Bait Dog

Posted by Chantelle Mackney on

In our myth's section we’ve explored some controversial terminology: blue nose, red nose, pit bull, bully breed, nanny dog. These topics often stir up some controversy, but these conversations are important to have. Let us dive right in and talk about the ever growing "bait dog" controversy.

We have all seen posts about found dogs or rescued dogs with bodily wounds or cropped ears labelled as "bait dogs". Sadly we are no strangers to a term that has circulated our newsfeed and thoughts on numerous occasions. It instantly provokes an emotional response.

The term is used to describe a dog that was used as "bait" in dog fighting rings. It’s a concept that is alive and well, but the notion 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

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?

There’s no evidence that professional dog fighters commonly 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.

But overall, the popularity of this word and the number of dogs labelled “bait dogs” is questionable. Not every dog with scars or cropped ears or injuries that ends up in shelter/rescue is a “bait dog”. 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 any number of reasons, especially if they are strays or unsupervised.

Notch was found with wounds on his body consistent with dog fight injuries. He has scars on his head and neck that indicate previous bites. His teeth are nubs, and he’s very nervous around dogs he doesn’t know. With no other information about him, some might assume he was a “bait dog” or otherwise involved in dog fighting. Nothing could be further from the truth. He lived in a loving home, albeit in an area with loose intact male dogs, and they did what intact male dogs do when roaming loose. They fought. As for his teeth? He has a bad habit of picking up and chewing on rocks if he doesn’t have a selection of ChuckIts in the vicinity.

When Chantelle first met Mr. Magoo, he was in pretty rough physical shape. He had next to no hair, open sores everywhere, he stunk like death, and his body was infested with mange. His ears were noticeable only because of how poorly the crop was done. Chantelle’s mom, already hesitant about adding this dog to her family, asked why his ears looked that way. The lady doing the meet and greet chimed in suggesting that it was because he was a possible "bait dog". Chantelle knew what the word meant but her mom had no idea – imagine how awkward it was trying to explain to her already nervous mother why adopting a “bait dog” was a good idea.

“We bought into this for a little bit,” remembers Chantelle, “and I can say with certainty that these two misused words ‘bait dog’ influenced the way Magoo was treated and how we saw him. Eventually, through social media, we found the couple who removed him from the environment he was in and we spoke to the rescue who brought him here to Calgary. We found out that he was not a victim of dog fighting, but instead a victim of poverty, a lack of resources, and neglect. Over the years, I learned something even more important – his past is interesting to know, but it doesn’t matter or define who he is.”

Despite the widespread use of the term and the social media prevalence of “bait dogs”, there’s little evidence that “bait dogs” are a thing, at least where professional dog fighting is concerned. And yet social media channels and adoptable dog posts are rife with “bait dogs”. The overwhelming majority of them are not dogs seized from 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. So-called “Bait dogs” are more likely to be dogs that were found roaming, dogs that have injuries (from other dogs, from wildlife, from humans), or dogs with cropped ears (incorrectly linked to dog fighting most of the time). Many are strays, seized, or surrenders, and we rarely get a verifiable history on them.
But as humans, we have a strong desire to make assumptions and fill in the blanks. Why would we jump to “bait dog” 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? 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.

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