Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Jonathan Hall


The cruel practice of dogfighting has thrived in the shadows of the Philadelphia region for more than 150 years. Most commonly, young men have matched dogs against one another in remote locations and blighted neighborhoods for money and bragging rights. The process of training and culling weak dogs as well as the fights themselves have taken an enormous toll on the animals, frequently leaving them dead or maimed and scarred beyond recovery. Chronic underfunding of law enforcement initiatives, weak laws, and community apathy have long thwarted effective crackdowns on dogfighting’s most brutal practitioners.

[caption id="attachment_29163" align="alignright" width="300"]a black and white illustration of a crowd of men surrounding two dogs fighting Dogfighting moved into the shadows during the nineteenth century in the face of growing public distaste for blood sports and interest in anti-cruelty movements. By the end of the Civil War, fights were held in basements and other secluded spaces to avoid scrutiny. (Archive.org)[/caption]

Since classical times, people have pitted dogs against other animals in fierce competitions. During the Middle Ages, Europeans engaged in sports known as bearbaiting and bullbaiting in which dogs squared off with these animals in bloody contests. For centuries, few quibbled over the ethics of these savage events because a deeply embedded Christian worldview assured people that the creatures of the Earth existed solely for their own use and pleasure.

American colonists harbored similar attitudes for a time, but eventually bourgeoisie sensibilities prevailed and the respectable classes came to frown upon staged fights between animals. The 1682 Great Law of Pennsylvania banned “Such rude and Riotus Sports & practices as Prized or Stage Plays Masks Revells Bulbaits Cock fightings,” under penalty of ten days hard labor or a fine of twenty shillings. Lawmakers intended such proscriptions to save human souls more than animal bodies, but Quakers also denounced cruelty to animals as a transgression in its own right.

A Turn to the Tawdry

By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, dogfighting became associated with the more sordid elements of urban life. Middle-class reformers routinely linked blood sports with other iniquitous behaviors and the lower class. In Philadelphia in 1835, the Public Ledger observed, “We never heard of a bull baiting, a dogfight, a cockfight, a boxing match, or a horse race without supplementary quarrels … and we ascribe them to the excitement of the lower animal propensities by the exhibition, as well as to the alcohol always drank on such occasions.” In the view of reformers, such events highlighted a lack of self-restraint and an alarming tendency toward brutality in society.

[caption id="attachment_29165" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of a pit bull terrier on a leash and harness with metal studs. Pit bull terriers were bred for fighting. A cross between terrier breeds and bulldogs, pit bull terriers are known for their fearless attitude and athleticism. (Google Books)[/caption]

With bulls and bears becoming scarce in urban centers, sporting men bred dogs to fight against one another in locations sequestered from public view. Pit bulls—crossed between terriers and bulldogs— were bred for ferocity and agility for fighting in pits or rings. One of Philadelphia’s more infamous Gilded Age sporting men, Pat Carroll, invested long hours in a dog’s training, sometimes walking it twenty miles a day, throwing it in water to swim, or harassing it with the skin of a rabbit attached to a pole. Matches could last for hours until one dog killed the other or until one or both combatants were too injured to continue. Carroll observed that “a fighting dog does not last long,” noting that tenure in the pit seldom extended beyond four years.

Following the Civil War, dogfighting reached its zenith in the shady underworld of American cities, but the cause of animal rights also gained momentum. The Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PSPCA) formed in 1867 and the Women’s Branch (WSPCA) formed the following year. Both of these organizations employed officers with law enforcement powers. In 1869, Pennsylvania enacted an animal cruelty statute that explicitly prohibited the practice of dogfighting under a penalty of ten to twenty dollars for a first offense. New Jersey followed suit in 1873. Anti-cruelty officers routinely raided suspected pits, arrested participants, and confiscated dogs. In June 1874, for example, one such raid nabbed sixty-one men, including Pat Carroll. In most instances, the small fines imposed rarely served to deter further dogfighting. In spite of numerous arrests, Pat Carroll continued his involvement in the Philadelphia dogfighting scene until at least the 1880s.

“Gambling the Dog”

[caption id="attachment_29228" align="alignright" width="300"]The seal of the the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Pressure from the Pennsylvania Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals did little to stop dogfights in the nineteenth century. The society was founded in 1867 and employed its own law enforcement agents, as did its Women’s Branch. Officers routinely raided dogfighting venues and fined the proprietors, but the small fines were not enough to end the practice. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Throughout the twentieth century dogfighting remained on the margins of society, but in the 1980s, the sport took a new turn. It became fashionable for youth in Philadelphia to parade pit bulls with spiked collars through the streets. In this new culture, young men “gambled the dog” or waged impromptu fights on street corners and schoolyards to gain a measure of respect in the community. These practices proved disastrous for pit bulls, in particular, since their trainers often abandoned them when they did not possess the necessary traits of successful fighting dogs. By the late 1990s, the SPCA in Philadelphia was collecting more than three thousand pit bulls per year.

