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The next step for pit bulls rescued in massive dogfighting raid: behavior evaluation, with an eye toward rehabilitation

July 22, 2009 |  6:20 pm

Pit bull The roughly 400 dogs seized this month in the largest coordinated raid on dogfighting rings in U.S. history are about to take their next steps on the path to, hopefully, rehabilitation and life outside the fighting ring.

Most of the seized dogs, primarily pit bulls, were taken to an emergency shelter in St. Louis operated by the Humane Society of Missouri, which played a primary role in the raid.  And, beginning tomorrow, they'll begin the process of being evaluated by animal behaviorists who will make recommendations to federal court on their chances for rehabilitation. 

Since the raids -- in which arrests were made and dogs from Missouri, Illinois, Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa and Mississippi were taken from owners who authorities say forced them to fight -- rescuers have been focused on the animals' physical well-being, tending to injuries and insuring they're free from parasites and other ailments.  (Some of the seized animals were "bait dogs," rather than fighters; these dogs, not surprisingly, are often the ones that suffer the most severe injuries in fighting operations.)  Some females have even given birth since being seized.

But the real test for the animals will happen over the next week or so, when the focus will switch to temperament and behavior issues that are another side effect of dogfighting.  Dr. Randall Lockwood, a 25-year veteran of such operations who serves as the ASPCA's senior vice president of anti-cruelty field services, is leading the team of behaviorists who will evaluate the dogs.

According to Lockwood, the tests the dogs will undergo are similar to those given routinely to dogs at animal shelters. Behaviorists will evaluate them for any aggressive tendencies toward people or other animals, determine how they react when items like food are given and then taken away, and note their reactions to a variety of stimuli.

Many canine victims of dogfighting operations are surprisingly willing to forgive humankind, Lockwood says, even though they've never known much kindness before being taken from abusive owners. In fact, their eagerness to please is one reason they make such effective fighters; after all, by fighting, they're merely doing what humans have asked them to do. Of the dogs Lockwood has worked with in the past, a great number were "very receptive to kind and caring interactions with people," he notes.

But this warmth toward humans can make it especially heartbreaking, he says, when behaviorists feel they have no choice but to recommend euthanasia for a former fighting dog.  Although many former fighters, notably a number of Michael Vick's pit bulls, are able to be rehabilitated and live harmoniously with people and other animals, some are not so fortunate. 

Rescuers make every effort to help dogs with behavior issues, but some are never able to overcome the aggressive tendencies that have been instilled in them by people.  Room for dogs that are aggressive toward other animals is, rather understandably, limited in rescue facilities that often house large numbers of dogs.  Very few facilities have the ability to care for dogs that must be kept separate from the rest of the animal population, even if they are amicable toward people.  It's too soon to hazard a guess, Lockwood says, about how many of the hundreds of seized dogs will be able to be rehabilitated.

Lockwood expects the evaluation process to take about a week.  With that complete, his team will give its recommendations to the court, which has the final say on the fate of the dogs and who will be given custody of them.

RELATED:
Michael Vick's prison sentence for dogfighting is complete
Michael Vick to work with Humane Society on its campaign against dogfighting
Supreme Court to hear case on dogfighting and freedom of speech

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photo: A pit bull that was seized from a home in Tecumseh, Neb., as part of the multistate dogfighting raid.  Credit: Dave Weaver / Associated Press

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