When I told a friend I was heading to Best Friends Animal Society in Utah to meet the most seriously affected of the Michael Vick dogs, he looked at me and said, “I hope you’ll be wearing body armor.”
The reaction didn’t shock me exactly. But considering how serious I am about correcting the misperceptions so many people have about the American Pit Bull Terrier, I didn’t find his comment particularly amusing either.
Best Friends had taken on the toughest of the Michael Vick dogs and I wanted to see how they were doing. Numbering 22 in all, these dogs had been fought, forcibly bred, neglected, and left alone in cages most of their lives. Many had been labeled dog aggressive; a few were also deemed people aggressive.
In the past, dogs captured in busts like this one were considered too risky for a fate other than euthanization. This time, the court ruled that these dogs deserved something different. Even so, few of those who evaluated the dogs thought they’d ever be eligible for adoption. These were the dogs, it was said, who would never leave the sanctuary.
And that was my fear. Not that I’d be attacked by a pit bull. But that I’d discover these dogs were too damaged to ever have a chance at a decent life.
Welcome to Dogtown
Our first morning in Kanab, Utah, my husband Mike and I wake to chilly sunshine and an endless, breathtaking red-brown landscape. The sanctuary sits high, where Bryce Canyon meets Mt. Zion, in the midst of sprawling desert. At once I feel inspired and very, very small.
Our guide meets me at the Best Friends Welcome Center, and we set out by car for Dogtown. With 30,000 acres of hilly terrain to traverse, most visitors drive. Dogtown is the brand-new facility designed and created especially for the Vicktory dogs, as they’re known, with the $389,000 Michael Vick was ordered as part of his sentence.
Dogtown (“an exclusive gated community,” my guide jokes), consists of a central building lined with spacious indoor kennels. Behind it sit various outdoor structures — picture vast acreage sectioned off into sturdy wire-frame “huts,” an improvised agility course, and dusty walking trails. Inside, I’m introduced to John Garcia, the assistant trainer, who immediately starts explaining the work that goes on there. “Every dog is scarred in some way,” he begins. “So the rehabilitation process is slow and careful.”
Healing scars you can’t see
Garcia describes the dogs’ physical condition when they first arrived, and it starts to sink in that this effort is no small endeavor. Many of the dogs had, and still have, patches of skin missing from their legs and muzzle. One male had his jaw bones broken in several places, so his mouth doesn’t quite close. And there was the female who’d had her teeth plucked one by one from her gums, so she wouldn’t be able to bite during breeding.
“Most debilitating are the psychological scars,” adds Ann Allums, the head trainer. “These dogs were so frightened they wouldn’t come out of their crates when they first got here. You can imagine how confused and disoriented they were. They had no idea who to trust.”
Garcia goes on to lay out the details of the dogs’ intensive schedules, which work out to be about a ten-hour day, every day. He talks fast and furiously, but I’m having trouble concentrating because of the boisterous sounds of barking and toenails tapping just beyond the door.
“Could we meet one?” I ask.
Garcia doesn’t seem to mind the interruption, and we’re ushered through the door. The first dog we see is a large, dirty blond Pit Bull with a huge head and knowing, resigned eyes. His face, torso, and legs bear the unmistakable scars of fierce battle. Clearly, this dog hasn’t been in just a scrape or two, he’s had to fight for his life. Yet, as we step closer, his whole body wiggles and wags.
“This is Lucas,” says Garcia. “He’s a grand champion. He’s probably been fought more than 25 times.”
Lucas nuzzles his head into the crook of my elbow. He darts over to greet my husband, all kisses and play bows. It’s hard to imagine a dog being any friendlier, and we fall all over him in return. He’s irresistible.
Pit Bulls are famously people-centered, as Lucas is proving. But how does he do with dogs?
“Has there been much fence fighting?” I ask. Fence-fighting is the term for aggressive barking, lunging, and snarling dogs do when in the presence of other dogs they can’t physically access. It’s very common in dog-aggressive dogs.
“We haven’t seen any,” Garcia tells me. I have to admit, I’m stunned.
Our next stop is an indoor kennel belonging to Squeaker, a gorgeous golden female who doesn’t come close to looking Mike or me in the eye. She retreats behind a trainer, coyly emerging every few seconds to make sure we’re right where she left us. Nearly a year after her rescue date, she’s still a little more fearful than friendly.
This time our cooing proves useless, and I wonder how long it will take her to warm to us.”Has Squeaker improved since she’s been here?” I ask. Another trainer chimes in. “Oh yeah. She used to barely acknowledge me, but now we’re buddies.” On cue, the dog sidles up and nestles against the trainer’s shoulder.
“How long have you been working with her?” I ask.
“A few months,” she answers.
Warm floors, chew toys, and car rides
Though new, the kennels are not particularly fancy. Just spare walls and cement floors, but strewn with chew toys, blankets, and an off-the-ground bed. If a dog prefers to lounge on the floor, she’ll be quite comfortable there, as the cement is heated from below. No kidding.
“Some of the dogs have never slept on anything but concrete.” Allums explains. “If a dog chooses to sleep on the ground because that’s what she’s always known, at least she’ll be warm.”
No matter where they sleep, Garcia reminds us that by nightfall, the dogs are pretty near exhausted — almost every waking hour of their day is accounted for.
“We’re constantly exposing them to as much as we can,” he says. “They’re learning manners, agility, socialization. They go for rides in cars. They’re getting affection. Believe it or not, it can be difficult for some of them to just learn how to relax with humans around.”
Allums nods in agreement, adding, “We hope one day soon they’ll even be able to go on sleepovers.”
