Sunday, February 21, 2010

Three-legged pit bull saved from dog-fighting trains to help Chicago kids

by Cat Mayin Koo
Feb 17, 2010

A three-legged pit bull rescued from the biggest dog-fighting ring bust in U.S. history in July has found a home – and a future – in Chicago, where she is training to be a therapy dog for children with disabilities.

Rescuers found Dharma tethered on a tow-chain outside, living in a dirty wooden box near St. Louis. She had only a feeble stump for a right leg – what veterinarians at the Humane Society of Missouri suspect was the result of an amateur amputation after trauma.

Despite coming from abuse, the fawn-colored dog showed no aggression in behavioral assessments.

“She’s just the sweetest dog in the world,” said Dharma’s owner, Suzi.

Suzi is training Dharma to work with disabled children because she said she hoped that “if kids see that Dharma is disabled, it can maybe make them feel more normal.”

“I was volunteering in Missouri [with rescue dogs] and just fell in love with her,” Suzi said. She asked that her last name not be used because Dharma’s previous owners have not been sentenced and she is afraid of them.

Suzi adopted Dharma and brought her to Chicago in October, a few weeks after her leg was amputated. Veterinarians suggested the full amputation because she was walking on her stump, causing severe muscle and tissue damage.

The July raid that freed Dharma was the result of a year-long investigation involving the FBI, multiple law enforcement agencies and several animal rights groups. Roughly 350 dogs were seized and 30 people arrested in Illinois, Missouri, Texas, Iowa and Oklahoma, according to the FBI.

Those arrested face up to five years in prison and maximum fines of $250,000. A federal law passed in 2007 makes it a felony to participate in dog-fighting.

Dharma, who couldn’t fight because of her disability and gentle nature, was used as a breeding dog, Suzi said.

“[Breeders] did not fight, but produced litters of fresh fighters. Others were bait dogs. They lacked bloodlust and so served as punching bags in training fights. Such dogs often get the worst of it,” Randall Lockwood, an official from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said in a press release.

Initially too scared to walk through doors or hallways because of her past, Dharma now trains every Saturday in the South Loop to become a therapy dog for children.

“Dharma needed to learn how to be a normal dog. She’s come a long way,” Laura, Dharma’s trainer, said. Suzi asked that Laura’s last name not be used because she worried about her safety.

Laura, a professional animal trainer, has worked with Dharma for three months without pay because of how inspiring the dog is, she said. Laura has helped other dogs move from trauma to become therapy dogs.

Several Chicago hospitals offer animal-assisted therapy. Two that use dogs like Dharma to work with children are Shriners Hospitals for Children – Chicago and Children’s Memorial Hospital.

Dogs “can be a good distraction. Kids sometimes will walk further or reach further because they aren’t thinking about being sick,” said Darlene Kelly, who runs the animal therapy program at Shriners, where dog therapy sessions occur weekly.

At Children’s Memorial, staff notice that sick children will perk up around animals.

“They are just so excited,” said Willow Troy, who organizes animal therapy for sick children every few weeks at the Children’s Memorial.

“Most kids don’t like being in a hospital and it just puts these huge smiles on their faces.”

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