Pietermaritzburg’s dark underworld of dog fighting is flourishing, with several communities pitting their dogs against each other for prize money anywhere between R300 and R25 000.However, these fights represent the minor league, with bigger battles held in Durban, Johannesburg and the Western Cape, where prize money reaches into the millions of rands.In an exclusive interview with Weekend Witness, a source well-connected in the dog-fighting rings of Pietermaritzburg has revealed the ins and outs of the “blood sport”, confirming that dogs are often stolen by novices who do not have the money to buy their own fighting dogs.The source, who asked not to be named as he fears for his life, said fights are often advertised within WhatsApp groups and sent to people who are known fighters and/or spectators.“There was a fight advertised a few months ago within the community where the reward for the winning dog was set at R10 000.“This will be one of the more organised fights. There are daily, informal fights where rewards are between R300 and R500.”He said dog fighting rings are “extremely popular” in Sobantu, Eastwood, Imbali, Woodlands and Copesville, especially when it comes to informal fighting.He said the Copesville fighting rings seem to prefer mixed breeds rather than fighting exclusively with pitbulls, but added that people in other areas are happy to use any dog as long as the dog “has strong and visible traits of a pitbull”.“People will often breed a pitbull with either a boerboel, a Rottweiler, and even Labradors, to make the dog bigger in size.”He said inter-community competitions have rewards of up to R10 000 and the winning dog of that community would fight the champion dog of another community.“So the top dog who has won his fights in the Woodlands area will then go up against the top fighter from Eastwood, or Imbali, and so on.“The rewards from these fights are much higher than R10 000, and increase as champion dogs from Pietermaritzburg fight the top dogs from Durban.“The informal dog fights are usually held in the early evening or late afternoon.“It is not about the dog at all. It is about power, money and drugs.”The source said the fighting dogs often do not stay on their owner’s property and are looked after by younger men or friends in the community until the next fight. He said while the informal fights happened daily, the more serious fights happen once every few months so owners have time to train their dogs.“They train their dogs on treadmills and have them pulling on tyres for most of the day to build strength and endurance.“The fighter dogs are usually kept in small cages on a very short chain and are taught to attack and be aggressive.“They like to fight Pitbulls because they can endure a lot of pain for a very long time.”He said in the bigger fights between Pietermaritzburg communities, one person always walked away without their dog.“Their dog is either killed in the ring or the owner kills it because it has embarrassed him by losing.“Several dog fighters in the area have been known to shoot their dogs when they lose.”He said the champion dog of Woodlands had recently died due to health issues but was a massive Pitbull cross Labrador.“In the Pietermaritzburg fights, the dogs are often put on steroids and all sorts. The bigger fights in Durban fight exclusively with Pitbulls and try to ensure the dogs are evenly matched and are not on any sort of medication or drugs to enhance its performance.”But what actually happens at these Pietermaritzburg dog fights?The source said the owners met in an informal setting, with a small sandy arena for the dogs to fight in while the owners and spectators watch and shout from the sides.“The owners have their dogs, they grab them by the neck and shake them to aggravate them and work them up.“They then release the dogs and they immediately start attacking one another.”He said there had been a fight a few months ago between a “novice” fighting Pitbull and a trained Pitbull puppy.“The dog lost to the puppy four times but the owner kept pitting it against the puppy. It was its first introduction to fighting and didn’t know what it was doing.“I have seen fights where the dogs attack each other until one dies. “I have also seen fighting dogs urinating and defecating during fights because they are scared or busy dying.”The source said a driving factor behind the informal fights was drugs and that there were many “stolen dogs” at informal fights as those starting out in the dog fighting world did not have the money to buy a Pitbull.Wendy Wilson of the NSPCA said dog fighting is growing and has a “significant negative impact on the community because of its violent nature”. She said dog fighting is often linked with other crimes and is seen worldwide as a predictor of future violence towards people and an indicator of violence in a community. “South Africans will engage in the blood sport just for the sake of gratuitous violence,” she said.When dogs are rescued from the rings, she said each dog is assessed physically and mentally to see if it can be rehabilitated. “We have had some remarkable success stories and heart-warming rehomings.”The NSPCA is offering rewards of R30 000 for information on dog fighting and asked that if dog fighting is suspected, people call the NSPCA Special Investigations Unit at 011 907 3590 or e-mail information to email@example.com All calls to the SPCA are anonymous.A bloodied and injured Pitbull cowers at a shelter after it was taken away by animal control officers after pitbulls were discovered fighting in a yard. A Pietermaritzburg clinical psychologist who asked not to be named for professional reasons, said dog fighting has “a lot to do with the externalisation of a person’s own aggression. With aggression also comes power. The person wants to show that their dog is the best. All of this is projected onto the animal, instead of the dog fighters expressing the aggression themselves”.Pitbulls are trained by dog fighters to build more muscle. This is often done through making the dog run on a treadmill for hours on end, as well as pulling large and heavy objects to strengthen the dog. In informal fights, dogs are sometimes given steroids to bulk them up before a fight.The NSPCA’s Wendy Wilson said the organisation is completely opposed to pitbull show events as there are ‘significant welfare concerns’ regarding the activities and training for the events.‘The show events are extreme and push the dogs to their limits. In our experience, the owners of the dogs are extremely competitive and adopt a win-at-all-costs attitude,’ she said.‘Because of this, dogs often become a tool to win the trophy and their welfare is not adequately taken into account.’ She said many of the shows are extreme and could result in injuring the dog.The dog’s behaviour is also often affected because the events usually rely on stimulating the dog’s ‘prey drive’, making them less reliable around other animals. ‘While the show events are legal, they do not encourage responsible pet ownership and focus on the attributes of the pitbull breed which are outdated and do not have a place in modern society,’ she said.Pitbulls require a lot of training, exercise, love, attention and especially socialisation with other dogs from a very young age. About the breed:Wilson said pitbulls require more attention due to a genetic predisposition towards aggression. They benefit greatly from early socialisation and are very responsive to learning obedience through force-free training. By training and socialising their dogs, pit bull owners can better control situations that might otherwise lead to a fight.The difference between bait dogs, fighter dogs and the role stolen dogs play:• Bait dogs: Despite a large amount of media attention, the use of bait dogs is rare. It is not a commonly used method of training and serves little purpose in training fighting dogs. It is far more likely that small dogs are stolen to be used for breeding purposes. However, when training the dogs, it is far more likely the dog will be an old fighting dog that won’t cause as much damage to the young dog or a dog that is reluctant to fight. • Stolen dogs: There are many reasons why dogs are stolen other than for fighting, such as to sell as security dogs or for puppy breeding and selling purposes.• Fighting dogs: The top-tier fighting levels almost exclusively use American pitbull terriers. However, the less-sophisticated rings may use similar breeds such as bull terriers or Staffordshire terriers. At this low level of dog fighting, the dogs are often sourced from “free to a good home, adverts”, or are stolen from pet owners to be used as fighting dogs.The lawWilson said dog fighting has increased hugely, especially at the lower ‘street-fighter’ or informal level.If caught, dog fighters and even spectators can spend between 10 months to five years in prison.In addition to prison time, perpetrators face heavy fines as well as additional penalties, such as the loss of personal assets and denial of future animal ownership.