Dogfighting Survivor Story: Saving a Doberman Used as Pit Bull Bait

It used to be that pit bulls rescued from dogfighting rings like the one written about this week in New Times were destined to be put down. Even some animal activists thought they'd be too aggressive to become family pets.

Now many of the dogs are placed with families through groups like the Fort Lauderdale-based No Paw Left Behind. Jacquelyn Johnston, who founded the organization, hopes to save about 300 pets this year, and that will likely include pit bulls rescued from dogfighting rings.

Johnston has her own story of saving a dog rescued from a fighting ring, and she spoke with New Times about what it involves. Below is an excerpt.

New Times: Your dog Bruno was rescued from a dogfighting operation. What do you know about how he was treated?

Johnston: Bruno had been used as a guard dog for a junkyard. He was an unneutered, uncared-for large Doberman. His owners were unhappy with his lack of aggression as a junkyard dog, so they put him up for sale. The people who bought him beat him with a golf club until his head hung to the ground. They placed a chain around his neck and secured him in the middle of a fighting ring. They let all the fighting dogs in training practice on him.

The group of dogs that were discarded from the fight were all thrown in an abandoned field, and MDAS responded to collect all the bleeding dogs.

How was Bruno rescued?

Thankfully, Bruno was found in time by the animal control officer and brought to the shelter. They labeled him "aggressive" because of his severe injuries and the snarls he made from his limp head as he was walked by other kennels filled with dogs. I was at the shelter, for the first time, later that day. I was looking for a small feral dog I had been working with but had not seen for three days. On the last row of kennels, I saw his face. Bruno was collapsed with his head on the ground. He looked up at me, and when we made eye contact, I lost control, crying uncontrollably. My friend had to carry me out of the shelter.

What kind of physical shape was he in?

Bruno's ear was ripped halfway off, the other severely mangled. His nasal cavity was open, exposing the inside of his nose all the way up almost to his eye socket. I counted over 100 scars from his nose to his ribs but stopped counting there.

Was he aggressive?

He was a broken soul. I have a huge problem with the word aggression, since no one seems to accurately describe what that means in reference to canines. Bruno laid with his head flat on the ground. When we placed the lead around his head to walk him out, he could barely stand. As we walked him past the other kennels, dogs barked, and he would crumble to the ground. I kept whispering to him, "Please, just walk out of this shelter with me and no one will ever hurt you again, but you have to walk!" It took about half an hour to get him out of the kennel, then we were almost out of the lobby when a man's Yorkie barked at him. He crumbled to the ground again and wouldn't stand up. I asked the man to pick up his dog and back up so I could walk my dog out. He laughed and obliged.

Bruno was a bleeding, emaciated skeleton, scared of his own shadow, still the victim of heartless people, even as we walked out. The shelter workers were very nice and helped guide me out the rest of the way.

It still took another hour to convince him to get in my car. The rawhide bone and treats didn't work at all. I don't think he had ever seen one.

What did it take to rehabilitate him?

I called my home-visit vet as soon as I got him in the car. He had to be treated for kennel cough, Ehrlichia [a tick-borne disease that causes problems with blood clotting], an array of worms and parasites, and he needed x-rays. The bite wounds were too deep to suture, so they were flushed and bandaged. He had fractures to his skull and two vertebrae in his neck. I even enlisted a massage therapist and crystal healer to work with him. It took six weeks before he was even stable enough to be tested with another dog, but he made it through and even learned a bunch of commands along the way.

What was he like at first at your home?

When I got Bruno, he was all I talked about. I was nervous to introduce him to my unruly and young female Doberman, but I had learned about reading dog behavior, so I believed he would be a wonderful part of my family. When I introduced them, we went very slowly... After only about ten minutes, he relaxed and they were inseparable.

After he fully recovered and gained back to a normal weight (from 52 pounds to 100 pounds), I began working on more commands, leash training, and other basic obedience tricks. He would accompany me to all the art shows and was even photographed as my date in a few newspapers. One day, I took him with me to a pet store, and he kept staring at the woman in front of us in line. I let him approach her, and he leaned against her. When she knelt down, he placed his head over the back of her neck and began to make kind of a purring sound. She fell to the ground in tears and kept asking him, "How did you know?" It turns out that she had just had to have surgery for two fractures in vertebrae in her neck, the same two as he had fractured.

That day, I knew he was meant for even more than I realized. I took him to be tested for therapy work.

What did it take for Bruno to become a therapy dog?

We failed the first time because he could only hold a sit-stay for 16 feet; then he would run back to me. The second test we passed, and he began working with children who had been bitten by dogs and making appearances in schools to educate about responsible pet ownership.

Bruno passed away in February, and after all you've been through with him, was it tougher than with other dogs you've raised?

I am still not myself since losing him. It hurts every day. I made a promise to him, though, to always tell his story and honor him by continuing to speak up for the pets in need, especially those who someone else might overlook. I honor that promise every day, and I would say the person I am today is at least half because I was fortunate enough to live with Bruno for five years.

Is the lesson from Bruno that all dogs can be saved? Are there some fighting dogs that have become too vicious to be rehabilitated?

I don't believe that dogs are "vicious" or "aggressive." Dogs are reactive beings; they react to their situation, and they can be trained, either by someone or by experience, to react dangerously to triggers. Some dogs I work with have clearly defined triggers and can be safely placed in a responsible home to live a happy life. Others may have triggers that are too difficult to manage or triggers that are not clearly defined, which results in a dog that would be potentially volatile in a home environment.

My goal is to work on making these distinctions. I learn a lifetime of knowledge from each dog I meet. Every day, I strive to honor all the lives that have come through my path and help the people around these dogs learn to be open to the love and experience each one of these pets is offering.

We live in a time when many people treat their pets like kids, yet there are dogfighting rings where people abuse dogs in such horrible ways. Why do you think that is?

That's a difficult question. In my opinion, we ask of ourselves too many things that are not true to our nature, and we do the same to our pets. Here are so many things we could learn about ourselves if we only took the time to look at it from another perspective.

Overall, this is a larger cultural issue. We can analyze it here because we are all comfortable talking about "how people treat dogs." Ask the same kind of questions about "how people treat each other," and it becomes an issue too personal to discuss openly.

If someone's interested in adopting a former fighting dog, what should they know in advance, and where should they go for information?

Anyone interested in adopting should do their research, no matter what kind of pet. A large part of what No Paw Left Behind does is work with new adopters to match them with the right pet. I have had extremely dog-aggressive bloodhounds, Chihuahuas, and cocker spaniels. Now, yes, a "fighting dog" is usually going to be a powerful breed like a pit bull. But if you have ever seen a bloodhound get into a fight, they are just as menacing.

I had a couple with a 2-year-old child and a three-pound Pomeranian apply for a Doberman. I had a very sweet, older, docile male that was a perfect fit. When they went to the foster home to meet him, they liked him, but they wanted the younger female Doberman. I explained to them I would not adopt out that one to their home situation.

Ask a rescue. This is what we do! We spend our lives working with people and their pets, and a lot of the pets we get are ones that were either bought or rescued that "didn't work out." The goal of rescue is to help as many pets as possible find the right homes and help as many people as possible find the right rescued pets.

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Eric Barton
Contact: Eric Barton