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A Scratch in Time
by Richard F. Stratton

I have to admit it. I'm not that much of a fan of pit contests. This may surprise some readers, as I have, many times, ardently defended pit dog men and ridiculed their castigators as ignoramuses who had no idea of that very thing that they criticized. The point is that my main interest has been in the kind of animal which has been produced by the countless generations of the contesting of dogs against each other. Still, I am a great student of every aspect of the game. But, if I simply had my dogs and some sort of "game-o-meter," I could live without the contests, particularly since the authorities apparently have serious crime under such complete control that they have made even attending such a pit contest a felony in most states!

I have noticed that movie makers now occasionally like to put a pit dog fight in a scene to portray a particular location as especially tough and to underline the depravity of the characters, too, I suppose. These scenes nearly always show lots of blood and have the sound effects of horrific growlings. How disappointing it would be to the average person to see the real thing, in which there is often little in the way of blood, and, more often than not, absolutely no growling. Not much of a spectacle really, unless you are quite familiar with every aspect of the game. (The same statement would be true, to some degree, when speaking of nearly any sport.)

Of course, to the devotees of the sport, there is simply nothing more exciting. In fact, I know some proponents who seriously believe that one reason the activity is suppressed by law is because if the general public got a taste of it, other lucrative sports would be doomed! Well, of course, I don't believe that for a moment, but it illustrates the point that the game is interesting enough that it can breed a fanatical interest in otherwise normal people.

Just one interesting aspect to the contests is the scratch. It is a moment of excitement, for most contests end when one dog fails to make his scratch. Almost every scratch has a bet riding on it, as there is nearly always some one in the crowd who wants to place anywhere from one dollar to a hundred that a dog will or will not scratch.

For those not versed in the finer points of dogfighting, let me explain that a scratch consists of a handler releasing his dog to cross the pit to make contact with his opponent. Normally, the scratching begins when the handlers are able to handle their dogs free of holds after a turn has been called on one of the dogs. The dog that the turn was called on has to scratch first, but after that, the dogs scratch in turn. Alternatively, a handler may ask for an out-of-holds count if both dogs are free of holds for a given time, ranging from ten to sixty seconds. In that case, the down dog has to scratch first. A third possibility is that the handlers had a coin toss before the match, agreeing that if there have been no turns at the hour mark they will begin scratching the dogs anyway. The one who loses the toss has to scratch first, and the idea behind this rule deviation is to get the dogs scratching early and hopefully have a shorter contest in the hope of not losing either dog.

Now an interesting point is that, while most Bulldogs run their scratches, some walk them, and some shoot across at unbelievable speed. Many people assume, incorrectly, that the faster the scratch, the gamer the dog. Some great dogs, including Wallace's Talking Boy, Mason's Hog, and Reddick's Peterbilt were dogs that simply walked their scratches. But, at the two hour mark, even after taking a beating, they were still coming across. In some cases, these "walking dogs" will begin to run their scratches in the latter stages of the match, but this is unusual. If they walk in the beginning, they usually walk in the later stages, too. One of the reasons dog men often doubt the gameness of slow scratching dogs is because a sign that a dog is getting ready to quit is when his scratches start slowing down.

Although I intend to argue that, everything else being equal, a hard scratching dog has the advantage, I should point out that the slow scratchers have their adherents among pit dog men. For one thing, they can make money off those at pit side who want to bet on the scratches. But from a purely practical standpoint, the fans of the slow scratching dog would point out that such dogs are normally quiet in their corners and, thus, get a chance to rest. Another advantage is that slow scratchers receive a good opportunity to assess their opponent on the way over and can pick their spots, and, at times, even seem to have formulated a strategy before making contact.

Doubtless, there is some merit to those arguments, but this is what the truly hard scratching dog has going for him. For one thing, he wears his opponent out in the corner hitting him so hard. In fact, his opponent often gets a double hit, because he receives the impact of the scratching dog and then is driven back into the boards of the pit corner. A dog's handler, when faced with a hard scratching dog, is inclined to release his dog early so that he at least is not smashed back into the corner of the pit. A smart dog learns to side step these hard charging artists and grab an ear, or something, from the side, but he has to be released before the other dog reaches him in order to do that. In any case, the opponent of a hard scratcher is at a disadvantage, as his owner is always releasing him early, and sometimes those hard scratchers will charge across at full speed but stop just a few inches away. But he never gets put to that test if the other dog's handler keeps releasing him early, and it is only good tactics to do so.

Certainly, it could never be argued that the hard scratchers are gamer than the slow-scratching ones. But everyone likes the spectacle of a hard scratcher, as some scratches are truly spectacular. Although a match is often extolled for having had no turns and, thus, no scratches, they can also be praised by detailing how many scratches each dog made. To many pit dog men, the exciting part of the match is when the scratching has begun. In fact, I recall one such fancier saying that if there was a line of chorus girls on one side and pit dogs scratching on the other, he would be at the side where the dogs were doing the scratching.

We may not all be quite that fanatical, but I think anyone who has ever seen a pit contest would agree that the scratches were an integral and exciting part of it.