Dog's Life: Humane
Emmylou Harris
Singer helps Nashville’s homeless dogs.

On a sunny late-autumn afternoon, two bark-happy Chihuahuas, Jade and Coco, sprint across the grass and jump on Emmylou Harris. We’re in the spacious back yard of Harris’s Nashville home, which doubles as Bonaparte’s Retreat, a fostering service for unwanted dogs.


“Good girls,” says the legendary country singer, gathering the two dogs close to let them nuzzle and lick her. “Both of them were abandoned. The night we rescued Coco, she gave birth to five puppies.”


Harris also introduces us to Trooper, a black Lab; Preacher, a blond mixed-breed; and Gabby, an affectionate six-month-old puppy who, after spending her whole life at Nashville Metro Animal Control, has an eager handshake for everyone who comes close.


Finally, there’s Sally, a sweet, shy Terrier mix Harris describes as “a survivor and a heartbreaker.” Prior to coming to Bonaparte’s, Sally lived the first eight years of her life at the end of a five-foot chain in someone’s yard, with zero love and affection.


“Our mission is to take dogs who’ve run out of time,” says Harris. “This is a great situation compared to where they’ve come from. But it’s a halfway house. We do try to give them the royal treatment while they’re here, but they’re still in limbo, waiting for a home.”


Founded in 2004, the facility is named after one of Harris’s especially beloved dogs. “Bonaparte had this really friendly demeanor,” she says. “He was kind of a Poodle mix. Loved people, very sociable, loved other animals. I got this idea to take him on the road with me, and he was terrific. He loved the traveling, the bus, hotels, backstage. Of course, once you have the experience of having a dog on the road with you, you don’t realize how lonely you’ve been without one. So he went everywhere with me. He was my constant companion for 10 years.”


When Bonaparte died suddenly in 2002, Harris was devastated (for her most recent album, All I Intended to Be, she wrote “Not Enough,” a tribute to her traveling buddy). Not ready to think about replacing him, she channeled her love of animals into finding companions for others.


“I had this big yard, and I had seen an HBO special called Shelter Dogs that Cynthia Wade did,” Harris says. “I was very moved, and I thought, I’ve got the room—I could foster three or four dogs. So that’s where the idea came from. We took in our first dog in July 2004. Eventually, I felt some kind of call that I needed to focus on the dogs at Metro Animal Control. Nashville Humane does wonderful work—they’re a no-kill shelter. But at Metro, the dogs are on a very short time period before they’re euthanized if they’re not adopted—they’re on death row, so to speak.”


Building the retreat—which includes a generous run and a cozy bunkhouse—fulfilled one of Harris’s childhood fantasies. “When I was about 10, I wanted to live in a great big house and take in all the strays in the neighborhood,” she says.


Harris grew up in North Carolina and Virginia, and her love of animals was instilled in her at a young age. “My father had studied veterinary medicine. My grandfather kept hunting dogs. My father’s sister probably took in every stray in her town. I had an uncle who had a dairy farm with horses. There was always a sense of respect for animals. Children learn by example, and of course, they learn by having their own pets. I was lucky that way. I was taught compassion and love for animals.”


Aside from Bonaparte’s current residents, Harris and her mother Eugenia, who lives with her, have five cats and four dogs—all rescues.


With her unconditional love for all animals, how does Harris choose which dogs to take into the limited space of Bonaparte’s Retreat?


“Usually, the bigger and the older, the more—I don’t want to say the word ordinary—but there are a lot of black Lab mixes out there who aren’t Disney dogs. The longer the dog is in a shelter, the more likely they are to develop problems. They go kennel crazy. They can get very aggressive, even when that isn’t their nature. Or become very depressed. It works against them getting adopted.


“I wish we could take more. What we’re trying to do is get more people to foster for us. We’ll pay the expenses, the vet bills, the food, put them on the website along with the dogs who are here on the property, take them to dog adoption events. But physically, if we take more than four dogs, it really starts working against what we can provide for them.”


Dogs staying at Bonaparte’s are pictured on Harris’s website, and webmaster Kate Derr, who oversees day-to-day operations at the retreat, fields calls and emails from prospective adopters. Watching Derr’s gentle way with the dogs, you understand why Harris calls her “wonder woman.”


“Kate does everything,” Harris says. “She will set up a meeting for the person to come and meet the dog. If they’re interested, they fill out an application. Then Kate does a home visit to see if they have a fenced yard, just to check out everything. Then the dog goes for a home visit, to make sure they can get along with other animals there. There’s a three-week trial period. If it’s not a good fit, they can return the dog. Or if we decide it’s not right, we can take the dog back.


