Vickroy: Love, hard work turn fighting dogs into pets
BY DONNA VICKROY firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @dvickroy March 4, 2013 4:38PM
Updated: April 6, 2013 6:04AM
Lorenzo had endured the worst of it.
When police rescued him and six other pit bulls from a dogfight in progress, he’d been scratched, chewed on and beaten so viciously that his right eye was hanging from the socket.
“What struck everyone immediately that night when he was brought to the shelter was how super friendly and loving he was, despite everything,” said Emily Klehm, chief executive officer of the South Suburban Humane Society in Chicago Heights.
Nevertheless, Lorenzo and the other dogs, all between ages 2 and 3, had to start at the beginning to learn how to be pets.
“They had never seen a leash, had never been taught basic commands such as ‘sit’ and ‘stay,’ ” Klehm said. Instead, they’d been starved, beaten and taught to kill or be killed when put in a ring with another dog.
Mercifully, the Dec. 7 battle over life and death was interrupted by law enforcement. Acting on a tip, Cook County sheriff’s police busted a dogfight that night in the 1500 block of 142nd Street in Dolton.
Eight people, seven from the south suburbs, were arrested and charged with one felony count each of attending or patronizing a dogfight, according to police.
“It’s difficult for me to classify these people as human beings,” Klehm said. “When you see how forgiving a dog is, none of us can understand how anyone can take that spirit and turn it into something that fights.”
Even more confounding, she said, “is how some people can turn a blind eye to an animal that is suffering.”
The rescued dogs were brought to the Chicago Heights shelter, all of them bearing the scars of fighting or inhumane breeding, Klehm said.
Once they came down from the amphetamine high, Klehm said, work began on their rehabilitation.
“We were lucky to get so much immediate support, in terms of donations and volunteers, that we could begin treating them right away,” Klehm said.
A veterinarian with Eye Care for Animals operated pro bono to remove Lorenzo’s injured eye.
With help from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, South Suburban Humane Society staff were able to assess each dog’s physical and mental health.
Ripley, who’d been trained to be aggressive toward humans so he could work as a guard dog, would require the most rehab work.
Klehm and her staff developed a three-step approach to the process.
1) Each staff member was assigned to buddy up with one of the rescued dogs. The staffer would spend time with that same dog, taking it for walks and on daily breaks. “We needed to teach these animals how to be real dogs, how to trust, how to bond,” she said.
2) Regular volunteers were also assigned to a particular dog, thus building a sense of consistency. The canines were taught simple commands.
3) Professional dog trainer Kristina Montgomery, of Good Dog Training, assessed each animal and highlighted for staffers and volunteers each canine’s specific issues. For example, the sight of a pronged collar caused one of the dogs to go into a heightened state of alert. Staff worked to help the dog overcome that anxiety.
The trainers also worked to desensitize the rescued animals from fight-inducing triggers. Klehm said fighting dogs are trained to be aggressive toward other dogs. Exposing them to other canines in safe and respectful ways helps them learn to be friendly and exhibit better manners.
In the case of Ripley, though, his trainer had a tougher job, teaching the dog how to get along with people. During the past few months, Ripley and his trainer became so close, the trainer opted to adopt him.
Five of the remaining six dogs are also ready to be adopted. Only Nathaniel still has issues that need to be addressed. The others passed a follow-up evaluation conducted by the ASPCA in January.
Though the dogs now are socialized and friendly, Klehm is recommending they be adopted by experienced dog owners who do not keep cats or other small pets.
“They really can’t be around prey because they’ve been trained to attack it,” she said.
She also doesn’t recommend couples with babies or small children adopt the dogs, with the exception of Blondie and Chloe, which are a smaller breed known as pocket pit bulls.
“The bigger dogs are just too strong to be around babies,” she said.
Volunteer Sara Stonitsch comes to the shelter every day to work with Blondie and the other pit bulls.
“These dogs are special because of the card they were dealt,” Stonitsch said. “That’s not fair.”
Both Stonitsch and Klehm hope the five ready dogs — Saegan, Chloe, Lorenzo, Blondie and Satchmo — will find “forever” homes soon.
“I certainly understand why people might be fearful,” Klehm said. “But we wouldn’t put them out there if they were not safe.”
For more information, contact the South Suburban Humane Society, 1103 West End Ave., Chicago Heights; (708) 755-7387; southsuburbanhumanesociety.org.
Update: Good Samaritan dies
Some of you may recall a column I wrote last spring about Steve Smajo, a proud husband, father and grandpa who, despite his struggle with esophageal cancer, became a hero to the folks in his Tinley Park neighborhood.
When Smajo realized his neighbor’s house was on fire March 21, he bolted out the door, grabbed a garden hose and got to work. His efforts helped prevent a disaster for the Scalzitti family. That was not Smajo’s only brush with heroism. He also once saved a boy who was drowning, and he helped a woman while she was having a heart attack.
He joked that disaster seemed to find him and that he simply had a habit of reacting before he realized what he was doing.
But his family knew better: Smajo was a truly caring person.
Sadly, Smajo lost his battle with cancer Feb. 24.
His daughter, Susan, said he should be remembered foremost as a man who adored his wife, three children and five grandchildren.
“He only got to enjoy five months of retirement,” she said, “but you know what, he enjoyed life every day.”