In recent years, pit bulls have gained more than just a foothold in public awareness. Unscrupulous breeding and negative media attention have resulted in many apartment complexes, neighborhoods and even counties imposing bans on pits and pit mixes, citing them as "inherently dangerous" to the public.
Pit bulls can attract the worst kind of dog owners—people who are only interested in these dogs for fighting or protection. While pit bulls were once considered especially non-aggressive to people, their reputation has changed, thanks to unscrupulous breeders and irresponsible owners. And because the pit bull population has increased so rapidly, shelters now struggle to deal with an overflow of image-plagued, hard-to-place dogs.
History of the Breed
Pit bulls are descendants of the original English bull-baiting dog—a dog that was bred to bite and hold bulls, bears and other large animals around the face and head. "Bulldogs" were bred to hang on without releasing their grip, until the animal was exhausted from fighting and from loss of blood. When baiting large animals was banned in the 1800s, people then started to fight their dogs against each other instead.
As the "sport" of dog fighting developed, enthusiasts bred a lighter, more athletic canine. These dogs made their way to North America, the ancestors of today's pit bulls. Pit bulls that were not used for fighting were considered ideal family pets—affectionate, loyal and gentle with children. Serious problems started when these dogs gained the attention of people looking for a macho dog—and to meet their demands, unscrupulous and uncaring breeders are producing puppies that were not only aggressive to other dogs, but also to people.
In the Fighting Ring
Although a felony offense in all 50 states, organized dog fights still take place in many parts of the country. Although there are historical accounts of dog fights dating back to the 1750s, widespread activity emerged after the Civil War, with professional pits proliferating in the 1860s, mainly in the Northeast. It was a common form of entertainment for police officers and firemen—the "Police Gazette" served as a major source of information on dog fighting for many years. Although many laws were passed to outlaw the activity, dog fighting continued to expand during the twentieth century.
Dogs that fight are bred and conditioned to never give up when they are fighting, even if it means that they will be badly hurt or killed. Other animals are victims of dog fights, too—it's not uncommon for trainers to encourage their dogs' aggression by using other dogs and smaller animals such as cats, rabbits and rodents as bait.
Participants and promoters come from every community and all backgrounds, with audiences including lawyers, judges and teachers and other upstanding community leaders.
In recent decades, fights have become informal street corner and playground activities. Many people who participate in these fights lack even a semblance of respect for the animals, often starving and beating them to encourage aggressive behavior.
Dog Fighting FAQs
Today, the ASPCA incorporates information on blood "sports" in the animal cruelty trainings it provides in New York's police academies as well as in police officer trainings around the country.
It also provides training on a national level to animal control officers and veterinarians on how to identify the signs of animal cruelty, as well as in crime scene investigation (CSI).
In addition, the ASPCA regularly provides training and assistance to prosecutors on how to build an effective case against those charged with these crimes, and its experts often serve as witnesses in such cases. Several ASPCA employees have published educational and reference books on animal cruelty investigation and prosecution that are used widely throughout the country. Visit our Fight Cruelty section to learn more about our recent dog fighting raids and rescues.
"Street" fighters engage in dog fights that are informal street corner, back alley 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 and beating them to encourage aggressive behavior. Many of the dogs are bred to be a threat not only to other dogs, but to people as well—with tragic consequences. "
Street" fights are often associated with gang activities. The fights may be conducted with money, drugs or bragging rights as the primary payoff. There is often no attempt to care for animals injured in the fight and police or animal control officers frequently encounter dead or dying animals in the aftermath of such fights. This activity is very difficult to respond to unless it is reported immediately. Professional fighters and hobbyists decry the techniques and results of these newcomers to the blood sport.
"Hobbyist" fighters are more organized, with one or more dogs participating in several organized fights a year as a sideline for both entertainment and to attempt to supplement income. They pay more attention to care and breeding of their dogs and are more likely to travel across state lines for events.
"Professional" dogfighters often have large numbers of animals (as many as 50 or more) and earn money from breeding, selling and fighting dogs at a central location and on the road. They often pay particular attention to promoting established winning bloodlines and to long-term conditioning of animals. They regularly dispose of animals that are not successful fighters or breeders using a variety of methods, including shooting and blunt force trauma. Unlike professional dogfighters of the past, both professionals and hobbyists of today may dispose of dogs that are too human-aggressive for the pit by selling them to "street" fighters or others who are simply looking for an aggressive dog—thus contributing to the dog bite problem.
In recent years, a fourth category of dogfighters seems to have emerged, with some wealthier individuals from the sports and entertainment worlds allegedly using their financial resources to promote professional dog fighting enterprises, which essentially use the philosophy and training techniques usually associated with street fighting.
For others, the attraction lies in using the animals as an extension of themselves to fight their battles for them and demonstrate their strength and prowess. However, when a dog loses, this can cause the owner of the dog to lose not only money, but status, and may lead to brutal actions against the dog.
For others, the appeal simply seems to come from the sadistic enjoyment of a brutal spectacle.
In the early days of dog fighting in England, the Old English Bulldog and the Bull and Terrier Dog, both now extinct, were the breeds of choice for this brutal blood sport. These breeds were replaced in the early twentieth century by the American Pit Bull Terrier—the Americanized version of the bull-baiting dogs from England.
Though bred for fighting other dogs—or perhaps because of that—the American Pit Bull terrier has long been a popular family pet, noted for his strength, intelligence and devotion.
