“Bait dogs” are docile victims to some pit bull advocates, but “urban legend” to others
What is a “bait dog”?
First of all, learn to distinguish a bona fide “bait dog” from a “click bait” dog, known to rescue insiders as a “donor bait” dog.
Fill in the blanks
This is the generic description of a “click bait” or “donor bait” dog, as typically introduced to the public by a local television news broadcast, or Facebook page, or on YouTube:
“Law enforcement is investigating after a pit bull named (fill in the blank) by rescuers was found with severe injuries that are believed to have come from being a ‘bait dog’ by dogfighters.
“He was lying beside the road up in the woods,” the rescuer told X-TV. “When I saw him I knew right away he was some kind of bait dog,” the rescuer said.
“The dog is now in the care of veterinarians at [insert name of clinic or shelter]. Donations to help the pit bull are being accepted.”
“Bait dogs” draw more donations than dumped dogs
Most likely that pit bull was never a “bait dog.” More likely the pit bull got into a fight with another animal at his former home, was taken out and dumped, and was hit by a car as a wandering stray.
But the claim that a pit bull was a “bait dog” tends to attract much more public sympathy and support, as rescuers have learned through long experience, than acknowledging that the pit bull may have been dumped by irresponsible owners due to dangerous behavior.
Later, when the ostensible “bait dog” is physically healed enough to rehome, the rescue or shelter trying to place the dog will speculate that the dog was too gentle, too docile, too good-natured to fight back when pitted against a more aggressive pit bull.
This pit bull who almost certainly was never fought at all, or formally trained to fight, may acquire a fictitious history as an allegedly successfully rehabilitated former fighting dog who ended up as a bait dog.
Then the pit bull will be adopted by someone in whose home he will repeat the same behavior that led to his being out beside the road where he was found by the rescuer who turned him into “click bait” or “donor bait.”
And of course more donations will be solicited to help the rescue or shelter recycle more “bait dogs.”
Variations in the script
Sometimes there is a variation in the story. Sometimes the purported “bait dogs” have actually been impounded in a raid on a dogfighting operation, like many of the 216 pit bulls seized in a December 2, 2011 dogfighting raid in Indang, Cavite province, the Philippines.
Those dogs were “not in need of rehabbing, as they were bait dogs,” Island Rescue Organization founder Nena Hernandez asserted in an April 4, 2012 e-mail to 25 other dog rescuers. To Hernandez, the term “bait dog” appeared to connote a non-threatening victim, who could be safely rehomed immediately.
But to the Animal Farm Foundation, of rural Dutchess County, New York, a pit bull advocacy organization founded in 1985 and long funded chiefly by literary agent Jane Rotrosen Berkey, the term “bait dog” connotes instability and risk.
The Animal Farm Foundation on January 16, 2012 had appealed to pit bull advocates to “stop using the term ‘bait dog.'” Said the Animal Farm Foundation statement, “The dogfighting investigators we’ve consulted overwhelmingly agree that ‘bait dogs’ are mostly an urban legend.”
This appears to be still the Animal Farm Foundation position.
“Not commonly found”
On a “myth busting” page, the Animal Farm Foundation elaborates, “Bait dog” is a term that is used to label dogs that have been used in dog fighting. Sadly, bait dogs do exist, but they are not commonly found in shelters. Law enforcement professionals have taught us that bait dogs are very rarely found alive in their investigations; however, an unusually large number of dogs are being labeled as ‘bait dogs,’ based on nothing more than speculation about the dog’s past,” mostly because the dogs in question bear scars indicative of having survived one or more serious fights.
The 2012 Animal Farm Foundation statement noted “many possible explanations why a shelter dog might present with injuries: getting hit by a car, mange, having a scuffle with another animal, birth defects, etc. When we label these dogs as ‘bait dogs,'” the posting reminded, “we’re implying more than we actually know.”
“Demonizing the fighting dog”
“The ‘bait dog’ label carries baggage,” the 2012 Animal Farm Foundation statement continued, “and people make assumptions about how ‘bait dogs’ will behave…Every time you use the ‘bait dog’ label, you demonize the ‘fighting dog’ who supposedly caused those injuries.”
