Dogs from Abroad: A high profile dogfighting bust; the victim pit bulls & re-direction of focus on an unthinkable crime

Dogs from Abroad by Diane Kunas

A high profile dogfighting bust; the victim pit bulls  & re-direction of focus on an unthinkable crime

In April 2007, police and animal-control officers seized 66 dogs (53 pit bulls)[1] plus dogfighting evidence from “Bad Newz Kennels”, property owned by Michael Vick.  Vick, then 28 and once highest paid professional player in the National Football League (NFL), denied all charges.

In July 2007, the Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pit Bulls (BAD RAP), submitted a rescue proposal to federal prosecutor requesting permission to evaluate the dogs for placement potential.

October – December 2007, the evaluations and crippling mounds of paperwork finally move forward[2].  By this time, the dogs have been confined to kennels for up to six months, most without seeing the light of day. 

To date, (2011) 47 dogs were saved[3].  Fourteen have been placed in permanent homes with another seventeen expected to eventually be adopted.  Several have become therapy dogs and/or have received their Good Citizens Certificates.  The remainder are in foster care. 

I chose to write about this as these dogs are survivors of multiple deaths – death in the ring; death for “not performing”; death by euthanasia and death by way of extreme kennel stress. 

How can they ever be okay? 

I also write about this on behalf of pit bulls.  I lived in a country that banned the breed and another where they are commonplace.  It has been my intent to write about them from the perspective of the latter – to interview owners of all types, ages, living and lifestyle situations and ask the simple question… why?  And, while I probably wouldn’t roam in the belly of the city’s seediest underground or befriend the likes of “Superstar” Vick, (as I feel fairly certain I know their reasons!), I want to hear firsthand what it is that compels the average dog owner to choose this controversial breed.

The interviews are still forthcoming, however, and in the meantime, BAD RAP re-released an article entitled, “Dog vs. Dog – What Former ‘fighting dogs’ have taught us about dog behavior” .  It is about Vick’s dogs today and what we’ve learned from them as dogs and victims.  I include the article in this newsletter to share at least one positive aspect of this culture’s attitude, more over ACTION in response to such horrific acts of violence and extreme cruelty.  

These dogs escaped probable death and every day they live they tell more stories… and every story they tell… the more we learn from them.

If they died, their stories would have dried-up as quickly as Vick’s story heated-up back in 2007.

Many people say that Vick created a new platform of awareness through the publicity of this case, but that sounds too heroic.  The only thing we learned from him is that the outside scars of these dogs are from human and they will never heal.  The inside scars, however, (also inflicted by human) are healing by way of natural law.  Natural law includes animal law… and if we pay attention, the dogs themselves will teach us what not to do… which I hope is the take away from this and following article…

What difference does it make if it’s a pit bull, as long as we treat it like the individual [dog] it is.

As for Vick… his charges were a two-fold:  1. torturing and killing and 2. promoting dog fighting in the countyof Surry, Virginia.[4]  He served a total of 19 months in federal prison and was ordered to pay $928,073.00 (roughly £550,000) as “restitution” for expenses incurred in the caring for “the victim pit bulls”.  He is now once again one of the highest rated and paid quarterbacks in the NFL.  

Dog vs. Dog –

What former ‘fighting dogs’ have taught us about dog behavior

We all know dogs will fight, but what about when they don’t fight?

‘Fetch’ – a SF-based paper that catered to dog issues – has folded, but we’re still grateful to them for running this piece on lessons from the Vick case. Since the info is still contemporary, I’m re-posting it here so it can be shared around as needed. (That, and because the hand out from the article has such small type that it makes my eyes hurt!) It’s understandably popular for breed advocates to point out the growing number of Vick dogs who’ve earned therapy dog titles. Another stunning but often overlooked lesson they brought to the dog world comes from the undeniable success the adopted dogs have been enjoying with other dogs. Their lessons can be applied to ALL breeds when contemplating the all-too common behavior of canine interspecies aggression. Enjoy.

Dog vs. DogDonna Reynolds. First published in Fetch the Paper May 2008

Dog on dog aggressive behavior has become a hot topic in recent years. Entire workshops, obedience classes, and pet columns have been devoted to discussing the nuances of this natural, but challenging canine behavior. It’s hard to know if our pets are being positioned to argue more with other dogs or if society is just becoming less tolerant when they do.

We can certainly blame the rising popularity of housing multi-dogs in tight urban quarters for some of the strife. Smaller living spaces and less-than-responsible dog owners serve to create the same kinds of stress and challenges that we humans face when struggling to live peaceably with our own kind. Dogs are only human, after all.

Added dilemmas to dog-dog harmony: The now-raging chihuahua fad is amplifying the age-old tensions between tiny dogs and large dogs (ouch!), under-worked canines are taking matters into their own paws and creating their own entertainment, and chaotic dog parks are creating as much trouble as benefit for all breeds. Perhaps the biggest set-back of all is our loss of understanding of canine behavior. As society becomes divorced from our roots on the farms and ranches of yesterday, we’re quickly losing the wisdom that used to guide us in all-things-animal.

Blame it on progress. Our great-grandparents’ rural perspective afforded them a highly practical and realistic understanding of natural law, including animal law. We can’t go back, but how do we swing our dog-think into balance and apply it to today’s world so our dogs can succeed?

