Monday, July 12, 2010

Fight Club- Nearer than you know.

The term pitbull is usually used to refer to a type of dog rather than a specific breed. A Pitbull terrier generally describes any crossbreed of the American PitBull, English Bull Terrier or Staffordshire Bull Terrier which has been bred or trained for the purpose of fighting another dog in a ring. These dogs are not naturally any more or less aggressive towards Humans than other dogs and it is acknowledged that these breeds arent dangerous when raised properly.

Pitbulls are valued by performance, like racehorses and greyhounds. Top fight winners can be valued as stud dogs at up to $20000 in the US where pit bull fighting is a growing underworld activity. Pups from fighting bloodlines of the Staffordshire Bull Terrier change hands in Ireland for more than double the price of a non-fighting Staffordshire pup. At 12 to 15 months prospects will be trialled and potential game dogs selected and trained. A rejected dog deemed unsuitable for fighting may find its way to an animal shelter and be adopted as a pet from there. Or they may be used to bait other dogs.

Staffordshire bull terriers and other pitbulls can make excellent companion dogs as they are loyal and intelligent.But their perceived menace is often a source of conflict between neighbours in built-up areas. Owners of other breeds of pet dogs in housing estates often speak of feeling intimidated by the presence of pitbulls in the area. Behind the perceived menace there is also an unknown menace if a pitbull terrier has been bred from fight winners' bloodlines or "rescued" from a dog fight trainer.

Companion animals learn boundaries and their role and place amongst people by process of socialisation as pups. Just as greyhounds and police dogs are not raised as pets, rescued fight dogs can not be relied on to have the same conditioning as dogs which have been treated as pets since birth. In the US escaped fighting dogs have killed children. Many are simply too aggressive and damaged to be rehabilitated as pets and must be euthanased.

This week in a midlands town near one of my clinics Gardai were called to a house after neighbours reported a man for keeping large numbers of dogs in confinement. Gardai found a number of pitbulls in cages along with equipment for training these dogs such as chains, treadmills and weighing scales. They found anabolic steroids which were being given to the dogs for muscle development. There were also a number of dead dogs of assorted breeds which were believed to be stolen pets used to bait the fighting dogs during their training. A freezer contained body parts of various dogs. These were believed to be pets which were stolen to feed the fighting dogs.

My wife asked me not to write a piece on dog fighting. I will limit the tags on this blog entry so that it is not picked up by anyone other than the usual few who read here. Her fears are not misplaced because the details in that house are the outward trappings of a darker capability. Those who become exercised by the animal welfare and cruelty issues of dog fighting are missing the real point. One of my recent posts on this weblog ( Tokyo Kittens and Urban Cowboys) cited research about varied types of behaviour which are considered "signposts" of sociopathic and psychopathic disorders. Animal cruelty is considered a "gateway" behaviour. We are familiar with the idea of a gateway drug. Theoretically some habits lead to more harmful ones. Psychologists believe exposure to and practice of animal abuse causes erosion of empathy. Violence towards humans is the next step forward, just across a fragile moral barrier.

There isnt a lot of Irish research on this issue. We have an ambivalent attitude to animal abuse. We prioritise more immediate interventions. We have an inadequate and reactive approach to dealing with institutional child abuse and providing support to the vulnerable. Proactive interventions to target animal neglect and abuse arent even on the social agenda. But maybe they should be. The Humane Society of the US has convincing evidence linking dog fighting and pet abuse with child and spousal abuse. Since July 2008 when a famous American footballer was convicted of organising a dog fight club, many states have amended the RICO statutes to give prosecuters a greater range of charges with which to target dog fight organisers. The famous Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisation act recognizes that where you find dog fights there will be other violence, drugs, money laundering and illegal gambling.

Dispersal of a single fight kennels this week in the midlands scratches at the surface of these issues. Like a brief glimpse under a heavy rock, lifted then dropped. Unprecedented numbers of family pets have gone missing in recent months. Owners of missing small dogs can presume the worst. We must also presume there are other fight kennels in the region.The Law in Ireland lists dangerous breeds- American PitBull, Bull Mastiff, Doberman Pinscher, English Bull Terrier,German Shepherd, Japanese Akita, Japanese Tosa, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Rottweilar and crossbreeds of same. These dogs must be muzzled and kept on a lead in public and cannot be owned by anyone under 16. We also have dog licence laws which apply to all dogs. Our dog laws could be an effective instrument for Gardai to target and link criminal patterns of behaviour as the US RICO statute now does. But dog laws that arent implimented are pointless and a list of breeds without a register of either the breeder or the dog itself is an unenforceable list.

