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S.B. Therapy Dog Survives Fighting Ring, but Blood Sport Remains Active

Hell to Heaven


The story of Daisy Mae the pit bull is like that of any other survivor-she suffered pain, got back on her feet, and is now living a sweeter, more meaningful life because of her experience.

Daisy Mae, formerly part of a dogfighting operation, is now a therapy dog in Santa Barbara making weekly rounds at Cottage Hospital’s pediatric ward and Villa Riviera retirement home. Gentle and affectionate, the three-year-old cuddles with the elderly and frail, and even allows small children to hold her tight when they are undergoing painful medical procedures.

Her miracle of rehabilitation mirrors that of the dogs rescued from the Michael Vick fight farm, where only one dog had to be euthanized for being vicious. Of the remaining 47 Vick canines, most have been placed in homes, many with children, other dogs, and cats.

While Daisy Mae and the rehabilitated Vick dogs are changing hearts and minds about the American pit bull terrier, dogfighting continues to be a dark and bloody reality in the United States. According to the national Humane Society, 99.9 percent of fighting dogs are pit bulls. And unlike the Vick case where the football player paid rehab costs, most dogs rescued from fight rings are put down because there are no resources to rescue, evaluate, retrain, and relocate the animals.

A Sack of Potatoes

Daisy Mae’s life these days is a stark contrast to her puppyhood. Found on the streets of Oakland, California, in 2006, she was believed to have served as a “bait” dog in a pit bull fighting operation. Dogs without fighting instincts are used to bring out dominance in other dogs.

Daisy Mae with her owner Alison Hansen.
Click to enlarge photo

Paul Wellman

Daisy Mae with her owner Alison Hansen.

The brown and white dog was starved and emaciated at 37 pounds. Not much else is known about Daisy Mae, according to her owner Alison Hansen, 32, a Santa Barbara wedding planning professional. Hansen found her in a shelter affiliated with the BAD RAP organization, or Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pitbulls (badrap.org). The dog was extremely withdrawn and frightened, cowering against the wall.

Something came over me. I vowed, ‘She can never have a bad day again,’” said Hansen, who admits to originally wanting an athletic dog that she could exercise with. “I had wanted a [Labrador] experience, but what I got was a little sack of potatoes.”

Daisy Mae’s rehabilitation was intense but amazingly quick. She hadn’t been taken for walks or exposed to the world outside of her pen, apparently. Whenever facing a new experience-a flight of stairs, the sound of a car horn, bicycles, cats-she would freeze up, or lie flat on the ground, or pee on herself.

Hansen patiently worked with the dog, who eagerly took to training as she wanted to please her new mistress. Within four months, Daisy Mae had mastered all the obedience commands (sit, stay, down), earned a Canine Good Citizen certificate from the American Kennel Club, and even passed the rigorous testing developed by Therapy Dogs International to become a working volunteer canine.

On one of her visits to Cottage Hospital, Daisy Mae hangs out with Wyatt Talor.
Click to enlarge photo

Paul Wellman

On one of her visits to Cottage Hospital, Daisy Mae hangs out with Wyatt Talor.

Two of the Vick dogs are therapy dogs now, too. One is Hector, who’s getting national attention for his accomplishment, as he’s covered with ugly scars from fighting. Hansen believes Hector and Daisy Mae should stand as proof that bad owners are the problem, not bad dogs. So moved by her dog’s transformation, Hansen has joined the campaign against breed-specific legislation. It’s not fair for cities, counties, or states to outlaw all pit bulls, she said.

These laws are punishing the wrong end of the leash,” Hansen said, adding that many pit bull owners don’t know they shouldn’t drive through Denver, Colorado, with their pet. The breed, even under the care of nonresident travelers, is subject to being euthanized. Closer to home, Hansen has to deal with random breed prejudice. She tells the story of bringing Daisy Mae to a kickball game. Although the dog was dressed in a silly Pocahontas dog-costume, a frightened woman with a small dog yelled at her, “Keep your fucking dog away from my dog.”

Pit Bull Watch

Humane Society officials are wary of all the publicity generated by the Michael Vick pit bull matter. Yes, many of the dogs were turned around to live happy, normal lives, but the effort cost a lot of money. Most pit bulls taken from a fighting situation end up getting the needle.

You don’t hear so much about the abused and neglected dogs that get euthanized,” said Adam Goldfarb, a pit bull expert with the Humane Society of the United States. “Not all dogs are able to recover from traumatic circumstances.”

Dogfighting is a felony in all 50 states, and Goldfarb’s organization is active in increasing the penalties for spectators at fighting events and for ownership of fighting dogs. The Humane Society offers a $5,000 reward for information leading to a conviction of a dogfighter. Most busts come from anonymous tips because the industry operates underground.

Joe Yuncker and Daisy Mae.
Click to enlarge photo

Paul Wellman

Joe Yuncker and Daisy Mae.

Some events are huge and charge admission. Large amounts of money are being wagered, said Goldfarb. Additionally, other illicit activities-drug use, weapons exchange-are part of the scenario.

Goldfarb is not convinced that a true fighting dog can be rehabilitated. He described a dangerous combination-a dog that wants to kill, and also exhibits the “gameness” that unscrupulous breeders admire. Gameness is a trait by which a dog will continue fighting even though she is injured and exhausted. “You can’t place a dog like that in a community.”

On the bright side, those traits are completely artificial. It’s not beneficial to the species (or the pack) to have individuals trying to kill each other. So without the influence of bloodthirsty human breeders, those traits disappear. The average pet pit bull, or shelter pit bull, doesn’t have deadly instincts.

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No one knows that better than Jan Glick, head of Santa Barbara County’s Animal Services department. Her three shelters (sbcphd.org/as) are full of pit bulls, and she is quick to point out that shelter dogs are screened for aggression against cats or other dogs, extreme prey drive (going after small wildlife), and for compatibility with small children.

Pit bulls were bred to be aggressive against other dogs, not people, she said. Still, the public has a fear of the breed, and it’s a stigma that is unwarranted in many cases. Glick also reports that there have been no dogfighting busts in Santa Barbara County, though she believes some fighting activity does takes place. (There are more incidents of cockfighting; sheriff’s authorities raided an 800-chicken ranch two weeks ago.)

Glick was glad to hear about Daisy Mae’s success. “Every dog is an individual and needs to be evaluated that way,” she said. “I encourage people not to think in a breed-specific way.”

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