In January of 2008, animal advocates from Best Friends Animal Society rescued 22 dogs from former NFL quarterback Michael Vick’s now-infamous illegal dogfighting operation. Among the canines was Handsome Dan, who initially was extremely fearful of people yet playful with other dogs. After almost two years of rehabilitation, a loving family adopted him and founded Handsome Dan’s Rescue, a nonprofit organization that trains shelter dogs with behavioral issues to increase their rates of adoption. Handsome Dan is one of the few dogs successfully placed into a private home after beginning life as a fighting canine.
Dogfighting is an illegal blood sport in which dogs are bred and trained to fight each other, sometimes to the death. Despite being classified as a felony in every U.S. state, dog fighting takes place in many parts of the country. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) estimates that at least 140,000 people in the U.S. are involved in organized dogfighting, but its underground nature makes it difficult for authorities to identify participants and effectively intervene. Many animal advocates are working to abolish this so-called “sport,” yet the practice continues.
Dogfighting occurs on three levels, all of which are illegal: professional, hobbyist, and street-level. The most organized level is known as “professional” dogfighting. Pit bulls, including Staffordshire terriers, American Staffordshire terriers, American bulldogs, and American pit bull terriers, are the preferred breeds of professional dogfighters because their athleticism and intelligence can most effectively be manipulated to produce profitable fighters. Professional dogfighters travel both domestically and abroad to breed and fight dogs for profit. The puppies of victorious fighting dogs are sold for the highest prices. Many professional dogfighters spend thousands of dollars and several months training their dogs for fights; to protect their investments, they frequently provide proper nutrition and veterinary care—but also regularly give their dogs drugs, including anabolic steroids, which encourage fighting instincts by increasing testosterone and muscle mass. Professional fighting dogs may receive more physical care than other fighting dogs, at least during their profitable years, but ultimately they are still objectified for financial gain. Dogfights organized by professionals are usually secretive, require an invitation, and occur only once every few months. The fights often take place in garages or basements that house fighting pits, which are overseen by referees and timekeepers. Strict rules apply to the fights and spectators wager large sums on the outcomes.
The mid-level, less formal tier of dogfighting is occupied by so-called “hobbyists,” many of whom aspire to become professionals. Hobbyist dogfighters are often affiliated with gangs or have criminal records. Like professionals, hobbyist fighters prefer specific breeds, sell pups from reputable parents for significant profits, follow strict training regimes, give their dogs performance-enhancing drugs, and operate fights under formalized rules. Some of the dogs owned by hobbyists also receive substantial veterinary care and monitored nutrition. Hobbyist-organized dogfights typically take place in abandoned buildings with private rooms that are transformed into fighting pits; the fights in hobbyist dogfighting circles usually occur every few weeks.
The least formal level of dogfighting is street fighting. Streetfighters own a wide variety of dog breeds and do not keep track of bloodlines. The dogs are forced to fight each other almost daily, without much protocol, in urban parks or housing estates. Streetfighters usually focus primarily on financial gain rather than the reputations of their dogs, who rarely receive proper nutrition or medical care.
A fighting dog, regardless of level, leads a drastically different life than a companion dog. Fighting dogs typically spend most of their lives in isolation, penned or restrained with heavy logging chains. In December of 2019, animal control officers rescued 49 pit bulls in Tacoma, Washington, from a suspected dogfighting operation. The dogs, living in crates lacking ventilation and lighting, were forced to sleep and defecate in the same area. These conditions are typical for dogs forced to participate in dogfights.
