Ahead of the American ‘Dog Fighting Awareness Day’, the RSPCA released a report which stated that there had been almost 8,000 reported dog fights in England & Wales over the last 4 years. This is despite the activity having been illegal for almost 200 years, leading to questions of the law’s effectiveness.
Dog fighting is a blood sport undertaken by dogs whereby two or more dogs are pitted against one another in a ring or a pit for the entertainment of the dogs’ owners as well as groups of spectators[](#ftn1). As a long-term illegal practice, these fights often take place in garages, basements, warehouses, abandoned buildings, back alleys, as well as playgrounds, or in the streets. There are countless links with other serious organised crime, as well as reports of children being exposed to the fights to be desensitised to violence[](#ftn2). Whilst there are no formal rules as to when to stop the dogs, it is often the case that the fights will go on for several hours; often until one of the dogs die. Those that survive are often scarred with severe and long-lasting injuries.
Dog fighting has been illegal since the Cruelty to Animals Act 1835, which was reinforced decades later by the Protection of Animals Act 1911[](#ftn3) and specifically targeted a ban on "the fighting or baiting of animals”. Despite this legislation, dog fighting continued to spread. To counter this spread, and in line with modern standards to strengthen the law governing the welfare of animals, the Animal Welfare Act 2006[](#ftn4) was brought in. A particularly clear piece of legislation, the Animal Welfare Act s.8 stipulates that, not only is it an offence to cause, receive funds from, publicise, bet on or keep a premises for an animal fight, simply spectating is outlawed. There are even specific subsections dedicated to recording animal fights. More recently, in 2017 the government set out plans for enhancing the penalties to those found to be involved in dog fighting from an unlimited fine and a ban on animal ownership, to 5 year custodial sentences[](#_ftn5). Such strong, ambitious and unambiguous legislation should certainly have been the nail in the coffin for the dog fighting industry.
Nonetheless, despite a fall in the number of fights reported in previous years, the 7,915 reports of dog fighting received by the RSPCA indicate that, whilst clear, the law is certainly not effective enough. On top of this, there are issues around the rehousing of these mistreated animals – many breeds rescued by the RSPCA were found to be banned breeds under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, so cannot be rehomed[](#ftn6)[](#ftn7).
Proposals by a range of anti-dog fighting groups have largely been of the same focus: increase the maximum sentence for those successfully prosecuted for dog fighting[](#ftn8)[](#ftn9)[](#ftn10). Whilst it is good to increase the powers of the court and allow them to more accurately punish those who have committed such offences, this solution seems wanting. Nonetheless, the 2017 government proposals to increase punishments available to offenders have support from judges and magistrates, who clearly see a gap in the sentence they are able to hand down, and the one they want to[](#ftn11).
There are also calls for wider legal reform. Some groups, such as the League Against Cruel Sports, for example, have called for the replacement of Breed Specific Legislation with a system focusing on ‘deed not breed’[](#ftn12)[](#ftn13). This refers to s.1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act[](#_ftn14), which specifies for the destruction of dogs deemed ‘bred for fighting’. This law has been heavily criticised by pressure groups who note that all dogs can be forced to fight, rather it is the owner’s behaviour that causes the violence. This is, nonetheless, consistently met with calls for greater punishments for dog fight organisers and owners. These two approaches together, to remove breed specific laws and to punish those who train dogs to fight, act as an attempt to radically rethink the law on dangerous dogs, and what the law serves to achieve. The law is there to prevent dogs fighting - not to prevent dogs living.
Despite the calls for harsher sentences, enforcement appears to be the key issue; it seems necessary to look at other means of ensuring that the law is applied. The RPSCA has set up a ‘Special Operations Unit’[](#ftn15), for example, and other charities, such as the League Against Cruel Sports, also have groups which members of the public can contact to initiate an investigation[](#ftn16). This is often with the view to instigating a private prosecution against potential abusers. The police are also contactable, should anyone suspect dog fighting.
It is therefore a difficult area legally. Government, the judiciary, pressure groups and the public appear to be united around the need for harsher sentences and giving the judiciary a greater ability to ensure the punishment suits the crime. Indeed, it does seem that, due to the clarity of the law, this is one of only few avenues for legal reform to go. However, enforcement is still a key issue, and despite rates of dog fighting reducing, their still large numbers would seem to indicate that the courts can only do so much without more enforcement resources available.
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