“The dogs have had all their shots. They’re usually crate-trained. We let people know if there are any idiosyncrasies about the dogs. And we want to know idiosyncrasies about the people. Because it’s a lifelong relationship. It’s a commitment. We want to make sure that the people are happy and that the dog is going to have a happy home.”


Harris’s rescue efforts speak to a larger problem in Nashville, as well as in many other American cities.


“There are approximately 11,000 animals euthanized at Nashville Metro every year,” she says. “It’s a statistic that’s terrible for a lot of reasons. If we had mandatory spay and neutering legislation, people would do the right thing. It’s not like it hasn’t been done before. All around the country, there are communities who have taken on this problem and almost eliminated the unwanted cat and dog population.”


Harris’s animal advocacy recently earned her the George T. Angell Humanitarian Award from the MSPCA, along with a Humane Society fundraiser dinner in honor of her 60th birthday. While she appreciates the awards—and makes it clear that these days, she’d rather be recognized for her work with animals than her music—she knows there’s a lot more work to do.


As Harris sits in Bonaparte’s Bunkhouse, scratching Sally’s chin, she says, “The other side of all this—the heartbreak—is that there are thousands of dogs who are going to be put down. I know that I can’t save them, but it’s very difficult. You can’t put blinders on. I have to say, which dogs have been at Metro Animal Control the longest? And which ones look like they’re suffering from certain conditions that are being exacerbated by them being there? But why one dog and not another? It feels like ‘Sophie’s Choice’ sometimes. I’m haunted by certain faces that I know were there one day and the next, they were gone. It isn’t easy, but the thing that keeps me going are just those few that we’ve been able to place in homes.”


Listen to Emmylou sing “Not Enough”—her tribute to her buddy Bonaparte.


News: Guest Posts
Testing Food Additives on Dogs
Beagles being used by food industry

What happens when a 15-year-old vegetarian learns that a controversial food additive, one that is patented as a flame retardant, is allowed to be added to her sports drink?

Sarah Kavanagh, of Hattiesburg, Miss., started a petition on change.org, asking the manufacturer to remove it. Brominated vegetable oil is allowed by the Food and Drug Administration as an additive “generally regarded as safe.” It has, however, been linked to health problems in some studies, so why put it in a sports drink, her petition argues?

Dog lovers, too, are posting petitions about practices involving food additives that make no sense to them—like testing such ingredients on animals. The requisite safety tests performed on BVO included animals; even dogs.

While rodents are the usual subjects in toxicity tests, dogs are also an important test tool for food additives such as olestra (of gastrointestinal fame); cyclamate (a banned sugar substitute); and countless other compounds, which are administered at high doses in studies.

Supporters of the practice view dogs as “whole, living systems” vital for testing the effects of additives in products sold to humans. Opponents see a cultural disconnect in using dogs to study products to be sold to…well, them.

Surveys show that nearly half of U.S. households have a dog. Another subset have Beagles; the most common laboratory breed. Yet the long-domesticated dog—subject of endless stories of devotion and cultural indulgence in the form of goods and services aimed at their comfort—is, in another context, a disposable species.

Petitioners say that dogs have limited protections in a research setting. Cages restrict their movement, puppies may be weaned early and caged individually, and procedures may hurt, particularly in vivo toxicity tests.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website, the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 “is the only Federal law in the United States that regulates the treatment of animals in research, exhibition, transport, and by dealers.”

The Act was prompted by media reports on the theft of pets by dealers who sold them for research. Now most research dogs are “purpose bred,” but they can still be supplied by Class B dealers and legally sourced from shelters, auctions, and ads. As of June 2012, the Humane Society of the U.S. estimates that there were 3,303 USDA Class A breeders and Class B licensed brokers!

The animal welfare law is enforced “primarily through inspections of every licensed or registered facility in the country.” It regulates cage size, cleanliness, and food and water, but not the tests performed or their duration. The BVO feeding study spanned two years (in dog-years, how long is that, owners may wonder?)

Even when dogs emerge from a study in good health, there is still the “frequently asked question” of what happens when an experiment ends?

According to the website of the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science, “The majority of animals under study must be euthanized in order to obtain tissue for pathological evaluation and for use in in vitro tests.”

The association is a membership group of professionals from academia, government, and private industry that promotes “responsible laboratory animal care and use to benefit people and animals.”

In one petition on whitehouse.gov, the Dogington Post “internet newspaper” offers this appeal to the Obama administration: “Beagles aren’t reliable test subjects.”

In fact, many food additives such as BVO remain controversial long after tests in dogs were used to determine what a safe dose might be in human foods.

Like olestra, a substitute for fat. A 20-month olestra feeding study in dogs states that the objective “was to assess the potential chronic toxicity of olestra in a non-rodent species.” The study found that “olestra was not toxic when fed to dogs at up to 10 percent of the diet for 20 months.”

