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Salvation of the Vick Dogs
Posted on 01/09/2011 in Your Dog, Your Rights.

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by Sara Chisnell, UKC Legal Counsel

After the recent spotlight Michael Vick has enjoyed due to his rise to stardom once again, coupled with the new book by Jim Gorant entitled
The Lost Dogs, I felt compelled to write on the Vick dogs. I know the subject is controversial, and many people feel that Vick shouldn’t even be playing football. Others feel he has served his debt and should be free and clear. I’ll leave my personal opinion on that matter out of this, but I will say that what he did was pretty heinous. I would recommend that anyone interested in the subject read The Lost Dogs. It was a fantastic book, and it tells you a great deal more than what was covered in the media.
However, this column is not about whether or not Vick should be playing football: it’s about the importance of that case and the outcome for the dogs. Heinous as the acts against the dogs were, many positive results have arisen from this case. Because it involved a famous football player, it brought the bane of dogfighting to the forefront through national headlines. More importantly though, it illustrated that these dogs CAN and HAVE BEEN successfully saved and adopted as great family dogs. Prior to the Michael Vick case, most dogs seized in dogfighting cases have been traditionally held as evidence and then euthanized. Adoption was usually not even an option. This case truly portrayed the dogs as victims, and not some kind of evil uncontrollable fighting machines. It also illustrates that these dogs are not the monsters they are often portrayed to be; rather they are truly human-loving dogs that deserve the second chance they got.

Hector, an ex-Vick dog
Photo courtesy of Joshua Grenell

The dogs were initially seized in a federal raid in April of 2007 and distributed amongst shelters, but considered in custody of the federal government. There were 51 pit bulls in all, and one Presa Canario that was returned to her owner. (While I am well aware that ‘pit bull’ is not really a breed name but rather a generic term, for the sake of this article I am using that term. Most of these dogs were American Pit Bull Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, or combinations of the two.) Other non-pit bull dogs were seized and held by the state of Virginia and later re-homed: nine Beagles, two Rottweilers, and a Cane Corso. Two of the pit bulls mysteriously died while being held in the shelter. In July, an ‘in rem’ hearing was held to determine the status of the dogs, as they were being held as evidence. Procedures were followed that required the government to provide notice to all that may have interest in the dogs. Michael Vick was charged pursuant to the Animal Welfare Act—the official charge was “conspiracy to travel in interstate commerce in aid of unlawful activities and to sponsor a dog in an animal fighting venture.” He pled guilty in August. He further admitted that he assisted in killing six to eight of the dogs by methods such as hanging or drowning. Evidence was found that showed many dogs had been tortured prior to being killed.

At the time of Vick’s case, the penalty for dog fighting under the AWA was 1 year in prison, and for the conspiracy a maximum of 5 years. Subsequent to this notorious case, the penalty for the AWA animal fighting provision was increased to 3 years. Also the Food Conservation and Energy Act was passed in 2008, which increased imprisonment for dog fighting to 5 years, and dog fighting was finally made a felony in all 50 states (Wyoming and Idaho were the final states to make dog fighting a felony.) Vick was sentenced to 23 months in prison. Upon completion of his sentence, he began a 3 year term of supervised release, and will not be permitted to purchase, possess, or sell dogs during that time. At the time he pled guilty, he was also ordered to pay restitution for the costs of the care and disposition of his dogs. Concerns then arose that Vick was basically liquidating his assets before his sentencing hearing, and so the US Attorney’s Office filed a motion to freeze his assets. He then paid the restitution; $5,000 for each dog that was likely to be rehabilitated and re-homed, and $18, 275 for each dog that would require more rehabilitation or permanent sanctuary. In total, he paid $928,073.04.

While there were many rescue groups and individuals that were responsible for the salvation of the Vick dogs, one group that really helped facilitate the whole idea of saving the dogs was Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pitbulls (BADRAP). -Founder Donna Reynolds wrote a proposal that included her group’s history of successfully rescuing and re-homing pit bulls and also providing dogs for law enforcement. The Humane Society of the US had been rumored to handle the animals, but HSUS president Wayne Pacelle had also been quoted as calling the Vick dogs “some of the most viciously trained dogs in America.” If HSUS had gotten possession of the dogs, most, if not all, would likely have been euthanized as that was a policy HSUS endorsed. Due to all the negative publicity HSUS received because of this policy, they have since revised their stance. Donna Reynolds had been wanting to help these dogs since the case had first made headlines. Later, when a panel of behaviorists and trainers from various groups were brought together to evaluate the dogs, she and fellow BADRAP’er Tim Racer were asked to participate.

