New Lives: How a former Michael Vick Pit Bull became a beloved therapy dog

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Leo and Marthina McClay (Photo: Stephanie Lam)

Joanne Wannan is the author of New Lives: Stories of Rescued Dogs Helping, Healing and Giving Hope. Below is an excerpt from her chapter about Leo, a Pit Bull once owned by Michael Vick who became a therapy dog and Canine Good Citizen. Enjoy the story, and come back on Monday to find out about a chance to select your favorite shelter to receive 50% of the profits from the sale of New Lives for two months!

On April 25, 2007, Marthina McClay was relaxing in her living room watching television when a newsflash was broadcast. Property owned by NFL star Michael Vick had been raided, and approximately 50 Pit Bulls, allegedly part of a dog fighting operation, had been seized.

She sat bolt upright, stunned. “I don’t believe it,” she thought. And then: “I would really love to get one of those dogs and train it to do therapy work.”


Leo wearing his clown collar. (Photo: Stephanie Lam)

Marthina is the founder and president of Our Pack, Inc.,
a Los Gatos, Calif. -based group that rescues and advocates for Pit
Bulls. A certified dog trainer and animal behavior consultant, she is
also involved in animal-assisted activities and has visited nursing
homes with Hailey, her 5-year-old brindle Pit Bull, for the past several

On August 24, 2007, Vick entered into a plea agreement in which he
admitted to taking part in a dog fighting operation and killing dogs who
did not perform well in testing sessions, which were designed to
determine whether the dogs were good fighters. In December, Vick was
sentenced to 23 months in jail.

And for the first time in history, federal agents, the district
attorney’s office, several animal shelters and animal-law experts worked
together in what would become a landmark animal-welfare case.

Judge Henry E. Hudson ordered that each Pit Bull be evaluated
individually, rather than being automatically destroyed. The cost of
taking care of the dogs was to be covered by Vick.

A few months after Vick’s arrest, Marthina read a newspaper article
stating that many of the confiscated Pit Bulls would be saved. Rebecca
Huss, a nationally recognized expert in animal law at the Valparaiso
University School of Law in Indiana, was named guardian/special master
to the dogs. Rebecca determined that the dogs should be placed with
rescue organizations, which would provide rehabilitation and training
with the possibility of future adoption.

Marthina was astonished. She immediately contacted Rebecca and went
through an extensive screening process. Applicants needed to have
insurance and prove they had a certain level of experience working with
Pit Bulls, among other standards. Once Our Pack was approved, Marthina
asked Rebecca if any of the dogs had the potential to do therapy work.
There were several candidates; Rebecca sent her a video of Leo, a
handsome, tan 2-year-old with deep brown eyes. “Leo looked so eager and
friendly,” Marthina says. “I could imagine cartoon thought bubbles with
him saying, ‘I’m the guy for you! Take me now.’ “

Leo had not been socialized when he first came to live with Marthina. “I
don’t think he’d ever seen a couch before. He didn’t understand what
toys were, or a warm bed, or a bone,” she says. “It’s not that he wasn’t
friendly; he just didn’t understand about love, or what he was here
for.” Leo was “kennel crazy” from having been cooped up most his life.
“He acted like a caveman at a tea party. He was like a 4-month-old
puppy, jumping up on people and nipping their clothes. He had no manners
or social skills and was literally bouncing off walls.”

Leo paced a lot to relieve anxiety. He traveled from the kitchen to the
living room to the dining room, then back again. Marthina used calming
techniques such as speaking to him in a low voice, putting on soft music
and dimming the lights. She would sit beside Leo, petting him and
trying to get him to relax. She kept a diary during this time, and about
10 days after she brought him home, she wrote: “Wow! A big win! He sat
down beside me for the count of five.”

Marthina used positive reinforcement such as hugs, kisses and lots of
praise; things that Leo had never experienced before. He loved training
and quickly learned obedience skills and how to walk on a leash. “You
could see the love, affection and intelligence while Leo was training.
When he figured out how to do something, he’d have this expression on
his face that seemed to be saying, ‘Hey! I get it!’ as if he were very
All this hard work paid off: Leo aced his Canine Good Citizen test and was then tested and certified by Therapy Dogs Inc.
And he accomplished all this in just five weeks. “It’s a testament to
the breed,” Marthina tells me. “They bounce back. They don’t hold
grudges. They’re not sitting on Jerry Springer, mopping their brow and
saying, ‘Oh, I can’t move forward with my life.’ “

These days “Dr. Leo,” as he is affectionately called, visits a number of
different facilities. He approaches patients in a calm and gentle
manner, expertly maneuvering around breathing tubes and IVs. Leo never
jumps up on patients or puts up his paw. Instead, he waits patiently to
be petted or for a lap on which to plunk down his big, friendly head.
Leo often wears a clown collar when he visits because, as Marthina puts
it, “Pit Bulls are clowns, they really are. They provide therapy for
people who are ill or depressed. They want to be with somebody even if
they’re scary looking.” Although some people are initially afraid of Pit
Bulls, even if they have never met one, Leo quickly wins them over. “He
is magnetic, a real Casanova. Leo is a darling, darling dog.”

One of the first places Marthina and Leo visited was a convalescent home
for Alzheimer’s patients. When they arrived, patients were sitting
around the fireplace in a big reception area. There was a lot of
activity going on, yet Marthina noticed one woman sitting in the middle
of the room, staring blankly at the wall. Leo was in the woman’s
peripheral vision and she slowly turned her head, looked at him and gave
a little smile. On the way out, a receptionist stopped Marthina to tell
her this woman never responded to anything. This was the first time in
years there had been a spark in her eyes.

Leo also visits patients undergoing chemotherapy at the Camino Medical
Group in Mountain View, Calif. The staff take a “doggie break” instead
of a coffee break when they see him coming down the hall, and the
patients are always happy when Dr. Leo makes his rounds.

Marthina waits until patients get to know Leo before telling them about
his past. It’s hard for them to reconcile a fighting dog image with the
goofy dog sitting in front of them, wagging his tail and batting his big
brown eyes. When they look closer at the scars behind Leo’s ears, they
find the telltale signs of the abuse he endured.

This is often a pivotal moment for patients. One woman said she would
never again feel sorry for herself after learning what Leo had been
through. Other times, people reach out and hug the gentle dog. “There is
a common bond between Leo and the patients,” Marthina says. “They are
both survivors. They have both faced off against death. Leo lets them
know that anything is possible. He gives them the strength to go on.”

Marthina often wonders if Michael Vick will ever see a picture of Leo
wearing his clown collar. And if he does, will he even realize what a
special dog Leo is? “Leo is a lover, not a fighter,” Marthina says. For
Leo, the fact that he doesn’t have the chops for fighting means that, if
not for that police raid, he likely would have died a cruel and painful
Leo doesn’t worry about these things. He is too busy enjoying his new
life. His days are filled with lots of love, toys and plenty of time for
play. “He’s a clown. He’s probably the most clownish of all my dogs.
It’s amazing, when you consider where he came from,” Marthina says. “He
likes to clown around. He’ll jump halfway on the couch, miss, and fall
backwards with his legs sticking straight in the air.” He thoroughly
enjoys his work as a therapy dog. And at the end of the day, he loves
nothing more than to put up his feet, conk out on the couch and snore!

Monday’s Contest: On Monday we’ll be posting how you can enter to win 50% of two months’ profits from the sale of New Lives for the Petfinder-member rescue or shelter or your choice. Don’t miss out on this fantastic opportunity to help your favorite adoption group!

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