The dogs, 4-6 month old Beagles divided into groups of 10 for testing, were euthanized when it was over and the study was published in 1991. Yet olestra garners plenty of consumer complaints.

The sweetener Sucralose aka Splenda was also tested in Beagles. Sourcewatch.org describes one test that involved 32 Beagles caged for 52 weeks at the McNeil Specialty Products laboratories in New Jersey. At the end of the study they were anaesthetized and bled to death, which made the examination of organs easier.

An alternative to BVO in beverages, the Eastman product Sustane SAIB (sucrose acetate isobutyrate)—though not a source of consumer complaints—was tested in Beagles, too.

The list of additives is long, and some say, getting longer. Consumer interest in health keeps the food industry experimenting with flavors, plant extracts, supplements, stabilizers and more. As they strive to churn out the substitutes, animal petitioners hope to see new substitutes for dogs in their toxicity tests.

Also promoting humane alternatives is the Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine, which is pulling for a robot to the rescue. Like the promising “Tox21,” a collaboration of federal agencies to test chemicals—including food additives—with a machine, at blazing speed. The evolution of technology, they say, will minimize the use of animals.


Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Another Microchip Save
Uniting Dog with Human

Our department recently received a report asking us to check on the welfare of two dogs.  When I arrived I found the dogs in an open side yard. The weather was cold and wet and the dogs were living in filth. There were feces and garbage everywhere, no food, no water and no adequate shelter. The stench of their conditions hit me from 15 feet away and one of the dogs was seriously underweight. He balanced like a circus elephant on top of his overturned water bowl in an effort to escape the mess beneath him.

I had another officer with me as the neighborhood had a high rate of crime and gang activity and I banged on the door of the house as he kept watch. No one responded so I notified my supervisor and prepared to seize the dogs.

While my partner continued to monitor the area, I quickly took a bunch of photos of the dogs, their conditions, empty bowls etc. I made sure to get lots of shots of the ribs, hips and spine on the skinny dog.

Next, I posted a notice of impound, leashed the dogs and hurried them to my truck. Both had sweet temperaments and followed me eagerly with tails wagging. I lifted them onto blankets in the vehicle, getting multiple wet kisses in the process, and closed and locked the doors.

It was a relief to leave the neighborhood and even more of a relief to get the dogs out of there. Several shady characters lingered next to a graffiti-covered wall, watching us as we drove away.

Back at the shelter I was surprised to see that one of the dogs was neutered and had a microchip. The chip traced to woman living in Reno, five hours away, who was shocked when she learned that her dog was in our shelter. She told me that a vengeful ex-boyfriend had taken the dog nearly a year and half previously!

The former owner is making arrangements to make the long drive to claim her dog and the person responsible for their conditions is facing animal cruelty charges. Another miraculous case of a dog going home that never would have been returned to the rightful owner without a microchip.

I’ve seen a hundred of them but I’d love to hear of any microchip miracles our readers have had.


(See What a Good Dog for another miracle.)

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Team Up It (can) take a village

A few months ago, one of our dog-park friends passed away unexpectedly while backpacking. Her two dogs — an older Husky and a young Jack Russell Terrier — were at home with their dog sitter at the time. There were no instructions or nearby relatives to help decide what to do with her dogs. Luckily, the Husky was quickly adopted by a friend, who had his sibling, but fi guring out what to do about Dexter, the JRT, was a little more of a challenge.

His immediate needs were met by his sitter, who was able to stay on with him for a while. Then another friend offered to foster (and possibly adopt) him. It didn’t take long for this friend, who already had four dogs, to realize that a very active, ball-loving, two-year-old terrier was a little too much for her. That’s when “Operation Rehome Dexter” — mounted by Dexter’s dog park “aunties” — went into high gear.

We crafted a charming bio and took great photos that displayed his sweet impishness. We posted him on FB, blogged about him, asked anyone who had a hankering for terriers if they had room for another. We struck gold when yet another friend who does rescue work offered to post him on Petfinder.com. Within minutes, we had our fi rst applicant, and more poured in for this eminently adoptable pup.

It was only a couple of days from the time we came together to find Dexter a home to the time we reviewed applications and made a date to meet Jody (the first applicant, who was looking for her first-ever dog). The meeting couldn’t have gone better. Jody loved him, and she had a good throwing arm! His aunties unanimously approved, and the match was made. He went to his new home the next day. But that was just the start.

This is where I think we hit upon something noteworthy. Altogether, our group had more than a century of dog “know-how” to offer a rookie, and, boy, were we eager to share it. Jody, perhaps sensing that she had no alternative, graciously accepted our coaching/mentoring offers. She upheld her end by asking many questions and providing us with updates on how she and Dexter were doing. For bonus points, she e-mailed us delightful photos. This made for a smoother transition into a new life-with-dog routine. I’m confident that she could have done it without us, but she said that knowing she could rely on us gave her signifi cant peace of mind.

