How Dogfighting Works


Using a brutal training regimen, dogfighters take advantage of the natural athleticism, strength and loyalty of dogs like pit bulls in order to turn them into fierce killers. See more pictures of dogs.
Photographer: Chris Johnson | Agency: Dreamstime.com

The involvement of NFL quarterback Michael Vick in a dogfighting ring and his subsequent prison sentence created a stir, even prompting some jurisdictions to pursue tougher legislation against dogfighting. Dogfighting, with its accompanying images of mutilated and bloody dogs, rouses strong passions, but many people don't know the reasons why this illegal activity exists or just how widespread it is. In this article, we'll take a look at the brutal world of dogfighting, including how dogs are trained, what occurs in a dogfighting match, the penalties of dogfighting, and why both animal rights organizations and police officers think that dogfighting represents a national epidemic in the United States.

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It's important to make clear that dogfighting, while sometimes referred to as a "sport," is illegal across the United States and in many countries around the world. Training of fighting dogs involves cruel and inhumane practices, and is itself illegal in most states. These fights are much different than a scuffle that a couple of dogs might get into on the street. Those kinds of fights usually end quickly and without serious injury. An organized dogfight, on the other hand, is the product of deliberate antagonism, harsh training and assault by human owners. In addition, other crimes and forms of violence accompany nearly every major dogfighting ring.

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The figures on exactly how many people are involved in dogfighting vary, but experts agree that this $500 million industry is rising in popularity, especially in North Carolina and ]Virginia [Source: The Virginia-Pilot]. ABC News says that there are "20,000 to 40,000 dogfight spectators and participants in the United States" [So­urce:­ ABC News]. The Humane Society puts the number at 40,000 known dogfighting professionals [Source: CNN]; John Goodwin, an official with that organization, maintains a database of 20,000 names of possible dogfighters [Source: The Virginia-Pilot­].

Once confined to the South, dogfighting now involves people from a wide variety of backgrounds, with the most famous dogfighters and breeders enjoying global fame. The so-called "sport" is particularly popular in Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia. Crime syndicates in Russia and Italy profit from gambling operations centered around dogfighting. Certain famous rappers and athletes have been linked to dogfighting. The music video for Jay-Z's song "99 Problems" shows dogs preparing for a fight, while DMX raps about dogfighting. NBA player Qyntel Woods once abandoned a pit bull that appeared to have been involved in dogfighting. Even Nike alluded to dogfighting in a TV commercial, showing two dogs seemingly gearing up to fight. These days, dogfighting involves people of all stripes, old and young, rich and poor, urban and rural. One notable case involved a female cancer researcher with a Ph.D. in zoology [Source: Independent Weekly].

The Internet has played its own part in the spread of dogfighting in that it allows breeders to link up with clients and fans online and to exchange videos. Dogfighters publicize events online. Trainers learn about new training methods and wound treatment and buy equipment online. The ease of use of online video means that some handlers now broadcast fights on Web sites, allowing people to bet without even attending the fight.

On the next page, we'll look at the history of dogfighting and the different breeds of dogs used in it.­­­­­­­­­

History of Pit Bulls and Dogfighting

Many pit bulls come from bloodlines where dogs were bred to maximize aggressiveness.
Many pit bulls come from bloodlines where dogs were bred to maximize aggressiveness.
Photographer: Andrzej Fryda Agency: Dreamstime.com

Ancient Romans pitted dogs against each other in gladiatorial contests, but dogs have also played practical roles in society. Dogs have long been used as hunting companions, defenders of property and protectors of livestock against poachers and wild animals. They play key roles in military and K-9 police units. French bulldogs and Olde Boston Bulldogges (or Old Boston Bulldogs) killed household vermin and therefore made valuable pets.

­In England, bulldogs -- frequently crossbred with terriers -- were forced to attack bulls or bears, a practice called bull-baiting that was outlawed in 1835. Following this prohibition, dogfighting developed as a distinct practice, with dogs being pitted against one another rather than bulls. By some accounts, dogfighting arrived in the United States after its development in the late 1830s and early 1840s, but others trace its history back to 1817. In any case, dogfighting was a popular form of entertainment in America until it began to fall out of public favor in the 1930s. Since then, pit bulls have become synonymous with dogfighting and violence, causing many communities to view the dogs with suspicion or to prohibit their presence entirely.