Ubiquitous as the term “bait dog” has become, it appears to be of surprisingly recent origin. Using the search engines NewsLibrary, NewspaperArchive, Culturomics, and the archives of the New York Times, ANIMALS 24-7 has discovered no mention of “bait dogs” in mainstream media predating January 13, 1996.
Term came from “baiting dogs”
But that first mention, in an Albany Times Union item headlined “Pit Bull is More Victim Than Criminal,” linked the concept of “bait dog” to the centuries-old use of “baiting dogs” to torment tethered animals as a cruel amusement.
“Baiting dogs” could be either the dogs used to attack tethered bulls, bears, or other species including other dogs, or might be tethered for other dogs to kill.
The term “baiting dog” was not used consistently. The same dog who was set against tied victims when young and healthy, or used to kill rats in a pit, often became the tethered victim later, after suffering a disabling injury or showing a lack of interest in killing a baiting opponent.
Setting closely matched dogs against each other as a gambling pursuit gained popularity in the fast-growing waterfront cities of the 19th century, where bulls and wildlife for traditional baiting were relatively inaccessible.
After the U.S. Civil War, however, the intertwined rise of societies for the suppression of vice, including gambling, and the early humane movement combined to drive dogfighting out of most of the North and West.
Dogfighting survived mainly in the South, where fighting conducted according to “Cajun rules” became the predominant style. Most of what is commonly believed about dogfighting by people other than “dogmen” is based on literary and film depictions of Cajun rules dogfighting.
But even within the conventions of Cajun rules dogfighting, dog training regimens vary.
Sadists & gamblers
Moreover, as dogfighting spread back out of the South to the rest of the U.S. and the world in recent decades, the emphasis shifted from matched events held to entertain bettors, back toward setting dogs on other animals as sadistic entertainment apart from gambling interest, with no pretense that the victim animals have any chance to “win.”
The contemporary concept of a “bait dog” appears to have evolved from common traditional practices of Cajun rules dogfighters–which have changed over time.
Classically, in the early stages of training, a prospective fighting dog is offered the opportunity to attack several relatively helpless victims, such as stray dogs, puppies, kittens, or crudely declawed cats. These “bait” animals do not survive the encounters.
For many “dogmen,” this is the extent of the “sport,” but for those participating in serious gambling matches, a prospective fighting dog who demonstrates the instinct and ability to rip harmless animals apart may next be introduced to one or more “sparring partners” whose behavior and abilities will more nearly approximate what the dog will later encounter in a gambling fight.
The purpose is not only to prepare the fighting dog to win in a fight for money, but also to reassure the trainers that they will not lose their investment.
Actual “bait dogs”
Many dogfighters these days skip this second phase of traditional fighting dog training, and sometimes the first phase too. Some test their fighting dogs only in muzzled “rolls” with related dogs, to avoid injury to the fighting dogs which might inhibit their success in a gambling match.
But among dogmen who still follow the traditional training regimen, the second-stage “bait dogs” will usually be other pit bulls. Submissive pit bulls who whimper and cringe, roll over, or run away will not give the fighting dog adequate training.
Which pit bulls become “bait dogs”?
The “bait dog” at the second stage of training is a dog who will respond to aggression with aggression, and will put up at least the semblance of a fight. This “bait dog” may be a stolen pit bull who has not actually been trained to fight, or a pit bull who has flunked out of fighting training at an earlier stage, or a fighting pit bull who has been injured beyond having a good prognosis for winning a gambling fight.
To ensure that the future fighting dog wins and the “bait dog” loses, “bait dogs” are often starved and dehydrated, as were the dogs seized in Laguna, the Philippines, in December 2011.
Armed & dangerous
But a second-level “bait dog” has to be willing to fight–to retain the trait of “gameness.” And promoters of televised dogfighting spectacles, such as those that were conducted at Laguna, may be more interested in the “show” of a fight, however one-sided, than in staging an actual contest.
Since the promoters in the Laguna case owned the dogs on either side of each fight, the outcomes may have been rigged to reap maximum profit from gamblers in South Korea who had no ownership stake in the dogs.
Every dog in such a situation may, in short, be both a “bait dog” and a “fighting dog,” depending on the match, and––like any so-called “bait dog”––must be considered “armed and dangerous.”