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Welfare implications of dog fighting

Dog fighting has serious animal welfare implications, both for fighting dogs and any animals that are used to train the dogs:

  1. Injuries from the fights, which can sometimes lead to death;

  2. Suffering caused by a lack of proper veterinary treatment. Owners of fighting dogs may be reluctant to take their animal to a vet in case they arouse suspicions;

  3. Suffering caused by the long hours of training the dogs are forced to do;

  4. Suffering caused to ‘bait’ animals, such as cats and dogs, which are used to train the dogs to fight. The bait animal may be killed or injured by the dog being trained.[1]

Legislation and penalties

Dog fighting has been an offence since the 1800s.

Current provisions for making dog fighting an offence can be found in the Animal Welfare Act 2006 in England and Wales, and the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006.

These acts create specific offences related to animal fights. These are set out in Section 8 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006, with penalties of up to 51 weeks’ imprisonment, a fine, or both. Section 23 of the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 carries penalties of up to 12 months’ imprisonment, a fine of up to £20,000 or both.

Prevalence and organisation

Exact data on the extent of dog fighting is not available due to its covert nature. RSPCA stated that there had been a resurgence in dog fighting since the 1970s.[2]

A report by the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) estimated that one dog fight was happening per day in the UK. It said that dog fights ranged from informal street-based fights (where little or no money is involved) to highly organised ‘pit’ fights (where large sums of money may be gambled).

The LACS report described three broad ‘levels’ of dog fighting activity, with different organisational structures and funding:

  1. Level One: Impromptu street fights or ‘rolls’

  • One on one fights in urban parks and housing estates
  • Dogs may be tethered on a chain or taken off for the fight
  • Arranged on the spot, no referee or rules, fight over in a few minutes
  • Predominantly young urban males, may have gang connections, part of street culture
  • Little or no money involved
  • Likely to occur somewhere in the UK every day
  • Level Two: Hobbyist

    • Series of fights in abandoned buildings, garages or even living rooms/bedrooms that have been converted into a ‘pit’
    • Operate on a localised fighting circuit
    • Often gang affiliated with gambling involved
    • Takes place in urban and urban fringe areas
    • Likely to occur somewhere in the UK every couple of weeks
  • Level Three: Professional

    • Sophisticated dog rings with highly trained dogs of reputable bloodlines

    • Always takes place in a pit

    • Includes spectators, rules, referees, timekeepers

    • Contracts drawn up between dog owners stipulating date, location, dog weight, referee and betting stake

    • High stakes gambling with £100,000s wagered

    • Travel around UK or internationally to enter dogs in fights or attend fights

    • Highly secretive, invitation only

    • Likely to occur somewhere in UK every few months[3]

  • Stakeholder views

    LACS and the RSPCA have called for changes to the way in which dog fighting is being tackled, and both support an increase in penalties for the offence. RSPCA said:

    1. Politicians can assist the RSPCA by supporting calls for tougher sentences for fighting offences and ensure the Courts do consider and use custodial sentences to their full potential. This is something the Ministry of Justice has previously shown some interest in as there is recognition this is not being used effectively at present. The RSPCA believes that such offences should carry a maximum custodial penalty of two years.

    2. The Society welcomes the statement made by Defra in late 2015 that the Government recognises the seriousness of fighting offences and is looking at legislative opportunities to increase the maximum penalties for this.[4]

    LACS made the following recommendations:

    1. 1. Dog fighting should be recorded as a specific offence in order to improve data quality and correctly assess the scale of the problem as well as providing intelligence and information that could be used to identify the required policing resources and cultural/regional specific problems. For the sake of clarity we consider that the existing offence of animal fighting should be retained and do not necessarily make the case for dog fighting to be made a separate offence, unless this is the only mechanism through which local and national recording of dog fighting offences can be achieved.

    2. 2. The penalty for dog fighting and dog fighting offences should be brought in line with similar legislation in other European countries in order to achieve consistency. Currently the maximum sentence for animal fighting is a term of imprisonment of up to 51 weeks (for Animal Welfare Act 2006 offences). But in some European countries it is two years (e.g. France) or three years (Germany, the Czech Republic). We would argue for raising the tariff to two years on grounds of consistency, noting also that the Law Commission’s (2015) approach to other animal (wildlife) offences recommends extending the penalty for the most serious offences from six months to two years in prison.

    3. 3. The Government should ensure that the police and other agencies have adequate resources and support to respond to dog fighting problems, including appropriate resources to develop multi-agency approaches.

    4. 4. The Government should initiate and fund research into the prevalence, nature and enforcement of dog fighting.[5]

    [1] Betrayal of Trust, League Against Cruel Sports, November 2015

    [2] Dog fighting – understanding the issue and tackling the cruelty, RSPCA, 15 June 2016

    [3] Betrayal of Trust, League Against Cruel Sports, November 2015

    [4] Dog fighting – understanding the issue and tackling the cruelty, RSPCA, 15 June 2016

    [5] Betrayal of Trust, League Against Cruel Sports, November 2015

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