Dog-fighting expert says rehabilitation is possible for pit bull-type dogs

As an Ontario judge is set to decide the fate of 21 dogs seized in an alleged dog-fighting operation near Tilbury, Ont., an American dog-fighting expert says it’s possible fighting dogs can be rehabilitated.

Judge mulls what to do with 21 dogs seized from alleged Tilbury, Ont. dogfighting operation

These rescued dogs were found wandering the streets of metro Detroit. Through rehabilitation programs, they may be able to find loving homes. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

As an Ontario judge is set to decide the fate of 21 dogs seized in an alleged dog-fighting operation near Tilbury, Ont., an American dog-fighting expert says it's possible fighting dogs can be rehabilitated.

Stephen Zawistowski, an advisor with the American SPCA, was in Windsor, Ont. giving a talk at the University of Windsor.

Though he would not speak to specifics in the case near Tilbury, Zawistowski has worked on rehabilitating other fighting dogs. His experience includes working with the dogs seized from the Bad Newz Kennels, which was connected to NFL quarterback Michael Vick.

In that instance, it all boiled down to how aggressive each individual dog was, he said.

Stephen Zawistowski, an animal behaviour specialist speaks at the University of Windsor. (Amy Dodge/CBC)

"There was a mythology around these dogs," Zawistowski said. "There were elements of them that people didn't really understand, and this was a rare opportunity to work with a number of them and send them off to places that were skilled and competent at doing rehabilitation."   

Zawistowski said only one of the 49 dogs from Bad Newz Kennels that was turned over to his care had to be destroyed.

"One of the dogs I spoke about, Hector, he's been trained as a therapy dog," Zawistowski said. "He goes to libraries, little kids practice their reading to him."

Cruel sport

Dogs used for fighting are subject to incredible cruelty, Zawistowski said.

Their teeth are filed to a point, they are trained to kill other dogs, injected with steroids and spend several hours a day running on treadmills.

In the case of the Bad Newz Kennels, dogs were tethered to car axles with heavy chains. The dogs could get close to each other, but not have contact, Zawistowski said. 

The Ontario SPCA and Chatham-Kent police allege something similar was happening at the property near Tilbury.

Police seized 31 "pit bull-type" dogs, firearms and hundreds of items used to train dogs to fight last October.

Three dogs were euthanized after being taken into the SPCA's care. In a previous interview, SPCA Insp. Brad Dewar wouldn't provide details on why they were killed, other than to say it was in the dogs' best interest.

Rehab difficult in Ontario

Rehabilitation procedures are different between Ontario and the United States.

In the United States, non-profits often take on the work of rehabilitating former fighting dogs. But since pit bulls are illegal in Ontario, the only option for a pit bull born after November 2005 is euthanasia or to be sent out of the province.

"It is a barrier, because we don't have something local," said Tracy Calsavara, the behaviour manager at the Windsor-Essex County Humane Society.

But Calsavara also noted how different agencies worked together to rehabilitate the dogs associated with Bad Newz Kennels.

"In the Vick case, they were fortunate enough to have people to take [the dogs] in and give them what they want, and train them and rehabilitate them," she said. "There were a lot of things that went on there and they were able to evaluate each individual."

According to the SPCA, its application to euthanize the dogs seized from near Tilbury has nothing to do with the dogs' breed. It says the application is based strictly on a health evaluation.

A decision on these dogs' fate is expected March 10.