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Posted: Tuesday December 23, 2008 8:20AM; Updated: Wednesday December 24, 2008 9:35AM

What happened to Michael Vick's dogs... (cont.)

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Michael Vick leaves Surry County Circuit Court after entering a guilty plea .
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Berenice's six-year-old daughter, Vanessa, disappears and returns with a few paper towels. The spill absorbed, Zippy is set free to jump up and lick and wag her hellos before she leads everyone into the family room, where Berenice's husband, Jesse, sits with the couple's five-week-old son, Francisco, and two other dogs, who rise in their pens and start barking. But Zippy has no interest in them. Instead she leaps onto the couch where Vanessa's nine-year-old sister, Eliana, is waiting. Vanessa joins them, and over the next 15 minutes the two girls do everything possible to provoke an abused and neglected pit bull who's been rescued from a dogfighting ring. They grab Zippy's face, yank her tail, roll on top of her, roll under her, pick her up, swing her around, stick their hands in her mouth. Eliana and Zippy end up nose to nose. The girl kisses the dog. The dog licks the girl's entire face.

Zippy is proof that pit bulls have an image problem. In truth these dogs are among the most people-friendly on the planet. It has to be. In an organized dogfight three or four people are in the ring, and the dogs are often pulled apart to rest before resuming combat. (The fight usually ends when one of the dogs refuses to reengage.) When separating two angry, adrenaline-filled animals, the handlers have to be sure the dogs won't turn on them, so over the years dogfighters have either killed or not bred dogs that showed signs of aggression toward humans. "Of all dogs," says Dr. Frank McMillan, the director of well-being studies at Best Friends Animal Society, a 33,000-acre sanctuary in southern Utah, "pit bulls possess the single greatest ability to bond with people."

Perhaps that's why for decades pit bulls were considered great family dogs and in England were known as "nanny dogs" for their care of children. Petey in The Little Rascals was a pit bull, as was Stubby, a World War I hero for his actions with the 102nd Infantry in Europe, such as locating wounded U.S. soldiers and a German spy. Most dog experts will attest that a pit bull properly trained and socialized from a young age is a great pet.

Still, pit bulls historically have been bred for aggression against other dogs, and if they're put in uncontrolled situations, some of them will fight, and if they're not properly socialized or have been abused, they can become aggressive toward people. It doesn't mean that all pit bulls are instinctively inclined to fight, but there is that potential. Bad Newz killed dogs because it couldn't get them to be aggressive enough. The kennel also raised at least two grand champions, dogs with a minimum of five wins apiece.

"A pit bull is like a Porsche. It's a finely tuned, highly muscled athlete," says Zawistowski. "And just like you wouldn't give a Porsche to a 16-year-old, you don't want just anyone to own a pit bull. It should be someone who has experience with dogs and is willing to spend the time, because with training and proper socialization you will get the most out of them as pets."

The pit bull's p.r. mess can be likened to a lot of teens driving Porsches -- accidents waiting to happen. Too many dogs were irresponsibly bred, encouraged to be aggressive or put in situations in which they could not restrain themselves, and pit-bull maulings became the equivalent of land-based shark attacks, guaranteeing a flush of screaming headlines and urban mythology. Some contend that this hysteria reached its apex with a 1987 Sports Illustrated cover that featured a snarling pit bull below the headline beware of this dog. Despite the more balanced article inside, which was occasioned by a series of attacks by pit bulls, the cover cemented the dogs' badass cred, and as rappers affected the gangster ethos, pit bulls became cool. Suddenly, any thug or wannabe thug knew what kind of dog to own. Many of these people didn't know how to train or socialize or control the dogs, and the cycle fed itself.

Three pit bulls attacked 10-year-old Shawn Jones near the Hernandezes' town in Northern California 7 1/2 years ago, tearing off the boy's ears and causing other injuries, but Berenice stood up for the breed then and still does. "It's almost always the owner, not the dog," she says, who's responsible for aggressive behavior. Her family has been "fostering" pit bulls -- minding them in their house in Concord until they can be adopted -- for nine years and has never had a problem with one. "These girls have grown up with pit bulls their whole lives, and they've loved every one of them."

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