By Dr. Becker
The trailer you just watched is for a documentary called The Champions, an inspiring story about the pit bulls rescued from the horrific dogfighting ring run by NFL quarterback Michael Vick. It’s a story of second chances, redemption, and hope.
Despite pressure from other animal welfare organizations to euthanize the dogs, Best Friends Animal Society wanted to save them. The Champions takes the audience on a journey that is not only about the dogs, but also about prejudice, spirit, and the significance of the human-animal bond.
The Vicktory Dogs
Best Friends Animal Society was one of the first organizations to advocate for the dogs rescued from Vick’s fighting operation. In 2008, 22 of the most traumatized pit bulls arrived at the Best Friends sanctuary in Kanab, Utah.
The resilience of these dogs, and their individual journeys back to health and happiness have, in the words of Best Friends, “proved there’s no such thing as ‘too damaged’ or ‘beyond hope’.”
The Best Friends staff and volunteers who worked tirelessly to rehabilitate the dogs believe no dog is inherently vicious, and every dog should be treated as an individual.
“There were people early on who had an idea of what these dogs would be like; some people were nervous or scared,” says Michelle Besmehn, Best Friends Dogtown manager. “But we've shown that they're just like any other dogs."
And just like other dogs, the Vicktory pit bulls crave safety, comfort, and companionship. They like playing with toys and going for walks. Many of them enjoy hanging out with other dogs, cats and other animals.
"There are always going to be people who are afraid of the idea of 'fighting pit bulls,' or dogs coming from fighting situations," says Besmehn. "But these dogs have really opened up the opportunity to show people that, look, they're just individual dogs with individual needs and different personalities."
The pit bulls are known collectively as the Vicktory dogs because they overcame an unimaginable past, and with grace and courage, they triumphed.
The Dogs Today
As of this writing, about half the Vicktory dogs have been successfully rehabilitated and are living happily ever after with their adoptive families. The dogs were court-ordered to pass the Canine Good Citizen test before they could be adopted, and some of them achieved that goal faster than others.
According to Besmehn, since many of the dogs were unsocialized, the rehabilitation process can take awhile. The dogs spend time in Best Friends staff offices. They have meet-ups with sanctuary volunteers. They practice interacting with other dogs, and they receive obedience training.
The biggest hurdle for most of the dogs is learning that no one will ever hurt them again, and that takes as long as it takes.
Two of the dogs, Meryl and Lucas, were court ordered to remain at the Best Friends sanctuary for the remainder of their lives. Sadly, Lucas passed away in 2013.
Also gone now but never forgotten are Vicktory dogs Georgia, Bonita, Ray, and Lance.
Lance had real challenges with the Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test pre-adoption requirement, and his story is especially moving.
The CGC is a 10-part test that puts dogs in mildly stressful situations to assess how they would react in similar real-life scenarios. Lance, like all the Vicktory dogs, worked intensively with Dogtown trainers. He lived in the office of the Best Friends adoption manager, who helped him practice what he learned from the trainers each day.
Unfortunately, Lance suffered from test anxiety. He could easily manage many of the individual components of the CGC test, but when it came time to perform all 10 parts in sequence, poor Lance knew he was under pressure and he would freeze in place – especially on the loose-leash walking exercise.
However, after six long years of hard work and the amazing dedication of Best Friends staff and volunteers, Lance finally aced the test.
Waiting to take him home was a couple who had applied to adopt him four years earlier. They were so devoted to him they visited him at the sanctuary three or four times a year to check on his progress.
Nine-year-old Lance went home with his new family in May 2014, and a year later, he crossed the Rainbow Bridge peacefully, in his sleep.
Lance’s dad wrote this on his dog’s Facebook page the following morning:
“Please remember the love and happy times in his life and not the bad. Lance has loving caregivers, family, friends, and pack. He was loved by everyone that he met. He had such a kind and gentle soul.”
For More Information
The Champions documentary is currently playing in several theaters around the country. You can find a schedule here. You can also find information about hosting a screening at the same link.
Purchase The Champions digital download for $14.99.
Read more about individual Vicktory dogs.
Watch videos of Vicktory dogs.