Not only was this case special because the dogs were saved, but also because the court appointed a special master/guardian to oversee the disposition of the dogs. It appears the Vick case was the first time a special master was used, rather than completely turning the dogs over to shelters or rescues. It sets a legal precedent for future dog fighting and abuse cases, and while the use of the term ‘guardian’ makes me cautious, I think it could be a good thing when used to save dogs that may otherwise be euthanized. The special master was used to represent the dogs’ best interests, similar to children or human victims in abuse cases. A special master could also be helpful in cases where ‘pit bulls’ are seized in an area with breed specific legislation. In the Vick case, Valparaiso University School of Law professor Rebecca Huss was chosen to represent the dogs. Her job was to oversee the welfare of the dogs, coordinate between the various rescue organizations involved, and to make individual decisions as to what would be done with each individual dog.

Rebecca was personally involved and went to see all of the dogs in Virginia. Her first order of business was to seek permission from the court to immediately place the dogs with fosters and get them out of the shelters. This was not only for the benefit of the dogs, as they had been in shelters with little human contact for about 5 months by this time and were going kennel crazy, but it also took the burden off the shelters that were housing the dogs. The dogs were individually evaluated to decide which ones had adoption potential and what dogs needed more work. Ultimately, Rebecca had 49 dogs to make decisions for. The panel of behaviorists and experts, before evaluating the dogs, had high hopes of saving approximately FIVE dogs. They believed after being used for fighting and the horrible abuses the dogs suffered, the dogs would have understandable fear, mistrust, and aggression towards humans.

These dogs are a true testament to this wonderful breed—out of the remaining 49 dogs, only TWO had to be euthanized. One female displayed aggression towards everything, and was so mentally far gone and miserable that euthanasia was clearly the best option. Another dog was riddled with tumors and suffering. However, after evaluating the dogs, Rebecca and the panel decided most of the dogs could be saved: many aimed towards adoption, and others slated for sanctuaries. The fact that any of these dogs would let humans near them after what they were put through illustrates the breed’s intense loyalty and love for humans. Many of the dogs seemed to bounce right back, showed affection for their caretakers, and really only needed to learn manners and socialization. Jim Gorant provides updates on all of the dogs in his book, The Lost Dogs, but one dog really struck me: Hector. He is owned by Roo Yori, who I have previously met and is well known in the disc dog circles I frequent. I’ve always had a lot of admiration for Roo and his superstar pit bull Wallace—both are amazing athletes in the sport of canine disc. Traditionally, herding breeds are the most successful at disc, but Wallace has shown the world that pitties can really rock the disc field. I was so intrigued by the Vick dogs and inspired by the book that I interviewed Roo for this column so you could all hear from an owner of a Vick dog.

SCV: Give a little introduction and background for yourself, both in general and your background in dogs.

Roo: I went to St Mary's University. I graduated from there with a Bachelor's in Biology, played soccer all four years, and ran track my senior year. I got a job at the Mayo Clinic as a lab tech with my biology degree, and bought my first house. Clara and I weren't married at the time, but we adopted our first two dogs from the local humane society. We were hooked. We started volunteering there, and Clara eventually accepted a job there. I started reading books and articles related to dog training and behavior, but really found my niche when I answered an ad from somebody looking to start a disc dog club in our area. We had Wallace in our house who was a foster dog at that time. He loved toys, and loved to play fetch, so we figured we'd give him a shot. It clicked with both of us right off the bat. We helped build the Minnesota Disc Dog Club by helping other dog owners get involved with the sport and teach them how to train their dogs to strengthen their relationship. Wallace and I went on to win multiple awards including the 2006 Cynosport World Games and the 2007 Purina Incredible Dog Challenge National Championship. I enjoy the dog sports myself, but understand that each dog has specific strengths just like us. I enjoy discovering the strengths in each dog as an individual and helping them achieve what they are capable of. When I left the Mayo Clinic I was a Development Technologist for the Biochemical Genetics Lab. I was designing sequencing assays to test for specific genetic disorders. I made a big career switch about a year ago when I accepted a position with Animal Farm Foundation. Now I work with dogs called pit bulls (not all of them are APBT's) that need a second chance at a home. Most of the time it's not the dogs’ fault they are without a home, so we train them and prepare them for their next opportunity, and do what we can to make sure that next home sticks.