Fighting dogs typically begin a brutal training process at just 15 months old. Although most dogs used for fighting are purchased from breeders as puppies, some dogfighters steal family or shelter dogs. Fighting dogs are conditioned to behave aggressively toward other dogs and animals as well as people. Professionals, who adhere to carefully structured training regimes and keep records to monitor their dogs’ progress, force dogs to run on treadmills or swim in pools for hours. Streetfighters routinely starve their dogs and then taunt them with “bait”—caged rabbits, chickens, cats, or even failed fighting dogs—to increase their aggression. The bait animals, helpless and terrified by the starved dogs, often suffer considerably themselves. In October of 2016, two kittens were rescued in Benicia, California, after being used as bait in this manner. The kittens’ legs were bound with rubber bands to prevent them from escaping or defending themselves; they suffered severe damage to their legs and paws from repeated dog attacks. One of the kittens was ultimately euthanized due to a severe infection resulting from the trauma. Experiences like this, harrowing for both the fighting dogs and bait animals, are unfortunately typical.
Dogfighters also subject their dogs to physical mutilations to improve their fighting performance. Cropping dogs’ ears and docking their tails, interventions that dogfighters usually perform themselves using sharp craft shears and without pain relievers or anesthetics, minimizes the areas of dogs’ bodies that opponents can easily grab or bite. Without ears or tails, the dogs also communicate fewer body language cues during fights. Dogfighters may also sharpen their dogs’ teeth and add roach poison to their food to unpleasantly alter the taste of their fur, which discourages opponents from biting. Poisoning and mutilating dogs to make them into more profitable fighters often causes the dogs to suffer chronic pain and infections.
Already subject to severe abuse during training, even more brutality awaits these dogs in the fighting rings. Injuries sustained during dogfights are often fatal. Fights, which can last from a few minutes to two hours, end when one of the dogs dies or becomes severely injured and is unable to continue. Common injuries sustained in the ring include severe puncture wounds, lacerations, and broken bones; excessive blood loss also occurs. Even after initially surviving a fight, many dogs afterward succumb to their injuries. Dogs who lose but survive fights are typically either abandoned, used as bait animals, or brutally killed. Dog fighters kill defeated dogs by electrocuting, shooting, drowning, or beating them. As bait dogs, they are chased and mauled by other dogs in confined areas on repeated occasions. The eventual fates of more successful fighting dogs are not much better, as they too are either killed, used as bait, or abandoned once they grow too old or stop winning fights. The dogfighting industry, like all other industries that exploit animals, treats sentient beings as disposable commodities; the dogs are discarded once they are no longer profitable.
Dogs are intelligent, sentient creatures. “Dogs have an exaggerated, ebullient, perhaps even excessive capacity to form affectionate relationships,” writes Clive Wynne, psychologist and founder of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University. As a result of many generations of domestication and selective breeding, dogs have evolved to be heavily dependent on humans for their basic needs. Humans have a responsibility to protect rather than abuse the canines among us.
Handsome Dan endured a long road to recovery after his unlikely rescue. Months passed before he was comfortable enough to allow anyone other than his rescuers to pet him. Handsome Dan is one of the lucky ones who did not meet an untimely, grisly end. All dogs currently subjected to fighting deserve to be rescued and given the chance to start a better life. The cruel “sport” of dogfighting needs to be fully exposed and wholly eradicated.
How You Can Help Prevent Dog Abuse
- Concerned citizens can help to stop dogfighting by knowing what signs to look for and reporting suspected dogfighting to the proper authorities. Dogs kept penned and heavily chained in secluded areas are likely being used for fighting, as are scarred pit bulls with cropped ears or docked tails.
- The presence of training equipment such as homemade or electric treadmills or “break sticks”—tools commonly used to pry apart dogs’ jaws when they are locked in battle—also denotes potential dogfighting activities. Break sticks are most often used on pit bulls, who can be trained to lock their jaws onto their opponents and refuse to let go.
- Publications in a dog owner’s home such as the Sporting Dog Journal or the Pit Bull Chronicle are another indicator that the owner is engaging a dog in illegal fights.
- Suspected dog fighters should be reported to local authorities or the HSUS Dog Fighting Hotline via (877) 847-4787.
Audrey is a freelance photographer and writer, focusing on the topics of animals and animal rights.