"Bait dogs" are docile victims to some pit bull advocates, "urban legend" to others

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  May 2012:

Many of the 216 surviving pit bulls seized in a December 2,  2011 dogfighting raid in Indang,  Cavite province,  the Philippines, “are not in need of rehabbing,  as they were bait dogs,”  Island Rescue Organization founder Nena Hernandez asserted in an April 4,  2012 e-mail to 25 other dog rescuers.

But the Animal Farm Foundation,  of rural Dutchess County,  New York,  involved in pit bull rescue and advocacy for nearly 30 years,  on January 16,  2012 appealed to pit bull advocates to “stop using the term ‘bait dog.'”  Said the Animal Farm Foundation,  “The dogfighting investigators we’ve consulted overwhelmingly agree that ‘bait dogs’ are mostly an urban legend.”

Both Hernandez and the Animal Farm Foundation,  funded chiefly by literary agent Jane Rotrosen Berkey,  sought to improve the image of pit bulls.  To Hernandez,  however, the term “bait dog” appeared to connote a non-threatening victim.  To the Animal Farm

Foundation,  “bait dog” appeared to connote instability and risk.

The Animal Farm Foundation noted “many possible explanations why a shelter dog might present with injuries:  getting hit by a car, mange,  having a scuffle with another animal, birth defects,  etc.  When we label these dogs as ‘bait dogs,’  we’re implying more than we actually know,”  the posting reminded.  “The ‘bait dog’ label carries baggage,”  the Animal Farm Foundation continued,   “and people make assumptions about how ‘bait dogs’ will behave.  Every time you use the ‘bait dog’ label, you demonize the ‘fighting dog’ who supposedly caused those injuries.”

Ubiquitous as the term “bait dog” has become,  it appears to be of surprisingly recent origin.  Using the search engines NewsLibrary, NewspaperArchive,  Culturomics,  and the archives of the New York Times,  ANIMAL PEOPLE found no mention of “bait dogs” in mainstream media predating January 13,  1996.  But that first mention,  in an Albany Times Union item headlined “Pit Bull is More Victim That Criminal,”  linked the concept of “bait dog” to the centuries-old use of “baiting dogs” to torment tethered animals as a cruel amusement.  “Baiting dogs” could be either the dogs used to attack tethered bulls, bears,  or other species including other dogs, or might be tethered for other dogs to kill.  The term was not used consistently.  The same dog who was set against tied victims when young and healthy often became the tethered victim later, after suffering a disabling injury or showing a lack of interest in killing a baiting opponent.

Setting closely matched dogs against each other as a gambling pursuit gained popularity in the fast-growing waterfront cities of the 19th century,  where bulls and wildlife for traditional baiting were relatively inaccessible.

After the U.S. Civil War,  however,  the intertwined rise of societies for the suppression of vice and the early humane movement combined to drive dogfighting out of most of the north and west. Dogfighting survived mainly in the South, where fighting conducted according to “Cajun rules” became the predominant style.  Most of what is commonly believed about dogfighting by people other than “dogmen” is based on literary and film depictions of Cajun rules dogfighting.

But even within the conventions of Cajun rules dogfighting,  dog training regimens vary.  Moreover,  as dogfighting spread back out of the South to the rest of the U.S. and the world in recent decades,  the emphasis shifted,  from matched events held as a vehicle for gambling, back toward setting dogs on other animals as sadistic entertainment,  with no pretense that the victim animals have any chance to “win.”

The contemporary concept of a “bait dog” appears to have evolved from common traditional practices of Cajun rules dogfighters–which have changed over time.  Classically,  in the early stages of training,  a prospective fighting dog is offered the opportunity to attack several relatively helpless victims,  such as stray dogs,  puppies, kittens,  or crudely declawed cats.  These “bait” animals do not survive the encounters.  For many “dogmen,”  this is the extent of the “sport,” but for those participating in serious gambling matches,  a prospective fighting dog who demonstrates the instinct and ability to rip harmless animals apart may next be introduced to one or more “sparring partners” whose behavior and abilities will more nearly approximate what the dog will later encounter in a gambling fight. The purpose is not only to prepare the fighting dog to win in a fight for money,  but also to reassure the trainers that they will not lose their investment.

Many dogfighters these days skip this second phase of traditional fighting dog training,  and sometimes the first phase too. Some test their fighting dogs only in muzzled “rolls” with related dogs,  to avoid injury to the fighting dogs which might inhibit their success in a gambling match.

But among dogmen who still follow the traditional training regimen,  the second-stage “bait dogs” will usually be other pit bulls. Submissive pit bulls who whimper and cringe, roll over,  or run away will not give the fighting dog adequate training. The “bait dog” at the second stage of training is a dog who will respond to aggression with aggression,  and will put up at least the semblance of a fight.  This “bait dog” may be a stolen pit bull who has not actually been trained to fight,  or a pit bull who has flunked out of fighting training at an earlier stage,  or a fighting pit bull who has been injured beyond having a good prognosis for winning a gambling fight.

To ensure that the future fighting dog wins and the “bait dog” loses,  “bait dogs” are often starved and dehydrated,  as were the dogs seized in Laguna.   But a second-level “bait dog” has to be willing to fight–to retain the trait of “gameness.”  And promoters of televised dogfighting spectacles, such as those that were conducted at Laguna,  the Philippines,  may be more interested in the “show” of a fight, however one-sided,   than in staging an actual contest.

Since the promoters in the Laguna case owned the dogs on either side of each fight,  the outcomes may have been rigged to reap maximum profit from gamblers in South Korea who had no ownership stake in the dogs.

Every dog in such a situation may,  in short,  be both a “bait dog” and a “fighting dog,”  depending on the match,  and must be considered “armed and dangerous.”

–Merritt Clifton

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