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When raised and nurtured property, pit bulls are seen as loyal, gentle animals. At one time, they were nicknamed "nursemaid's dogs" because of their friendly demeanor toward children. Unfortunately, the breed's athleticism and intelligence, which would normally help its case as a good family dog, is manipulated to turn these dogs into fierce fighters. But experienced breeders still argue that pit bulls can be excellent companion dogs if they're properly trained and socialized with other dogs at a young age.

However, many pit bulls come from bloodlines where dogs were bred to maximize aggressiveness. And even with proper training and care, it is possible a pit bull may turn out overly aggressive, experts say. It's also important to keep in mind that, because they are so full of energy, pit bulls need an active life with lots of exercise.

On the next page, we'll go over some of the basics of dogfighting, including the two main types of the sport.

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Dogfighting Basics

Courtesy Christopher Barth/Associated Press                                  This dog was recovered with 21                                                  other dogs from the property                                                  of former Houston Oilers                                                  running back Todd McNair.
Courtesy Christopher Barth/Associated Press This dog was recovered with 21 other dogs from the property of former Houston Oilers running back Todd McNair.

There are two principal types of dogfighting: street fighting and professional dogfighting. Street fighting is less structured and serves more as a status symbol for the people who take part (frequently gang members). It’s also the area where dogfighting is growing fastest. Up to 100,000 people in the United States may be taking part in street fighting. Rival gangs pit their dogs against each other in bloody impromptu battles that take place in garages, alleys or abandoned buildings [Source: CNN].

Professional dogfighting is a highly organized subculture, made up of secretive groups where large amounts of money change hands. Professional dogfighters publish their own magazines that report the results of fights and chart lineages of successful fighting dogs. They travel widely to show off and fight their dogs. Some do it part-time, staying within the local community. Others make their living by breeding, training, fighting and gambling on the animals.

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The handlers involved in professional dogfights often abide by a code of conduct called "Cajun Rules" -- a detailed list of 19 rules covering all aspects of fights, even specifying that a referee must organize a rematch if a bout is broken up by the police. The rules were created in the 1950s by G.A. “Gaboon” Trahan, a police chief in Louisiana. Some dogfighting professionals claim they treat their dogs much better than amateur dogfighters. Others say that dogfighting is an art. But brutality and illegal activity is still the basis of sport.

Like many illicit subcultures, dogfighting has its own set of code words:

  • Campaign: a fighting dog’s career
  • Champion: a dog who has won three fights
  • Convention: a large dogfighting event, sometimes with accompanying activities like music and food
  • Dogmen: professional trainers and handlers
  • Grand champion: an undefeated dog with five wins
  • Gameness: tenacity and a willingness to fight (critical qualities for a fighting dog)
  • Prospect: a young, aggressive dog identified as a potentially good fighting dog
  • Scratch lines: lines in a dogfighting ring behind which the animals start in a match
  • The keep: the training a fighting dog undergoes leading up to a fight, lasting about six weeks
  • The show: a dogfight
  • Breeding stand: a barrel or stand that a female dog is tied to while a muzzled male dog mates with her

These are just some of the terms used to disguise what the dogfighters are talking about. The code words also indicate that a dogfighter is part of an exclusive group. Although Web sites devoted to dogfighting may use these terms, they insist that the dogfight stories are fictional or that the site’s writers don’t condone the activity. In actuality, these disclaimers likely serve as a legal cover, preserving their ability to deny their connection to any illegal goings-on.

In the next section, we’ll take a look at how dogfighters breed and train fighting dogs.

Breeding and Training a Fighting Dog

Handlers keep their fighting dogs almost constantly chained. Some handlers use extraordinarily heavy chains in order to build the dog’s upper-body strength.
Handlers keep their fighting dogs almost constantly chained. Some handlers use extraordinarily heavy chains in order to build the dog’s upper-body strength.
Photographer: Nikola Bilic | Agency: Dreamstime.com

As we point out repeatedly on previous and subsequent pages of this article: Dogfighting is a cruel practice, and it is a felony in every state of the United States and in many other nations around the world. But this is not just because of the actual fights. The process of raising and training fighting dogs is also cruel and harmful to animals.

The specific breeds used in dogfighting are usually American pit bull terriers, Staffordshire bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers and bulldogs. Due to frequent interbreeding, these dogs are often referred to simply as pit bulls. The animals used in dog fights have specifically been bred over generations to enhance aggressiveness. In fact, an official statement from The Humane Society of the United States said that breeders take advantage of pit bulls’ inherent loyalty to make them more aggressive with outsiders and other dogs [Source: The Humane Society of the United States]. Sometimes larger dogs, like Presa Canarios, are used or are crossbred with other fighting dogs.

