Sam was a champion, and his unforgettable face tells the tale of his history.
I've never seen a dog that looks like Sam, and I've met thousands of dogs while writing Pet Tales for more than a decade.
From across the room, he looks like a fawn-colored dog with a unique black mask pattern around his nose and mouth. As I got closer, I saw that the black is thick, shiny scar tissue. Then I noticed Sam's teeth are visible, not because he's "smiling," but because he's permanently disfigured. Some of the tissue from around his mouth and nose has been ripped away.
Sam, 6, an American pit bull terrier, earned those now-healed scars in the so-called sport of dog fighting. I've met other former fighters, and they weren't as badly scarred. But Sam was a champion. Because he was so good, he fought for years, beating more dogs than most fighters would ever face.
Sam will fight no more. He's learning how to live in a house, sleep on a soft dog bed, lounge on a couch and play with toys.
Sam was seized in Jacksonville, Fla., about five months ago when law enforcement officers broke up a dog fighting ring. Sam and two other dogs named Molly and Erma were brought back to the Pittsburgh area and taken to a "safe house."
When I visited the house with a PG photographer earlier this week, I noticed a brick set into the sidewalk that says:
"Hello Bully Halfway House
Once They're Here
They're Halfway Home"
Hello Bully is an all-volunteer 501(c)3 nonprofit that rescues and rehabilitates pit bulls and finds them new homes. It was started about eight years ago by Daisy Balawejder, who also works with the Dog Fighting Rescue Coalition of the Humane Society of the United States. Hello Bully offers free presentations to educate the public and repair the reputations of the "bully breeds," which include American Staffordshire terriers, bull terriers and Staffordsire bull terriers. They've rescued and re-homed more than 1,400 pit bulls.
Hello Bully saves a few dogs at a time, placing them in foster homes until permanent homes are found. Almost a year ago, they bought and created this halfway house, which has room for five dogs. The location is a secret because its organizers fear their dogs could be stolen by people who want them to fight. Let's just say the house, with a big fenced yard, is in a semi-rural area, a pretty good distance from Pittsburgh.
Right now Sam is sharing the house with a pit bull named Isis and with Amy Dengler and her personal pets, a chihuahua named Tempeh and Porter, 12, a pit bull-Labrador retriever mix who is a therapy dog. Ms. Dengler earns her living as a dog trainer and volunteers with Hello Bully.
Isis, 11, has no scars. Adopted from a local shelter, she lived for the past nine years with a man who loved her. When he got cancer, he searched for a rescue group that would take an older dog. The man died in hospice care, knowing that Isis had found a safe haven.
Molly, seized in the Florida raid with Sam, has already been adopted. The third dog, nicknamed Hurricane Erma because she is very high-energy, is the featured pit bull of the month at the www. hellobully.com website. She's in a foster home.
Isis knows how to be a pet, so her "kennel" is a bedroom with a double bed and lots of toys. She loves people but doesn't get along with other dogs, so she's not in the kennel area with Sam.
Sam is very content in his indoor kennel, perhaps because it's so much nicer than his former home. Like many fighting dogs, he spent most of his life outside, tied on a chain. Fighting dogs generally are not walked or played with, and out of boredom many chew on their chains. Sam had to have many teeth pulled because they were cracked or broken and infected, Ms. Dengler said.
Sam loves the soft bed in the kennel, and he's sweet and friendly with all of the people he meets, including strangers and volunteers who give him training, exercise and play time. He's good around other dogs when he's walked or attending training classes, Ms. Dengler said, but he should probably be an "only pet" in his permanent home.
"Experts" used to say that fighting dogs should be euthanized because they could never be trusted to be safe and loving pets. Many rescue groups and trainers have proved that's not true, but fighting dogs need to be rehabilitated by experienced trainers and volunteers.
Pit bulls have been bred, for centuries, to be aggressive toward other dogs. They were bred to be sweet and obedient with people because the dog fighters did not want to be bitten. The breed is generally very bright, affectionate and eager to please.
Like all nonprofits, Hello Bully always needs volunteers and donations. Go to www. hellobully.com for more information. Donations can be mailed to Hello Bully, 4885 McKnight Road Suite 197, Pittsburgh 15237.
This is the busiest time of the year at the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society, so it's also the time that they go through the most supplies. The North Side and Elizabeth shelters "are in desperate need of canned dog food -- Purina, Wellness, Natural Balance -- we love it all," the shelter release says.
Donations of new, unopened food can be dropped off at the North Side shelter, 1101 Western Ave., (15223) from noon to 7 p.m. Mondays, 10 a.m to 7 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
Tails on the Trails Pet Walk on Sept. 23 is the largest fundraiser for the Beaver County Humane Society. It will be held rain or shine from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Brady's Run Park (Brighton Township), Shelter 7, near the lodge. Dogs are welcome to join people on the walk.
Activities include contests, food, vendors, prizes, animal activities, 50/50 raffle and a book signing by Dave Crawley from KDKA, master of ceremonies.
Register online at www. tailsonthetrails.org or call 724-775-5801. People who raise $25 or more are eligible for contests. Those who raise $75 or more get a T-shirt and raffle tickets.
Seven "PGU continuing education workshops" are being offered this fall, with Post-Gazette reporters and editors teaching about topics in their field of expertise.
We're calling my course "15 Minutes Can Change Your Dog's Life." The 7-9 p.m. workshop on Sept. 26 starts with learning how a daily 15-minute play session can make your dog a happier and better pet. We'll talk about the toys and games that will help you achieve this.
We'll also talk about time-tested housebreaking tips, how to pick the right pet for you and your lifestyle, how to find fun places to take your dog -- many of them free -- and more. We'll talk about what kinds of toys will make your dog a happier pet.
PGU classes are at our Downtown location, 34 Boulevard of the Allies. Workshop fee of $35 includes free parking. To register: www.post-gazette.com/pgu or call 412-263-1302.
Pet Tales appears weekly in the Saturday Home & Garden section. Linda Wilson Fuoco: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3064. First Published September 15, 2012 4:00 AM