We have all seen posts about rescued dogs with bodily wounds or cropped ears labelled as “bait dogs”. But the concept that “bait dogs” are common – and if they do exist, that they are likely to find their way to shelter or rescue – is questionable.
“Professional and amateur dog fighters do not use ‘bait dogs’. That is a term that has been used and sensationalized by the media. Fighters will “roll” their dogs (a term used to test a dog to see if he/she has game). They will have the dog fight an established fighter to see if the dog continues even after they are exhausted and/or getting beat; this is probably where the term ‘bait dog’ came from. If the dog does not fight, quits, or does not show promise, the poor dog would be killed since they are considered a disgrace and of no value to the fighter.”
–Janette Reever, Manager of Animal Fighting Response with the Humane Society of the United States
Let’s just think this through. Dog fighting is illegal in North America. To throw away evidence of illegal activity (ie, the “bait dog” who is found by a rescue at the side of the road) is incredibly risky and it is also incredibly dumb for career criminals. Why would they chance it or do anything that could trace criminal activity back to them?
We’ve come across no reason to believe that it’s common for professional dog fighters to keep “bait animals” on premise simply to be injured repeatedly. Amateur dog fighters may engage in these activities, and individual abusers definitely do it (probably based on hearing about “bait dogs’ so often in the media and assuming that’s how it’s done), but every indication is that this is an exception, not the rule.
As for the sad dogs that show up in shelters and attract this label? Dogs can get injuries, scars and look physically beat up for many reasons. Dogs can get into fights with other dogs, cats, or wild animals for example, especially if they are strays or unsupervised. They may have been in an accident or abused in any number of ways unrelated to dog fighting. Ears and tails may be cropped for cosmetic reasons. Teeth may be worn down from inappropriate chewing or poor nutrition.
Another thought experiment: of the hundreds or thousands of “bait dogs” on social media, how many of them are from documented fighting rings? In fact, when is the last time you’ve seen a fighting ring bust where “bait dogs” were removed from the premises? Most are fighting and/or breeding dogs, and these dogs are also victims of abuse, but rarely get the same number of shares or drama as “bait dog” stories do.
Okay, so maybe it’s questionable. But what’s the harm?
As humans, we have a strong desire to tell stories and seek explanations for phenomena around us. But jump to “bait dog” conclusions when we see a dog with bite marks and cropped ears? Why would a rescue or advocacy organization speculate on something so awful?
Well, when we see a post about a “bait dog” (versus a regular old stray), we are outraged and prone to share, promote, and donate. We boost the views and traffic to these rescue sites, and before you know it, that dog and several others have found new homes. So isn’t that a good thing? Well, no. What do we accomplish when we re-home a dog or raise awareness about a cause by preying on emotions? We are trafficking in fear and perpetuating urban legends. Remember, this is the same tactic the pro-BSL people use by plastering social media with photos of bleeding dog bite injuries.
By applying a “bait dog” label, we are marketing this dog as a victim, and encouraging an adoption out of pity rather than suitability to the home. Because of its imagined past, the owners may feel inclined to write off behaviour issues. Have you ever seen someone with a misbehaving dog try to explain the behaviour along the lines of, “It’s not his fault. He’s a rescue!”?
While we of course need to be compassionate and work within our dog’s limitations, it’s demeaning to assume that because they have a sad background (real or imagined) they don’t need to meet a basic standard of conduct – particularly if this translates to aggression or dangerous behaviour.
Another concern is that the more that abuse is sensationalized, the more that sick people will copy it. In rescue, the few “bait dogs” we’ve seen are the result of troubled young men from low income communities trying to train their dogs to fight by encouraging them to attack weaker animals. It’s very rare, but it happens – and it happens because they have heard so much chatter about “bait dogs” over the years. Another example is the phenomenon of finding a dog with its muzzle taped shut. Five years ago this was unheard of, which made it so bizarre when the first case hit the news. However, as this was covered extensively in the news, more and more cases popped up.
We are not downplaying the tragedies that occur to some dogs, and the abuse that some dogs suffer. But the abuse shouldn’t define them. And speculation about abuse absolutely shouldn’t define them. Let’s encourage shelters and rescues to perform thorough assessments on the dogs that we see in front of us today, and match them with families that will love them, appreciate them, and work with them based on their potential, not on their backstory.