Garcia explains the popular sleepover program. If volunteers or guests are staying in dog-friendly accommodations, they’re permitted to, essentially, adopt an animal for a night. The animal gets the chance to spend an evening with a family — a sort of simulated home experience — not to mention explore new sights, take new walks, and soak up all the loving one-on-one attention he possibly can.
Allums offers an example. “Shadow (another Vick dog) used to be in a perpetual state of shaking. It took him an entire month before he’d comfortably walk through a doorway. But we worked with him very intensely. Eventually he was going on sleepovers and having a great time.”
“Now he doesn’t shake at all.” Allums says.
Before Mike can protest, we’ve signed up to participate.
Birth of a sanctuary
The Vicktory dogs are not the first fighting dogs Best Friends has seen. The activity only became illegal in 1974, around the time Best Friends was taking shape in eastern Arizona. By the mid-eighties Best Friends achieved official 501c3 nonprofit status, acquired land in Utah, and grew to be the largest animal sanctuary in the U.S.
Their mission is to find homes for all pets, and they’ve been instrumental in not only the busts and rescues of puppy mills dogs and Hurricane Katrina victims, but in finding homes for these often traumatized animals. Horses, cats, birds, sheep, and rabbits from all backgrounds and circumstances benefit from their auspices. At any one time, the sanctuary houses up to 2,200 animals, and in 2007 alone, Best Friends received 27,000 human visitors.
By 4:00 that afternoon, I’d absorbed as much of the sanctuary as I could in one day. It was time to pick up Timmy, our charge for the evening. Before she brings him from his kennel, his trainer gives us a bit of background.
Timmy had been rescued from New Orleans, half-starved, four months after Hurricane Katrina hit. Terrified and abandoned, he was found practically glued to the side of another dog, wandering the soggy streets.
It’s impossible to know exactly what he endured during those months, but as he lowers body and slinks away from us, it’s clear this dog has been traumatized.
I have a strong urge to throw my arms around him, but Timmy winces and crouches at any sudden movement. Instead, I speak quietly and move as slowly as I can.
“Should I sit in the back seat with him?” I ask the trainer as she coaxes the dog into our rental car.
“He’s probably more comfortable by himself back here,” she says. My heart sinks.
I wish I could say Timmy warmed up within a few minutes of being in our cottage. But hours later, he still sat huddled against the bathtub, the spot he’d beelined for when we first opened the cottage door. Mike and I take turns sitting on the floor next to him, gently petting him, and whispering to him about what a good dog he is.
We cover the bathroom floor with dog treats and leave periodically, hoping he’ll relax enough to snatch a bite. I place the water bowl almost directly under his snout so he won’t even have to move if he gets thirsty. At some point, well into the evening, Timmy stops shaking.
“Look,” I say to Mike. “He’s relaxed. We’ve turned a corner.” Mike peers into the bathroom and eventually just shakes his head. “I’m not sure this was a good idea for this dog,” he says.
In the morning, Timmy is in his same spot as the night before, but lying down at least. His eyes are open and I’m not sure he’s slept a wink. The water bowl is still completely full. Not one dog treat has been touched.
We decide that I should be the one to drive Timmy back to his kennel. He seems slightly more comfortable with me (many fearful dogs feel more at ease with women than men) and he doesn’t recoil when I approach him to put on his leash. We’ve been on the road about 30 seconds when Timmy climbs from the floor of the car (where he spent the first ride) up to the seat. Another corner turned? Or maybe he just senses he’s going back to the place he considers home.
Should every dog be saved?
As we make our way over the bumps and dips, I can’t help but wonder if our sleepover did more harm than good. I don’t think Timmy’s a hopeless case, but I do think it’ll take heroic efforts to help transform him into the comfortable, happy dog he deserves to be. Does Best Friends really have those kinds of resources? Does anyone?
“How’d it go?” the trainer asks when we pull into the driveway.
“It went ok,” I tell her. “Although he never really relaxed. We tried to make him feel as safe as possible. But he never ate. Never drank. I hope he’s ok.”
“Timmy will always be a scared dog,” the trainer says. “It doesn’t mean he has to have a poor quality of life. I think it’s good to push him out of his comfort zone a bit.”
I hope she’s right.
Graphing the Vick dogs’ progress
My visit’s last official piece of business is to meet with Dr. Frank McMillan, the staff veterinarian who specializes in the emotional wellbeing of the sanctuary animals. Dr. Frank implemented the comprehensive rehabilitation curriculum, and extensive evaluation program, he designed specifically for the Vicktory dogs.
A total of six quality-of-life factors (including confidence level, interest in people, and fearfulness) are measured and recorded, and the doctor takes me through a quick presentation of the colorful charts and spiky graphs that mark each dog’s daily progress. Not all paths surge insistently in the right direction, as dogs have good days and bad days like everyone else. But the vast majority show clear and steady progress.
Dr. Frank emphasizes that the program is still young. There are many more assessments to be made and long-term issues to evaluate before it’s ready to be rolled out to other areas of the sanctuary and to other rescue groups. But for now, Dr. Frank is thrilled with the progress.
Reason to give these dogs a chance
It was said the Vick dogs would never walk on leash. They all do. It was said they’re all dog aggressive. The overwhelming majority show little to no aggression. It was doubted they’d ever be adoptable. Aside from Lucas — the grand champ fighter (and lover) who has been court-ordered to remain at Best Friends — there is excellent reason to believe all the Vicktory dogs will leave the sanctuary and live out their lives in family homes.
Whether any dog, no matter his circumstances, is able to be rehabilitated, I personally am still not sure. How good is the quality of life for poor Timmy ever going to be?
But I do believe that every dog deserves a chance. I think of the comment trainer John Garcia made yesterday in describing their achievements. “These dogs have had to overcome huge obstacles, and they have. But their biggest hurdle will be overcoming the label ‘Vick Pit Bull.'”