521 Fighting for Dogs Lives

FIGHTING FOR DOGS' LIVES
by   David Hancock

 Organised dog-fighting has a feature which is unique amongst criminal activities: a successful prosecution brings the greatest punishment to the victim. The convicted humans receive jail sentences or a substantial fine; the dogs forced to take part are sentenced to death, those which survive death in the ring, that is. There is rightly little sympathy for the human culprits; sadly there is no compassion for the dogs. I appreciate the manifold problems of rehoming dogs made to fight each other; I just wish some form of rehabilitation for them could be attempted. It is rare, I believe, for a dog used in organised fights to be aggressive towards humans, despite the justification which might exist for that.

 It is difficult to fathom the rationale behind dog v dog contests, which are staged from Mexico to Milan and from the Himalayas to the Philippines. Gambling of course has always played a major part in such odious activities and surviving winners can command relatively huge fees in breeding programmes. But what kind of man participates? Do they consider themselves 'hard' by taking part or consider it a way of demonstrating their toughness? I have had the privilege of working and playing sport with some of the toughest men you could find: I played rugger for England as a schoolboy; I went on two arctic expeditions before I was 21; I was a paratrooper for three years; I served in Gurkha formations in both Malaya and Borneo. I have learned from personal experience that there is a world of difference between being tough and acting tough; those who try to appear tough by engaging in cruel activities unwittingly reveal their actual lack of toughness immediately. 

 Yet, dog-fighting is a popular village sport in places like Afghanistan and Nepal. The Gurkhas were honest about it, the cash rewards from gambling on the dogs were the main attraction. I have heard of a well-educated very civilised wealthy American lawyer who kept fighting dogs because he admired courage in his dogs. I was once asked by some travellers whether my Bullmastiffs were 'game', a word often used as shorthand for a willingness to fight. Apart from the fact that the mastiff breeds have an instinct to seize and hold rather than savage and would be completely unsuitable for fighting, I have always been able to respond with 'Why on earth would I want them to be?' (This in the knowledge that two different veterinary surgeries have praised my dogs for their wonderful temperament, when being treated). Making your companion dogs, quite needlessly, display their courage, pluck, gameness, ferocity, aggression, whatever you choose to call it, seems to me to be a very transparent cover for human cowardice. Bravery by proxy is not bravery at all.

 But where are the studies into dog-fighting, why it's conducted, how it's justified and what is its purpose? Is there a distinct sort of personality who is attracted to such a barbaric activity? It has appealed to all types from Lord Camelford to Bill Sykes, but are they the same type under the skin?  Lord Camelford owned a dog called Belcher which survived 104 fights; it is not recorded how many dogs he was made to kill. When two champion dogs Boney and Gas fought each other at the Westminster pit on January the 18th 1825, the pit was illuminated by chandeliers and over 300 spectators attended. They would have been a mixture of street hooligans and 'young bloods', as street hooligans of nobler birth were described in those times. Did such men feel tough by attending such an activity? Did they think they would be regarded as 'hard' if they patronised such a place for such an activity?

 In Afghanistan, dog-fighting although banned by the Taliban, is once again the equivalent there of soccer here, it is so popular. Kabul is the hub of this national passion,, with each fight attended by thousands. The dogs are strongly-made dogs of the Powendah type, their ears are cropped off, their tails all but removed, and the value of a successful dog quite remarkable for such an impoverished country. A top fighting dog can realise 500,000 Afghanis (in the region of £7,0000). At a top fight two million Afghanis can change hands, with gambling also attracting relatively huge wagers. Most of the dogs' owners are former military commanders who made fortunes during the years of civil disorder. Weekly fights take place at Badam Bagh, a rundown northwestern suburb of the capital. Dog fighting there is associated with power, it seems to make the participants feel like men with status, influence and deserving envy.

 But even here where there is a long history of organised dog fighting, the dogs are given a high fat diet to ensure their outer layers are substantial enough to withstand bites, and despite the blood, these fights are not allowed to produce fatalities, unlike those of Mexico and North America. There, the dog's bite strength is bred for and fatalities are common. It is this awe-filling bite-strength, outdone only by the hyena and the wild dogs of Southern Africa, which makes the American Pit Bull Terrier such a danger when it does bite a human being. Bigger dogs, like the mastiff types, can grip for longer but will never inflict such damage. Their jaws wgundog writer, the peerless Keith Erlandson, well known to readers and well qualified to cover the subject, was taken to task by more than one reader for producing an article in a weekly sporting magazine twenty years  ago entitled "The Teutons". Predictably, he used slightly disparaging phrases such as "just what these German dogs get up to" and "the German dogs have their uses".

But whatever German gundogs get up to and however different their purpose, I have yet to come across one behaving like a wayward Rottweiler; but Labradors and golden retrievers, and it saddens me to say so, are now listed among the breeds with serious problems of behaviour and temperament. These British gundogs rarely get headlined for savage attacks as Rottweilers have in the recent past, but the clear statistical evidence on their aggressive displays is a matter of serious concern. The public are not entirely surprised when a nine-stone guard dog attacks someone, such a breed is expected to have an edge to its performance and has been bred to be wary of strangers. But a gundog is associated with a gentler nature, a friendlier outlook and a soft use of mouth. A savage gundog can therefore be rather more dangerous to children who want to pat it or neighbours who are content to let their pet dog approach it.

 Dr. Roger Mugford, the distinguished consultant in animal behaviour, compiled a table of his cases involving dogs with serious problems of aggression. It showed that of Britain's most popular four breeds, three topped the league for unwanted aggression; two of them were gundog breeds, the Labrador and the red-gold cocker spaniel. But the golden retriever came sixth and the Irish setter eleventh; the Dobermann came twelth. The savage unpredictable behaviour found in far too many golden cocker spaniels has been traced back to four show champions which were extensively bred from and their offspring exporteto produce fatalities, unlike those of Mexico and North America. There, the dog's bite strength is bred for and fatalities are common. It is this awe-filling bite-strength, outdone only by the hyena and the wild dogs of Southern Africa, which makes the American Pit Bull Terrier such a danger when it does bite a human being. Bigger dogs, like the mastiff types, can grip for longer but will never inflict such damage. Their jaws w matter of serious concern. The public are not entirely surprised when a nine-stone guard dog attacks someone, such a breed is expected to have an edge to its performance and has been bred to be wary of strangers. But a gundog is associated with a gentler nature, a friendlier outlook and a soft use of mouth. A savage gundog can therefore be rather more dangerous to children who want to pat it or neighbours who are content to let their pet dog approach it.