Vick Dogs Start Long Road to Recovery

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More than half went to Best Friends, 10 went to the rescue organization Bad Rap in California and the rest were sent to new homes in Virginia, Georgia and Maryland. Some of the dogs are already making improvements; one has even been put to work at a hospital.

"Everyone was asked not to speak until now," Huss said. "Having the world hear has been very exciting for me."

Twenty-two Vick dogs arrived by charter plane at Best Friends Jan. 2 and will stay at the sanctuary for "at least" six to eight months, according to the caregivers.

Fiercely Loyal Animals

The "pitty" and "bully" breed encompasses a wide variety of bulls and terriers that have been trained for their athletic prowess. They are not naturally vicious and are fiercely loyal to humans.

"There's a terrible misconception that pit bulls are lurking behind every corner waiting to attack human beings," said Best Friends spokesman John Polis. "They are very loving. But you take a compliant animal and teach it to do bad things, and guess what happens."

The dogs are so aggressive toward other animals that they must be isolated from the other 500 dogs at the facilities and live in single runs. For this reason, most will never find adoptive homes.

Best Friends is prepared to keep all of them and budgets $40,000 for the lifetime care of each dog.

The dogs need to be reprogrammed from brutal training regimens that are designed to break their spirit and logic.

"They don't trust, don't understand and don't know how to act," said Best Friends' Berry.

Slowly, animal handlers regain their trust by offering them food, not invading their space and having a familiar and constant human presence.

Georgia, a female bait dog who arrived with all her teeth crudely removed by fight trainers, had been constrained in "sloppy and cruel" rape racks for breeding. She was "pretty used up," according to Berry.

But after just a few weeks, Georgia is already cuddling up to her new trainers.

"They want to lay next to you and be close," he said. "They sense we are here to help."

Simple tasks help them toward recovery: taking them on walks, using a leash and basic obedience training. Some have had their first car ride.

"The basis of anything you do with animals is building a trusting relationship," said animal caregiver Jeff Popwich. "Then you can challenge them and expose them to different situations. It's like convincing a kid to go to the dentist."

Healing the Emotional Wounds

The hardest part of rehabilitation is the psychological work. "The emotional scars run pretty deep," said Popwich.

Best Friends veterinarian Franklin McMillan, author of "Mental Health and Well-Being in Animals," believes animals have complex feelings like humans.

"Hard-nosed scientists say animals don't have emotions," said McMillan, "but they act in identical ways to humans. You can tell they are struggling."

Fear is the dominant emotion. Some dogs show a slight hesitation, others run halfway to meet their human caregivers then retreat, others huddle alone, trembling.

"Unlike people, we can't ask them what happened," he said. "Basically, we're putting the pieces together to find the right therapies."

Meanwhile, Vick's champion Lucas is making slow, but steady progress.

"You reach over there and grab his face and he melts," said Berry. "He's scared, nervous and hopeful. … He's scarred all over, but he's still a big puppy and he has to have time to grow up."

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