Vick pit bulls on the slow road to recovery

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There are small victories, such as the days when Little Red gets approached by a group of unfamiliar people and stands there, wagging her tail and waiting to be petted. And there are big ones, such as the day when the dogs find permanent homes, the way six of the 22 that originally were brought to Best Friends have thus far.

“When they announced on TV that Michael Vick was eligible to play football again, I lost every single bit of inner peace,” said Erika, who adopted one of the Vick dogs, Oliver, and didn’t want her last name used because she doesn’t want herself or Oliver to be targeted for harassment. “But I thought, no, no, no, don’t get angry. Don’t let a person like that ruin you. If I can’t control what happens to him, I can control what happens to me and I can channel this anger into a big bunch of love.”

And so, she met Oliver, the dog they said would never kiss a human, but who now sleeps with his pet parent and showers her with kisses every morning when she wakes up.

“The ironic thing to me is, all along, Vick was the, quote, superstar, but all you ever hear about is how great his victims are doing,” Erika said. “Now, all his victims are the actual superstars. I’ve got one of the real superstars sitting beside me.”

Battered and bruised as they’ve been, it’s a rigorous process for these dogs to find permanent homes.

After learning the most basic of functions _ walking up stairs, climbing into a car and other taken-for-granted “basics” not always taught in the dank, cruel world in which they lived under Vick’s care _ they were slowly introduced into what would become their “normal” life at the sanctuary.

They live in indoor-outdoor dog runs, with plenty of room for exercise. The dogs that can handle it have been slowly introduced to other dogs and a few, such as Oscar and Squeaker, have become fast friends and live together.

They go on long walks, learn how to handle new environments and encountering different animals, and generally live a good life at a so-called “no-kill” sanctuary where they have a guaranteed home until they’re adopted.

Before most of these dogs leave Best Friends for good, they’ll have to pass the Canine Good Citizen test, which requires, among other things, that they accept friendly strangers, walk obediently on a leash and react calmly to other dogs. From there, they have to find the right home, then spend a successful six months in a foster home.

And Best Friends isn’t simply looking for any pet lover for the Vick dogs.

“We feel like dogs going into these homes are being ambassadors” for the breed, Garcia said. “They’re not just adopting a dog, but fighting the good fight.”

By spreading the message that pit bulls are only as nice, or vicious, as their owners train them to be, the Vick dogs are helping rewrite the book on both the public perception of the breed _ banned in some cities and discriminated against by many insurance companies _ and long-held beliefs inside the animal-training community about the efficacy of rehabilitating dogs rescued from dogfighting rings.

In 2009, law enforcement completed the biggest bust of dogfighting operations in American history, pulling 427 animals out of rings in Missouri and surrounding states. Dogs rescued from the “Missouri 500” case, as it became known because some of the dogs subsequently gave birth, were given shelter and cared for by the Humane Society of Missouri.

In the past, it’s likely none of the dogs would have even been given a chance. But over the span of months and years, the Humane Society tried to rehabilitate and find new homes for all the animals.

As of now, 247 of them have made it.

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