For centuries, humans have deliberately pitted dog-aggressive dogs in staged fights against one another. Why are animal welfare advocates no closer to ending this brutal blood sport?
The crowd's roar dulled to a hum as the next two fighters appeared. The previous match had been short, as one contestant quickly outmatched his opponent, mauling him badly and tearing off an ear. But this final fight matched two skilled and highly respected combatants. They eyed each other eagerly from across the pit, muscles tensed in anticipation. Spectators came to the edge of their seats. Fathers lifted children to their shoulders for a better view as the referee stepped to the center, called the dogs to their scratch lines and yelled, "Let go!" A cheer arose as the dogs charged across the pit and slammed into each other, teeth flashing as they sought a vulnerable target. After half an hour of fighting, the brindle looked beaten. Wounded and panting, he turned away from his opponent. The referee called the turn, and, when neither dog had a hold on the other, the handlers picked them up. The dogs were returned to their scratch lines and held. Both were breathing hard and bleeding from their bite wounds. Because he made the turn, the brindle would be released first. If he failed to attack now, he would lose. "Let go," the judge called again. The brindle was exhausted and badly hurtbut he was a game dog. Responding to an impulse bred into him over generations and nurtured through training, he stumbled across his scratch line toward his opponent. The other dog’s handler released him with the encouragement, "Finish him off, Bo." Bo knocked the brindle to the ground, seeking a hold on his throat. Though getting the worst of the fight, the brindle managed to grab Bo’s right front leg in his powerful jaws. As he bit down hard and twisted, the snap of breaking bone was heard. Bo lurched backward and then turned away from the brindle. Now it was Bo’s turn to scratch. Barely able to stand in his corner, the brindle strained against his handler’s arms, eager to continue the fight. But when he was released, Bo would not cross the pit. The referee called, “One…. Two… Time!” The crowd cheered for the brindle. He would die from his injuries an hour later, but he had won his fight. Bo’s handler spit on the ground. He had a lot of money on this match. Muttering, “Worthless cur,” he dragged Bo out of the barn and toward his truck, where a shotgun waited.
This fight could have occurred in any state, in a barn or a city warehouse. The participants might have been Caucasian, African American or Hispanic, and the year could have been 1897 or 2007.
The development of modern dogfighting as practiced in Europe, North America and South America can be clearly traced to 1835, when bull-baiting was banned in England. After the ban, the owners of "bulldogs"used up until then to bait bulls, bears and other animalsturned to staging fights between their dogs to satisfy their blood lust. The large, heavy bull dogs were eventually crossed with small, more agile terriers to produce the "bull terriers" that became the fountainhead of today's prominent fighting breeds. Staffordshire Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers and American Pit Bull Terriers all hail from this ancestry. Commonly, dogs falling into this broad class are identified as pit bulls.
It’s important to understand that not just any dog can be trained for pit fighting. Much like herding dogs, hunting dogs and other breeds designed for particular roles, fighting dogs have been genetically engineered to be receptive to the training that will prepare them to succeed in the pit. Staged fights are not the same as the scuffles seen in dog runs or between dogs in the same home. Most fights among pet dogs end quickly, with one individual submitting to the other, and they rarely result in serious injuries. The winner typically accepts the submission signals of the loser and ends the encounter with no further aggression.
To produce successful fighting dogs, certain aspects of normal dog behavior had to be altered. Most fighting dogs will continue to attack, regardless of whether their opponent gives up or not. In addition, a “game” fighting dog will continue to do battle even though badly injured. Gamenessa dog's willingness to persevere despite great adversityis the most admired trait in fighting dogs. Great attention is paid to breeding only sires and dams that pass this quality on to their progeny. In fact, the owner of a Grand Championa dog that has won five contestscan sell the dog's pups for as much as $20,000 apiece. The serious dogfighter is as familiar with the bloodlines of champion fighting dogs as any thoroughbred aficionado is of Triple Crown contenders.
