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Parade Mag: Can you teach Michael Vick's rescued dogs new tricks?

My friend Joe Sudbay Tweeted about this article in Parade, “Can You Teach a Bad Dog New Tricks?” — about what has happened to the pit bulls rescued from Bad Newz Kennels, the dogfighting ring run by Michael Vick, who at that time was the QB for the Atlanta Falcons.

The dogs there were bred to fight, and those that were beyond their fighting days or refused to fight were tortured, electrocuted, shot and beaten. Part of the agreement that sent Vick to prison, was that nearly $1 million had to be set aside to rescue and rehabilitate as many of the dogs as possible, rather than have the 51 dogs destroyed.

The Parade article explains what happened next.

By the time the case was over and the team had done its evaluations, the dogs had been in shelters for up to nine months. “We’d been told these were some of the most vicious dogs in America,” says ASPCA executive vice president Dr. Stephen Zawistowski, who led the evaluation team. Was rehab even a possibility?

What the team found was a mixed bag. Fewer than a dozen of the dogs were hardened fighters. Two had to be put down-one was excessively violent and the other was suffering from an irreparable injury. Then there was a group characterized as “pancake dogs”-animals so traumatized they flattened themselves on the ground and trembled when humans approached. Another group seemed to be dogs of relatively friendly normal temperament who simply had never been socialized.

Jonny was one of the unsocialized-but-happy crowd, which is how he ended up with Cohen, who had a pit bull of his own and had previously fostered six others as a volunteer for the rescue group BAD RAP (Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pitbulls). “The first step was to let him unwind his kennel stress,” Cohen says, referring to the jitters that follow dogs out of long-term confinement. He countered Jonny’s anxiety with quiet time and “the rut,” as he calls it. “Dogs love a schedule,” he explains. “They love knowing that the same things are going to happen at the same times every day. Once they have that consistency, they can relax.”

The real issue here is that blanket statements about pit bulls (or any dogs) with a dark past cannot be painted with a broad brush. Some will thrive with human attention and training, others, like people, have trouble adapting.

Many of the pancake dogs continued to struggle with fear. A few who seemed well-adjusted later regressed. There were missteps and misfortunes. “Some are better than others, but overall these are happy dogs,” says Dr. Frank McMillan, the director of well-being studies at Best Friends Animal Society, whose huge sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, took in 22 of Vick’s dogs.

…Consider one of Vick’s other victims, Hector. A handsome brown dog with a black snout and deep scars on his chest, he had clearly been a fighter. Yet from the start he had nothing but love for the world. After moving through a few foster homes, he was adopted by Roo Yori…Under Yori’s guidance, the ex-fighter blossomed, earning several temperament awards and eventually becoming certified as a therapy dog, working with the sick and elderly, as well as troubled teens.

Many shelter dogs, regardless of breed, have issues with fear and trust as a result of past neglect or abuse, and that is why reputable shelters in your areas also temperament test dogs before putting them up for adoption to let you know which would be good in a family with children, with adults, or with an elderly person as a companion dog with fewer exercise requirements. You have to match your needs to the dog, as well as your desire to emotionally rehab an living creature that will pay you back with devotion if handled properly. Vick’s dogs are no different.

Regulars here at the coffeehouse know that I am a pit bull advocate, with a special interest in educating people about the breed, which has suffered mightily because of bad PR, bad owners, ignorance about the breed’s actual lineage and temperament that makes them wonderful family pets — as well as why this is not the breed for the first-time dog owner. If you’re not willing to put in the time and effort on basic obedience training, please don’t adopt a pit. I’ve always had rescues – including a lab and three Rhodesian Ridgebacks, so I was well versed in bringing a canine into the family.

Pit bulls, aren’t a “breed” per se (American Staffordshire Terrier and American Pit Bull Terriers are most similar — and the pits we see today in shelters are often mixes), thus there is a wide variation in color and size. Some are the beefy 100-lb balls of muscle; many are closer to the historical APBT size of 30-45 lbs, a medium size dog.