In 2009, public awareness of dogfighting as a persistent urban problem reached new heights when the Philadelphia Eagles signed quarterback Michael Vick (b. 1980), who had served eighteen months in prison in Virginia after pleading guilty to federal charges stemming from his involvement in a dogfighting ring. While some fans praised the Eagles franchise for giving Vick a second chance, others signed online petitions, surrendered their season tickets, or protested outside the team’s practice facility. In the cities where the Eagles played during the 2009 season, Main Line Animal Rescue of Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, purchased newspaper advertisements offering to donate five bags of dog food to local animal shelters for each time opposing players sacked Vick.

Subsequently, the increased recognition of dogfighting as a crime reinvigorated local vigilance. The PSPCA reported a surge in tips about dogfighting, resulting in an increase in investigations of dog fights from 245 in 2008 to 903 in 2009. The Pennsylvania state legislature also enacted new laws that made it a crime to possess dogfighting paraphernalia and shifted the burden of paying for the care of seized animals to the accused owners. Nationally, dogfighting became a felony in all fifty states. For his part, Vick assumed a role as an advocate for the humane treatment of animals, speaking to school and community groups and lobbying for legislation, including the federal Animal Fighting Spectator Act (2014), which made it a felony to bring minors under the age of sixteen to a dog or cock fight. Although fans remained ambivalent about their quarterback, Vick’s presence contributed to the region’s increased recognition of a dog fighting problem deeply rooted in the city and surrounding area.

Jonathan Hall is an environmental historian, specializing in the history of animals in the nineteenth century. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Montana. (Information current at date of publication.)


For as long as people have inhabited Philadelphia and the surrounding area, dogs probably have been present, too. As the first domesticated animal, dogs possess a long, complicated past with humans, likely dating back between fifteen thousand and thirty thousand years. Domesticated canids accompanied human migrants to the Americas around 10,000 to 12,000 BCE. Over many millennia, they have served crucial roles in the region as workers and companions, as muses for stories, and in countless other capacities.

Archaeological sites throughout the northeastern United States reveal that Native Americans used dogs in sacrifices, as partners in the hunt, and as spiritual guardians. Early inhabitants of the Delaware Valley, the Lenni Lenape, believed that dogs guarded passage through the heavens and only permitted virtuous souls to join the creator in the afterlife. Burial sites throughout eastern Pennsylvania containing artifacts carved with dog motifs attest to the close link believed to exist between dogs and the spirit world.

European immigrants to the Philadelphia region valued dogs for their utility and labor. Colonists employed greyhounds, bloodhounds, and nondescript mixed breeds to track game. Often these excursions supplied food for the table, but in other instances an emerging gentry utilized packs of hounds to pursue foxes for sport. Other dogs kept vigil over livestock and property. Occasionally, some advocated for the use of mastiffs and other large breeds as weapons of war against native peoples. In 1755, Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) called for Pennsylvania to acquire fifty mastiffs to harass Native Americans allied with the French during the Seven Years’ War (1756-63). (No evidence suggests that Pennsylvania acted upon Franklin’s suggestion.) Dogs also served as beasts of burden, especially among the working class who lacked the resources to invest in horses. Occasionally, entrepreneurs envisioned dogs as engines of industry powering turnspits, churns, or other mechanical devices. At an agricultural exhibition on the Bush Hill estate in Philadelphia in 1822, one enterprising man demonstrated a system in which four dogs on a treadmill generated the requisite energy to power a grist mill.

Growing Affection

In spite of the fact that relationships were often grounded in specific acts of labor and utility, tender feelings and strong connections still flourished between master and dog. The Philadelphia family of Elizabeth Drinker (1735-1807), for example, possessed many dogs through the years, and her diary revealed genuine attachment to the animals. When her “good old Dog, Watch” died in April 1781, she recalled that he had “served us faithfully for upwards of seven years.” Poems and odes praising the steadfast loyalty of watchdogs appeared frequently in journals and illustrated the attachment that people fostered toward their companions. In addition, newspaper advertisements throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries announced rewards for lost dogs of all kinds.