SCV: How did you get into the American Pit Bull Terrier breed?

Roo: Credit for that would have to go to Wallace. To be honest, I'm not and wasn't at the time a pit bull guy specifically. I just like dogs, and Wallace was a really cool dog that happened to be what I thought was an APBT. (don't have any papers). With our success, a lot of APBT owners started to follow us and thank us for backing up our talk with our actions on a larger level.

Roo Yori and Wallace
Photo courtesy of Joshua Grenel

SCV: How did you get into the sport of canine disc?

Roo: See above. Additionally, I had to basically teach myself by watching videos online and asking questions on forums. I actually checked out a book from the public library on how to throw a Frisbee to help get me started.

SCV: What made you want to compete with an APBT as opposed to one of the herding breeds, as those have shown the most success in disc?

Roo: Wallace was the dog that got me into the freestyle aspect of disc, so we started out together. I'll admit that I actually looked into getting a herding breed dog after we got more involved because I wasn't sure if Wallace could cut it. Nothing really came along that I really thought would fit with us, so I continued to focus on Wallace. Needless to say, he proved me and pretty much everybody else wrong on that one. It seemed like we were really doing a good thing for the dogs that looked like him, so I focused on Wallace and started walking the walk the best we could. I've always enjoyed doing things that other people don't think are possible. My friend Josh that started the disc club always would joke with me that if he wanted to see if something was possible he would just tell me that I can't do it. Everybody (including myself) didn't think it would be a possibility to win a national or world championship with Wallace. It gave me an opportunity to see what was possible and to help a whole lot of dogs in the process. It gave me a new perspective on the competitions, and gave us a purpose beyond just trophies and medals. It's the reason why a long time disc dogger came up to me after taking 2nd at a big competition and said - “You may be able to beat Wallace (at a competition), but you can't beat Wallace.” Wallace represents something more, and you just can't beat that.

SCV: How did you end up with Wallace? What’s Wallace’s background?

Roo: Wallace was turned into the local humane society where my wife was working at the time and I was volunteering. He wasn't doing well there, and people were scared of him due to his appearance. He started causing trouble at the shelter, and because he was a pit bull, many people did not want to see him adopted out. We were able to convince enough people to let us foster him, so he was transferred to the North Central Working Dog Club and into our care. We fostered him for a while training him in weight pulling, thinking he would make somebody a great competitive weight pull dog. He did succeed in weight pulling also, but once we discovered disc, Clara and I decided that maybe he had been home all along.

SCV: What made you want to adopt a dog from the Vick case, and how did the adoption happen?

Roo: I wasn't really in the market for another dog, but it was a unique situation. My goal has always been to let the dogs speak for themselves through their actions and accomplishments. With all the attention that the case was getting, the dogs could have a great opportunity to do just that. I was already showcasing Wallace, and figured that if one of those dogs happen to fit into our home, then I would consider adopting one to further the work we had been doing up to that point. I had been in touch a little with BADRAP through email, so I reached out to them since I knew they were involved with the evaluations and had taken a number of the dogs. I explained my situation and let them know if they had a dog that would fit in to let me know. Eventually that dog became Hector. I think it's a good idea to meet a dog that you are considering bringing into your home, so I flew out to California from Minnesota to meet him. He was a great dog, so Clara and I made the decision to give him a new beginning.

SCV: Has Hector’s rehabilitation been difficult? How has his training compared with Wallace’s?