Wouldn’t it be great if other dog adoptions, especially to first-timers, came with this sort of support? Kind of like Apple’s “genius bar,” people with experience could be called upon to provide useful, field-tested advice. Adopters would know they had a safety net, which could really reduce a shelter’s return rate.

Do any of you know of shelters who’ve developed this sort of auxiliary? Or might like to? We’re guessing that among our readers, there’s way more than a millennium of combined expertise. We need to come up with a method to put it to good use in our communities for the benefit of all the Dexters out there, and all the novice adopters who, with just a little coaching, could confi dently take them home

News: Guest Posts
PetMed: low cost veterinary care at the Arizona Animal Welfare League

Every day worried pet owners called the Arizona Animal Welfare League (AAWL) for low-cost veterinary care. Only affordable vaccinations and spay/neuter services were available. All that changed on April 9, 2011 when Judith Gardner, president and CEO, announced the opening of PetMed, a veterinary clinic to serve low income pet owners.

Funded by private donations, PetMed opened with once weekly service. Surgeries, if needed, were done on a second day. Through word of mouth advertising, 1,000 owners brought in 168 cats/kittens and 563 dogs/puppies during the first nine months. Additional funding expanded service to three days says Vicky Kamm, director of operations.

In a remodeled clinic, PetMed treats dogs and cats with fungal infections, cracked teeth, Valley fever, and fractured limbs. Veterinary services are limited, however. Walk-ins or emergencies are not accepted. There are no overnight stays. Clients must have an appointment and a fee schedule applies. Kamm says PetMD does not perform cosmetic surgeries such as tail docking or ear cropping. They will not de-claw cats or de-bark dogs.

For the first time, local limited income pet owners have a viable option to help keep their sick or injured animals rather than surrender them to a shelter. Take the case of Missy, a feral kitten with a broken leg. Missy lived in a colony outside a downtown Phoenix hotel. Staff had the colony sterilized and fed them daily. One day a worker noticed Missy’s limp. A veterinarian said a car probably struck the cat and suggested amputation. He recommended PetMed for treatment. Hotel staff pooled their resources for Missy’s successful surgery.

A couple’s pregnant dog Jazzy was in distress after delivering two puppies. A veterinarian determined a third puppy remained inside, dead. Only surgery would relieve Jazzy’s suffering. The financially strapped couple called PetMed. Not only was the surgery successful but Jazzy was spayed too. Later on, the couple brought in their male dog and two puppies for sterilization. Kamm says it was a win/win all around.

PetMed is staffed by a licensed veterinarian and two full-time employees. Volunteers pitch in with clerical duties. In 2013, PetMed plans to expand to four days a week.


Dog's Life: Lifestyle
What a Good Dog

On a recent dark, chilly fall evening, a three year old child wandered out of his home un-noticed by his parents. His departure was, however, observed by the family dog, a large neutered  male Pit Bull, who took it upon himself to follow the little boy and stay close by his side. They were a good distance from home before they were seen by some passers-by who stopped to help. The child was unable to tell them where he lived or give them any other information so deputies were summoned. The dog stayed by the child’s side the entire time, friendly but watchful.

The child was going to be taken into protective custody so one of my fellow animal control officers was dispatched to pick up the dog. The officer scanned the dog and found a microchip which had been implanted by our shelter during a free neuter clinic that we had offered a few years previously. Thanks to the chip, one phone call was all that was needed to get the pair home safely. The situation is still under investigation but could have been much worse had the dog not chosen to stay with the little boy.

I was so touched by the way the faithful dog stayed with the child the entire time and by the way, once again, a microchip led to a happy ending!

I would love to hear from readers about things your dogs have done to be there for someone in need. 

News: Editors
The Yellow Dog Project

Tara, a trainer/dog walker in Red Deer, Alberta has come up with a good idea about ways to alert others about a dog who might need a little “space” from another dog on a leash. She calls it the Yellow Dog Project and founded this movement only a couple of months ago. As you know, there are many reasons why a leashed dog might require a safe distance from another dog—health and behavioral reasons, primarily. Our dear Lenny, a little Terrier mix who died last year at 19, was that kind of dog, he was reactive towards most other dogs. There were many times when a friendly dog would approach us and I would have to call out something like “my dog isn’t friendly,” most of the time the response would be “but my dog is friendly.” How much easier it would be if we all understood that a dog with a yellow ribbon or something in yellow on their leash, said it for us instead. So hooray to Tara—help her spread the word.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Tight Spots: A Dog Rescued from Under an SUV

I was headed back to the shelter after a long day when another call came in. Dispatch informed me that a small dog had bitten a passerby who tried to catch her as she was running in traffic. I called the victim who stated that she had grabbed the dog and received a minor puncture. She hadn’t been able to hold onto her after the bite and had last seen the dog run under an SUV parked in front of a business. When I arrived and looked under the vehicle there was no dog. I poked around in the bushes in front of the building with no luck. Soon a man inside the building saw me and come out. He pointed to the vehicle and said, “She’s under there.” I looked again but no dog. “She’s not there now.” I said.

