Channel 4’s ‘Going to the Dogs’ documentary was causing controversy long before it aired. Created by award-winning filmmaker Penny Woolcock and featuring actor Dylan Duffus, the programme’s subject was one that stirs up emotions few other topics can: dog fighting. An online petition aiming to prevent the programme from being aired reached 20,000 signatures in just one week. Despite this and the numerous complaints received by Ofcom, Going to the Dogs and its stomach-churning content was still shown last night (Thursday 12th June).
Whilst the majority of those expressing their anger at Channel 4 are dog lovers with a genuine interest in animal welfare, I believe that most of those complaining that it glamorised the ‘sport’ are missing the point. Dog fighting and the lifestyle that goes with it is already glamorised amongst those who participate, or wish to participate, in such events. Would a mainstream television programme featuring sloppy interviews and failed dog fights appeal to future ‘dog men’? Maybe it would. But even more likely to appeal to bloodthirsty youths are the thousands of online videos that were briefly mentioned, and of course the gangsta rap music that makes direct references to tough illegal dogs and actively using dogs as weapons. A clip of rapper DMX in his music video for ‘Ruff Ryders’ Anthem’ was briefly shown; DMX, also known as Earl Simmons, was previously charged with animal cruelty in relation to the neglect of several of his own Pit Bulls. Undoubtedly the rise of the internet and the subsequent easy access to such material has contributed to the “400% increase” in dog fighting cases within recent years, but if the makers of Going to the Dogs are to be believed, the inherent need for ‘blood and guts’ is within all of us, and has existed long before the advent of the computer.
Footage of an organised and apparently popular dog fight in Kashmir featuring large Bully Kutta type dogs was shown, demonstrating that the ‘tradition’ of bloodsports is far from restricted to UK soil. In England, sports such as bull baiting and dog fighting, both outlawed in the Cruelty Against Animals Act 1835, have always been associated with the working classes; the interview with the pheasant shooter was an apparent attempt to demonstrate the social divide and worryingly appeared to be suggesting that if the ‘upper classes’ can participate in the shooting of fowl then perhaps the working classes should be able to fight their dogs. “Each to their own”, said dog fighter El Primo towards the end of the programme.
Comparing illegal dog fighting to the meat industry is dangerous territory, and possibly a part of the programme that should have either been expanded upon or left out completely. Mentioning of the use of animals in circuses would have been a far safer alternative and perhaps a more appropriate link, demonstrating our shift in attitude towards using animals for inhumane entertainment purposes. Does tucking into a burger while deploring dog fighting really make someone a hypocrite? Factory farming may generate a lot of debate but it is a debate that doesn’t seem to effectively tie in with a dog fighting programme. Animal rights campaigners would probably say otherwise, and indeed PETA, the controversial animal rights organisation, commented, “Those of us disgusted by this blood sport should take a look at our own relationship with animals”.
A lot of the controversy surrounding the documentary stems from the attitudes and opinions shown by the filmmaker and crew. Towards the end, Dylan Duffus commented, “it’s what dogs do, I don’t think it’s wrong”, while revelling in his experiences of the fighting ring atmosphere; a disappointing comment that made me wonder whether the programme had the power to encourage the next generation of dog fighters after all. Perhaps even more concerning was the comment made by Woolcock herself, who questioned an owner of a Pit Bull type kept as a family pet why he would have a problem with dog fighting “if the training isn’t cruel and the people are kind to their dogs”. Surely the video evidence of forcing a dog to run on a treadmill to the point of exhaustion, men repeatedly hitting their Pit Bulls and talking about drowning “mashed up” dogs is anything but kind. Perhaps the questioning of morals should have been directed towards other people in the programme, although the owner did make reference to his dog being for protection. He also seemed oblivious and unconcerned by his young child clambering over his dog who appeared to run over its tail with a push along Thomas the Tank Engine toy.
Despite the publicity generated by Going to the Dogs, the programme left a lot of unanswered questions for those who didn’t boycott it. What, apart from an alleged ‘bloodthirst’, makes men want to treat their dogs in this way? Is it money-focused or maintained mostly out of tradition and fuelled by the internet? Does the Pit Bull breed truly reflect the nature of their owners or are they just a symbol of the power and status they want to convey? If Pit Bulls could be owned legally and found their way out of the underground scene, what effect would this have on their reputation? Could BSL actually be encouraging the ownership of ‘game’ Pit Bulls rather than eliminating it? Is the seizure and euthanasia of Pit Bulls really the authority ‘marking their territory’ or was this just another statement to show the alienation felt by these people? What about the increasing trend in dog fights taking place away from the organised rings and happening directly on our streets?
Since the airing, there have been calls from both the RSPCA and other animal welfare groups such as Animal Aid for Channel 4 to release the identities of those involved in the programme to the police. The questions raised about ourselves as ‘users’ of animals, together with the anonymity of the dog fighters, their faces hidden by balaclavas, was an apparent attempt to lead viewers to consider whether they could see themselves behind the mask. If the outrage surrounding the programme is anything to go by, I’d say the answer is most likely to be a resounding no.
‘Going to the Dogs’ is currently available on 4oD.