Ben Spencer: Why I’m campaigning on behalf of XL Bully dogs

Ben Spencer and his Bully XL dog Zola
Spencer believes that a ban will not solve the problems with American XL Bullies - Lee Thomas

The sight of a couple strolling through the idyllic Somerset countryside, both shod in wellington boots and walking a dog on a leash, would not cause a second glance to most. But on this occasion, this is not any dog and the man walking her is not just any owner. He is Bath and England scrum-half Ben Spencer, alongside his wife Jordan, and they are joined by their “beloved” Zola, an American XL Bully.

The couple describe her as a “family member”, and yet are fully aware the breed is the most controversial in the UK right now, with plans unveiled to ban it in the new year following a spate of highly publicised attacks.

It is in Ben’s capacity as a husband, father and animal lover rather than Bath Rugby captain that he and Jordan have made the decision to speak to Telegraph Sport as he campaigns to show “the other side of the breed” as well as advocating for more responsible dog ownership and breeding legislation rather than an all-out ban on the XL Bully.

In a video posted on X in September, (which can be viewed below) prime minister Rishi Sunak said the breed, which has been linked to at least 14 human deaths since 2021, is a danger to children and communities.

He said he felt “the nation’s horror” over videos of dog attacks and had ordered urgent work to define “and ban this breed so we can end these violent attacks and keep people safe”.

What would Spencer say to the Prime Minister? “I’d love for him to meet Zola. I’d love for him to experience what we experience every day,” says the 31-year-old. “Obviously, public safety is everyone’s number one. It is what everybody wants. Rishi’s doing his job too, to protect the public. But for me, this isn’t about one breed because take pit bulls for example, there’s more registered pit bulls now in the UK than there were in 1990 when they got banned. So, banning a breed and him then thinking that this will solve the problem is quite clear that it won’t.”

Ben and Jordan, are both well experienced with dangerous dogs, given both were attacked as children. They needed medical attention and stitches – Jordan was particularly badly injured – as both were bitten on the face.

Ben Spencer and partner Jordan post with Bully XL dog Zola
'Everyone wants dangerous dogs off the street,' Spencer says - Lee Thomas

“We don’t have a warped opinion on dogs,” Ben says. “Under no uncertain terms do we think there’s no dangerous dogs out there. This is about us addressing the issue of there being dangerous dogs and how we can do best to get around preventing it.

“I think being such an animal lover, this isn’t about XL Bullies in particular. This is about doing the best by our beloved family members.”

Spencer has lent his voice to the campaign group Don’t Ban Me, Licence Me (sic) who are lobbying the Government to end Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) through licensing and education. As things stand the breed will be “banned” but dogs such as Zola will be allowed to live with their owners once they are microchipped, neutered and wear a muzzle when walking in public areas. The group has managed to fundraise more than £160,000 and gain in excess of 600,000 signatures on a petition to ensure the legislation could be debated in parliament. On Monday the issue was raised in the commons with several MPs voicing similar concerns to Ben and Jordan, including issues with unscrupulous breeders.

“The XL bully has been massively exploited for this because of how much they would sell for,” says Jordan. “Unlicensed breeders can have up to three litters a year. Before the ban you are looking at it being around £5,000 per XL puppy. So that is why so many people have bred them.”

“Any sort of Tom, Dick and Harry could effectively have bred them,” adds Ben. “They’re not bothered about the temperament of dogs or the right genetics, it’s money in their pocket at the end of the day.”

Jordan explains why the couple are keen to educate dog owners and to raise the issue of mandatory licences with the Government. “We’ve spoken to a lot of dog trainers and there is a huge problem in the UK with people owning dogs. One that shouldn’t own dogs, and two, that have zero idea of what they’re getting into when they buy a dog. Because at the minute in the UK there is nothing to stop anyone getting a dog – never mind a big dog.”

Ben says: “Everyone wants dangerous dogs off the street. I’ve been quite open because Zola’s amazing and we wouldn’t want anything to happen to her.”

Bath's Ben Spencer with his Bully XL dog Zola
Bath's Ben Spencer with his Bully XL dog Zola - Lee Thomas

Both Ben and Jordan grow visibly upset at the very real possibility that hundreds of XL Bullies abandoned in the wake of the ban, risk being put down. They are adopting a puppy, Ember, whose name was chosen to reflect the situation her breed finds itself in: “It is about finding that little spark of light in the darkness,” says Jordan.

The Spencers carefully researched Zola’s genetic background, identifying the dog’s mother and the pet’s temperament was crucial in their selection as – along with having three young children: Millie, six, Oscar, five, and three-year-old Nala – they also had three small dogs when Zola joined their family.

Upon entering their home there is a striking portrait of three dogs: Bonnie, a Shih Tzu, Bella, and Buddy, the latter two both a Chihuahua–Jack Russell cross although Buddy passed away last year. The three are all much more diminutive than Zola, who was named after the South African-born British Olympic middle distance runner Zola Budd. “We wanted to give her a strong female name,” explains Jordan.

When Ben is asked whether the macho image of rugby fuelled the decision to own an XL Bully, he bursts out laughing indicating that the diminutive Bonnie and Bella, curled up beside him, tell a different story. “Absolutely not. As you can see by the two sat here, I’m not into expressing my masculinity through dogs!”

Ben Spencer of Bath Rugby scores his team's second try during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Bath Rugby
Spencer has been in superb form for a resurgent Bath - Getty Images/Patrick Khachfe

Ben, who has been in flying form as Bath captain, winning Premiership Player of the Month for October with his club third in the league, has used his platform as a professional athlete to raise awareness around the breed. Despite the controversial and sensitive nature of the debate around XL Bullies, he has been overwhelmed by the positive reaction to his and Jordan’s work in raising awareness.

Jordan describes her husband as “the most focused person I know” and it is with this attribute he has been able to elevate his performance on the field as well as projecting his voice through campaigning off it, which he admits is influenced by Zola. “If ever I’m having a day where I’m down, she’s the one to be there to cheer me up. She is dead loving and sweet.

“Sometimes she even comes to work with me. She’s loved at the club. In the physio room, she’ll just lie in the corner on a bed.

“I think it’s quite a strong thing to do to stand up for something that you believe in. This is something that I believe quite strongly. It’s clear for me to see anyway that we are doing this for the right reasons. Like I said before, public safety is number one in everyone’s mind.”