Book Review: "The Lost Dogs - Michael Vick’s Dogs and their Tale of Rescue and Redemption" by Jim Gorant

It’s probably no surprise that I read a lot of dog books.  Unfortunately, many of them are disappointing.  Publishers seem willing to release just about any sentimental clap-trap that comes down the pike – especially if the author has name recognition - in order to make a quick buck off the dog-loving public. 

I bought Jim Gorant’s, “The Lost Dogs,” after hearing the author interviewed on public radio’s “Fresh Air” program.  I remember thinking, “hmm – that might be a good read.”  This time, I wasn’t disappointed.

The book appealed to me on a few levels.  First, I found the “true crime” aspect of the story gripping.  In the first section of the book, Gorant takes the reader behind the scenes of the investigation – from the very first tip to the sentencing of Michael Vick and his cohorts.  He delves into the lives, motivations, and challenges faced by the key players in the investigation.  As in any good crime drama, the cast of characters includes heroes, villains, sleazy politicians, and turncoats.  Gorant keeps it moving and keeps it interesting.

The second section of the book is all about the dogs.  He follows the dogs’ story from the day they were rescued from Vick’s property to the present.  The cast of characters is a group of remarkably generous, dedicated, and passionate dog behavior professionals and dog rescue volunteers from all over the country.  Overall, I was quite impressed with the way the dogs were evaluated and placed with rescue groups and foster homes before being made available for adoption.  The rescue groups involved took their responsibility to these dogs (and the public) seriously, requiring the dogs to earn their CGC certificates (Canine Good Citizen) before they were even eligible to go up for adoption.

I’m not giving anything away by saying that most of the Vick dogs did not show aggression – either to humans or other dogs – from the very first evaluation.  Many of them were severely under-socialized, displaying fear or apprehension when exposed to things that most adult dogs consider to be normal aspects of life in the world.  But few expressed their fear through aggressive conduct.  The behaviorists involved were themselves surprised (happily so) at the results of their initial evaluations.

Nevertheless, rehabilitating dogs that have been severely under socialized takes an enormous amount of time and patience – and there is no guarantee that at the end of it all you will have a well-adjusted dog suitable for adoption by an ordinary pet owner.  Gorant does a great job of telling the stories of dogs and foster volunteers going through the rehabilitation process together.  He does not sugar-coat the story or omit the mistakes that occurred along the way.  I was quite pleased with the book for the fact that it showed how stressful it is for dogs to enter the world of an animal shelter and then how each transfer to another agency or foster home is another stressful event that can cause a setback. 

At times Gorant tells the story from a dog’s point of view.  While I’m generally leery of this overused device, Gorant employs it with aplomb, moderation, and for good reason.  There is probably no better way to dramatically convey the experience of a dog going through trauma than by giving that dog a voice.  Gorant does so without being silly or overly sentimental.

In the third and final section of the book, Gorant provides a synopsis and update on every one of the 47 Vick dogs – whether the dog’s story has a happy or tragic end.  I found this section of the book to be less satisfying than the other two simply because it’s hard to emotionally connect with a character (animal or human) through a one-or-two-paragraph summary.  But I agree with Gorant’s decision to include it.  By doing so, every identifiable dog that was a victim of Vick’s dog-fighting enterprise is acknowledged. 

Dogs have been bred for centuries to form strong bonds with humans.  These dogs are no exception and this book shows just how successful those breeding strategies have been.  The Vick dogs were born trusting.  They were betrayed and abused.  Yet most of them did not turn their back on mankind.  Remarkably, they still trust us.  And in this case, we didn’t let them down in the end.    

 Thumbs up for The Lost Dogs and everyone involved in their rescue and redemption. 

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daldobie wrote on November 29, 2010 at 8:11 am

Thanks for reviewing this, Tief!

I really enjoyed this book, too. It's great to see Vick's fdogs portrayed realistically, but with sympathy. It's not all about nature or all about nurture - many dogs from tough circumstances can really turn around, but some of these fighting dogs are still dangerous to other animals and will probably have to live out their lives in a sanctuary. I wish all animal crime victims were given this kind of dowry for their care, because time has shown that most of these dogs can make great progress.

Having evaluated many fight-bred pit bulls myself, I'm struck by how people-friendly these dogs are, and often surprised by how many dogs kept on fighting yards show no aggression toward other dogs. I often wonder if these friendly ones would have met a bad end training the fighters if we hadn't rescued them. My husband and I had an ex-fighting pit bull for many years, and although he didn't like dogs when he first met them, if introduced slowly, I was amazed to see he could play completely normally. He was also extremely friendly and gentle with all humans, despite the fact that his scars showed he'd had a very hard life in the fighting pit. Pit bulls are among the most forgiving dogs I've ever met.

Have you read "The Pit Bull Placebo"? It's another of my favorites, and explains why pit bulls have become such a folk demon. It's now available free online:

Mary "Tief" Tiefenbrunn wrote on November 29, 2010 at 3:11 pm
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Yes, "The Pit Bull Placebo" is on my office bookshelf as well.