When Cherry, a black pit bull trained as a fight dog by former football star Michael Vick, arrived at the Best Friends animal sanctuary in Utah in January, he was afraid of everything.
"He was the only dog that would not walk on a leash," said Michelle Besmehn, the dog care manager at best friends. "He just flattened to the ground. We carried him in and out of rooms."
But now, after nine months of intensive training and therapy at the sanctuary, Cherry has become a playful, friendly dog that takes walks, plays with toys and doesn't even mind cats. And despite his inauspicious arrival at the country's largest no-kill animal shelter, Cherry could even one day be eligible for adoption.
"Cherry's next step will be to go to a foster home where he can learn real-life skills," Besmehn said.
In less than a year, Cherry, like the other dogs from Vick's fighting camp living at the sanctuary, has made huge strides -- and according to his caregivers, all it took was a little patience.
In 2007, 48 dogs were seized from a dogfighting training camp run by Vick, then a star quarterback for the NFL's Atlanta Falcons.
Twenty-two of those dogs were assigned to live at Best Friends, the largest no-kill animal sanctuary in the nation. The organization cares for 1,500 dogs, cats, horses, goats and other animals. With an annual budget of about $30 million, most of it from private donations, it has rescued animals traumatized by Hurricane Katrina and those who have suffered in hoarding situations or puppy mills.
Vick's former fight dogs live in a facility within Best Friends called Dogtown, and according to Besmehn nearly all have made major improvements since they arrived, both physically and emotionally.
"Everyone is doing really well," she said. "Physically, they seem healthy. They've gained weight. Some of them had itchy skin or the coats seemed oily and not right. Everyone looks really good.
"The dogs who are really shy are really comfortable with their everyday caregivers," she added. "Most are becoming more comfortable with strangers. ... We're trying to give them fun things to do that will also help them use their brains."
Adorable as these newly healthy dogs may look now, rehabilitating dogs that come from an aggressive and abusive environment isn't all rainbows and puppies, so to speak.
Georgia, one of Vick's prized fighters and, later, breeding dogs, arrived at Best Friends nearly broken. Scarred, toothless and broken-tailed, Georgia snarled at anyone who touched her food bowl or her toys.
"She had cropped ears so other dogs can't grab them in the ring," Besmehn said. "She's clearly had a lot of litters of puppies. ... She had no teeth. We took X-rays and it looks like they were professionally removed so they could breed her more easily. Looking at her you're like, 'Wow, you're a mess.'"
Now Georgia loves spending time with people and has gotten more comfortable with being around other dogs.
For National Geographic Channel, the resocialization process has just made for good television. The Channel's series "Dogtown," which is based at Best Friends, has been filming Cherry and Georgia, along with two more of Vick's dogs -- Meryl and Denzel -- for the past six months.