“Yes she is.” He insisted. “She’s up underneath.” 

I found that hard to believe. Cats often climb up inside cars but I’d never heard of a dog doing it. Still, the car was next to a busy road and the dog needed to be quarantined so it was critical that I find her. Doubtfully I got down on my knees and peered under. I was still unable to see anything so I inched underneath it on my back. As I slid farther I saw a small white dog wedged up in the undercarriage of the vehicle. Well, that was a new one. Thank goodness the man had come out. I shuddered to think what might have happened if the owner had driven away.

The dog growled at me, undoubtedly terrified by her ordeal and I sweet-talked to her to calm her down as I slowly worked my way closer. My legs were dangling practically in traffic and I was afraid she would panic and run out in the road and get killed before I could a hold of her in that tight spot. Working slowly and carefully, I managed to slip a lead over her head. In her fear, she snapped at me but I managed to dodge her teeth and get her secured.

It was a challenge to get the little dog down out of the vehicle while avoiding her teeth and the rushing traffic but I finally worked my way out and stood up with the little dog in my arms. She was tense and wary but stopped trying to bite.

Back in the truck, I scanned her. She didn’t have a chip or tags so I settled her in the front seat with me where I could keep an eye on her and headed for the shelter. By the time we made it back we were friends and I found her to be a delightful little dog who had just been terrified by her circumstances and felt the need to defend herself.

No one claimed the little dog during her 10-day bite quarantine and since her bite had been provoked and very minor, she was put up for adoption. Young, healthy and totally adorable, it was only a few days before a lucky adopter snatched her up. I watched her prance out the door with her new person and felt a warm glow of satisfaction.


Dog's Life: Humane
A Better Life for Michael Vick’s Pit Bulls
BAD RAP lends a helping hand
A BAD RAP Pit Bull training class.

Earlier this year, on a sunny January day in a parking lot near the Berkeley, Calif., waterfront, BAD RAP’s Pit Bull training classes were in full swing. People and dogs cheerfully circled, practicing “heel,” “sit” and, most important, “look at me.” The media were there too. They wanted to be ready with photos, film and interviews the minute sentencing was over in the Michael Vick dog fighting trial and a gag order was lifted.

The reporters needed to have the “Vick dogs” pointed out to them. A big white pit bull with tan spots and three legs would make a great photo, but Dango wasn’t a Vick dog—he was from an Oakland shelter. What about chocolate Stella, with the fight scars? No, she was from a drug bust in Detroit.

When it was time for a group photo of the Vick dogs, there was trouble, just the sort of trouble you’d expect. The dogs heard “photo op” and they thought “wigglefest.” They didn’t want to look at the camera, they wanted to lick faces, play or roll over for a belly rub.

The Vick dogs are a sample of what gets called “Pit Bull” in America today. Small black Frodo looks like the Old World Pit Bulls traditionally bred by dog fighters. Hector’s a big red dog with scars on his chest. Jonny Justice is black and white, glossy as a penguin. Big white Teddles looks like the many American Pits crossed with bigger breeds. As BAD RAP’s co-founder Tim Racer describes this trend, Teddles slumps against my leg—after all, he’s known me for 30 seconds—and lets me rub his speckled ears.

Donna Reynolds and Tim Racer founded BAD RAP—Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pit Bulls–in 1999, and in 2007, Reynolds and Racer were among the nine experts asked by the ASPCA to help evaluate 49 of the dogs seized from Vick’s Bad Newz kennels and held in Virginia-area shelters. When the dogs were initially seized, Reynolds and Racer had submitted a proposal to evaluate them, hoping to fend off their immediate destruction, and were gratified when the government agreed. In addition to Racer, Reynolds and Justin Phillips of the SPCA of Monterey County, Calif., the evaluation team assembled by the ASPCA consisted of Dr. Randall Lockwood, Dr. Pamela J. Reid, Dr. Daniel Q. Estep, Dr. Crista R. Coppola and Nancy Williams, and was led by Dr. Stephen Zawistowski. Though the case hit the news in April 2007, evaluators weren’t able to see the dogs until September.

