Dr. Leo

On April 25, 2007, Marthina McClay was relaxing in her living room watching television, when a news flash was broadcast. Property owned by National Football League (NFL) star Michael Vick had been raided, and approximately 50 pit bulls that were allegedly part of a dog fighting operation had been seized. Marthina sat bolt upright, stunned. “I don’t believe it,” was the first thought that went through her mind.

The news clip went on to show an animal control officer standing in front of a kennel, beside a tan-colored, muscular pit bull. When the dog turned its head Marthina caught a glimpse of its “beautiful, kohl-rimmed, Maybelline eyes” and she couldn’t help but think, “Oh my God! What a beautiful dog!”

Marthina is the founder and president of Our Pack, Inc., a Los Gatos, California-based group that rescues and advocates for pit bulls. A certified dog trainer and animal behavioral consultant, she is also involved in animal-assisted activities and has visited nursing homes with Hailey, her five-year-old, brindle pit bull, for the past several years.

“I would really love to get one of those dogs and train it to do therapy work,” she thought to herself. “That would be the best testament to the breed that America will ever see.” But she knew that dogs seized in “fight bust” cases are almost always euthanized once they are no longer needed as “evidence” in court. It is assumed that they are menacing, dangerous and out of control. “It’s such a shame,” Marthina concluded. “People will never know what these dogs are capable of.” Fortunately, she was wrong.

Michael Vick lived a rags-to-riches story. Born and raised in a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood in Newport News, Virginia, he attended college on a football scholarship. He then went on to a professional NFL career as the record-breaking quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons. At the age of 24, he signed one of the biggest contracts in NFL history. That, combined with lucrative commercial endorsements, landed him in the number 19 spot on the 2005 Forbes’ list of highest paid celebrities.

To all outward appearances, Michael Vick seemed to be living the American Dream. But away from the media spotlight, he was part of a multi-million dollar subculture. Vick owned the Bad Newz Kennels, which was located on his 15-acre rural property in Smithville, Virginia. For six years he, along with two friends, ran an illegal dog fighting operation there.

When police and animal control workers raided Vick’s property they found dogs housed in little more than hovels, or tied to car axles with heavy, logging-type chains. They also found blood-stained carpets and evidence of animal remains. Investigators later learned that the dogfights went on for hours, and dogs that did not perform well were brutally executed by electrocution, hanging, drowning, or by being repeatedly slammed to the ground.

Public outrage was swift and deep. Vick was suspended from the NFL following the flood of angry protest letters to the league, and sponsorship endorsements quickly evaporated or were withdrawn.

“Breeding and training dogs to fight to the death is the ultimate betrayal of our oldest relationship with animals,” Stephen Zawistowski says. Steven is the executive vice president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) ®. “The Michael Vick case helped to shine a brilliant light on an activity that has long lurked in the shadows. It forced people to take notice that a cruel practice thought to have been relegated to the past is still with us.”

On August 24, 2007, Michael Vick entered into a plea agreement in which he admitted to taking part in a dogfight operation and to actively participating in killing dogs that did not perform well. In December, Vick was sentenced to 23 months in jail. And, for the first time in history, federal agents, the district attorney’s office, several animal shelters and animal law experts worked together in what would become a landmark animal welfare case.

Judge Henry E. Hudson ordered that each pit bull be evaluated individually, rather than being automatically destroyed. In an ironic twist, the cost of taking care of the dogs was to be covered by Vick. As part of the plea agreement, Vick was required to pay $928,073.04 restitution to the dogs for expenses incurred, including long-term care and/or humane euthanasia, if deemed necessary. The use of the term “restitution” was significant, as it acknowledged that the dogs were victims of animal abuse, rather than lethal fighting machines.

At the beginning of September, Zawistowski assembled a nine-person team consisting of ASPCA staff, outside behavioral specialists and members of the rescue group BAD RAP (Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pit bulls) to conduct evaluations on the confiscated dogs. Team members had absolutely no idea what to expect when they began their task. The dogs had not only been subjected to horrendous conditions at the Bad Newz Kennels, their next four months had been spent in isolation at animal control facilities, because they were believed to be dangerous.

