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Why dogfighting investigations matter

Quality of life degrades with unenforced animal cruelty protections


Patrol officers and investigators, as well as animal and code enforcement personnel, should be aware of signs of this kind of animal abuse.


April 8 is National Dogfighting Awareness Day. To learn more about combatting dogfighting, visit the ASPCA’s website.

One of the earliest practitioners of the science of criminology under the umbrella of philosophy was barrister Jeremy Bentham, most noted for the concept of utilitarianism. He proposed that while animals may not reason, they may still suffer.

Subsequent studies of criminal behavior link cruelty to animals with other criminal behavior. Among the most egregious of animal cruelty is the sport of dogfighting, a blood sport inevitably associated with unlawful gambling.

An out-of-print publication from the COPS office of the US Department of Justice on dogfighting is still available online. Patrol officers and investigators, as well as animal and code enforcement personnel, veterinarians and animal shelters should be aware of signs of this kind of animal abuse.

Why prosecute dogfighting?

Prosecutors may have a hard time devoting resources to non-human crime victims. Prosecutions often involve multiple defendants and multiple law enforcement agencies.

The practice is illegal in all 50 states, most of which include possession of dogs for the purpose of fighting, as well as being a spectator as illegal. Interstate activity relating to animal fighting is against federal law under the Animal Fighting Prohibition Act of 2007 with heavy penalties.

Dogfighting has been cited as a gateway crime involving juveniles. As part of gang activity, potential financial gain and the power of owning an aggressive dog, the practice can have an appeal.

According to the COPS office and the ASPCA, which partners with law enforcement in education and enforcement, most dogfight raids net illegal drugs and illegal weapons, as well as arrests on outstanding warrants. Dogfighting has been associated with violent crimes including assaults and homicides, as well as the obvious gambling offenses.

Raid planning

Most dogfighting cases arise from precursor activity such as training or raising dogs for fighting, or post-fight activity such as disposing of animals or signs of injury.

When enforcement involves a raid of a dogfighting event in progress, planners should anticipate multiple custodial arrests. The average number of arrests is 20 per raid, according to the COPS publication, ranging from 1 arrest to 123. In addition to the human offenders, raids can involve 1 to 500 dogs, with an average of 35 dogs per case.

The dogs are living evidence as both victim and physical evidence. These animals will likely have medical and behavioral challenges. They will require housing, assessment and dispositions that are complicated, expensive, and can have public perception consequences if euthanized without consideration of all legal and humane options. Some or all of the expenses of investigation and prosecution may be offset by asset seizures of vehicles, cash, or real estate that result from 25% of raids.

Raid planners should consult with an expert on dogfighting operations in order to request search warrants associated with the investigation that includes potential evidence including cellphone and computer device activity, bookkeeping and artifacts used in disposing of animals no longer of use to the dogfighter’s enterprise.

Careful coordination of law enforcement and other specialists is essential for a safe and effective raid of an animal fight (including cockfighting). Criminal intelligence resources should be involved due to the networking of the underground dogfighting perpetrators who are well informed about police and prosecution practices and criminal defense.

What to look for

In the course of answering and investigating calls that may not appear to be related to animal cruelty, officials can observe for signs of dogfighting activity or lesser offenses of animal abuse. This can include theft of animals for training or for use as bait animals.

Dogfighting paraphernalia includes treadmills, fighting pits, cat mills or jennies (circular training rigs), or break sticks (any device used to pry a fighting dog’s bit off of another dog or bite training device), spring poles (a device with a spring to enhance dog bite training). These devices are not illegal in themselves and can be used for legitimate dog training, so context and patterns are essential to their value as evidence of criminal activity, such as blood stains and injured animals.

A veterinary examination can document multiple puncture wounds in various stages of healing, especially in the face, chest and forelimbs. Cropping and docking that have been done without proper tools and procedures may be irregular or infected. Teeth that have been filed down or extracted may indicate a breeder or training dog altered to avoid injury to a fighting dog. Dogs may have abrasions or embedded collars or chains from prolonged restraint from other fighting dogs.

Suspicious behavior of fight handlers and trainers in their interactions with veterinarians can include asking for medical supplies or drugs for other animals not presented for treatment. Cash payments or payments through a third party to avoid a paper trail.

In most cases, fighting dogs behave well around humans. This is part of their training since they will be around people who don’t need to be attacked. That said, some dogs will have a low aggression trigger threshold and deserve caution. In some cases, a necropsy (animal autopsy) can provide vital information from internal injuries, fractures, and other signs of distress that can be interpreted accurately by an animal care specialist.

Dogfighting not only harms animals but also harms communities. Quality of life degrades with unenforced animal cruelty protections.

Additional resources on animal abuse investigations

Joel Shults retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.