Bad to the bone: Dog fighting in Buckeye State is on the rise

SALEM, Ohio – It’s a secret society.

The members play by their own set of rules, have underground competitions and clandestine communication, which makes catching them extremely difficult.

Members do not fit a profile. Membership defies all income, racial, gender, social and geographic lines.

Members are usually involved in drug use, illegal weapons and gambling.

It’s a society of people who train, breed and use dogs for fighting and the number is growing at alarming rates.

Growing trend. The Humane Society of the United States estimates 250,000 to 1 million people participate in dog fighting. They either train, breed or watch dogs fight.

The Great Lakes office of the Humane Society of the United States maintains a database of reported dog fighting and arrests. Since the early 1990s, that database has tripled in size, said director Sandy Rowland.

Dog fighting is illegal in all 50 states. Some states rank it is a felony while others classify it as a misdemeanor.

Ohio classifies it as a fourth degree felony. Offenders can spend 6 to 18 months in prison and a maximum fine of $5,000.

New trend. The new phenomenon of street fighting has made those numbers increase. Street fighting is where two opposing gangs train pitbulls to attack humans and other dogs, Rowland said. The gangs will meet in an alley and have their dogs fight to see which gang has the tougher dog, she said.

Ohio has a lot of dog fighting reports, but few arrests, Rowland said.

Last August, Gov. Bob Taft formed the Ohio Dog Fighting Task Force, co-chaired by Lt. Gov. Maureen O’Connor and Ohio Agriculture Director Fred L. Dailey, to eliminate dog fighting in Ohio. The task force is expected to submit a list of recommendations to the General Assembly this summer (see related article).

Training. Dogs, usually pitbulls, train almost like a boxer would before fight. Speed, stamina, strength and endurance are all crucial factors in deciding a dog’s fate in a fight.

The training regime is cruel and grueling, insiders report. The dog runs on a treadmill for sometimes more than hour to build endurance.

Other trainers tie a dog’s leash around a bumper of a car so the dog must run as the car drives down the road to build the dog’s speed. A tire is usually hung from a tree and the dog is trained to attack it, clutch it in its jaws and hang from it to build jaw strength.

Some pitbulls are even surgically debarked during training so their barking during a fight does not attract outside attention.

Got game? All the training is done to build the dog’s “gameness” – how ready and willing the dog is to fight and how little it will yield during a match.

No matter how strong, fast and durable a dog becomes, it won’t matter unless it attacks its opponent. To build the desire to kill animals, dog trainers sometimes use a catmill, which is a device consisting of one or more spokes projecting from a rotating pole in the ground.

A dog is harnessed to one end and a cat is dangled from a rope on the end, said David Hunt, detective with the Franklin County Special Investigations Unit. The dog then chases the cat until he loses interest. Sometimes the cat is released and the dog is allowed to kill it, said Hunt.

The fight. Men, women and even children attend dog fights throughout the year. There is no dog fighting “season.” It takes place year-round in abandoned houses, vacant garages, isolated warehouses, basements, alleys or barns.

Rowland said spectators do not know where the fight will take place – the more people who know, the greater the risk of getting caught.

She cited a case in Saginaw, Mich., where fight organizers told the spectators to meet at a hotel, then they rented a church bus to take them to the fight.

In the pit. Depending on the quality of dogs used, an admission fee is charged. The fights take place in a “pit.” The average pit is built out of plywood, concrete, sheet metal and bales of hay. The floor is usually covered with carpet to add traction, according to the Humane Society of the United States.

Before the fight, dog fighters sign a contract specifying the names, sexes and weights of the dogs to be fought. The contract specifies the rules and wagers and is signed by a witness.

Hunt said there has been documented fights where bets reached almost a quarter-million dollars.

Champions. Fighters work to achieve Champion status, attained when a dog wins three fights. Then they can become Grand Champions by winning five fights. After that, dogs are either retired and sold for breeding or continue to fight, Rowland said.

The aftermath. The dogs usually don’t fight until the death; one usually quits before that. Some fights have local dog fighters who treat it as a hobby while others have professional dog fighters who travel the country with their dogs. A fight can last between 15 minutes to a couple of hours, Rowland said.

The fights are documented in underground publications like the Pitbull Reporter, Sporting Dog Journal or Game Dog Digest. Like something you would read on a sports page, the magazines contain blurbs about each fight and its outcome. The publications don’t list names of the fighters, just aliases, so law enforcement can’t easily track them.

The losers. Often battered and bloody, the losing dog is removed from the pit. Depending on how bad the dog lost determines its fate. If he put up a good fight, the owner pulls the dog’s wounds closed with stitches, and training for the next fight begins, said Rowland.

If the dog didn’t stand a chance in a fight, a frustrated owner, who just lost thousands of dollars, will unload a pistol or shotgun into the dog’s skull, insiders report.

Beyond cruel. The dog that gets shot is the lucky one compared to others.

Lucas County dog warden Tom Skeldon has confiscated 258 pitbulls (not all used for fighting) in 2002 as of June 27.

Skeldon received a call last month from an elderly couple who said a pitbull was on their front porch.

When Skeldon arrived to take the dog, he found an animal with bite marks and dried scabs on her head. The dog had been doused with a flammable liquid, set on fire and flames had ravaged one-third of her body.

Shriveled and burnt like a hamburger that fell through a grill onto the coals below, the pitbull’s skin was weak, but clung to her bones.

When she sat down, the bones in her leg pierced her charbroiled skin like a pencil being pushed through tissue paper. The dog was euthanized, Skeldon said.

The dog was no doubt a loser in a dog fight, Skeldon said, and the owner took out his anger by setting her on fire.

In the end. After an arrest is made, a trial is held and a verdict is rendered, Hunt said every dog fighter he has seen is concerned with their dogs’ fate.

Family members have shown up at trials with pictures of their pitbulls playing with their children and then broke down in tears when it is announced that the dog will be euthanized. Hunt said he doesn’t understand why they care so much about their dogs and treat them the way they do.

“Everyone of these guys asks where we are taking their dogs,” Hunt said. “They could care less about going to jail.”

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