Old dogs can learn new tricks, even the ones trained to be killing machines by Michael Vick and his cohorts. National Geographic's Dogtown: Saving the Michael Vick Dogs (tonight at 9 pm/ET) — a two-hour special edition of the Dogtown series — looks at the miraculous techniques being used by the Best Friends Animal Society in Utah to rehabilitate pit bulls rescued from the NFL superstar's dogfighting compound. The program is sure to bring tears — mostly happy ones.
"Despite the horrors they've experienced, these dogs have made astounding progress, proof that every dog deserves a second chance," says Dogtown producer Darcy Dennett. "Best Friends has rehabilitated thousands of animals, but even they're surprised by their success with the Vick dogs."
In April 2007, police raided the Atlanta Falcons quarterback's illegal operation on his property in Smithfield, Virginia, and found dozens of severely abused and traumatized pit bulls. The bust revealed other horrors, including mass graves of dogs that had been shot, drowned, hanged or electrocuted. (Vick is currently serving a 23-month sentence in federal prison for his crimes.)
Both PETA and the Humane Society said the surviving dogs should be euthanized, but the court, in a show of heart, sent them to rescue groups instead. The 22 toughest cases went to Best Friends, and the special focuses on four of them: Denzel, a black and white male, nearly died from a tick-borne parasite common to fighting dogs. He's now healthy, excelling at obedience training and a great candidate for adoption.
Cherry, a black male, was likely used as bait to train other dogs in aggression. "He was so terrified he'd collapse into a heap and we had to carry him everywhere," says his trainer, Michelle Besmehn. Now Cherry plays with other dogs and seeks human attention.
Meryl, a brown and white female, was so aggressive the court ordered her to live out her life at Best Friends, so adoption isn't an option. But she's gained confidence and self control and excels at agility training. And, notes Besmehn, "she will always have a soft, warm bed with us."
Georgia, a brown and white female, is the show's greatest tragedy and greatest success. Found with a damaged jaw, broken tail and puncture wounds everywhere, she was believed to be one of Vick's top fighters and was constantly forced to mate. "All of Georgia's teeth were surgically removed to keep her from fighting back as she was repeatedly raped," says the lead trainer on this case, John Garcia. "The cruelty was unspeakable, but time, patience and a lot of love have turned Georgia into a big, sweet, slobbery cupcake."
Best Friends fights the good fight "not only for these particular dogs but for the entire breed," Garcia says. "Despite their bad rap, pit bulls are not hardwired to be aggressive. They are, by nature, loving." So loving that they want to give us humans a second chance.