The journey from fighting rings to forever homes

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Two great turnaround tales

The largest dog rescue in U.S. history occurred in July 2009 when federal agents raided several dog fighting operations in the Midwest, freeing hundreds canines from lives of unimaginable suffering.  The survivors, who came to be known as ‘The Missouri Dogs,” were sheltered for weeks while being screened, examined and, in many cases, treated for various wounds and injuries.  In all, more than 500 dogs were rescued and, with the help of several agencies, many found their way to forever loving homes.

Due to the sheer number of animals, the Missouri Humane Society, which helped coordinate the rescue, worked with groups across the country to find foster homes where the dogs could regain the stability and trust required to become adoptable.  Nine went to Portland, OR, where some found forever homes, and others are still waiting.

Two of the rescues, Mele (pronounced “Melly”) and Kevyn, are young Pit Bulls who were very young at the time of the raid so were spared the more brutal aspect of dog fighting.  Each has lived with Portland-area families since last summer and, despite their harrowing beginnings, have grown into loving, capable dogs.  Their transformation is in great part thanks to the care and patience of foster parents who have shown them that life isn’t always about fear.

Kevyn’s Story

Six dogs scramble to nose the human who has just arrived at Brian Behrens’s and Julie Honse’s SE Portland home.  One of the nosiest is Kevyn, a glossy tan Pit who’s almost two, but who seems more like 70 pounds of puppy.  While the other dogs quickly satisfy their curiosity, Kevyn requires extra coaxing to find something else to do.

“Kevyn didn’t experience any fighting,” explains Behrens, “but being in a shelter for as long as those dogs were, you miss a lot of training time, so that’s where you see he’s not as quick to pick things up.”

Kevyn joined Behrens and his partner about six months ago, and has since found his place among the five resident dogs.  A blessing, it’s turned out, for a dog like Kevyn.

“We’re very fortunate that our pack helps with our fosters,” says Behrens.  “They are very good about showing, ‘This is how we use the dog door and here’s how we chill out at night, and here’s how we watch TV.’  And we have Dorian, our Border Collie mix; she’s one of our biggest helps with fostering because she puts the screws down and says, ‘you can’t be a wild, crazy puppy.’  So the fosters learn a lot in a short amount of time.”

As two other pups get comfortable in Behrens’s office, Kevyn is on two legs, wanting to climb into Behrens’s lap, forepaws sliding from his shoulders to legs as Kevyn works to find a nesting spot.  It’s a striking contrast to his early demeanor.

Brian Behrens with Kevyn - David Childs Photography

Brian Behrens with Kevyn - David Childs Photography

“He wasn’t very into me,” explains Behrens.  “In fact, he wanted nothing to do with me.  So I left him alone for a couple of weeks and eventually he started warming up to me.  The most amazing thing is that now he’s glued to me. With a foster from a bad situation I always find it amazing how quickly, with the right care and handling, they are able to dispel anything in their head that may have been an issue in the past.  Kevyn used to gruff at other people.  My focus with him was to say, ‘Hey Kevyn, I’m not going to put you in a situation that’s bad.’  And sure enough, today, he’ll want to come right up to you and sit in your lap.”

Fostering rescue dogs doesn’t require special training, but there are key factors that make a good temporary home for special cases.  Karin Cereghino, who placed both Mele and Kevyn through their sponsor agency, Family Dogs New Life, cites some of the challenges:

“You have to be very patient and open-minded,” says Cereghino.  “Being willing to seek advice is also important.  It can be a very slow process to acclimate a dog into your home, particularly if they’ve come from a negative experience.”

Behrens says fostering not only gives a dog much needed time and attention to help draw them out, it also gives potential adoptees a more accurate picture of the animal they’re considering as a new, permanent member of their family.

“You know on a day-to-day basis what is going to scare this dog, what this dog is comfortable with,” says Behrens.  “Will a skateboard freak him out; will he get overly excited when he sees a squirrel across the street?  As an adopter, you have a big advantage because these foster parents are gaining a lot of knowledge about that animal.”

As Behrens rubs Kevyn’s big Pittie head and scratches him behind the ears, the puppy-like dog with an endearing underbite soaks up the affection.

“If Kevyn were in a shelter I know he would be scared of everything or bouncing off the walls,” says Behrens.  “Without a playmate and the constant attention of a human, he would not be the same dog.  I urge anybody to foster.  If you have room in your house and can invest in a few childproof gates and a crate — you can foster.  It’s the little changes that can make a huge difference to an animal.  And it frees up one more space in the shelter to help another dog in need.”

As this issue was going to press, Spot learned that Kevyn has been adopted.  Thanks to his rescuers and the foster family who helped him become the good dog he is, Kevyn has finally found his forever family and a place to call home.

Mele’s Story

The chocolate Pit Bull Terrier trots quickly along the pavement, leashed to her foster dad, Gerson Rodriguez.  She scans everything in her path, moving just slightly ahead of Rodriguez.  Hearing a compliment about her walking skills, Rodriguez laughs.  “This is not the way it was; for a long time it was like this” . . . he swings his free arm wildly back and forth, mimicking the effort of trying to walk an out of control dog.  “Now,” he says, “she’s doing very well. We’re very proud of how far she’s come.” 

Gerson Rodriguez with Mele - David Childs Photography

Gerson Rodriguez with Mele - David Childs Photography

On arrival at the Rodriguez home, Mele was terrified.  “It took a lot to get her out of the car,” says Nicole Rodriguez.  “It took a lot to get her out of the kennel.  It took so long to get her to trust us.  She was really challenging at first, but she’s come miles.”

Nearly three now, Mele still requires great patience, and has yet to experience much of the world; though the Rodriguez’s have exposed her to a great deal. 

Their bond is clear when they reach the park and he unclips Mele’s leash.  In an instant, she careens around the field in wide arcs of joyful sprints, always returning to Rodriguez, who watches with pride and affection.

“Through this experience I have found I have a lot more patience than I thought I did, he says.  “I understand where these dogs are coming from and it makes me very motivated to give her lots of love and praise.  And now, look at her: she’s springy, she’s agile, she’s got tons of energy, she’s happy.  She would not have been this dog today in a shelter.  You have to build that relationship, that one-on-one time.  It’s hard to give your patience to a dog when you don’t know them.”

Mele runs back to Rodriguez and he playfully whisks her up in one arm and plants a kiss on her mouth before gently dropping her back to the ground.  Instantly falling into “play bows,” Mele entices Rodriguez to run and takes off after him, her eyes locked on his face, mouth open, panting happily.

Mele - David Childs Photography

Mele - David Childs Photography

For Mele, who has been with the Rodriguez family since last summer, her development over the last months has shown Gerson and Nicole that she’s ready for her own family.  Nicole says there is both reward and heartbreak in being her foster parent.

“The reward is seeing where she came from and where she is now — she’s just a different dog,” she says.  “She’s thrived because she’s been gaining confidence.  But it is heartbreaking because you want them to find their forever home.  She’s a very sweet dog; she just needs someone who understands her.”

To learn more about Mele or other dogs currently needing foster or forever homes, visit FamilyDogsNewLife.org.

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Nikki Jardin is a Portland-based freelance writer who loves to write about people dedicated to making the world a better place for all beings. When she’s not writing, she’s either exploring the great outdoors, traveling, or volunteering with Fences For Fido, a local nonprofit dedicated to giving dogs freedom from a previously chained life.