[caption id="attachment_29154" align="alignright" width="300"]An envelope with an illustration of an African American holding the leash of a cowering dog in one hand and a switch in the other. Text reads "Jeff has the feelings of the Prince of Wails" and "A member of Jim Francis' Dog Detectives has Jeff in a tight place." The unpleasant task of rounding up and destroying stray dogs was left to African Americans beginning in the 1850s with Captain Jim Francis’s “Dog Detectives.” The drawing on this Civil War-era envelope satirically compares Jefferson Davis, then president of the Confederacy, to a dog being caught and whipped by one of the Dog Detectives. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Although dogs proved to be valuable assets for their owners on many levels, their increasing numbers created problems in the city. As early as 1702, a grand jury in Philadelphia complained of “the great damage the Inhabitants of the Citty Do Dayly sustaine by the great loss of their sheepe and Dammage by Reason of the Unnecessary Multitude of Doggs that are needlessly kept in the Cityy.” Even as the United States remained overwhelmingly rural well into the nineteenth century, dogs became an enormous nuisance in cities. Since many owners permitted their pets and livestock to range freely, dogs charged after carriages and knocked down pedestrians. Snarling curs infested markets and their waste blanketed doorsteps and sidewalks. After the sun went down, a chorus of howls often prevented citizens from getting much-needed rest. Perhaps most importantly, the press raised the specter of “mad dogs”—aggressive and unpredictable canines that were ostensibly afflicted with rabies. While rabies (or hydrophobia as it was known at the time) was an extremely rare disease, newspapers amplified its presence by printing graphic accounts of the excruciating deaths of its victims. The threats posed by dogs convinced one correspondent to a Philadelphia newspaper to remark in 1811, “To walk through the city after the close of day has become truly dangerous … it will soon become necessary, for those who would ensure safety, that they go armed.”

As a result, Philadelphia, like many major cities in the nineteenth century, embarked on a program to regulate the numbers of dogs that roamed the streets. Residents called for heavy taxes on dogs as well as legislation that required roving canines to be equipped with collars and muzzles. Municipal governments implemented ordinances and enlisted dogcatchers to capture strays and destroy the surplus population. Beginning in the 1850s this less-than-desirable job fell to a group of African Americans who became known in the press as the Dog Detectives. Between June and September each year, the Dog Detectives, led by Captain Jim Francis (?-1864), corralled dogs found without muzzles and delivered them to a pound, located for a time on Buttonwood Street between Broad and Thirteenth Streets. There, Francis and his associates clubbed the dogs to death if owners failed to claim their pets and pay the requisite fine within a day or two. Generally, Philadelphians found the work of the dogcatchers barbaric, but newspapers frequently praised their efforts in the name of public health and safety.

Humane Treatment Movement

[caption id="attachment_29160" align="alignright" width="300"]the seal of the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals showing an angel preventing a cart horse from being beaten by a man.. The Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded in 1867, partially in response to what people saw as cruel treatment of dogs. Chapters were founding in New Jersey in 1869 and Delaware in 1873. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

In the middle of the nineteenth century, a growing impulse emerged to view animals as sentient beings worthy of protection from abuse and neglect. Americans cultivated what became known as a domestic ethic of kindness and lobbied for the humane treatment of creatures unable to fend for themselves. In 1867, the Pennsylvania Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PSPCA) became the second anti-cruelty organization in the nation. Chapters followed in New Jersey in 1868 and Delaware in 1873. The Women’s Branch of the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (WPSPCA), founded in 1869, made the treatment of dogs one of its top priorities. Under the guidance of Philadelphia humanitarian Caroline Earle White (1833-1916), the WPSPCA worked to provide shelter and placement in new homes for lost and unwanted strays. For those too sick or old to be adopted, the WSPCA instituted a new method of putting animals to death with the use of carbonic acid gas. The compassion of the women earned the respect of many for removing the cruelty and violence that had been embedded in the process of capturing strays for decades.

At the same time, changing attitudes toward animals led to increased pet ownership among the middle class. Philadelphia held what was billed as the first extensive dog show in the country at the Centennial Exhibition in September 1876. Fanciers exhibited nearly six hundred canines from diminutive toy black-and-tan terriers to lean Italian greyhounds and massive Newfoundlanders. The emergence of exotic breeds and the dog shows that publicized them increased the popularity of many novel types of dogs and transformed them into commercial objects and status symbols. Throughout the late nineteenth century, once exotic and rare breeds like the spitz, pug, Boston terrier, Scotch collie, and Saint Bernard fell in and out of fashion. With people’s attachment to their dogs reaching new levels, consumers sought out a wide array of products designed for their pets including food, leashes, blankets, and beds.