It was a dog fighting case, and a hoarding case, and a neglect case. Vick had amassed more dogs than he could fight or sell. The dogs spent deprived lives caged or chained to car axles in the woods. After they were confiscated and parceled out to six different Virginia animal control shelters, their isolation continued. It was hardest on the youngest dogs. Those who came to BAD RAP arrived in October after seven months in custody.

Dogs don’t tell stories, but people tell stories about dogs. We tell stories about famous dogs who carried serum to Nome, or waited at a train station for a person who never returned. We tell stories about our own dogs: “He was abused,” “they were bred to hunt badgers” or “her grandsire was Best in Show.” For a long time, the story told about dogs who have been used in dog fighting is that they’re ruined. Unstoppably violent, untrustworthy and, in a phrase that makes Reynolds especially angry, “kennel trash.”

Although dogs don’t tell stories, they have stories, and stories help us understand. The saga of Vick’s Bad Newz Kennels, and the dogs who were hung, drowned or electrocuted when they displeased their handlers, grabbed the public’s attention. The dogs who died helped people see the surviving dogs as victims, not monsters. The story changed.

Animal welfare groups are using that story as a powerful tool to show that “fight-bust dogs” should be evaluated as individuals, and that it’s wrong to assume they’ve been turned into monsters. The personal stories of dogs—dogs redeemed from dreadful captivity, with no interest in fighting, joyously learning to be with people—have touched many hearts.

Transitioning to a Better Life
Most of the 10 Vick dogs taken in by BAD RAP are fostered by Pit-loving volunteers. To understand how the group was working with the dogs, I asked Reynolds to suggest one easy dog and one more challenging dog. She suggested Hector (easy) and Frodo (challenging).

A few days later, I visited Frodo at Reynolds and Racer’s house, which is given over to dogs and art. Racer carves wooden carousel animals—including dogs—with marvelous detail, and Reynolds is a found-object artist. Their big deaf Pit Bull, Honky Tonk, comes over to say hello and lean on me. Before long, Honky Tonk is in the chair with me. Then Frodo nervously approaches to be introduced, smells my hand and excuses himself to be a little farther away.

Frodo represents a less-told side of this story: how much some dogs suffered from their long isolation in legal custody. Frodo and his littermates were six months old when they were confiscated. “They’re stunted. Socially stunted,” Reynolds says. Among his littermates, Frodo’s doing the best at adjusting to his new life. “He’s the bravest,” she says.

In the 1990s, Racer and Reynolds were doing all-breed rescue. They had no special affinity for Pit Bulls, but saw that no one was doing anything for them. “It was really just about helping the underdog,” Racer says. “There were no rescue groups for Pit Bulls. They were dying in record numbers. Besides that, they’re a great family dog.”

They rescued and placed some Pit mixes. “Then we ended up with an ex-fighting dog.” They got a call from a woman who’d found an injured dog in the street at midnight; she opened her car door and the dog got in. Racer and Reynolds went to the vet hospital to meet him. “He was covered in wounds—old wounds, new wounds … He was just shredded. Attached to a standing IV, he leaned into our legs, looked up and started wagging his tail. I said, ‘I don’t know how to help this animal, but we’ll find out,’” Racer recalls.

To counter the myths about the dangers of the breed, they created a website. “The avalanche came rolling in,” Reynolds says. “By day three, we were just inundated.”

That was the start of BAD RAP. They began developing training classes and doing education, speaking at animal welfare conferences. “We’re helping the larger organizations improve their message about the breed,” Reynolds says. BAD RAP does weeklong “Pit Ed” camps for shelter staffers and rescuers. They’ve partnered with the East Bay SPCA for shot fairs and free spaying and neutering for Pit Bulls, and their website has everything from news about legislation to a popular page called “Happy Endings.”

“Rescuing is a political action,” Racer says. Some rescued dogs have stories that catch public attention and help educate people about Pit Bulls. The organization took a lot of Pit Bulls after Katrina, and they may take a dog from a distant shelter to show shelter staff that Pit rescue works. For example, Stella, the dog from the drug bust, was an exception to a Detroit shelter’s policy of euthanizing all Pit Bulls; they will now revisit that policy. And Stella has a pending adoption.

BAD RAP deals with about 17 dogs at a time. They look for classic Pit Bull temperament, Reynolds says. “Optimistic, resilient, stable, well balanced, able to deal with confinement. Appropriately submissive. Dogs who can tolerate, if not enjoy, other dogs.” As for the Vick dogs, “These dogs have been more thoroughly evaluated than any dogs in history,” she says. The dogs they chose to care for would be ambassadors, representing not just Pit Bulls, but fight-bust dogs. After socialization and training, they would have to be flawless. “They have to be perfect,” Reynolds says. “That’s a horrible pressure, because no dog is perfect.”

