ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
And now an update on another story from last summer. You remember how federal authorities raided the dogfighting operation that was funded by NFL star Michael Vick. Forty-seven of the 49 dogs seized in the raid were assigned to rescue organizations. Now, as Vick begins a 23-month prison sentence, those pit bulls are getting a second chance, and they're getting something they've never had before - loving homes.
NPR's Richard Gonzales reports on one rescue effort in California.
RICHARD GONZALES: At a dog park near the bay in Berkeley, trainer Tim Racer directs about a dozen dogs and their handlers through a series of simple obedience exercises.
Mr. TIM RACER (Co-Founder, Bad Rap): Let's put our dogs into a sit. Good dogs. Remember, reward your dog. It's all positive.
GONZALES: All of these dogs are pit bulls, and about half were rescued from Michael Vicks dogfighting operation.
Ms. DONNA REYNOLDS (Director, Bad Rap): You won't know unless I point them out to you which dogs are the Michael Vick's dogs and that's because they act like all the others.
GONZALES: That's Donna Reynolds, director of Bad Rap, an Oakland-based pit bull rescue and education group. Working with other rescue organizations, Bad Rap helped convince federal authorities that the dogs from Michael Vick's notorious Bad News Kennel should be spared.
Ms. REYNOLDS: Normally, in the past, dogs that are confiscated in a dogfight bust are destroyed. They're held as evidence and then destroyed. There is an idea, there is a belief that they are, you know, damaged beyond belief; that they're uncontrollable; that they're going to be violent. So the fact that this happened is landmark. It's a landmark animal welfare case.
GONZALES: All of the Vick dogs were neutered and microchiped. About half of them were sent to a sanctuary in Utah, the other half have been placed in foster homes alongside other pets and even children.
One of the stars of the program is a massive, rust-colored, 52-pound pit bull named Hector.
Ms. LESLIE NUCCIO (Hector's Foster Parent): That's Hector, the Latino heartthrob of the group. Hector.
GONZALES: Viva Hector.
Ms. NUCCIO: Viva Hector. Yey(ph).
GONZALES: Leslie Nuccio volunteered to be Hector's foster parent. She points at his scarred chest and a portion of his tongue that's missing - grim reminders that he had to fight to survive. Now, Nuccio says, Hector is gentle, but still learning to be a pet.
Ms. NUCCIO: Clearly, he had never been in a house. He didn't know what things like peanut butter were. He didn't know what dog toys were. He didn't know what dog bed were. He didn't know what music was. And it turns out that he likes Yo-Yo Ma and Frank Sinatra. So, I don't know, so deep down I guess Hector is kind of high-class guy waiting to come out. As soon as he learns his manners, he'll be out to the country club in a tuxedo.
GONZALES: But for now, Hector is still required to attend this canine good-citizen class.
Mr. RACER: So, this is a distraction exercise. We're going to distract your dog intentionally by circling it with another dog. Your job: To keep your dog into a down.
GONZALES: Trainer Tim Racer says he hopes the government's decision to let the Vick dogs live helps eliminate stereotypes of pit bulls as bloodthirsty.
Mr. RACER: I hope America learns to look at these dogs as victims that they are. They just need what they never had. As far as rehabilitation, they really don't need to be rehabilitated. They just need what never had to begin with. It's really not rocket science.
GONZALES: These Vick dogs are finally getting what other canines enjoy, says Racer: structure, training and guidance in a second life.
Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.
Mr. RACER: Let's get this dog out of there. Down and into a sit, and we're going to end class with that. Good work, you all.
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