It's important to remember any dog can behave aggressively, depending on the context, his genetic background, and his upbringing and environment. When a dog is treated well, properly trained and thoroughly socialized during puppyhood and matched with the right kind of owner and household, he's likely to develop into a well-behaved companion and cherished member of the family. Please visit The Truth About Pit Bulls to learn more.
The conditioning of fighting dogs may also make use of a variety of legal and illegal drugs, including anabolic steroids to enhance muscle mass and encourage aggressiveness. Narcotic drugs may also be used to increase the dogs' aggression, increase reactivity and mask pain or fear during a fight. Young animals are often trained or tested by allowing them to fight with other dogs in well-controlled "rolls." Those who show little inclination to fight may be discarded or killed. Some fighters will use stolen pets as "bait dogs," or sparring partners.
There are many other common techniques used in the training and testing of dogs, but these methods vary widely among different fighters and may range from systematic to haphazard. "Street" fighters usually make little investment in conditioning or training their animals. Instead, they rely on cruel methods to encourage their dogs to fight, including starvation, physical abuse, isolation and the use of stimulants or other drugs that excite the dogs.
Fighters usually perform this cropping/docking themselves using crude and inhumane techniques. This can lead to additional criminal charges related to animal cruelty and/or the illegal practice of veterinary medicine.
In a more organized fight, the dogs will be weighed to make sure they are approximately the same weight. Handlers will often wash and examine the opponent's dog to remove any toxic substances that may have been placed on the fur in an attempt to deter or harm the opposing dog. At the start of the fight, the dogs are released from their corners and usually meet in the middle, wrestling to get a hold on the opponent. If they do, the dogs grab and shake to inflict maximal damage. Handlers are not permitted to touch the dogs except when told to do so by the referee. This can happen if dogs when, as described below, one dog "turns."
If a dog turns away from his opponent without renewing his attack, the referee may call a "turn" and require that the dogs be returned to their corners. The handlers collect their dogs and tend to them briefly before returning to the scratch lines. The dog who turned is released first. If the dog who committed the "turn" fails to cross the pit and engage his opponent, the match is over and the other dog is the winner. A draw may occur if both dogs fail to "scratch" several times in succession, i.e. repeatedly fail to cross the scratch lines and re-engage in the fight. This is an unusual and often unpopular end for the dogs involved.
As of 2008, dog fighting is a felony in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In most states, the possession of dogs for the purpose of fighting is also a felony offense. Being a spectator at a dog fight is illegal in all states. See a chart of state dog fighting laws and their penalties, which vary widely.
On the federal side, the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 prohibits certain animal fighting-related activities when they have involved more than one state or interstate mail services, including the U.S. Postal Service. In 2007, Congress passed the Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act with strong bipartisan support. The Act amended the Animal Welfare Act and provides felony penalties for interstate commerce, import and export relating to commerce in fighting dogs, fighting cocks and cockfighting paraphernalia. Each violation can result in up to three years in jail and a $250,000 fine.
In 2014 the crucial elements of the Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act were signed into law as part of the Farm Bill. This provision makes attending an animal fight anywhere in the U.S. a federal offense, and imposes additional penalties for bringing a child under 16 to an animal fight.
Each dog should undergo a standardized evaluation that is designed to gauge the dog's reaction to a range of experiences common to most companion dogs, including being handled by a stranger, playing with people and toys, having a bowl of food and a chew bone taken away, meeting a doll that looks and sounds like a child and meeting other dogs. In some cases, dogs that demonstrate mild to moderate levels of aggression or fear may be candidates for rehabilitation if such resources are available. Concerns about liability, public safety and the animal's well-being mean that dogs exhibiting extreme fear or severe aggression toward people or other dogs are not adoptable and often have to be euthanized.
All dogs from fighting raids that are placed in foster or adoptive homes must be carefully monitored over the long term because we still don't know how likely these dogs are to develop aggressive behavior in the future.
Confiscated fighting dogs are also at high risk of being stolen from shelters, foster care or other placements and returned to the fight trade. Therefore, it is especially important for shelters to put solid security measures in place while housing fighting dogs, to spay and neuter dogs who are adopted out, and to educate foster groups and adopters about why it is best not to disclose the identity of these dogs to their friends and acquaintances.
An additional complication is that the evidence likely to be seized in a raid includes the dogs—living creatures who must be taken care of and maintained while the judicial process unfolds. Most prosecutors would be happy to take on every dog fight case they could, but they are limited by the human and animal care resources available to them.
In addition, the ASPCA recommends the formation of local or state task forces to address dog fighting. These groups should include members from all the major stakeholders in that community—law enforcement, prosecutors, animal control, animal welfare groups, veterinarians, public health officials, housing authorities, the neighborhood watch and others. The group should identify the nature of the problems in the area, the laws that could be applied to these problems, and the resources that are available. Dog fighting is most effectively addressed by a collaborative approach to this heinous crime.
In general, fighting dogs are less likely to have access to veterinary professionals for treatment of their injuries. Veterinarians should be watchful for some of the typical injuries in fighting dogs, including unprofessionally cropped tails and ears, multiple bite wounds, heavy scarring, missing and torn ears and lips, and previously broken limbs that healed improperly. Several states (including Arizona, California, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin and West Virginia) specifically require veterinarians to report suspicions of dog fighting when confronted with animals with such injuries.
What You Can Do
- Visit the ASPCA Advocacy Center to keep up to date on dog fighting legislation in your state.
- Adopt a Pit Bull and let your perfect pooch be an ambassador for the breed!