Dog fighting happens. It happens less often than some people fear, but far more often than many of us wish. Dog fighting, like other “blood sports,” has been part of many different cultures around the world, for many centuries. In his fascinating book Dogs: A Dictionary of Dog Breeds (2002), Desmond Morris lists 27 different breeds that were selected, bred, and used mainly for fighting, including not only most of the “pit bull” type dogs (American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Terriers, Bull Terriers, and American Bulldogs) but also Japanese Akitas, Chinese Shar Peis, and many mastiff type dogs from all over the world.
Presently dog fighting harms tens of thousands of dogs, mainly pit bulls, every year in the US. It happens all over the country, in rural, suburban, and urban areas, and with participants from many different socio-econ groups. It certainly happens in north central Florida, and shelters and rescue groups regularly receive dogs who show signs of having participated in organized fighting. (It’s important to note, however, that of the many dogs who show up at shelters badly injured, few were likely used as “bait” dogs. Some were, of course, but there are many ways that dogs get hurt, including ordinary fights between “non professionals,” so we should be careful about leaping to conclusions about the history of any dog, especially those encountered as strays.)
Not long ago, all dogs seized in raids were euthanized as soon as their legal role as evidence was finished. Today, many are evaluated individually and treated as victims and not criminals. This change in policy is due largely to the efforts of pit bull advocates involved in helping the dogs from Michael Vick’s fighting ring, including BAD RAP and Best Friends. Individual evaluations and rehabilitation efforts have made it possible for many dogs from fighting backgrounds to become beloved family pets, therapy dogs, canine athletes, and more.
Our own experiences with dogs from fighting backgrounds have been positive and often surprising. Almost all have been extremely human-oriented, affectionate, and outgoing – which is not the surprising part, since in that regard, they are typical pit bulls. What is surprising is how easily most have adjusted to life as family pets and also how well many of them get along with other animals, including dogs and also cats.
Work with dogs from fighting backgrounds reinforces the wisdom of treating ever dog as an individual. Some dogs from fighting pasts are timid around new people or reactive with new dogs — but not any more than other dogs we meet. The same is true of dogs that we’ve taken from cruelty cases and confiscations. They all respond to trauma differently, and making generalizations is not accurate — and it doesn’t help us get to know the dogs or help them. What defines a dog is not “all how they’re raised,” in other words, but a combination of nature, nurture, and ongoing care and management.
While vigorous law enforcement is crucial, the other key to ending dogfighting is education. The most effective educators, of course, are the dogs themselves.