With the high level of aggression that some pit bulls show toward other dogs, it may seem a contradiction that they also are described as loyal and gentle companion animals. However, these seemingly conflicting characteristics are hallmarks of a well-bred fighting dog. Before each fight, the dogs are washed, usually by the other dog's handler, to ensure that no foreign substances have been placed on the animal to inhibit an opponent from biting and holding. During fights, dogs are in the pit with handlers and the referee, and they are handled during fighting, training and breeding. Consequently, professional breeders of fighting dogs are very intolerant of “people mean” dogs. Dogs that display aggression toward people are certainly not bred and are almost always culled. Unfortunately, an increased level of human-directed aggression is being documented as individuals outside the traditional dogfighting culture acquire and breed pit bulls for protection or as status symbols. Poor training and poor breeding are, in part, responsible for the increasing numbers of pit bulls and pit bull mixes involved in attacks against people.
In early times, dogfighting by professionals and the upper classes was viewed as a tawdry but acceptable pastimeif one didn't advertise it in public. Among the working classes, especially in rural areas, dogfighting was a grand family event. Large conventions, as they were traditionally called, might include a barbecue, music, games for the children and parking security provided by the local sheriff.
Much less accepted nowadays, dogfighting is an underground activity. Undercover cruelty investigators describe an environment of casual cruelty and easy violence. Defeated dogs are killed and dumped; stolen dogs and cats are used to train fighting dogs. Successful raids on dogfighting rings typically net a cross section of people. "Dog fighters represent a range of personality types and psychological disorders," says Stephanie LaFarge, Ph.D., Senior Director, ASPCA Counseling Services. Like anyone, they are molded by their environment and begin to develop a system of values early. "School life offers them little fulfillment and humiliates them into doing socially unacceptable things in an environment where beating the system is the goal."
"Self esteem is an important issue with this population," adds Officer Mark MacDonald, ASPCA Humane Law Enforcement special investigator. "Fighting gives them the respect and power that they do not have in other areas of their lives."
"Many fighters come from non-responsive homes and communities with limited social or economic opportunity," he says. "They never acquire the tools to excel. With dogfighting, they are accepted, especially if they have a winning dog. Well known and respected in their circle, they are emulated by others. They gain a tremendous satisfaction and positive reinforcement from their new 'friends.' And because of their commitment to the care and training of their dog, their dog is a winner, and so are they."
Some, particularly the professional fighters, liken dogfighting to boxing, with the owner as coach and the dog as prize fighter. The owner trains and conditions the dog, pushing him to his limits and thereby providing him with the tools to win, just like a coach would train a boxer.
While some might typify dogfighting as a symptom of urban decay, not every dogfighter is economically disadvantaged. There are people who promote or participate in dogfighting from every community and all backgrounds, with audiences containing lawyers, judges, teachers and other upstanding community leaders drawn in by the excitement and thrill.
A new element has been added to the world of dogfighting over the past 15 to 20 years, much to the dismay of "traditional" fighters. More frequently, dogfights are informal street corner and playground activities. Stripped of the rules and formality of the traditional pit fight, these are spontaneous events triggered by insults, turf invasions or the simple taunt, "My dog can kill yours." Many people who participate in these fights lack even a semblance of respect for the animals, often starving or beating them to encourage aggressive behavior.. And many of the dogs are encouraged to be a threat not only to other dogs, but to people as wellwith tragic consequences.
Humane societies and law enforcement officials have been fighting long and hard to put an end to dogfighting, but even after raids, arrests and jail time, dogfighters return to the ring. The humane movement needs to step back and take a better look at the social structure of dog fighting. It will be necessary to replace the self-esteem it provides its participants with other means for positive, life-affirming opportunities. To do this, experts in gangs, drug abuse, poverty, education and psychology, as well as law enforcement, are needed to understand and combat dogfighting at each level. Preventing today's youthful spectators from becoming tomorrow's dogfighters is the challenge the humane community faces for the future.
This material was adapted from an article written by Julie Bank, former director of ASPCA Humane Education, and Stephen Zawistowski, Ph.D., Senior Vice President, ASPCA National Programs Office.
ASPCA Animal WatchFall 1997
Copyright © 1997 ASPCA. All Rights Reserved