A Proactive approach to animal welfare would recognize that greater policing of animal welfare will benefit society, deter abusers, impact favourably on other violent crime rates. First and foremost we need stiffer penalties and more forceful interventions which recognize the "gateway" behaviour phenomenon. A proactive approach would also acknowledge that dispassionate coordination between Vets, Gardai, Dog pounds and animal welfare groups is needed. There needs to be firm criteria to decide which dogs to rehome and which to euthanase.I believe if a dog on the dangerous breed list is brought to a pound, it should be euthanased. Otherwise what's to stop anyone selling an impounded pitbull back to a dog fighting enthusiast?

A few days ago a sullen character of about 25 turned up at another of our clinics with a hungry British Bulldog suffering from Dermatitis which he had been given from the pound. The ISPCA paid its Vet's bill and had given him this dog even though he was unemployed and had a Staffordshire already to look after.I pointed out that this dog, having Dermatitis, would be high maintenance and require regular Veterinary attention. I had a concern about the new owners limited ability to pay for the upkeep of two big dogs and the ramifications of bringing a second dominant alpha type into a house with a Staffordshire. The ISPCA local volunteer whom I then spoke with, was motivated by the usual compassion but used no rationale for rehoming this dog other than to avoid its euthanasia. From a broader social perspective euthanasia of THAT dog would be my choice.

We need a new approach to animal welfare which recognizes how animals integrate with and impact on humans. Veterinary scientists now approach farm animal health, welfare and hygiene from the standpoint of food security, food hygiene, human health and safety. Beyond the isolated political footballs of stag hunting and dog breeder levies we need proactive and comprehensive companion animal legislation for all society's benefit.


  1. I can find no flaw in your argument, having owned German Sheps in my past I know them to be an intelligent loyal and tolerant companion and watchdog. In stark contrast to the unlucky Sheps that are confined in yards with little stimulation or exercise which seems to be considered legitimate use for dogs.
    Most people forget that Pete in the little rascals was a pitbull, time changes our perception of breeds, the shepherd was a sheepdog, the bull terrier was known as the nanny dog. Its not the dog, its the owner and in cases of abuse I have to side with you about euthanasia, it takes such dedication and support to properly rehabilitate a dog, I’m not sure if most people are up to the task when you have an animal capable of doing such damage.
    Another source of concern for me has been the wolf hybrid movement, anyone can buy one, they are advertised in Ireland. Wolves are not dogs, just as we are no longer picking bugs off one another. But 'enthusiasts' believe them to be a superior version of our loyal lapdogs, the mind boggles.
    We are not a nation of animal lovers, despite our claims to be so. Our pounds are sorry and dismal places for the most part, there are considerable problems with the current system of registration of breeds, I could register a pug as an akita with the kennel club and 'papers' are as plentiful as ink and a printer.

  2. I heard that before about the Kennel Club- that you could register any dog you wanted without ever an inspection.
    We need a new statutory framework for animal ownership and we need the dog licence law to be enforced. Give the Gardai another focus for revenue generation apart from speeding tickets!

  3. I can never understand the blase attitude our society has to dogs. They are a human invention and are potentially the most dangerous things we allow our children to play with. They are also potentially the most rewarding things a child can play with. They are also the only animal which can kill, that can be seen walking down a street, unaccompanied. It cannot be beyond the wit of our modern society to chip every dog born in the state, so that the humans responsible for them are always held to account. Thanks for another informative article.

  4. Good feedback Paul and Annie, thanks to you both.
    There is an argument used by the welfare people to defend the pitbull and dogs like that against further controls- people who feel that these dogs get a " bad rep" or are "victimised"/ "all tarred with the same brush". The argument is that its not the dogs fault, humans turn them vicious and so on- an argument which is true and fair enough.
    BUT the problem is its the same flawed logic which is used by the NRA in the US to defend free GUN ownership laws!- "its not the gun, its the person holding the gun!".
    I certainly dont want to see pitbulls and akitas all over the neighbourhood on the strength of that logic.
    You hit the issue at its core when you consider that a dog can be trained to kill and yet remain unregistered and virtually unpoliced.