The pit bulls were first tested to see if they would tolerate human handling. Team members found surprisingly little aggression. Many of the dogs were fearful or shy; some had obviously been abused and cowered in their kennels with their heads down, their tails between their legs. The pit bulls were then tested for aggression towards other dogs. Some showed signs of aggression, but their attention could be refocused. Others were cautious. But many were well-mannered and friendly, even wagging their tails and wanting to play.

The importance of judging each dog as an individual, rather than on the basis of stereotypical “breed profiling” soon became clear. Only one pit bull was so aggressive towards humans and other animals that she was considered dangerous and had to be euthanized. (One other dog was euthanized because she was ill and in pain and there was nothing that could be done medically to help her.)

A few months after Vick’s arrest, Marthina read a follow-up newspaper article stating that the confiscated pit bulls were being saved. Rebecca Huss, a nationally recognized expert in animal law at the Valparaiso University School of Law in Indiana, was named guardian/special master to the dogs. Rebecca determined that the dogs should be placed with rescue organizations, which would provide rehabilitation and training, with the possibility of future adoption.

Marthina was astonished. She immediately contacted Rebecca, submitted an application, and went through an extensive screening process. Applicants needed to have insurance and prove they had a certain level of experience working with pit bulls, among other standards. After Marthina was approved she asked Rebecca if any of the dogs had the potential to do therapy work. There were several candidates; Rebecca sent her a video of Leo, a handsome, tan-colored, two-year-old with deep brown eyes. “To this day, I swear it was the same dog I saw on TV,” Marthina says. “Leo looked so eager and friendly. I could imagine cartoon ‘thought bubbles,’ with him saying ‘I’m the guy for you! Take me now.’”

Leo had not been socialized when he first came to live with Marthina. “I don’t think he’d ever seen a couch before. He didn’t understand what toys were, or a warm bed, or a bone,” she recalls. “It’s not that he wasn’t friendly; he just didn’t understand about love, or what he was here for.” Leo was “kennel crazy” from having been cooped up most his life. “He acted like a caveman at a tea party. He was like a four-month-old puppy, jumping up on people and nipping their clothes. He had no manners or social skills and was literally bouncing off walls.”

Leo paced a lot to relieve anxiety. He traveled from the kitchen to the living room to the dining room, then back again. Marthina used calming techniques such as speaking to him in a low voice, putting on soft music and dimming the lights. She would sit beside Leo, petting him and trying to get him to relax. She kept a diary during this time and about ten days after she brought him home, she wrote: “Wow! A big win! He sat down beside me for the count of five.”

Marthina used positive reinforcement such as hugs, kisses and lots of praise; things that Leo had never experienced before. He loved training and quickly learned obedience skills and how to walk on a leash. “You could see the love, affection and intelligence while Leo was training. When he figured out how to do something, he’d have this expression on his face that seemed to be saying ‘Hey! I get it!’ as if he were very proud.”

All this hard work paid off. Leo aced his Canine Good Citizen test and was then tested and certified by Therapy Dogs Inc. He accomplished all of this in just five weeks, which is an extremely short period of time. “It’s a testament to the breed,” Marthina tells me. Pit bulls are resilient. “They bounce back. They don’t hold grudges. They’re not sitting on The Jerry Springer Show, mopping their brow and saying, ‘Oh, I can’t move forward with my life.’”

These days “Dr. Leo,” as he is affectionately called, visits a number of different facilities. In a calm and gentle manner, he carefully approaches patients, while expertly maneuvering around breathing tubes and IVs. Leo never jumps up on patients or puts up his paw. Instead, he waits patiently to be petted, or for a lap on which to plunk down his big, friendly head.

Pix of Leo visiting a patient, wearing a clown collar, could go somewhere in here.