Like Frodo, many of the Vick dogs were fearful after their long periods of isolation, and they’re not the only Pit Bulls with socialization issues. Many are chained and left outside all day—or night and day—and serve as puppy machines or guard dogs. They don’t know what to do in other settings. “A lot of the dogs have never been out of their back yards before,” Reynolds says.

Dogs who have been isolated from other dogs need to learn dog manners. In their foster homes, they may need to learn what furniture is, and how to behave around it. They may have to learn to walk on a leash. Loving people comes naturally to Pit Bulls, but the Vick dogs needed to learn manners. Frodo didn’t make eye contact with people at first. “It was like we were furniture,” Reynolds says. “It took a while. But once he got it, that was it!”

As we talk, from the corner of my eye, I watch Frodo come over to my chair. Silently, he smells my hand and touches it softly with his closed mouth.

Hector’s Education
Next, we go to Leslie Nuccio’s house. Nuccio is fostering Hector (the easy dog), and right now she’s also hosting an Associated Press videographer, who’s soon zooming in on Hector’s fight scars as the dog sprawls in Tim’s arms.

Hector plays exuberantly with Nuccio’s dog Pandora. Nuccio has taught him “look” and “sit,” and they’re working on “down.” He’s learned to understand tones of voice. He’s also learned about cars, music, toys and dog beds. “I don’t think he’d ever been in a house. He was honestly surprised that playing tug with pool table pockets was not a good game.”

Nuccio wonders about Hector’s life before the bust. “I think he never got to play, so he just wants to play all the time.” And he does, zooming through rooms, snatching a piece of toast off a counter, dragging the bathroom rug through the house. “He’ll try to eat anything once. ‘Can I chew on the chair?’ ‘No.’ ‘How about the pillow on the chair?’ ‘No!’ ‘What about this other chair?’”

As Reynolds observes, “They’ve all had this intense puppy period. In all their houses, they all collect things and hoard them in their crates. Then they all stopped.” It was as though they needed to catch up on the chance to manipulate objects after their long, empty captivity. (Frodo collected eight shoes.)

Coming Together for Change
The Vick case set a precedent. As Reynolds said at the press conference when the gag order was lifted, “It’s the first time that a large-scale rescue operation has come together to help the victims of a fight bust. The involvement of the federal government is a first.” Hector is the star at the conference, lolling in Tim’s arms and licking everyone within reach. Of the Vick dogs, Reynolds says, “Every single dog in here would have been tortured—hung or electrocuted—for not showing enough fight drive.”

Another Vick dog, Leo, also came to the press event. Leo, a large red-gold Pit with soulful eyes and scars on his head, went to Our Pack, a South Bay rescue group, which trained him as a therapy dog. Founder Marthina McClay took Racer’s recommendation that Leo would be a good therapy dog. “He’s so sweet,” she marvels. “I don’t see a damaged dog whatsoever. Pit Bulls are great for therapy. That’s what they’re born for.”

The Vick case was the first with a Guardian/Special Master, appointed by the court, to recommend outcomes for the dogs. Rebecca Huss, a professor at Valparaiso School of Law, a specialist in animal law, was selected for this role. She was appointed in October 2007, after the dogs’ sixth month in custody. Her task was to observe the dogs and talk with the dogs’ caretakers, review the evaluations, and make recommendations to the court for the dogs’ futures. “So many people had written to the court and expressed interest,” she says. “It certainly made a difference.”

The dogs were evaluated on their responses to people and to other dogs, to being handled, and for general reactivity. All but one were found to be safe around people. Huss took applications from several rescue organizations, and only those who met all the standards set in the application were considered. Eventually, the dogs were distributed among eight groups; BAD RAP took in the second largest number. As a condition of placement, each group committed to the lifetime care of the dogs if necessary. “A lot of people were critical, saying ‘Why these dogs?’ I say, why not? They’re equally deserving. And if they’ve got a story that can help a dog down the line, that’s even better,” Huss notes.

When asked about the impact of the Vick case, ASPCA’s Randall Lockwood says he’s seeing shifting views about fight-bust dogs. People are starting to look at the dogs as victims, not as instruments, of the crime. “We need to get away from the knee-jerk assumption that all dogs seized in that context are necessarily a threat,” he says. “They deserve to be looked at as individuals.”

“I’ve changed my own position,” Lockwood says. “I helped draft the HSUS policy [when I worked there] of not placing animals rescued from known dog-fighting operations. I’ve changed my tune.”

A handful of shelters around the country have been treating fight-bust dogs differently. BAD RAP has already taken some dogs from a Missouri case and some from Arizona. Debbie Hill, at the Humane Society of Missouri, agrees that the Vick media coverage has changed things. Before this high-profile case, she says, among animal welfare professionals, “It was ‘oh, this animal was involved in fighting.’ And you kind of ended the conversation right there.”