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Taking a dog from birth to fully trained for fighting can take two years. The animals are often acquired from a pound, shelter or adoption agency. Top breeders sell puppies from a successful bloodline for more than $1,000 each. Floyd Boudreaux, considered the biggest figure in dogfighting for several years, sold his dogs for up to $10,000 [Source: The Humane Society of the United States].

These dogs are not allowed to live normal lives. Instead, they spend their time chained in place, training or fighting. They often live in small cages and in filthy conditions. Handlers use extraordinarily heavy chains to hold dogs in place, frequently adding weights to them, all with the purpose of increasing a dog’s upper-body strength. Dogs are kept close to each other, but just out of reach in order to increase their antagonism.

Professional dogfighters carefully structure training regimens. Food and nutritional intake are meticulously measured. Some trainers give dogs steroid injections and supplements. To build endurance, dogs are forced to run on treadmills and to swim in pools, sometimes for hours. Trainers keep detailed records of their dogs’ exercise and feedings.

To enhance aggressiveness, the animals are frequently beaten and antagonized. They may also be starved. As part of training, handlers will take cats or rabbits, often stolen, and use these animals as “bait.” These bait animals are tied up while the dog is restrained, or they’re put in a small enclosure with the dog. After training with the bait, the handler unchains the dog and allows him to kill it.

Handlers make their dogs tug on hanging objects, like tires, to increase jaw strength. Some handlers file their dogs’ teeth to be as sharp as possible so that maximum damage can be inflicted.

A “roll,” a dog’s first fight, takes place when the dog is around 15 months of age. This test run between two dogs lasts about 10 minutes and allows handlers to measure each animal's demeanor. A dog that’s deemed a non-prospect may be neglected, abandoned or killed.

A second test fight occurs at around 19 months of age. If it’s successful, the dog will be scheduled for “the show,” which we’ll look at on the next page.­

A Dogfight, or 'The Show'

Dogfighting remains a popular spectacle in countries around the world, including Afghanistan, where this fight took place in 2001.
Dogfighting remains a popular spectacle in countries around the world, including Afghanistan, where this fight took place in 2001.
Courtesy Maxim Marmur/Associated Press

Dogfights take place in a variety of locations. In rural areas, it can be outdoors, in a forest or in a barn. In cities, garages and warehouses are popular sites. The two dogs fight each other in a pit or ring that’s eight to 20 feet square with two- to three-foot-high walls. A professional dogfight has a judge or referee to oversee the match.

Before the fight, handlers weigh the animals. They then wash their opponents’ dogs to make sure the animals’ coats aren’t covered with slick substances or poison. This tradition falls under Cajun Rules, which also require owners to bring towels, a blanket and to wash their dogs in the same water.

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After the referee signals the beginning of the fight, owners are allowed to shout but not to physically interfere, or the fight is called. The match continues until one dog can no longer fight -- when a dog refuses to fight or jumps out of the ring, or a serious injury or death occurs. During a match, the referee will call a “turn” when a dog turns away from his opponent. The referee temporarily stops the fight while the dogs go to their handlers. The dogs are then returned to the scratch lines (starting lines) and the fight continues. Cajun Rules also specify other permissible actions during fights, such as letting handlers “unfang” their dogs (remove a dog’s lip that’s stuck on its own teeth) or provide bottled drinks for dogs, which handlers must taste to show that they haven’t been tampered with.

Dogfights can go on for hours, and by all accounts, they are gruesome events. A dogfight often results in severe injury or death for one of the animals. Many owners kill their dogs if they lose or are severely injured. Reported methods of killing, some of which were allegedly used on NFL quarterback Michael Vick’s property, include drowning, electrocution, hanging, shooting, burning or beating a dog against the ground. If they do survive a fight, dogs are often maimed or die from blood loss, dehydration or infection.

Many owners show little concern for the health of their fighting dogs. Pits and kennels inevitably end up covered in blood. Even winning dogs don’t receive proper medical care. Owners will indiscriminately give their dogs antibiotics or use crude measures like stapling shut gaping wounds. Some handlers show remarkable skill at providing improvised medical care to dogs, but their lack of formal training and disregard for the overall well-being of the animals put the dogs at great risk.

Illegal gambling is integral to dogfights. Tens of thousands -- even hundreds of thousands of dollars might be gambled on a single fight. And that's after spectators have paid to watch.

