What Patience and Loving Care Can Achieve

”The Lost Dogs: Michael Vick’s Dogs and Their Tale of Rescue and Redemption” is a recently published nonfiction work by writer Jim Gorant, and a true page-turner.

From tabloid headlines and the sensationalism that the case continues to generate, many people are familiar with the tragic events at the Bad Knewz Kennels in Smithfield, Va., but what they might not know are the inside details about the team of rescuers and the dogs themselves. Particularly poignant are the stories of how these horrifically abused dogs were able to change from anonymous victims of cruelty beyond description, to named canines, each with its own journey on the road to recovery.

Readers horrified at the death of the Little Red Dog by Vick and his cohorts will be warmed by the first tentative steps that Sweet Jasmine takes as she becomes trusting and socialized. Another inspiring transformation comes from a Pit Bull-mix initially named Johnny Rotten (after the punk musician), but now called Johnny Justice, and spends many hours at a local California library sitting beside reluctant young readers.

The operation at Bad Knewz Kennels itself, although brutal and neglectful, was in all its outrage, decidedly amateur. Unfortunately, most of the dogs in the Vick case were Pit Bull mixes, a much-maligned breed. Many had been inbred and not, as the rescuers soon found out, dogs specifically bred for fighting. The Pit Bull is not by nature a fighting dog. In fact in the past they were known as America’s favorite. It is only in the last several decades that they have joined other maligned breeds like the Bloodhound, German Shepherd and the Doberman to be considered killers.

The individuals and organizations that stepped forward in the rehabilitation of the Vick dogs were all carefully screened and had years of experience with the breed, and before they were permitted into a potential adoptive home, each dog had to pass the Canine Good Citizen Test. As a 10-year volunteer with the Animal Alliance of New Jersey (www.animalalliancenj.org) I also have known and shared stories of dogs and cats that were given a second chance. Vick’s dogs, although unspeakably abused and maltreated, had major advantage over other rescues: public opinion and money. Rehabilitation is a costly process, and fortunately these amazing dogs, after initially languishing in shelters that did not have appropriate accommodations, were given the best that our resources have to offer in humane treatment, socialization, and time needed to establish trust.

Those unable to join the mainstream are now living at the wonderful Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah (http://www.bestfriends.org/) and other extraordinary places. Purchase this book, share it with others and donate it to libraries where it can be read to educate about the horrors of dog fighting and the possibility of redemption.

”What is the difference about dogs . . . as man rose in the world, dogs came with us, perhaps even aiding the advance. They marched armies into war, they worked by our side, hauling, pulling, herding, retrieving. In return we took them into our homes, make them part of our families.”

One of the most heartfelt actions by the Vick rescuers was the actual process of naming the dogs. Pride comes with a name, an identity, a belonging to which goes beyond the category of “thing” or “it.” Over the years, I confess that I’ve even named my cars, and think they received better treatment than had they remained simply “the car.”

My own volunteer efforts as a pet biographer with Animal Alliance New Jersey has put me into contact with families that have adopted and loved many maligned breeds. A sample below exemplifies one happy ending for an Animal Alliance Pit Bull mix rescued from the streets of Philadelphia.

”We just want to say thank you a MILLION times. Sullivan’s fur is growing in beautifully after being nearly bald by mange and he is the most gorgeous color of red and brown. If it weren’t for you, our little angel Sully would NEVER have survived!”

My own family consists of rescues: a cat and four rescued dogs, two of which would surely have been euthanized for their peccadilloes. Chadd Chaddwick is a case in point. This guy is a Chinese Crested, a very expensive hairless breed that is often winner of the World’s Ugliest Dog Contest. They are known to be very friendly and over-dependent. Rare, they are not the type that one would find at many shelters. My rescued dog has epilepsy and it seems his former owners were into breeding and found him less than perfect. It also seemed from his behavior that he had spent hour upon hour in a crate.

Chadd also had Demodectic Mange on his face, nails that had never been cut and many loose teeth. He had been left at a kill shelter with the words “euthanize him.” The workers at the shelter refused this request and asked if Animal Alliance would take him in. Anne Trinkle, founder of the program, knew I favored the breed and brought him to my house as a foster.

When we first met, Chadd was not used to being around other dogs and it took over a year to walk him on a leash without his panicking and cowering in fear. He has had two minor biting episodes, which resulted in quarantine for 10-day periods, but with perseverance and the passage of time, most of his fear-related behaviors have diminished. My experience with Chadd proves to me that, as with people, environment has the power to change negative conditioning.

My second little problem child, Schuyler, is a cantankerous Chihuahua named for a student of mine. Early in his life a larger dog attacked him and the wound on his leg was sewn up with common house thread. When first we met, he bared his teeth and defensively bit me. I wanted to give him back many times, and somehow he is still around. I have grown to respect him and the way that he negotiates his space with utter confidence and machismo. Since my other two rescues have what could be considered “normal” canine behavior, making room for the more difficult ones has not been a hardship and I am happy to have saved their lives.

I cannot for one moment imagine a world without a canine or feline companion. For these and many other reasons I could not put down “The Lost Dogs,” finding the message of redemption and hope extending to more universal applications.

The world is full of so-called damaged goods that deserve a chance to thrive. Think of Johnny Justice; read the book and see how, instead of fighting other dogs or being fight bait, he now spends his life delighting children. There is much to learn from reading about what patience and loving care can achieve. Those who have the inclination, time and talent either know, or will learn that they can make a profound difference, and perhaps, even save a life. Along the way, they might even enrich their own as well.