Leo often wears a clown collar when he visits because, as Marthina puts it, “Pit bulls are clowns, they really are. They provide therapy for people who are ill or depressed. They want to be with somebody even if they’re scary looking.” Although some people are initially afraid of pit bulls, even if they have never met one, Leo quickly wins them over. “He is magnetic, a real Casanova. Leo is a darling, darling dog.”

One of the first places Marthina and Leo visited was a convalescent home for Alzheimer’s patients. When they arrived, patients were sitting around the fireplace in a big reception area. There was a lot of activity going on, yet Marthina noticed one woman sitting in the middle of the room, staring blankly at the wall. Leo was in the woman’s peripheral vision and she slowly turned her head, looked at him and gave a little crook of a smile. On the way out, a receptionist stopped Marthina to tell her this woman never responded to anything. This was the first time in years there had been a sparkle in her eyes.

Leo also visits patients undergoing chemotherapy at the Camino Medical Group (CMG) in Mountain View, California. The staff take a “doggie break” instead of a coffee break when they see him coming down the hall. And the patients are always happy when “Dr. Leo” makes his rounds.

Marthina waits until patients get to know Leo before telling them about his past. “Him? A fight dog?” is the usual, stunned response. It’s hard for them to reconcile a “tough dog” image with the goofy dog sitting in front of them, wagging his tail and batting his big brown eyes. When they look closer at the scars behind Leo’s ears, they find the telltale signs of the abuse he endured.

This is often a pivotal moment for patients. One woman said she would never again feel sorry for herself after learning what Leo had been through. Other times, people reach out and hug the gentle dog. “There is a common bond between Leo and the patients,” Marthina says. “They are both survivors. They have both faced off against death. Leo lets them know that anything is possible. He gives them the strength to go on.”

Marthina says pit bulls are especially suited to this type of work. “It’s really in their temperament to be soft and cuddly and affectionate with people. That’s how they are at their core.”

“Soft” is one word many pit bull owners use to describe their dogs, in addition to “goofball,” “dork” and “clown.” That’s a far cry from the fear, the breed bans, and the media headlines that scream “PIT BULL ATTACKS!”

Pit bulls haven’t always been given the label of “most dangerous dog.” (That dubious distinction belonged to bloodhounds in the 19th century, then German shepherds, dobermans and rottweilers after that.) For decades pit bulls were actually regarded as “America’s sweethearts.” In the Civil War era they were referred to as “nanny dogs” because they were so good with children. During World War 1 they became symbols of courage, loyalty and resilience; they were used on advertising billboards to sell everything from war bonds, to RCA Records and Buster Brown shoes. In the 1950s Little Petey, a white pit bull with a black circle around one eye, became the star of “The Little Rascals,” a children’s comedy show. So what happened?

Some cite July 27, 1987, as a major turning point in the downward spiral of the breed’s reputation. That month, the headline on the cover of Sports Illustrated read: “Beware of this dog.” Underneath was a photograph of a snarling, open-mouthed, ferocious-looking pit bull. As Jim Gorant wrote in a later issue of the magazine (December 28, 2008), “The cover cemented the dogs’ badass cred, and as rappers affected the gangster ethos, pit bulls became cool. Suddenly, any thug or wannabe thug knew what kind of dog to own.”

Pit bulls became front-page news, characterized as vicious, uncontrollable, unpredictable animals. Myths sprang up: pit bulls have locking jaws (they do not – it would be physically impossible); their brains swell and never stop growing (ditto). And perhaps most damaging of all: that pit bulls are immune to pain.

These erroneous beliefs, often encouraged by media hysteria, contradict evidence that supports Marthina’s assessment of the breed. The American Temperament Test Society, Inc. (ATTS), which uses standardized test criteria to measure temperament across different breeds, found that Labs have the best scores, with 92 percent passing. But what might be surprising to some is that pit bulls rate at a respectable 85.3 percent, higher than golden retrievers, cocker spaniels, poodles, collies and many other family favorites. As for dog attacks, the majority of incidents reported by the media are the result of irresponsible pet ownership (the dogs are not properly cared for, they are abused, neglected, or trained as guard dogs).

