Second Leash on Life

Growing up, John Garcia’s dog was his best friend. Now, as an adult, Garcia considers it his responsibility to save dogs that have been trained to fight.

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When he was a kid, John Garcia spent much of his time with his pet dog. “That’s who I did everything with,” Garcia tells Choices. “My dog was my best friend. That’s why I’ve dedicated my life to helping dogs.”

Garcia is the manager and trainer at the Best Friends Animal Society in Kenab, Utah, Part of Garcia’s job is to rehabilitate dogs who have been trained to fight. The most famous of his canine patients were 22 pit bulls who were rescued from a dogfighting operation run by Michael Vick, a famous quarterback in the National Football League.

Back in 2002, Vick and three friends set up a dogfighting facility called Bad Newz Kennels at his house in rural Virginia. More than 50 dogs were trained to fight dogs. In a dogfight, two dogs are placed in a pit with each dog’s owner standing in opposite corners. The dogs are released and attack each other. The fight can last a few minutes or a few hours. It ends when one dog will not or cannot continue. The dogs are badly injured and some die.

TERRIBLE TRAINING

The fight is the culmination of a cruel process. Training for dogfighting includes having dogs run for exhausting amounts of time on a treadmill and also injecting dogs with steroids and narcotic drugs to make them more aggressive. 

Fights took place in a small building behind Vick’s house. There, people bet large sums of money on which dogs would win fights. The winning dogs were rewarded with food and bred to make more winning dogs. The losing dogs, if they survived, were later killed because their owners deemed them unworthy because they lost the fight.

Holding dogfights is a crime and Vick was arrested and served 19 months in prison. In most dogfighting cases, the dogs involved are euthanized because they are deemed too badly injured to save or too dangerous to be around people and other animals. But only two of the 51 dogs from Vick’s dogfighting operation ended up being euthanized. The remaining 49 were given to animal-rescue organizations to be rehabilitated. 

ON THE MEND

Twenty two of the dogs were sent to Best Friends and Garcia. There they recovered from their physical injuries and emotional wounds. The staff at Best Friends developed Life Care Plans for each dog. Each plan lists basic characteristics of the dog, what the dog needs to learn, and what changes have occurred as a result of training. Garcia has taught the dogs everything from basic obedience to agility.

The rehabilitation process has been a resounding success. So far, five of the 22 dogs have been adopted by families, while others are living temporarily in foster homes. Some of the Vick dogs have even become therapy dogs-dogs that visit patients in hospitals or sit with children who are learning to read. These dogs are proof that it is possible to rehabilitate dogs that have been taught and bred to fight. 

Garcia says there is misconception that fighting dogs are aggressive toward humans. “For the most part, they are actually good with people,” he says. “If a dog were to bite a handler or referee in a fight, it would get disqualified.” 

In working with the Vick dogs, Garcia found that they were extremely shy around people because humans only brought them pain. Garcia and his staff spend nights sleeping with the dogs so they can learn to trust people. “We need to show the dogs that people are actually good,” he says. 

"GOOD PEOPLE"

Garcia is one of the good people. He is proud of the work he has done rehabilitating the Vick dogs and the 450 to 500 other dogs he oversees on a daily basis. “Working with these dogs has taught me compassion and patience,” Garcia says. “All things that make me a better human being, I’ve learned through animals.” 

Garcia urges teen pet owners to make sure they are giving everything possible to their animals, from the basics of food, water, and veterinary care to training and appropriate exercise. 

And there is something that he wants young people to know about dogfighting. “I’ve heard from young people that they think their dogs want to fight,” Garcia says. “This isn’t true. In the wild, dogs avoid confrontation. They know they could get hurt and die. There’s a reason they’re called man’s best friends. They want to please humans. They do not want to fight.” 

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