12 Years of Freedom

Paul Fiaccone saw Cherry on a National Geographic documentary. “You just kind of wanted to reach through the TV screen and grab him and let him know that everything was going to be okay,” he said. Cherry, who loves popcorn, lives with two kids, another dog and two cats. (Geoffrey Tischman)

By: Melissa Kolmar, CPDT-KA, SBA

Those of you who have spent some time with me know that I really got into dog behavior when I began volunteering at the ASPCA emergency shelter during the 2nd largest dog fighting bust in US History (commonly known as the 367 case) in 2013. I met wonderful, knowledgeable people and amazingly resilient dogs.

Those dogs were able to have a shot at rehabilitation and a better life due to a case that happened in 2007-the raid on Michael Vick’s compound and subsequent seizure of his dogs. Up until that point, dogs who were seized in suspected dog fighting rings were humanely euthanized without behavior evaluations. Initially it was assumed that the trauma would be so great, the dogs would not be able to overcome it and function safely in the world.

But the Vick case changed all that, due to his prominent status is the public eye. The dogs rescued from his case were evaluated and 47 (out of 51) went on to live in homes or sanctuaries around the country. They found that some dogs can come from horrible circumstances and make it through.

“Michael Vick brought dogfighting into the living room of every American,” said Heather Gutshall, who adopted Handsome Dan and later founded a rescue organization that aims to help survivors of dogfighting. “Am I glad it happened? No. Am I glad, that if it was going to happen, that it happened the way it did? Absolutely. They changed the landscape.”

Now dogs who are seized in suspected dog fighting cases are evaluated. The dogs I worked with and fell in love with in 2013 were able to be seen as individuals. Many have gone on to be wonderful ambassadors. I credit them for stoking my desire to become a dog trainer and work with fearful dogs.

It has been 12 years since the Vick case. Journalist Emily Giambalvo recently wrote a comprehensive article about where those 47 dogs are now (unfortunately, some have passed due to age). You can read her article here.

“The dogs became ambassadors, tail-wagging proof of what’s possible through rescue and rehabilitation. In doing so, they changed how the public — and some prominent rescue organizations — view dogs freed from fighting rings.  Dogfighting remains prevalent, but now, in large part thanks to these dogs, others seized in fight busts are evaluated to see if they can become pets.” -Emily Giambalvo