In addition to broadcasting fights online, participants frequently videotape fights. These videos are distributed online or through DVDs. One law enforcement officer called videotaping fights a “marketing tool” [Source: CNN].

In the next section, we’ll look at the effects of dogfighting on the community.

Effects of Dogfighting

Animal shelters report rising levels of abandoned pit bulls and other dogs typically associated with dogfighting.
Animal shelters report rising levels of abandoned pit bulls and other dogs typically associated with dogfighting.
Photographer: Michael Ledray Agency: Dreamstime.com

The effects of dogfighting are widespread and go beyond brutality to animals. As in many illegal gambling operations, dogfighting attracts other crimes, notably drugs, money laundering, racketeering and illegal firearms. A sheriff’s officer in Ohio said that 64 out of 65 dogfighting raids he had conducted also revealed drugs [Source: The Arizona Republic]. In the case of NFL star Michael Vick, law enforcement officers discovered signs of dogfighting at the quarterback's property in Virginia as a result of a drug investigation. Theft is a frequent occurrence as handlers steal animals to use them as bait in training their dogs. Research also shows that dogfighting and pet abuse are linked with spousal and child abuse [Source: The Humane Society of the United States]. With thousands of dollars in cash at stake, many participants bring guns to protect themselves or to threaten others.

Dogfight sp­ectators often bri­ng children to matches, which results in these children growing up in a culture where violence is accepted and celebrated. Some gangs even use dogfighting as a way to indoctrinate young recruits, giving them a pit bull puppy to train. Research shows that certain elementary school children have been exposed to dogfighting or already have experience running their own fights [Source: Animal Legal & Historical Center, Michigan State University of Law

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Experts say that many people turn to dogfighting because they find in it the respect, acceptance, power or success that’s not available to them in their day-to-day life. these are precisely the reasons cited for why people join gangs, perhaps indicating why dogfighting has risen in popularity among urban gangs.

In and of themselves, fighting dogs, though often chained up, pose a danger to communities, including neighborhood animals. Escaped fighting dogs have killed children before anyone was able to respond. Animal shelters are now faced with a growing number of pit bulls, some of them wounded or scarred from fighting. Besides facing a litany of medical problems, these dogs are simply too aggressive to keep as pets and must be euthanized.

During a dogfighting criminal trial, rescued dogs are sometimes held by charitable organizations in animal shelters at the expense of healthy dogs, who must be euthanized in order to set aside space for the fighting dogs. These rescued fighting dogs must also be killed after the trial because they’re not safe to maintain as pets.

Because of the perceived menace of pit bulls -- which, when raised properly, aren’t dangerous animals -- it is now illegal in some communities to adopt or own a pit bull. In the next section, we’ll look at dogfighting laws and commons signs of dogfighting activity. ­

Dogfighting Laws

Staffordshire bull terriers are commonly used as fighting dogs.
Staffordshire bull terriers are commonly used as fighting dogs.
Photographer: Emmanuelle Bonzami

Dogfighting is illegal in every U.S. state and in many countries around the world, though enforcement in other countries is frequently lax or nonexistent. Dogfighting is a felony in all states, except Idaho and Wyoming, where it’s a misdemeanor. It’s illegal to possess dogs for fighting in all states but Georgia, Idaho and Nevada. Among the states where possession of fighting dogs is illegal, it’s a felony in all of them except for New York, Texas, West Virginia and Wyoming. It’s actually legal to be a spectator at a dogfighting event in two states, but it’s a felony in 22 others and a misdemeanor in the remaining 26.

Besides its connection to other criminal activities, running a dogfighting operation or breeding dogs for the purpose of fighting can bring other charges, such as animal cruelty, child endangerment or operating a kennel without a license.

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Animal rights advocates like The Humane Society say that dogfighting is an underreported and poorly enforced crime. These organizations also claim that the penalties in place and the dangers of being caught don’t deter people from participating in dogfighting given the activity’s moneymaking potential. They also say that dogfighting has been mislabeled as an issue only of animal rights and abuse, not taking into account the the effects of dogfighting and the crimes associated with it.

Compounding the problem is the fact that, in some states, law enforcement officers can only make an arrest if they catch someone in the act of participating in dogfighting. This can be difficult: One animal control officer said that dogfighting rings are “harder to infiltrate than the Mafia” [Source: CBS 47 News]. Professional events are organized well in advance, but attendance is carefully controlled and the location of a fight is only revealed shortly before the fight takes place.