Kate and I adopted a 9-month-old, 45 lb. pit from the Wake County SPCA in 2008, one from a litter that was rescued from the side yard of a backyard breeder. She was one of two left (thankfully her sister was adopted some time later). We initially visited with a Golden Retriever prior to meeting Casey, and ironically that dog, a breed considered one of the gentlest family dogs, snapped at Kate.

Casey has been the joy of our lives; she’s smart, friendly with dogs and people, and like many pit bulls, very sensitive to correction; they want to please their people, and that’s why they are easy to train to fight. Positive training methods are essential to motivate and support the pit bull’s bond with its family.

Pit owners will also tell you that they have a great need for affection and to participate in “pack”/family activities. But the one thing a pit bull owner has to contend with is the fear and ignorance out there — you do become an advocate out of necessity. Your dog becomes an ambassador to counteract the myths. If you aren’t ready for the rejection, fear or angry looks from people on the street, get another breed.

An example: Kate and I took worry wart Casey and our beastly Bichon Chloe out on the walking trail in our neighborhood. We have been using these walks to also reinforce our training of the pooches when they encounter distractions — people walking, running, walking other dogs, etc. Since Casey is a pit bull, we’re extra sensitive to encouraging best behavior, but Chloe is the one that’s headstrong. They were earning A+s today, doing sits, stays, downs and waiting at the curbs/street crossing as people walked closely by, no lunging.

So it was completely demoralizing when, after a jogger ran by and the dogs were great — non-reactive and calm, that when we began to walk again, I turned around and a woman was exercise-walking toward us and she saw Casey and waved to indicate “No, no, I’ll go back” and I called out “Don’t worry, I’ll put her into a sit and you can go by.” She waved “no” again and went back in the opposite direction. It’s hard being the owner of such a maligned breed, but Casey is worth it. Read my original piece about pit discrimination here.

For those who ask – “But what about all those reports of pit bulls attacking people/children/dogs?” Well, a lot of the time the reports don’t confirm whether it was a “pit bull” at all – sometimes it’s a Rottweiler, Bull Terrier, a Boxer or other breed. Other times it is a pit/mix; the hysteria around pit bulls is irrational.

But take a look at the statistics for more meaningful, reality-based information below the fold. Also after the jump, a video of Casey’s first day with us after her adoption from the Wake County SPCA. She had to learn how to climb stairs…Let’s look at CDC statistics. This shows breeds of dogs involved in human dog bite-related fatalities (DBRF) in the United States, by 2-year period, between 1979 and

1998. Death-based approach of counting most frequent purebreds and crossbreds involved in 7 or more human DBRF.

>Going by this chart, yes, pit bulls are at the top of fatal dog bites, not all dog bites. What is true is that more attacks on humans that are fatal are due to pit bull and Rottweiler attacks (Rotties have more bite power because of their huge heads and size). No one calls for Rottweilers to be banned.  And if you look at the mixed breeds, pit mixes pose no more significant threat than other mixes — should those all be banned as well; after all, visual appearance alone doesn’t indicate behavior.

Also, the vast majority of biting dogs (77%) belong to the victim’s family or a friend. Another study confirms the obvious to people with experience with dogs — the dogs most likely to bite and kill (and this cuts across all breeds) are male, unneutered, and chained. That’s also a dog that has not been socialized, trained and is a time bomb, not a family pet.  Those are much better predictors of behavior than breed alone.

* The conundrum of Michael Vick’s reinstatement in the NFL
* “The Healing Touch: What happened to Michael Vick’s dogs?”(December 29, 2008 issue of Sports Illustrated)
* Rapper DMX faces time in the clink for animal cruelty
* The Pit Bull Placebo: The Media, Myths and Politics of Canine Aggression (Author Karen Delise compiled actual statistics of dog attacks)

“There can be few greater thrills for a genuine dog lover than to take a homeless dog off of life’s refuse pile, add love and care, and then see that dog, like the Phoenix rising from the ashes, become the great dog it was meant to be. Training such a rescued dog may require a little more time, a little more patience, and a little more skill, but the end result is a dog that has been given back its life. A dog owner can ask for no better companion.”

— Joe Stahlkuppe, Training Your Pit Bull

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding