A five-person film crew from New York City poured onto our Berkeley-based training grounds recently and spent an hour chasing our Pit Bulls around as they maneuvered orange cones and practiced loose-leash heels.
Most of the dogs and their handlers paid no attention; they’ve become strangely accustomed to the sight of gawking strangers carrying cameras and fuzzy, long-poled microphones.
One handler was not so blasé, though. As we wrapped up the last exercise, Jelly Roll Jones’ new adopter pulled me aside to ask what the crew was filming. I was surprised at the question. Me: “Well, the Vick dogs.” Steve: “The Vick dogs! Where?”
Apparently, Steve had no idea that up to eight of Michael Vick’s former dogs are a regular part of our busy Saturday training scene. We’d never found a reason to point them out, and frankly, they look and act so “normal” that they just blend in with all the other dogs. Steve’s surprise was the best form of flattery we could hope for, and confirmation that we’d chosen the right dogs for our program and – especially – the right owners and foster parents for the dogs. No matter their background, all well-adjusted, well-trained dogs can camouflage into the day-to-day flow of our homes and city streets. It’s a goal we strive for with all our rescued Pit Bulls, and it’s been surprisingly easy to achieve.
Sixteen months after the Vick dogs disembarked from the RV that brought them from Virginia to Oakland, seven of our ten are now in their permanent homes. Four have earned their Canine Good Citizen (CGC) certificates and two are now certified therapy dogs. They’re all romping daily with other dog friends and, in some homes, young children and family cats.
Outside of their occasional celebrity, the details involved in the dogs’ daily routines would be familiar to most dog owners: Uba is helping his people keep a new foster dog entertained, and he still submits to the house cat known as William. Zippy settles herself down near her people’s new baby, yet she still wears out her dog brother Crash with her high-energy play style. Mischievous Audie managed to get at two of his adopter’s goose down pillows, bringing an unexpected snowfall to his Vallejo home. Handsome Hector – now transplanted to Minnesota – helped his friends promote an animal welfare bill on the steps of that state’s capital. When he’s not getting political, he needs to be watched around the houseplants, since to him they look like big dog toys. Ernie could romp all day with his foster dog sister, and he’s learning not to yip when squirrels tease him from a backyard tree branch.
The same scenarios repeat for many of the dogs absorbed by other groups: Jhumpa from the Richmond Animal League lives with multiple dogs and a cat and just earned her CGC. Piper from Animal Rescue of Tidewater in Virginia is working as a therapy dog. Red from the Monterey County SPCA helps socialize other dogs with his good play manners. Shy Sweet Jasmine of Recycled Love in Baltimore won the heart of sports writer Jim Gorant and made the cover shot on the year-end issue of Sports Illustrated.The biggest myth that still plagues the Vick dogs is that they needed to be rehabilitated in order to co-exist with other animals. It’s a misconception that has stuck, despite repeat reminders that a majority of the dogs were moved directly into foster homes because they showed a surprising level of animal tolerance during their evaluations. Only a dozen of Vick’s dogs proved to be seasoned fighters; the other 35 enjoyed the company of well-matched dogs from the start.
“Rehabilitation” was needed for those Vick dogs too shy to cope with new people and/or new experiences. Much like the sad dogs from hoarding cases, many of Best Friends sanctuary status dogs fit this description. BAD RAP took one sanctuary status dog in as part of our group of ten. Iggy is easily overwhelmed by anything new. He’ll live out his life in trusted surroundings and will take his best comfort in the dogs and people who love him.
The biggest hurdle we’ve encountered in adopting out the Vick dogs has been finding people who are willing to accept the challenge of owning a dog that so many people expect to fail. Our adopters know that the world is watching, and that Pit Bulls everywhere are depending on them to be “perfect” – a near impossible standard for any dog. It’s a challenge that our current foster homes accept with great pleasure, but we all look forward to the day when Pit Bulls are seen as ordinary dogs with typical canine foibles – a luxury that other breeds still enjoy.
To watch the Vick dog’s adventures and progress, visit http://vickdogsblog.blogspot.com.
Donna Reynolds is executive director of Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pitbulls (BADRAP). She facilitates the nationally recognized AmbassaDog Project at Oakland Animal Services and hosts quarterly “Pit Ed Camps” – week-long intensives that teach shelters how to build their own breed ambassador programs. Donna participated in assessing the Vick dogs as part of the ASPCA lead evaluation team in 2007, and organized the intake of ten of these dogs into BAD RAP’s foster care program. For more information, visit www.badrap.org.