May the best dog win
Although it is forbidden in Moscow, a form of
dog fighting has not only survived but thrived throughout the
Caucasus, cementing local legitimacy and gaining new followers since
the Soviet Union collapsed.
The two opponents padded and paced on a snow-covered basketball
court, waiting for their fight to begin.
They were adult Central Asian wolf dogs in the middleweight
class. Both were undefeated in a combined 42 appearances in Russia's
fighting dog rings. Each weighed more than 45kg.
The referee gave the sign. Their trainers released them. The dogs
growled, lunged and met, locking jaws on each other's faces. They
began pulling and twisting, each trying to force the other to the
About 150 people lined the fences to watch. The most intense
match-up of the fourth stage of the all-Russian dog fighting
championship had begun.Dog fighting is prohibited in much of the
West, and animal rights advocates have long wished to have it banned
in Russia and the rest of the former Soviet world, labeling it a
cruel and a bloody diversion for gamblers and thugs. They have
succeeded in Moscow, where the fights are forbidden by mayoral
But throughout Central Asia and the Caucasus, and extending to
the outskirts of Russia's capital, a form of the sport has thrived,
cementing local legitimacy and gaining new followers since the
Soviet Union's collapse 15 years ago. It has also returned to
Afghanistan, where it was forbidden during the Taliban's rule.The
sport involves massive, thick-headed breeds, including Central Asian
shepherd dogs and Caucasian ovcharka, bred by livestock herders
across the continent to defend sheep and cattle in the mountains and
on the steppe. Collectively the dogs are called volkodavs, the
wolf-killers.The All-Russian Association of Russian Volkodavs, which
sponsors a national fighting championship and participates in fights
in other nations, claims to have more than 1,000 breeders among its
members and another 1,000 owners who enter dogs in fights.
It holds tournaments almost openly, and has enough fans to
support a glossy magazine, a Web site and an annual championship
tournament. Its members brush aside criticism as ill-informed and
superficial, saying the sport has roots in traditional contests in
which shepherds tested their work dogs and celebrated their stamina
and wolf-fighting skills. They also insist that their tournaments,
unlike secretive fights with pit bulls and other fighting breeds,
never involve contests to the death, and that the dogs are rarely
"Only people who have not seen it, and do not understand it,
dislike this," said Stanislav Mikhailov, the association's
president, as owners gathered recently for the latest tournament,
held in a sanitarium in the Tula region, in the forest south of
Moscow. This event was at once open and partly closed. The fans
streamed in. But one Western and three Russian journalists were
admitted on condition that the sanitarium's location not be
disclosed, out of fear of vandalism or protests by opponents of the
fights. In the Caucasus and in Asia, dog owners said, such
precautions are not necessary.
In the ring the fight continued. The dogs tugged each other in
tight circles by their snouts and then broke free, snarled and
attacked again. Sometimes they rose up, pressing for leverage with
forepaws while driving forward on hind legs and seeking a purchase
for their bared teeth. Their handlers crouched beside them, shouting
One dog, a reddish-tan shepherd's dog called Sarbai, took an
early advantage. He weighed about 61kg, at least 13kg more than his
foe. "Good boy, Sarbai!" his handler shouted. "Bite him well! Work!"
Sarbai wagged the stump of his clipped tail. His opponent, Jack, had
a slightly crooked left rear leg, which his owner said had been
broken when he was hit by a car five years ago. He could not match
Sarbai's strength. But he was quick. He refused to submit. As he
yielded ground, he clamped onto Sarbai several times, sometimes
biting the larger dog's neck, sometimes lunging for his legs.
The legality of such spectacles is unclear. Russia's criminal
code includes a statute forbidding cruelty to animals, but to date,
animal rights advocates and dog breeders agree, it has not been used
against volkodav fights. The statute's language is vague, and Elena
Maruyeva, director of the Vita Center for Animal Rights Protection,
a private organization in Moscow, said the government did not
interpret it broadly. "In practice it is very, very hard to
prosecute a person under this law," she said.
The dog owners say that because the fights are not forbidden,
they are allowed. They note that government officials know about the
tournaments, and the association publicizes the results. Fans also
sell plainly labeled videos of the fights."We are a semi-open
organization," said Yuri Yevgrashin, the chief referee for the day's
events. Whatever its official status, the sport appears to be under
no significant threat. Maruyeva and an official at another of the
principal animal protection organizations in Moscow said that so
far, they had not pushed for bans on wolf dog fighting. Instead,
they hope for other measures, like restrictions on the breeding of
attack dogs, registration of wolf dog breeders and enacting
standards for their care.
On the court, the second round began. The dogs locked jaws and
began tumbling against snow banks. Jack still would not quit. The
momentum seemed to turn. Could the smaller dog win?"I am with you,
Jack!" a red-faced man screamed, holding a plastic cup of vodka. But
the second round ended like the first — with two exhausted dogs.
Under the association's rules, dogs are sorted into two classes for
age and weight. They are juniors until age two and a half, when they
are classified as adults. Middleweights must weigh less than 62kg.
Any dog larger is a heavyweight.
The largest, weighing roughly 90kg, are not highly regarded.
"They are too slow," Yevgrashin said. Each fight lasts until one dog
shows fear or pain — by dropping its tail, squeaking, whimpering,
refusing to fight or snapping its jaws defensively, all grounds for
instant disqualification. There is no scoring. There are only
winners and losers or, in fights that continue for three rounds
without an animal yielding, draws. Sometimes the outcome is clear
within a minute. Other times, fights last more than 45 minutes. A
veterinarian is always on hand, Mikhailov and Yevgrashin said.
Between Sarbai and Jack's rounds, other dogs fought. One was
called Koba, the nickname used by Stalin. He won. Another was named
Khattab, after a Jordanian-born terrorist who fought in Afghanistan,
Tajikistan and Chechnya before Russia's intelligence service killed
him with a poison-soaked letter in 2002. He won, too, in the junior
middleweight class, extending his undefeated record to eight
wins.Many dogfights in Russia are said to be tainted, with
steroid-swelled dogs, or animals smeared with wolf fat to confuse or
intimidate their foes, or dogs' mouths injected with Novocain to
make them fight without hesitation. But Edgar Grigorian, Khattab's
owner, said that at this level the matches were clean.
"We are adamantly against cheating," he said. "I can always tell
a dirty dog in a fight, and a good judge will always see it."
Grigorian and several other breeders and association members said
that there was no prize money, but that successful fighters were
used to sire puppies, which could sell for more than US$500 each. In
two days at the sanitarium, no admission fee was charged and no
gambling was visible, although the breeders said there might be some
private side bets. The previous night, owners and fans had gathered
in the sanitarium to celebrate their sport. Behind a hotel room
door, a huge dog guarded a metal bowl of meat. When Yevgrashin
opened the door, the dog stared at a stranger and growled.
Yevgrashin closed the door. Shamil Dotdayev, who sells videotapes
of fights and copies of his book, Caucasian Volkodavs,
reflected on the tournament ahead. The fights, he said, help
preserve breeds with ancient roots in Central Asian and Caucasus
life and with a continuing utility in food production. The dogs that
succeed, he said, are an essential part of this hard, canine lot —
the pack leaders. Animal rights groups disagree. They say the
breeding system rewards the attributes needed for fighting, which
are narrower than those for guarding a livestock herd or leading a
pack. Dotdayev admitted that his interests were broader. He poured
shots of vodka and said that dog fighting had an almost irresistible
draw, and that studying fighting dogs can become a shepherd's or
mountain man's obsession.
"The dogs teach us," he said. "You cannot look at a dog and tell
who it is. The dog is on the inside, not on the outside. It is in
"It is the same with people," he added, and lifted his glass.
On the basketball court, Jack and Sarbai were led back for a
Sarbai quickly pulled Jack to the snow. Each time Jack escaped he
was pinned anew, until he was spent and began to snap his jaws,
signaling defeat. His tournament was over. Sarbai advanced to the
By C. J. Chivers
NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE, MOSCOW
Saturday, Feb 10, 2007, Page 16