrammable air of menace.

And this is the Bully’s tragedy: for unlike the fighting dogs on Britain’s existing banned list, the American Bully XL never had a job, not even a grisly one such as dog-fighting or hunting down fugitives. It has no history as a working dog at all. It is in fact, just as much an accessory as a teacup poodle. The main difference is that the physique required to signal a suitably appealing level of dead-eyed menace makes a Bully XL potentially much more dangerous, in the hands of an irresponsible owner, than even the most irate and badly-trained 5lb fluffball.

Such uselessness is also likely a factor in the recent spate of dog attacks. For if responsible owners of non-working exemplars of a working breed go the extra mile to ensure their pets can do something akin to the activities they were bred for, there is no “for” in the case of the American Bully XL except “looking scary”. And this lack of real purpose leaves these dogs especially vulnerable to purchase for an under-trained, under-stimulated and badly-behaved life as a fashion item.

There are no behavioural requirements for an Instagram prop. No wonder the dogs bred to signal machismo on social media so often end up dangerously out of control, and for this alone I’m in favour of banning the American Bully XL. What about the men who feel an affinity with them?

Well, some 70 years of material pressure and cultural deprecation has thus far failed to obliterate the appeal of machismo, producing only its cartoon postmodern reboot. But while these traits seem persistent, could we make space for them? Perhaps we could have all the nice aspects of our physically undemanding, safe, high-tech society while also re-creating more cultural space for the masculine attributes made redundant by technological innovation. My suspicion, though, is that the modern pitch of ease and automated orderliness is kryptonite to these traits.

This, though, is assuming such orderliness will endure. If our assorted modern declinists, doomers, and climate catastrophists are right, civilised modernity is on track for a long slow implosion. And if this happens, whoever remains will once again be struggling to survive — meaning there’ll be no more cartoons or caricatures. The real dogs of war will slink back out of the shadows, along with the men who command them.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.