Authorities last month rescued 305 dogs from an alleged dogfighting operation in South Carolina. Despite their upbringings, most of them should go on to live normal lives. 
dog in cage at a dogfighting operation
Credit: Courtesy of Meredith Lee / HSUS

Authorities recently rescued 305 dogs from an alleged dogfighting operation in South Carolina, yet these pups could soon be on their way to foster homes and eventually their forever families. 

Even though these dogs lived their lives in agonizing conditions, they are fully capable of living full, happy lives just like any other pooch, says Janell Gregory, South Carolina state director for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). They just need help adjusting to their new lives.

"I don't know how long [recovery] takes. I think that's case-by-case basis depending on the dog, but we've certainly seen success in these dogs going on to live wonderful lives as pets and in homes for the remainder of their lives," Gregory tells Daily Paws. 

On Sept. 25, HSUS assisted federal agents in seizing dogs from properties in six South Carolina counties. Of the 305 rescued dogs, 275 of them were thought to be directly involved in dogfighting. The Justice Department called the action, which resulted in more than 20 arrests, "the biggest takedown of a dogfighting operation in South Carolina history."

Gregory was at two of the sites where HSUS assisted. She says she saw many of the dogs chained to trees with little to no shelter. Some of the dogs were covered in open wounds, scarring, and lacerations. 

Yet, they were in good spirits. Gregory says the most surprising thing she saw was many of the dogs' pure excitement when they greeted the rescuers. Although some of the dogs appeared hunched over and timid, Gregory says many of them were "wiggling, whining, and wanting all the attention," showing the rescuers plenty of love. 

"The collars that [the dogs] had on were quite massive and they had on very large chains that were very heavy looking," Gregory says. "When the rescuers took them off of those chains they would kiss them the whole way to the medical table." 

Other dogs weren't as happy. At the second property the HSUS helped clear, Gregory says there were not only adult dogs, but also many puppies. These puppies didn't act like typical sprightly youngsters—they were "sullen" with personalities that seemed withdrawn. 

What Is Dogfighting?

HSUS defines dogfighting as when "dogs who have been bred, conditioned, and trained to fight are placed in a pit to fight each other for spectator entertainment and profit." Some dogs are even used as "bait dogs" to train other canines how to fight. 

Janette Reever is the program manager of animal crimes with HSUS and Humane Society International (HSI). She says dogfighting is a global issue and can occur anywhere, contrary to the belief that it only happens in inner cities or rural areas. (The ASPCA estimates that tens of thousands of people are involved in dogfighting in the U.S.) Reever says it is oftentimes a "cluster crime," meaning it's associated with other illegal activities such as illegally selling drugs and guns. (The South Carolina raids, for example, yielded 30 guns and $40,000 in cash.) 

American pit bull terriers are one of the most common breeds used for fighting—unfortunately because of one of their best qualities. Reever says their endearing loyalty sadly makes them useful in fights, as they "do everything they can to please their owner." 

"I think that's the saddest thing when you look at these dogs where they are is that they're so incredibly forgiving and so passionate about the person when it comes to human contact. That's all they crave and all they want," Reever says.

It's important to remember a dog's breed does not determine their behavior. In a study conducted on breed and behavior, pit bulls scored very high in the "human sociability" category, meaning they get along very well with new people.   

The Recovery Process 

The rehabilitation process looks different for every former fighting dog. 

Bobbie Bhambree, CDBC, CPDT-KA, is the director of behavior services at Behavior Vets in New York. When working with a dog who has experienced trauma, her main goal is to help them feel safe and secure. 

One technique Bhambree likes to use when altering a dog's behavior is called "relaxation conditioning." 

"It's not the same as teaching a dog to lay down and stay," Bhambree says. "It's more about shifting their internal state to help them get back down to baseline physiologically. The intention of that is by changing what's happening internally, they can feel more at ease in their surroundings and their environment in general."

Bhambree says this technique can be thought of almost like meditation in humans, and it can help dogs relax after experiencing stressful events. 

Reever says it's important to remember these dogs will be suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, and each dog is going to recover at their own pace. Some dogs may acclimate quickly, while others will take a longer time. 

Some of the dogs have to recover from physical wounds, too. Physical health is the main priority for the rescued South Carolina dogs, Reever says.

HSUS rescued two dogs, Albert and Ray J, who needed extensive help. A severe fracture on one of Albert's legs required amputation while an open, festering wound on Ray J's chest necessitated complicated surgery. As of last week, Ray J was still recovering from his surgery while Albert was getting used to three legs as he prepared to join a foster home.

Although the rehabilitation process can be long, Gregory says around 80 percent or more of fighting dogs who arrive at HSUS go on to live as pets in homes, and many of them even go on to live in multi-pet homes with other dogs and cats. 

For example, the vast majority of the dogs involved in this country's most infamous dogfighting bust went on to live normal lives—despite calls to euthanize them. Of the 51 dogs rescued from NFL star Michael Vick's dogfighting operation in 2007, 47 of them went on to live with new families or in sanctuaries.   

Preventing Dogfighting 

Reever says one of the best ways to prevent dogfighting is by educating not only law enforcement on the signs of dogfighting but also the younger generation in hopes that they will speak up if they are exposed to family members who are participating in dogfighting.  

"If you see something, say something," Reever says. "Always pick up the phone and call. It's a lot better for law enforcement to get a complaint and have to not file it then not say something and an animal or a person suffers."