Marthina believes that education will help change negative stereotypes about this breed. For that reason, she was thrilled when school officials invited her to visit a juvenile facility that provides temporary housing for youths in trouble with the law. Several of the students there had been boasting about dog fighting, and the officials were concerned.

When Marthina entered the room, some of the students took one look at Leo and made comments like, “Man, that’s a badass dog.” Marthina didn’t respond. Instead, she proceeded to walk around the room, introducing Leo and inviting the students pet him.

As Leo worked his magic, Marthina and the teacher took an informal survey. They discovered that all of the students were aware of dog fighting, and that almost half had either attended a dogfight or knew someone who had. When the teacher revealed that Leo was a “Michael Vick dog” there was a stunned silence. They had just been petting and playing with him; how could that possibly be?

“You can’t just stand there and preach to kids about how to treat dogs in a humane way,” Marthina says. “When you get them in front of a dog like Leo, and he is leaning on them, licking them, and wanting to be petted and hugged, they can see the affinity he has for peoplewhich makes a huge difference. They couldn’t imagine that someone ever treated Leo that way.”

During the discussion that followed, Marthina told the students that people who fight dogs are cowards. “If you have a problem with someone and want to fight, that’s your choice. Go outside and duke it out for yourself, but don’t make your dog fight your battles for you. That’s a cowardly thing to do.” The probation officer later wrote to Marthina, thanking her for making this point.

Marthina later returned to the school to show the students how to train pit bulls using positive reinforcement. She hopes these interactions will help them regard animals as the feeling, sentient beings they are.

Marthina is aware that people who hear Leo’s story may think he is an exception to the rule. “But Leo is not a one-off,” she says. Many dogs with horrendous backgrounds go on to become amazing healers. Zoe, another pit bull rescued by Our Pack, Inc., is a case in point.

Zoe’s owner, Cindy Duncan, fell in love with the dog from the first moment they met. “She crawled into my lap, and into my heart, the first night I brought her home,” she says. Zoe visits convalescent homes. “She just shines. Whenever she sees a dog or a person, her ears go back and her butt starts wiggling and she moves forward to meet them. It’s the funniest sight – she just dances with joy. That’s what makes her a great therapy dog. She’s just thrilled to meet everybody; she is incredibly sweet.”

Zoe was rescued in another dog fighting investigation, which occurred in the wake of the Micheal Vick case. Because of all the press surrounding that case, the public has become more aware of the barbaric practice of dog fighting, which has resulted in more tips to the police and, subsequently, more raids. There is also a growing recognition of the need to evaluate each dog as an individual, rather than automatically labeling them as vicious and sentencing them to death.

It is an uphill battle. Pit bull bans remain in effect in many cities and towns. But perhaps things are changing for this misunderstood breed. The December, 2008 cover of Sports Illustrated featured a pit bull once again, only this time the headline read “The Good News Out of the Bad Newz Kennels” and the photo showed “Sweet Jasmine,” a chocolate-colored pit bull with a wistful expression and deep, soulful eyes. Jasmine was one of the dogs rescued from Vick’s property who has now found a new life and a happy home.

As for Leo, Marthina often wonders if Michael Vick will ever see a picture of him wearing his clown collar. And if he does, will he even realize what a special dog he is? “Leo is a lover, not a fighter,” she says.

It takes a moment for this to sink in. Leo is not aggressive; he doesn’t have the “chops” for fighting. If not for that police raid, he likely would have died a cruel and painful death.

Leo doesn’t worry about these things. He is too busy enjoying his new life. His days are filled with lots of love, toys and plenty of time for play. “He’s a clown. He’s probably the most clownish of all my dogs. It’s amazing, when you consider where he came from,” Marthina says. “He likes to clown around. He’ll jump halfway on the couch, miss it and then fall backwards with his legs sticking straight in the air.” He thoroughly enjoys his work as a “therapy” dog. And at the end of the day, he loves nothing more than to put up his feet, conk out on the couch and snore!

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