She’s a picture of happiness. With her twinkling eyes and wide goofy grin, Meryl (on our cover) has a sweet temperament, is wonderful with other dogs, and loves to climb into people’s laps and lick their faces. She lives at Best Friends Animal Society’s sanctuary in Kanab, Utah along with 20 other pitbull mixes originally rescued from NFL quarterback Michael Vick two years ago. “Meryl is great,” says Ann Allums, a Certified Pet Dog Trainer who has worked closely with the rescued dogs. “Every time you look at her she’s happy.”
Most of us remember the Vick case, and the horror we felt when the football star’s dog-fighting ring came to light in 2007. We followed the news as more than 50 dogs used for fighting and breeding were seized from his property in Virginia. In December of that year, Vick was sentenced to 23 months of imprisonment after being convicted of federal dog-fighting charges.
What about the dogs?
But what happened to the dogs? For the first six months after being seized, they were held in shelters while their fate was debated in court. Not surprisingly, most had not been properly socialized and were showing signs of extreme aggression and fear. Others were injured or ill. Some groups, including PETA and the HSUS, initially felt the dogs were beyond rehabilitation, would be unable to live normal lives, and should therefore be humanely euthanized.
In the end, the court decided to give the dogs a second chance. It ordered each animal to be evaluated on an individual basis using the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen Test. “This is probably the first time the court has ever done this, allowing these dogs to live,” says Ann. “The CGC test has been around for about 15 years, but the court was looking for anything they could use as a standard to get these dogs safe for society.” The test consists of ten skills that a dog must master, ranging from basic commands such as sitting and staying, to being able to walk in a crowd and accept strangers and other dogs. Once the Vick dogs were able to pass the test, the court said, they would be deemed safe.
The toughest cases
The dogs were released from the shelters and sent to sanctuaries and rescue groups across the country, including Bad Rap in San Francisco and Recycled Love in Baltimore, Maryland, to be rehabilitated, placed in experienced foster homes, then adopted out permanently. The most difficult dogs were last to be let go, and arrived at Best Friends Animal Society in January of 2008. “We were contacted by the USDA after the dogs were assessed,” says John Polis, Manager of Public Relations at Best Friends. “They asked us to take 22 of the toughest cases.”
Sanctuary staff members had their work cut out for them, but were ready for the challenge. “The biggest issue these dogs had was fear,” says Ann. “They were afraid of people, either because of a lack of socialization or because they’d had a lot of negative experiences with people – probably both. We focused the first whole month on just building their trust, showing them we weren’t going to hurt them. We used all kinds of calm, gentle approaches to show them we weren’t a threat.”
Another of the first month’s challenges was to get the dogs physically healthy. “A lot of them were underweight,” says Ann. “We gave them all thorough health checks, and put them on the right type and amount of food and supplements to build up their weight and health. We also had to spay and neuter a lot of them.”
Getting these particular dogs ready for adoption is taking longer, not because they’re failing to respond to training – far from it – but because fear is preventing many of them from passing the CGC test. “We started training after we’d had the dogs five or six months – they weren’t mentally ready before – and they have all learned their sits, downs, stays and loose leash walking,” explains Ann. “The trouble is, they’re still terrified of other people. By definition, fearful dogs don’t pass the test because they don’t look comfortable. A lot of people see fear as a dangerous thing, but these dogs are actually very friendly. It’s a pretty good test except when it comes to fearful dogs.”
So far, only one of the 22 Vick dogs at Best Friends has been adopted out to a new home. Halle is a shy pit bull mix with a glossy black coat who went to live with her forever family earlier this year and enjoys hanging out with her new “brother” Tacoma, another pit bull rescue. “She has the sweetest, most innocent looking face,” says her guardian Traci. “We are keeping the whereabouts of Halle and the location of her adoptive family confidential,” adds John. “We do this to protect everyone concerned with the foster care placement, and because of the sensitivities in various regions involving pit bulls.”
Meryl , Lucas and Lance
The remaining dogs are still at the Best Friends sanctuary, but no one is giving up on them. “We don’t consider any dog unadoptable,” says Ann. Among them are Meryl and Lucas, both of whom have been court-ordered to stay at the sanctuary. “Meryl got a bad rap because when dogs are afraid they sometimes feel they have no option but to lash out and fight, and that’s what she was first displaying. That’s why the court decided she couldn’t be adopted out. But behaviors change, dogs change, and one situation is not enough to make a decision. If Meryl doesn’t know someone, she’s afraid, but with people she knows, she’s very sweet.”
Lucas, meanwhile (shown on page 4), is what is called a “grand champion” in dog-fighting circles. “The court saw that as a danger because he was fighting dogs and thought he’d be a danger to people as well.” He might look menacing with his scarred face, but nothing could be further from the truth. “He loves people and we’ve never seen any dog aggression from him. He does play bows and kisses other dogs through the fence. We dress him up and put sunglasses and hats on him. He’s such an easy-going loving dog. We’re not afraid for him to meet anyone new.”
One of the dogs currently up for adoption, though he still needs his CGC certification, is Lance. “He was slow to overcome his shyness and fear. If we went into his run he would rush to the back and try to get away from us. It took months before he would walk on a leash, get in a car, or lie down in training. What amazed us is that when we introduced Lance to other dogs, he turned into a happy, totally different dog. In fact, he’s one of the best with other dogs. But he’s still afraid of people. Right now, he lives in our adoption office with about eight other dogs. If he could find a quiet home he could learn to bond with a person. He wouldn’t hurt a flea.”
Ann is hopeful that most of the “Vicktory” dogs at Best Friends will eventually be ready for adoption, given more time, training and TLC. “We believe there’s always a right home for a dog.” Any that can’t be adopted will have always have loving home at the sanctuary, where they’ll get all the affection, care and attention they missed out on earlier in their lives.