Some law enforcement agencies say that more effort is now going into uncovering and prosecuting dogfighting, while the Michael Vick controversy will likely spur more vigorous crackdowns. The Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act represented an effort to make stiffer penalties for dogfighters. Signed into law in May 2007, the Act made dogfighting a felony under federal law and instituted maximum penalties of a $250,000 fine and three-year imprisonment.

If you see signs of dogfighting, report it to the police. Keep in mind: dogfighting is dangerous and frequently accompanies other types of crime. If you’re unsure if dogfighting is taking place in your community, experts say to look for the following signs:

  • ­Equipment associated with dogfighting, like cages, pits, rings, heavy chains, weights, ­wooden ramps and treadmills
  • Presence of multiple pit bulls
  • Dogs with wounds, scars and untreated injuries
  • Blood spatters
  • Veterinarian supplies
  • An owner abusing dogs
  • Dogfighting magazines
  • Heavy traffic of people and dogs to and from a particular property

For more information about dogfighting, pit bulls and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • “Animal Cruelty and Family Violence: Making the Connection.” The Humane Society of the United States. http://www.hsus.org/hsus_field/first_strike_the_connection_between_animal_cruelty_and_human_violence/animal_cruelty_and_family_violence_making_the_connection/
  • “Cockfighting Fact Sheet.” The Humane Society of the United States. http://www.hsus.org/hsus_field/animal_fighting_the_final_round/cockfighting_fact_sheet/
  • “Cockfighting: State Laws.” The Humane Society of the United States. http://files.hsus.org/web-files/PDF/cockfighting_statelaws.pdf
  • “Dogfighting.” Last Chance for Animals. http://www.lcanimal.org/cmpgn/cmpgn_007.htm
  • “Dogfighting a booming business, experts say.” CNN. July 19, 2007. http://www.cnn.com/2007/US/07/18/dog.fighting/index.html
  • “Dogfighting Fact Sheet.” The Humane Society of the United States. http://www.hsus.org/hsus_field/animal_fighting_the_final_round/dogfighting_fact_sheet/
  • “Dogfighting Kingpin Toppled in Louisiana Raid.” The Humane Society of the United States. http://www.hsus.org/pets/pets_related_news_and_events/dog_fighting_kingpin_toppled_in_louisiana_raid.html
  • “Dogfighting rules and terms.” The Virginian-Pilot. June 17, 2007. http://content.hamptonroads.com/story.cfm?story=126832&ran=246466
  • “Dogfighting: State Laws.” The Humane Society of the United States. http://www.hsus.org/web-files/PDF/dogfighting_statelaws.pdf
  • “Fighting Dog Breeds.” The Bulldog Information Library. http://www.bulldoginformation.com/fighting-dog-breeds.html
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  • Bacon, Brittany. “Inside the Culture of Dogfighting.” ABC News. July 19, 2007. http://abcnews.go.com/TheLaw/story?id=3390721&page=1
  • Bank, Julie and Zawitowski, Stephen. “Dog Fighting.” ASPCA Animal Watch. 1997. http://www.aspca.org/site/PageServer?pagename=cruelty_dogfighting
  • Burke, Bill. “Once limited to the rural South, dogfighting sees a cultural shift.” The Virginian-Pilot. June 17, 2007. http://content.hamptonroads.com/story.cfm?story=126838&ran=241086
  • Gibson, Hannah. “Dog Fighting Detailed Discussion.” Animal Legal and Historical Center. 2005. http://www.animallaw.info/articles/ddusdogfighting.htm
  • Malanga, Steve. “The sick hipness of dog fighting.” June 17, 2007. Chicago Sun-Times. http://www.suntimes.com/news/otherviews/431143,CST-CONT-dog17.article
  • Roberts, Ashley B. “Member of Orange County’s chained-dog study panel has ties to dog-fighting.” April 11, 2007. The Independent Weekly. http://www.indyweek.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A73429
  • Simmons, Rebecca. “Dog Eat Dog: The Bloodthirsty Underworld of Dogfighting.” Nov. 1, 2006. http://www.hsus.org/pets/issues_affecting_our_pets/dog_eat_dog_the_bloodthirsty_underworld_of_dogfighting.html
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  • Weir, Tom. “Vick case sheds light on dark world of dogfighting.” USA Today. The Arizona Republic. July 18, 2007. http://www.azcentral.com/sports/cardinals/articles/0718dogfighting-ON.html

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