Donna Reynolds believes the handling of the Vick dogs is helping change what people say about fight-bust dogs. It’s become impossible to argue that fight-bust dogs must be put down as menaces. “If it’s because there aren’t resources, then that should be the message, ” Reynolds says. “At least they’re not blaming the breed.”

If fight-bust dogs can be placed, that means more dogs to place, and shelters are already overloaded. “We’re not saying that you have to save all your fight-bust dogs, but they still deserve to be treated as individuals. Give them a blanket, give them a toy, give them a walk,” Reynolds says.

Fast Forward
When I meet Hector again a few months later, he’s being fostered by Cris Cohen and Jennifer Long. Hector is the seventh dog the pair have taken in.

Leslie Nuccio’s fostering gave Hector needed socialization. “Hector deserved to have a good time, he deserved to get a lot of love,” says Reynolds. “Now it’s time to get to work.” Mr. Can-I-Chew-the-Chair? needs to get serious so he can find a permanent home.

Cohen is Hector’s boot camp instructor. He’ll make Hector the perfect ambassador and prepare the big pup for Canine Good Citizen classes. What will be hardest for Hector, we wondered? “Sitting politely for petting. He may want to kiss the evaluator.”

Earlier, Cohen and Long fostered Jonny Justice. At first, Jonny was afraid of running water—who knows why?—but by the time he left, could be bathed without a tether. “He didn’t like it, but he stayed. ‘I don’t like this. Can I go? No? Okay.’” Long says, “Jonny was cooked, Jonny was done.” He’s now in a foster home with other dogs and cats.

Long and Cohen say Jonny needed lots of repetition to learn commands, but readily accepted the basic concept. “‘I’ll do whatever you want! Can I have a cookie?’” Cohen says. “Things that took Jonny a month, Hector gets in two days.” But Hector’s smart enough to be manipulative. “‘If you don’t have a cookie in your hand, I’m not doing it.’” In which case, he goes back to his crate. “The smarter the dog, the slower the process.”

Hector, who learned about couches at Nuccio’s house, thinks it would be nice to get up on this one, but Cohen tells him no. “You haven’t earned that spot in our house yet.” Hector stops trying to climb up. “Look at me,” Cohen tells Hector. Hector pretends not to hear, facing away, with a phony ‘I have no idea you’re talking to me’ expression. So Cohen puts him in the crate and Hector gazes out with goo-goo eyes. “Oh, now you see me.”

A few months after meeting Frodo, I saw him again. He’s now at Kim Ramirez’s house. “He needed more life experience,” Reynolds says. “He needs to see that the world is more than our little household.” BAD RAP is in touch with someone who might adopt him. “She’s interested in him because he’s trying so hard to be brave.”

Frodo’s in his crate, and he’s delighted to see a visitor. Ramirez won’t let him barrel out; she makes him sit first. Then he charges over to say hello, licking my hands.

When Ramirez says “Look at me,” he shows her a relaxed, smiling face. The change in him is impressive. New things remain hard for Frodo, though. We take him for a walk, and after an hour or so, he’s had all the newness he can handle. We rest on grass in a park, and I unwisely offer him my notebook to sniff. Too much! He leaves and goes to Ramirez’s far side.

Back home, Ramirez gives the dogs ice cubes. Frodo takes his into his crate. Ice cubes are still news to him—good news. He crunches it peacefully, without bothering to check if the outsider is looking. Cohen’s right: Frodo has come light years. I believe in his happy ending.



Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Free Food for Shelters
Trivia game fuels donations

On the site freekibble.com, there’s a daily multiple-choice trivia question, and if you answer it, 10 pieces of kibble will be donated to an animal shelter. It doesn’t matter whether you are right or wrong. As long as you click on an answer each day, food will be donated.

Questions are highly variable. Some concern public figures. Recently there were questions concerning Richard Nixon and his dog Checkers as well as The Duchess of Cornwall and her new dog Bluebell. Other questions relate to breeds with questions being as variable as the breed that was developed by the Russian army to handle very cold temperatures (Russian Black Terriers) and which type of mix is most common in this country (German Shepherd). There are also questions about college mascots, the origin of expressions such as “Beware of Dog” which has its roots in ancient Rome, and random questions including the fact that a Pit Bull named Wallace who was rescued from a shelter became a World Champion Disc dog.

It’s fun to check out the daily question, and doubly so because doing so helps feed dogs in shelters. As the founder of the site, Mimi Ausland says, “Every dog and cat deserves a decent dinner.” (There is also a related site called freekibblekat.com.) Ausland was 11 years old in 2008, which is when she launched the site, which has provided 8 million meals to homeless animals.