Roo: One of the points we are trying to make is that Hector didn't need any rehabilitation in the context most people think. He didn't need to learn how not to be aggressive towards people or dogs. He basically needed a chance to get out of the situation he was in and allowed to be a normal dog. He needed to learn how to behave in a house - Don't chew the furniture, the potted plant in the corner is not a stick for you to play with, the dining room table is not your look out point, etc. That's just basic dog stuff though. Some of the dogs were affected more than Hector, but it was due to a lack of socialization more than anything else. Fortunately Hector is a confident dog that stayed true to himself. Once he was given the opportunity to show us who that is, he didn't let a horrible upbringing stop him. His past did not define him, and I think that's a great lesson for us all. Basically I believe that each dog is an individual, and you need to find out who that dog is despite what he looks like and where he came from. Hector and Wallace are two very different dogs. Hector's got some spunk, but doesn't have the working drive that Wallace has. Hector likes to play and have fun, while Wallace likes to work and do his job. Training sessions with Hector have to be shorter, otherwise I become that nagging authority figure that nobody wants to listen to. Haha! The contrast between the two show that even between similar types of dogs, there is great variation. That's why I like to get to know each dog as an individual, so I can set them up for success in whatever area that may be.

Roo Yori bonding with Hector
Photo courtesy of Joshua Grenel

SCV: What kind of training methods do you employ with your dogs?

Roo: I promote positive reinforcement training. I basically try and make it worth the dogs' while to do what I would prefer them to do, and make sure I let them know that I like it through whatever motivates them. It could be food, toys, or in Hector's case the chance to sniff something new. I don't want my dogs to think they are spoiled though, and can get everything they want all the time. They have a “no reward mark” that results in all the “good stuff” going away so I can communicate with them if they are doing something I don't want them to do. I've heard people say that bully breeds need special training techniques, or need a prong/slip collar, etc. I don't buy it though. There are plenty of ways to communicate with your dog, so I don't think any one way is a necessity. I train pit bulls that are looking for homes on a daily basis now, and I use the same positive methods on them as all the other dogs I've trained over the years. It’s been working great so far.

SCV: What kind of publicity and media coverage have you and Hector received?

Roo: Hector has been on/in a lot of things – People Magazine, CNN, CBS Early Show, E! Entertainment News, Parade Magazine, Dog World, Bark Magazine, multiple local media outlets. That's many of the bigger ones, but I'm sure I'm missing some.

SCV: What activities do you and Hector do/compete in?

Roo: Hector is a certified therapy dog. We can visit nursing homes and hospitals. We've also visited a lot of schools to teach the children compassion to animals and safety around dogs. We don't compete in anything. We've started to do some geocaching, and Hector enjoys accompanying us on those adventures. Hector likes to explore new things, so anytime we can take him somewhere new, I know he's gonna have a good time.

SCV: What’s your take on Michael Vick?

Roo: Obviously I'm not one to condone dog fighting. It's a horrible form of animal cruelty, so I'm extremely glad he got caught. In my opinion, the fact that the dogs were finally portrayed as the victims rather than the villains was the landmark positive that came out of the whole situation. It's funny because when I'm asked what kind of dog Hector is and I say a pit bull, many people still kind of shy away. But then when I say he was rescued from the Michael Vick cruelty case, they soften and then want to come pet him. He's still a pit bull, so hopefully people start to generalize that empathy to all the dogs that look like Hector. He's an example, not an exception. As far as Vick being back in the NFL, I'm trying to focus on the positive that it brings. The positive side to that is the continued attention and awareness being brought to the cause. I can reach a lot of people with Hector, but Vick's can reach people that I can't. If he can stop people that I can't reach from following that path by using himself as an example, then good for him and good for the dogs. Has he changed? I can hope so, but only time will tell. In the meantime, I'm not going to try and stop him from helping us out how he can.

SCV: What are your views on breed specific legislation?

Roo: Despite how you feel about certain types of dogs, breed specific laws don't work to create a safer community for people or dogs. I don't know why people would waste their time, money and efforts on something that just doesn't work. Laws that focus on the owner being responsible for their dogs' actions regardless of what kind of dog it is do work to create a safer community. The data is out there, so it's a matter of common sense to me. Do what works, and don't do what doesn't.

SCV: Anything else you’d like to add?

Roo: Wallace and Hector Rock! :-) You can keep up with them at www.hectorthepitbull.com or www.facebook.com/hectorthepitbull and www.wallacethepitbull.com or www.facebook.com/wallacethepitbull Wallace also has a documentary titled “Wallace – The Rise of an Underdog” coming out about his rise to National Champ next year.