Wednesday, May 18, 2011

He’s a lover, not a fighter: outreach for the prevention of dog fighting

[This is the presentation I gave at a shelter staff meeting this week, as part of my shelter medicine externship.]

How can we redirect inner city kids away from using their pit bulls for dog fighting, and towards other activities? I looked into two programs that exist to reach out to youth and do exactly that. These programs focus on prevention of dog fighting, on educating kids before they decide that dog fighting is cool, rather than focusing on the punishment of dog fighters.

The first program I looked at is the End Dogfighting campaign from the Humane Society of the United States. The End Dogfighting campaign has several different arms:

  • The Pit Bull Training Team provides alternative activities for youths with pit bulls (or, presumably, other breeds). Set up as a weekly class, the PBTT introduces kids to obedience and agility, and also provides some socialization for the dogs (since fighting dogs, obviously, often have poor social skills with other dogs). For students who do well and stick it out to the end, there is a Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test that they can take. If they pass, they receive a CGC title for their dog from the AKC, certifying that they have a well trained dog. Graduates of the class are encouraged to stick around and mentor new students.
  • The Humane Education arm of the campaign is an 8 week curriculum for middle school students. It’s intended to be a fun set of classes, with mock game shows, videos, and hands on projects. The message of the class is that dog fighting is a crime, it’s violent, and it’s animal cruelty.
  • The First Responder Outreach arm of the campaign is aimed at postal workers, utility works, and public works employees — the people who are out in the neighborhood who might encounter signs of dog fighting rings. The HSUS provides posters with information about what to look for, such as how to recognize the fighting pit where dog fights occur. The HSUS may also provide a presentation if asked.
  • The Law Enforcement Outreach arm of the campaign provides a $5,000 reward for tips leading to the conviction of a dog fighter; law enforcement training classes; a database with the names of known dog fighters; grants for handling seized animals (controversial, as the HSUS recommends that such animals be immediately euthanized); and prosecutor training.
The End Dogfighting Campaign began in 2006 in Chicago. Since then it has expanded to Atlanta and Philadelphia. So far, the campaign is focused on big cities. It seems unlikely that we’re next on their list. However, the HSUS freely provides materials for download to let other groups try to implement individual arms of the campaign.

I also looked into the Lug Nuts program, which is informal weight pulling contests in cities with dog fighting problems — again, providing alternative activities for people to do with their pit bulls. In a Lug Nuts contest, children’s sleds are loaded with food until they are very heavy. Dogs (not always pit bulls, although pits are very muscular and tend to be very strong dogs) are hooked to the sleds with special harnesses. The dog that pulls the farthest wins. The food can also serve as a prize, and the prize can be doubled for animals who are spayed or neutered. As the web page for the program says, there is excitement! Machismo! Thrill! The competitive aspect of Lug Nuts may be an important way to draw people in.

Sue Sternberg started Lug Nuts in New Haven in 2002. It is associated with a Training Wheels program, which brings pet supplies and veterinary services into underserved areas, and takes the opportunity to also bring some education about positive reinforcement training to dog owners.

So who should be going into inner city communities and telling people about these programs to change how they interact with their dogs? I am pretty sure that if I tried, I’d get laughed at. The End Dogfighting campaign solved this problem with the creation of Anti-Dogfighting Advocates (ADAs), graduated students from the program. They encourage people to come in to the weekly classes, and check in on them during the week to keep their interest up. There is definitely a bootstrapping problem here. Who goes out and convinces people to go to the first classes? But the approach of keeping community members involved even after graduation is a nice one.

I like the positive approaches of these two programs. Positive reinforcement works better than punishment! I’d love to see both programs expand to more cities.

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