[caption id="attachment_29161" align="alignright" width="192"]A color illustration of a collie-type dog lapping root beer from a glass. Behind him there is a child with a look of sadness on his face. Text reads Dogs became popular advertising mascots in the late nineteenth century as they were increasingly viewed as pets rather than pests. This advertisement for Hires’ Root Beer was created around 1880. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

In the twentieth century dogs became ubiquitous in the role of faithful companions. The animals’ gregarious nature enabled them to insinuate themselves into new niches in a modern, industrialized society. Dogs accompanied their owners into new leisure spaces like the beaches and boardwalks of resort towns. In 1909, for instance, the Philadelphia Inquirer observed the growing numbers of dogs in Atlantic City that had a “playful habit of rushing pell-mell into the water.” Canines also served as mascots to fighting units in wars including one named Philly, a stray mutt that travelled to Europe with Philadelphia soldiers serving in World War I. They also became associated with advertising and mass entertainment as consumer culture made celebrities of dogs like Nipper, the trademarked fox terrier of RCA Victor in Camden, New Jersey, as well as Rin Tin Tin, and Lassie.

Ascent of Guide Dogs

In the twentieth century, dogs assumed two other important duties as they worked with law enforcement and assisted the visually impaired. Prominent Philadelphia native Dorothy Harrison Eustis (1886-1946) played a significant role in training dogs in both tasks. Following World War I, Eustis relocated to the Swiss Alps where she trained German Shepherds as police dogs. However, in 1927, after she published an article in the Saturday Evening Post on a school in Germany that taught dogs to guide blind veterans, readers inundated Eustis with mail asking how they might acquire such useful companions. This intense interest persuaded Eustis to found the Seeing Eye, the nation’s first trainer of guide dogs, in 1929. Within three years, the institute had established its headquarters in Whippany, New Jersey, and it moved to Morristown in 1966. By 2014, the Seeing Eye had placed more than sixteen thousand guide dogs across the United States.

[caption id="attachment_29162" align="alignright" width="224"]a black and white photograph of a woman flanked by two German Shepherd Dogs Dorothy Harrison Eustis was an early and prominent promoter of dogs as service animals. She founded The Seeing Eye in 1929. It was the first organization in the United States devoted to training guide dogs for the blind. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

The reliance on canines’ acute senses and sociability accelerated their use as service animals in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Canine Partners for Life, founded in 1989 in Cochranville, Pennsylvania, pioneered the use of dogs in alerting their human partners to a variety of medical conditions including diabetes, seizures, and cardiac arrest. In addition, dogs assumed therapeutic roles for some individuals, relieving anxiety and helping their owners to cope with the stresses of everyday life. Yet these new uses for dogs blurred the line between pet and worker as when Canine Partners for Life had to sue to recover one of its service dogs from a deceased owner’s family in 2016.

With an estimated 350,000 dogs in the city in 2015, Philadelphians have continued the longstanding trend of keeping dogs for companionship and pleasure rather than for their practical utility. The shared emotional bond has encouraged humans to see dogs as friends and family, and consequently owners have insisted upon amenities and access for their pets unheard of in the past. Within the city and its surrounding region dog parks have sprouted up where canines can frolic and socialize off leash. In New Jersey, resort towns such as Wildwood have reserved stretches of beaches for dogs and their owners to enjoy the ocean.

[caption id="attachment_29147" align="alignright" width="300"]a black and white photographs of handlers exhibiting show dogs in the Civic Center. In the background, judges examine a small dog on a table. The first major dog show was held at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Fairmount Park. Since then, dog shows have been popular with purebred dog fanciers in the city. This photo is from the 1975 Kennel Club of Philadelphia competition held in the Philadelphia Civic Center. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

At the same time dogs have come to occupy a cherished place in the home, they have also become emblematic of the rampant consumerism of the twenty-first century. In 2016 alone, Americans spent more than $66 billion dollars on their pets. New businesses such as bakeries, dog-walking services, and pet-friendly vacation planners have catered to the inseparable bonds between some humans and their canine companions. With its origins dating back to 1879, the popularity of the Kennel Club of Philadelphia’s dog show attained new heights as its television broadcast became a Thanksgiving tradition in 2002, annually showcasing some of the most fashionable breeds for viewers. More troubling, though, has been the proliferation of puppy mills breeding dogs in crowded and unsanitary conditions to fulfill intense demand. State legislation, including New Jersey’s Pet Purchase Protection Act enacted in 2015, has cracked down on problematic breeders, requiring pet stores to deal only with reputable operations and disclose breeder information to consumers.

The relationship between dogs and people has evolved over millennia. While many of the former roles that dogs assumed in human lives have long since become obsolete, new ones have emerged to illustrate the connection between the species remains alive and well.

Jonathan Hall is an environmental historian, specializing in the history of animals in the nineteenth century. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Montana. (Information current at date of publication.)

Share This Page: