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Pit bull rehab: Former fighting dogs find homes in Detroit

Dog fighting, a brutal blood sport forcing canines to maim and kill each other, is barely ever seen out in the open, but experts say it's happening all across Ontario and the United States.

Detroit Dog Rescue shelter offers rehabilitation programs for fighting dogs

Detroit Dog Rescue has been helping stray dogs since 2011, some of them involved in dog fighting. CBC spoke with Corey Brewer who volunteers with DDR about her experience adopting Atomic, one of their dogs. 1:48

Dog fighting, a brutal blood sport that forces canines to maim and kill each other is barely ever seen out in the open, but experts say it's happening all across Ontario and the United States.  

A dog's experiences in the dark, underground world of dog fighting often leave it angry and traumatized. But after their time in the ring is done or they have been rescued, what happens next?  

In metro Detroit, where dog fighting is a common occurrence, one shelter is offering rehabilitation programs for fighting dogs, helping them adjust to life outside the fighting pits and getting them into loving homes.    

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      The Detroit Dog Rescue shelter began in 2011 as an effort to get stray dogs off Detroit's streets. It's the only no-kill shelter in Detroit and has saved 700 dogs over the past four years, many of them pit bulls used for dog fighting. 

      "Dog fighting is at the extreme level of cruel behaviour and treatment of dogs," said David Rudolph, public relations director at Detroit Dog Rescue.

      "Dogs do not want to be put in a fighting situation," Rudolph said. "What often happens with the survivors is they are not friendly, they probably cannot be around other people or other dogs. You need to rehabilitate them."

      Atomic's story

      One dog, named Atomic, was found chained up in an abandoned bank last November. Half of his left ear was bitten off and he showed scarring consistent with dog fighting.

      "You could see Atomic was trained for fighting," Kristina Rinaldi, the shelter's executive director, said in an interview with CBC News. "You could see the scars on his legs and on his ears. Most likely, he was used as a bait dog, used to train the fighting dogs."

      Atomic had trouble trusting people when he was first brought in. Through work with professional trainers and gradual socialization with humans and other dogs, he began to open up.

      You could see Atomic was trained for fighting. You could see the scars on his legs and on his ears.- Kristina Rinaldi, Detroit Dog Rescue

      After almost 12 months of rehab work Atomic — renamed Sparky — is a happy dog.

      He's got a wagging tongue and is quick to roll over for a belly rub. Since his adoption, he's never shown any aggression towards people or other dogs.

      "He does still tend to get scared when people are yelling, but he's never attacked anyone," owner Corey Brewer said. "He cowers when he gets scared, but then you comfort him, tell him he's OK and he's fine again."

      Rinaldi said Detroit Dog Rescue has never seen one of its rescue dogs relapse or become aggressive, but will sometimes need to dispatch trainers to work with dogs who are having trouble adjusting to their new homes.  

      There is a similar canine therapy program at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Burnside. Nine of 24 pit bull puppies seized in a recent SPCA raid there are working with professional trainers, inmates and corrections officers to help them transition to adoptive homes.

      Humane Society weighs in

      In Ontario, a similar story is impossible. Pit bulls are illegal. Even if they were abused, any pit bull born after November 2005 is either sent out of province, used as part of a research project or euthanized.

      Police and agents from the Ontario SPCA recently seized 31 pit bull-type dogs and an additional dead dog from an alleged dog-fighting operation near Tilbury, Ont. Along with the dogs, police said they found equipment, drugs and literature used to train dogs to fight. Three people were charged in the investigation.

      Insp. Brad Dewar with the Ontario SPCA said the fates of those 31 dogs are before the courts.

      According to the Stratfordshire Bull Terrier Club of Canada, Ontario is the only province in Canada to have a provincewide pit bull ban, though some municipalities like Winnipeg have enacted their own legislation banning the breed.

      Melanie Coulter, the executive director of the Windsor-Essex Humane Society, would not comment on the investigation in Tilbury, but she said the provincial ban on pit bulls should end.

      Even though pit bulls are often used for fighting, they could potentially go to good homes, she said.   

      Kristina Rinaldi, the executive director of the Detroit Dog Rescue shelter works with Sugar, a lab and pit bull mixed breed. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

      "The ability of a dog to be rehabilitated has nothing to do with their breed," Coulter said in an interview with CBC News. "There are some cases where dogs aren't safe to adopt out, but that has nothing to do with the breed.

      "If it wasn't for the ban, there'd be a lot of homes available for pit bulls," Coulter said. "The fact that this law is in place and is affecting so many dogs that would be great dogs and great family members is really disappointing."

      The Windsor-Esex Humane Society has never had a problem finding a restricted pit bull a home outside Ontario, but an increase in municipal bans is making the process difficult.

      If homes cannot be found, pit bulls may be killed.  

      Too far gone

      Both Coulter and Rinaldi admit there are some dogs that are too far gone.

      For some dogs, their experiences in the fighting ring or on the streets make it impossible for them to fit in with other dogs or interact with people. But Rinaldi said it's important for groups like Detroit Dog Rescue to keep working.

      "A lot of people have given up on these dogs," Rinaldi said. "I was the victim of child abuse. I know what it's like to be abused and not have anyone hear you and help you ... I look at these dogs and know how they feel."

      With files from Joana Draghici

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