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Vick dogs receiving new lease on life

Animals once trained to fight to death are rewriting the notion of

February 08, 2009|Eddie Pells | Pells writes for the Associated Press.

KANAB, UTAH — There are the perky, high-energy sorts like Lucas, all wagging tails and let's-go-play vivaciousness.

There are the runners like Curly, who never saw a fence line or dirt trail they couldn't wear down.

And there are the divas like Georgia, who go on publicity junkets and stay at the Beverly Hilton, wearing rhinestone-studded collars and hot pink tank tops that say "Biscuits are a girl's best friend."

They could be your dog, your neighbor's, even one of those you see in a magazine being doted on by a celebrity owner.

These, though, are Michael Vick's dogs.

Fourteen months after some experts left them for dead -- in fact, said they should die -- they are alive and thriving at the Best Friends Animal Society in the rocky red hills of Utah, rewriting the book about what pit bulls really are and what they can be.

Most of these dogs will find homes someday. None of their ilk, however, will be welcomed this week at America's best-known dog show, Westminster, at Madison Square Garden. The American Pit Bull Terrier is the country's iconic and most divisive breed, but it isn't on the American Kennel Club's list of accepted breeds. The AKC recognizes a cousin, the American Staffordshire Terrier, instead.

"I don't really have anything to say about pit bulls because we don't deal with them at all," said David Frei, the director of communications at Westminster. "But AmStaffs are great dogs. I make the same blanket statement about them as any breed. There are no bad dogs, only bad owners. If someone gets involved with pit bulls and isn't bright enough to be the alpha dog in the relationship, there can be problems."

American Pit Bull Terriers -- a quintessentially American breed once best represented by the dog staring quizzically at an RCA Victor phonograph -- are bred to be exceedingly kind and deferential to humans. But that trait has largely been lost among the thousands of stories about pit bull bites, maulings, fights and anti-pit bull legislation. Those stories have helped make the dog Public Enemy No. 1 among the 400-plus breeds, 170 of which are on the AKC registry.

"Often, the media gets it wrong," says Michelle Besmehn, the dog-care manager at Best Friends, who acknowledges that part of the Vick project is to restore the reputation of the American Pit Bull Terrier.

"They'll say a person was mauled by a pit bull, and it's not a pit bull, it's a Mastiff or something else," she said. "It's frustrating because they get a bad rap, and it's based on a general misconception."

Tim Racer, co-founder of BAD RAP (Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pitbulls), puts it more bluntly.

"If an AmStaff bites somebody, it suddenly becomes an American Pit Bull Terrier, because that's what people want to do, is blame these dogs for all dog bites," said Racer, whose group also saved 10 of Vick's dogs.

The former Atlanta Falcons quarterback is serving a 23-month sentence at the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kan., for his role in a dogfighting conspiracy. He is scheduled for release July 20 but could serve the last few months at a halfway house in Newport News, his hometown.

One of Vick's former dogs was euthanized because of health -- not behavioral -- problems, and 21 remain at the Best Friends sanctuary. It's on 3,700 acres near the Zion National Forest, with a canyon outside the lunchroom and enough reds, browns, greens and pinks to keep a painter at his easel for life. These were the toughest cases, the most neglected of the 47 dogs rescued from Vick's Bad Newz Kennels in Virginia in 2007.

The Bad Newz dogs lived terrible lives, chained in dark, dank basements, electrocuted if they didn't produce. The ones treated the best earned that treatment because they could fight and win. Some, like Little Red, had their teeth filed down so they could be used as "bait dogs" to spar with the champions without hurting them.

"When she got here, her whole face was one scar," said John Garcia, the manager of Dogtown, the dogs-only section of the sanctuary.

Initially, the dogs were so skittish that the trainers actually slept with them at night. Today, they don't need such attention, but that's not to say they're neglected.

A full-time staff of 60 cares for the 438 dogs, and the Vick dogs get special attention. They have spacious dog runs that connect to indoor living spaces inside pod-shaped buildings scattered about the grounds. They go on long walks and hikes, traverse agility courses set up around the sanctuary, learn to ride in cars, eat like kings and queens. (The brand name of their food: Canine Caviar.)

Half the Vick dogs adapted well enough to other dogs that they're allowed to have playmates.

The others are being slowly introduced to other dogs.

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