Dog-fighting 'bait' story may be just an urban myth

By Arthur Strain
BBC News

image captionPolice helped spread the message

There's a saying in Northern Ireland that when something is common knowledge the "dogs in the street know it".

But over the past three weeks an internet rumour has been causing dog owners some concerns, with even the police being drawn into repeating an urban legend.

Since the start of March, social network users in Northern Ireland have been urging dog owners to be extra careful with their pets.

Messages on Facebook and Twitter have been warning of stickers being used to mark houses where there are dogs that are then stolen for use as bait animals in dog fighting.

They also warn there are men in a white van stealing animals on estates for the same purposes.

But is this actually happening?

The animal charity, the USPCA, said that since the break-up of a dog-fighting ring seven years ago, they had no evidence that it had returned in an organised way.

David Wilson from the charity said that while there had been a few instances of cruelty relating to animal baiting it involved cats being thrown to dogs, seemingly by young men.

"When dogs are stolen it is mostly for breeding purposes," he said.

"We raided a puppy farm a while ago and managed to reunite a dog, which had been stolen, with its owner, it had been micro chipped and that's what people should do, as they are legally obliged to.

"We've been hearing these stories about stickers going up at houses with dogs and men in white vans offering to do guttering work and so on, then dogs going missing later.

"But when you ask if these have been reported to the police then things get a lot airier."

According to a website that monitors the appearance and popularity of urban myths, this rumour took off in Australia earlier this month and has been travelling around the globe since then.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) said there was no evidence to suggest there has been an increase in dog thefts.

However, the story has appeared on several PSNI social media outlets.

The PSNI press office said the story had appeared on its Facebook and Twitter feeds after an officer posted it there while "trying to be helpful".

Dr Kevin Curran is a social media expert at the University of Ulster's Computer Science Research Institute.

"It's about critical faculties," he said.

"When my son shows me something that someone's done in a video on YouTube which is a bit mad I can tell him; 'Hold on that's not possible'," he said.

"But I have the experience that tells me it's wrong, how could he know it, and it can be the same on other things.

"The headlines can be attractive or attention-grabbing and people share them."

Some viral stories are planted by advertisers, other just grow organically. Dr Curran said this one was not one to be too concerned about.

"They are not like phishing email in that sense, they are not malicious", he said.

"You can't steal from someone with a story."

The USPCA said that dog owners should ensure that they take care of their animals, but as for the dogs on the street, there are no more being reported missing than is usual.