Book Review: “DogTown”

by Mary Haight on November 25, 2009

tales of rescue, rehabilitation, and redemption by Stefan Bechtel

With 200 dogs residing in DogTown at any given time, this “gatedsecuredownloadDogtownReview community” is the most active of any of the 40 different buildings on the 3,700 acres owned by Best Friend’s Animal Society (with an additional 30,000+/- acres on lease from the government), the world’s largest no-kill sanctuary. And rightly so. Dogs are our best and most loyal of friends. While many are transformed by dedicated staff into adoptable family dogs, others are too damaged, physically or emotionally, for placement. For them, DogTown is their permanent home.

Reading the stories of “DogTown”, particularly of Georgia, one of the 22 Michael Vick dogs the court awarded to Best Friends, it’s not hard to be completely enchanted by the vital process of healing untrusting hearts that Best Friends works so diligently to complete. Here’s a little of Georgia’s story:

Georgia was a champion dog fighter, so good at what she did that when it came time, she was retired to become a breeder for Vick’s Bad Newz Kennel, where her pups would bring in thousands of dollars each. When Best Friends first noticed Georgia had no teeth, it was assumed they were ripped out in fights, until x-rays showed otherwise. Her teeth had been extracted surgically so she would not maim or kill the dogs she was being mated to. John Garcia, a DogTown dog trainer started working with her back in January 2008, and still does today, underscoring the time commitment necessary to helping the dog learn to be a dog again.

The story is beautifully told as Bechtel relates a little of the training Garcia applies in gaining trust, changing Georgia’s severe resource guarding issues, and giving the reader a brief peek behind the curtain and a sense of what it takes to bring a dog back from the nightmare of the fighting ring. While her rehabilitation continues—at the time the book was finished, she was still dog aggressive and not comfortable around children—Georgia has done so well that she has become the “spokesdog” for what is possible to achieve with dogs from the fighting ring. Georgia knows it’s going to be a special outing when her best dress pink collar with the Swarovski crystals and matching leash come out of the closet. She and Garcia were invited to appear on the Ellen show where Georgia’s personality captivated the audience. This is what people need to see—the truth of the matter. Dogs deserve a second chance.

DogTown’s 15 chapters tell the stories of the lives of dogs who came to Best Friends for many different reasons. The background of each and how they ended up in DogTown catalogs many of the issues in animal welfare today, and some of the social problems behind them. The story of the puppy mill dog and the problems of pet shops, the shy fearful shut-down dog from a no-kill forced to close, a dog with severe hair loss, unexplained sores, and wounded eyelids rescued from a hoarder (those who compulsively collect more animals than they can properly care for) the dog sentenced to death row for jumping up and biting an infant in the arms of a man yelling at the dog to go away, all show how human mistakes can cost dogs their lives; yet all are filled with hope.

There’s also the story of the war dog with PTSD, a dog in mourning for his family all of whom died, and a piece on the work Best Friends did in Louisiana post Katrina. And I bet you didn’t know that Best Friends also works overseas. I’ve got an interview scheduled, if all goes well, on Friday with a group in Bali that Best Friends has lent a hand to, and in “DogTown” author Bechtel talks about how they helped out in Lebanon. Best Friends and their supporters are making a significant difference across a broad spectrum of animal welfare issues. And it all started with friends deciding to do something for animals.

At the beginning of the book, there’s a wonderful background story of how Best Friends started and the work it took to find just the right place that would suit the mission, part of which is also available on their website and is quite a story in its own right. I had the honor of interviewing Gregory Castle, one of the founders, on the occasion of their visit to Chicago earlier this year and was fascinated to hear the how the seeds of this idea were planted along the way, a story dating back to their university days in England in the 60s.

For 25 years (Happy Anniversary!) this group has done so much to relieve the pain of abused, abandoned, sick, and behaviorally challenged dogs. Theirs is a mission of love and compassion, the essence of their success. Their quiet leadership is evident everywhere in the no-kill movement, though that is not something they would acknowledge. Best Friends is a little miracle of a place fulfilling many abused dog’s dreams of happiness and peace.

“DogTown” is a book that shouldn’t be missed. If you know all about all these stories and everything laid out in this review, then there’s one more thing you should know. There are a series of eight essays by people who work with Best Friends, like the vet featured on DogTown who confesses to being a (What??:) cat person, the Certified Pet Dog Trainer who found a constructive way to direct his love for dogs through Best Friends, an essay on positive reinforcement, a vet who discusses lifestyles and choosing dogs, just for starters.

This is a perfect feel-good Christmas, Hanukkah or anytime gift that is just like the organization Stefan Bechtel is writing about: A quiet, unassuming group of stories that packs a wallop.

Price: $26

ISBN 978-1-4262-0562-0

Format: Hardcover

Page Count: 293 Pages

Purchase at Amazon or your favorite booksellers.

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