As it turns out, pit bulls may be the perfect teachers to help re-educate society on the finer points of managing and avoiding dog-dog aggression. They’re especially good at challenging our ideals on just about everything. When it comes to current notions about canine inter-species aggression, the Michael Vick dogs got busy with breaking all the rules: They weren’t supposed to be salvageable, they weren’t supposed to be safe with kids and they certainly weren’t supposed to be able to co-exist with other dogs. After all, these were reported to be fighting dogs, hard-wired for battle and hell-bent on anti-social behavior with dogs. (New York Times) But are they? Almost one year (edit: four years) after the initial fight bust, over two dozen Vick dogs are living in homes with other dogs and succeeding as normal, every day family pets.

So what happened? Why aren’t they following “the rules” about fighting dogs and dog-dog aggression?

The answers are easy: Dogs are individuals and many defy the selective breeding efforts meant to create certain traits. We humans have been too busy blaming dogs for behaviors that we ourselves set into motion.

The families now enjoying the Vick dogs understand this. When any dog fights, it’s because a careless or heartless human has accidentally or intentionally set them up to engage in combat. That situation could be a staged battle in the pit or a rushed greeting with an inappropriate play partner at the dog park. When dogs DON’T fight – as in the case of the Vick dogs now living in homes – they’re following the designs of a good leader who is consciously setting them up for nothing but success. The mechanics of this success involve respecting each dog’s individual limits with other dogs, proper socialization to increase dog tolerance, and clear guidance so each dog knows what’s expected of him. It’s not entirely unlike dealing with a boisterous three year old child in a rough and rowdy play group.

To be fair, this success-through-management drill is as true for our ball-possessive Husky as it is for the Vick dog in an adopter’s house, as it is for the __name your breed__ dog in your house. All breeds can fight, and all can be managed so that potential never surfaces. The choice is ours. Some dogs need more management than others and because all dogs are individuals, it’s true that some yellow labs need more management than some pit bulls – without question.

One way to make peace with this big responsibility we’ve taken on is to dig back into our cellular memory to a time when wild wolves first came to live in our camps. No matter how we dress them, our foofoo pets are still wolves at heart, and we’re still the ones that decided to wrangle their animal instincts so we could co-exist. You can take the dog out of nature, but you’ll never be able to take nature out of the dog. Nor would we like them much if we could!

Everybody Calm Down! 8 Tips to Avoid Dog-Dog Conflicts

1. Spats Happen! It’s a fact of Dog Life; even those dogs that generally get along can break into an argument if one or both are offended or challenged.
2. Study your dog. Understand his body language so you can know when he might be reaching his limits with another dog. If a real fight does happen, learn from it so it doesn’t happen again.
3. Prevent triggers. As with children, fights can spark up from the most seemingly insignificant triggers, even between dogs that are buddies. Some common triggers: Arguments over toys, food, favorite dogs or even favorite people (resource guarding). A perceived challenge such as intense eye contact, tug-o-war game or rough play can set a dog off. Know your dog’s triggers and work with a trainer to desensitize him to these as much as possible so they lose their charge.
4. Nix nose-to-nose greets. In the quest to make dogs more dog-social, resist the temptation to allow your dog to do rushed nose-to-nose greets between dogs he doesn’t know. Instead, create a ritual of slow, super-relaxed intros that include side-by-side walks in neutral territory. Taking your time will give you the chance to read signals that say, “I don’t really like this dog.”
5. Be leash savvy. Leash reactivity – an annoying behavior of lunging at dogs or growling on leash – can start when dogs become ever more frustrated about greeting other dogs. Handlers can create fast improvements by curbing leash greets and taking on the new role of confident clown and animated leader. Look for training classes that teach pet owners how to motivate their pets and capture their attention with fun and rewarding distraction exercises that teach a dog that other on-leash dogs are off-limits.
6. Know the realities. Studies (Cornell University, NY) have shown that same-sex housemate pairs, especially females, have more problems than opposite sex pairings. Excitement is one of the biggest fight triggers between dogs of all breeds. The same study indicated that conflict in the home is much more common between female dogs while males were more likely to instigate fights outside of the house. Treatments most often recommended for household aggression are desensitization with counter conditioning and obedience training.
7. Know your dog’s tolerance level. Do you know your dog’s limits with other dogs? Does he has a short fuse, a long fuse or somewhere in between? Be realistic about what he can put up with from other dogs and what kind of play or behavior he will not tolerate.
8. Protect your dog from a bad dog-dog experience. Not all dogs want or need to be friends with other dogs. Smart socializing involves respecting your dog’s quirks and limits and setting him up for only success with other dogs. Appropriate play partners and positive dog-dog interactions will increase his tolerance for all kinds of dogs and dog behavior. The more positive interaction any dog gets with other dogs, the more likely he will develop and maintain dog-tolerant behavior for life.

With many thanks to the survivors of Bad Newz Kennels for reminding us all of what we already knew to be true about dog behavior.

[1] The exact number of dogs seized  is unclear, but reported between 66 – 70+

[2] Included in the fate and custody battle are (but not exclusive to) BAD RAP, Best Friends Animal Society, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Surry County Animal Control, federal prosecutors, and the dogs’ court appointed attorney Special Guardian/Master

[3] It is unclear how many of these dogs were pit bulls from the original number seized.  Following evaluations, the dogs were dispersed to six different rescue locations, the majority of pit bulls went to BAD RAP

[4] Vick pleaded guilty, but only after a failed polygraph test and numerous eyewitness accounts affirming his presence and active participation at his purpose-purchased and financed Bad Newz Kennel 15 acre property 


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