To see him now, whippy tail wagging as he greets a group of children or takes a treat from his old pals at the waterfront, it’s hard to believe that he once cowered at the sight of a human hand.
To see him now, as he zips from weaves to jump, to tunnel, to tire, to chute in a noisy agility ring, it’s hard to believe that he would once flee in terror at the sound of a barking dog.
And to see him now, sitting tall on a podium, proudly wearing a necklace of blue rosettes, it’s impossible to believe that he was once facing a short, grim life and violent death as a fighting dog in the infamous Bad Newz kennels.
That he is alive at all is a triumph, but what he has achieved in the five years since he left that deadly kennel is nothing short of a miracle.
In August 2012, the little Staffordshire Bull Terrier earned an advanced AKC agility title—Excellent A Preferred. (Watch his winning run here.)
Many dogs from pro-football player Michael Vick’s kennel have made good, passing the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen® (CGC) test, working as therapy dogs, and being great pets and ambassadors for the pit bull.
Audie, however, has sailed over an even higher bar into competitive agility, a busy, boisterous sport that requires speed, brains, focus, and a bombproof temperament.
Five years ago, when Linda Chwistek met him, it would have seemed impossible. Audie was a bundle of nerves and phobias. But she saw beyond all that.
“I could tell, deep down inside, he just really wanted to please everybody. I think inside he had a rock-solid temperament, and there were just some environmental things he had to get through,” says Chwistek. “He’s really just an ordinary dog who came through an extraordinary situation.”
When the 49 dogs were seized from the notorious Smithfield, Virginia, kennel, it was generally assumed they were all doomed.
Their survival, as described in Jim Gorant’s book The Lost Dogs, was the result of the hard work of a small group of rescuers, including BAD RAP, a nonprofit San Francisco organization dedicated to helping pit bulls. They begged for the chance to disprove the widespread notion that it was foolhardy and dangerous to try to rehabilitate animals who had been trained to fight.
After rigorous temperament tests, only one of the Bad Newz dogs was deemed beyond hope and euthanized. Others were too fearful for a normal home. Animal sanctuaries agreed to take them so they could live out their lives in a controlled, low-stress environment.
Audie was among the 25 who seemed stable enough to go to foster homes, and perhaps, one day, to become pets.
At the time of the April 25, 2007, seizure from Vick’s property, the pup had no name, just a number—Chesapeake 54902. Along with the rest of the dogs, he spent five months isolated, warehoused as evidence in the case against the football star. The youngster received bare necessities—food and water—but scant human contact.
Once Vick’s legal issues were resolved, BAD RAP volunteers drove Chesapeake 54902 across the country to a foster home in San Diego. There he got a name, Dutch, and proceeded to impress his caretakers with his talent for bouncing off walls.
The fosters quickly realized that Dutch had the raw material—high energy and intense people focus—to be a great agility dog. And as fate would have it, they also knew that Chwistek was looking for a new agility partner. She seemed the perfect choice, a combination of sensitivity and skill, to polish this rough gem.
“In the earliest photos I’ve seen of myself, I’m next to a dog,” Chwistek says. At age 8, she was already enrolled, with her Cocker Spaniel, in the Vallejo Dog Training Club. Except for a brief time in college, she has had dogs ever since, nearly a half-century of training experience. On top of that, she has devoted more than two decades to working with shelter dogs and established a CGC program for BAD RAP. About 175 pit bulls and bully-breed mixes have successfully completed her program.
In April 2008, just a year after he had been seized from Vick’s property, the energetic Stafford had a new home with Chwistek and her husband, Bill. He also had a new name, Audie, after another little guy with outsized courage—World War II hero Audie Murphy.
A Kind Cut
Like all the Vick dogs, Audie had little socialization during the critical canine learning period—3 to 12 weeks, when puppies must be exposed to all kinds of new things so they learn to be unafraid. In those weeks, Audie knew only loneliness, violence, and terror.
It left him with emotional scars, no manners, and a slew of bizarre habits. He didn’t know how to walk up stairs. He had never seen a lawn sprinkler. He ate everything in sight, even cigarette butts. One time he wolfed down a sock, requiring emergency surgery to save his life.
Ironically, another episode under a surgeon’s knife turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Soon after Audie came to live with her, Chwistek noticed he was limping. The diagnosis was luxating patellas—slipped kneecaps—on both hind legs.
It seemed that his future in agility was dim, but Chwistek found a surgeon who thought he could correct the problem. She took the chance on the costly operation, paid for with funds from Vick’s settlement.
The detour, especially four months of strict confinement, allowed her to focus on filling in some behaviorable blanks. “That gave me some time to work with him in a crate,” she says. He learned basic commands—sit, down, stay—all within a small, nonthreatening environment.
Once he was healed and back on his feet, it was time to broaden his horizons.
Oh, Brave New World
Easing his fear of humans was the top priority. An ideal spot for this was the waterfront in Chwistek’s town of Vajello, where large groups of commuters would gather to catch high-speed ferries across the bay to San Francisco. “Initially, he was just terrified of them,” Chwistek recalls. “So I sat on a bench, far, far away. Over the course of a couple of years, I kept moving closer and closer to the commuters.”
Slowly, Audie grew accustomed to the comings and goings of strangers. Then he started to make friends, especially among the retirees who would stroll along the waterfront. One of the first to win his trust was a newspaper vendor, who offered treats. Audie wanted the cookies the man was holding out, but he was too afraid to walk up and take them from his hand. Instead, he’d fall to the ground, and crawl on his belly, getting just close enough to snatch the treat.
“It took a good six months for him not to be terrified,” Chwistek says. Today, he leaps up, wildly wagging his tail, as soon as he sees his friend.
Strange dogs also scared him, and this fear posed serious challenges when the team started training. “For a long time, he didn’t understand the difference between a dog who was barking happily, and a dog who was angry,” she says. It is likely that the only barking he heard at Bad Newz was during dogfights.
Normal sounds of dogs playing so unnerved him during his first classes that he’d bolt from the course and seek refuge in his crate or the car.
“I almost quit agility because I didn’t think it was fair to him. I didn’t think he enjoyed it,” Chwistek recalls.
But Chwistek’s classmates refused to let her give up and offered to do whatever it took keep Audie on track. They agreed to conceal their dogs—behind makeshift blinds made of PVC barriers covered with blankets—during Audie’s turn.
Little by little, Audie became more comfortable, and the dogs emerged from behind the screen. Soon he could tune out everything else, except his handler and the obstacles.
After two years of steady work, Audie achieved the confidence to remain serene amid the cacophony of a typical agility trial. Chwistek enrolled him in the AKC’s Purebred Alternative Listing program (akc.org/reg/ilpex.cfm) as a Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and started his competitive career.
“We go to trials with 300 or 400 entries, and we walk through crowds of dogs, and he’s fine,” Chwistek says.
There are some things he still finds unnerving. Male judges with booming voices, for example, may distract him so he won’t concentrate on the course. But these days he has few limitations.
In addition to numerous agility awards, he’s also earned his CGC and his first title in the new sport of nosework. In years to come Chwistek hopes to take him into obedience, and perhaps therapy-dog training.
After that, who knows?
Asked if she is ever angry about the horror of Audie’s early life, and the person who was responsible for it, Chwistek insists she doesn’t give Michael Vick much thought.
“Audie’s my pet,” she says. “I’m just focused so much on the future for him that I rarely look back.”
This article was originally published in AKC Family Dog under the title “She Caught a Chuting Star.”