Vick's dogs find hope at Utah animal shelter
KANAB - Lance likes to bark and run. Layla likes to give and get kisses. Lucas, À la Snoopy, likes the roof of his doghouse more than the interior.
And Best Friends Animal Society likes the challenge of turning these three growling combatants - and 19 other pit bulls bred for fighting by football star Michael Vick - into cuddly companions.
"Some say you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but I've never believed that," John Garcia, head dog trainer at Best Friends, said Monday. "Every animal deserves a second chance."
And that's what the Vick dogs are getting at the world's largest no-kill animal sanctuary - a chance through time and training to become, as Garcia put it, "loving couch potatoes" for caring families.
Earlier this month, Best Friends, located just north of Kanab in southern Utah's redrock country, took in the bulk of 47 pit bulls seized from Vick's Virginia dog-fighting operation.
"These [pit bulls] are living symbols of a national disgrace," said Best Friends spokeswoman Barbara Williamson.
Best Friends aims to turn them into living - and loving - symbols of canine rehabilitation.
"We have a staff that cares for them 24 hours a day," said kennels manager Michelle Besmehn. "They are not used to people, but will have the opportunity to learn life skills here."
Besmehn said Best Friends received more male dogs than females, and they range in age from 3 years to 6 years old. Each has its own shelter and follows a daily routine of feeding, exercising and training. The pit bulls also have been undergoing medical and psychological evaluations.
Veterinarian Frank McMillan said the dogs present a unique chance to study trauma issues and prepare therapies to help them rise above their rough upbringing for eventual adoption.
Williamson notes that pit bulls used to be the breed of choice for the family dog.
"Look at the series with Spanky and his gang; they had a pit bull."
Now, Williamson lamented, they are largely misunderstood - which helps explain why shelters frequently kill pit bulls after they arrive.
"Most shelters offer a one-way ticket, and that's to be killed," she said. "People are the ones who train them to kill. We hope to get them into loving homes."
Michael Vick is serving 23 months in federal prison for his part in a dog-fighting ring. The former Atlanta Falcons quarterback and three co-defendants raised and trained pit bulls for fighting. Losing dogs sometimes were hanged, drowned or electrocuted.