To the untrained eye, an elderly American Staffordshire terrier named Layla seemed like a typical senior dog. The sweet girl loved her family, treats, walks and a good nap. She favored a toy raccoon that she gently treated like her baby.
But the 15 1/2-year-old dog was also a survivor rescued from former NFL quarterback Michael Vick’s infamous dogfighting ring at Bad Newz Kennels. Layla became one of 22 “Vicktory dogs” rehabilitated at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah. After five years of loving care, she passed her Canine Good Citizen test and was ready for adoption.
Tess Rushton happened to be interning at Best Friends at the time and decided to adopt Layla.
“She turned out to be absolutely lovely,” Rushton told TODAY.
The “clumsy goof” adapted well to being spoiled by her new mom, who cooked organic food to mix into high-quality kibble, and made toys with hidden treats to help stimulate the clever dog’s mind.
Over the next six years, they enjoyed taking vacations together and volunteering at the Teen Tracks program of the Arizona Animal Welfare League. Each Saturday for many summers, Layla would meet with teenagers learning how to care for and treat animals. Many of the young people lived in marginalized families and loved meeting Layla and hearing her story. Layla, for her part, reveled in the attention.
“We played it pretty low-key in our lives because I really did just want her to be a dog and stay in her comfort zone, and just live her life,” Rushton said. “But I also didn’t feel like I’d pass up an opportunity to help educate people about dogs that experienced the kinds of things that she did.”
At the ripe old age of 15 1/2, Layla’s health issues impacted her quality of life to the point that on June 21, Rushton and Layla’s beloved “dad,” Peter Conley, made the incredibly hard but loving decision to end her suffering.
“It’s really, really tragic and sad,” Rushton said. “But she’s out of pain, and wherever her little spirit went, I’m sure it’s better than the way that she felt in that poor, aching body.”
Even after death, the legacy of Vicktory Dogs like Layla lives on.
Before the Michael Vick case shone a media spotlight on dogfighting issues in 2007, the prevailing opinion of most animal welfare organizations — and the law — was to euthanize seized fighting dogs. Best Friends Animal Society lobbied against the summary execution of the dogs rescued from Bad Newz Kennels in Virginia, and a federal judge appointed a special “guardian” to help determine the dogs’ fate.
After about eight months isolated in custody kennels, 22 of the most challenged dogs went to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary for rehabilitation. Caregivers customized training and care for each dog depending on their unique needs. For instance, Layla reacted negatively to other dogs, so she lived for several years not in Dogtown but in the Parrot Garden. (Despite one parrot learning to squawk “Layla! Layla!” it proved to be an excellent living situation for the pooch.)
Erin Menard, Dogtown team lead at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, said Layla was the first Vicktory dog she met when she started as a caregiver nine years ago.
“She had such a zest for life and always wore a permanent smile on her face,” she told TODAY in an email. “Whether it was zooming around as fast as she could and taking her caregivers out by the knees, or snuggling up close on a golf cart ride, all my memories of Layla are perfect.”
Vicktory Dogs helped sway public perception of fighting dogs and pit bulls through their popular social media accounts and the documentary “The Champions.” Some went on to be therapy dogs, agility champions and ambassadors.
Several states, including California, Florida and Wisconsin, changed state laws stipulating that dogs seized from dogfighting rings be immediately labeled “vicious” or “dangerous” — and therefore subject to euthanasia — and the Humane Society of the United States now supports rehabilitating former fighting dogs.
Francis Battista, co-founder of Best Friends Animal Society, told TODAY that working so hard to save the Vicktory Dogs connected with the organization’s larger mission to end shelter killing in America.
“No group of dogs should be just summarily killed, and this particular group provided the opportunity to demonstrate in the public eye, and to our peers in the movement, and to law enforcement, that dogs like this deserve an opportunity.”
Three Vicktory Dogs — Mya, Meryl and Curly — still live at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, and several more continue to thrive in their forever homes, though naturally, these pets are all getting old. Like Layla and others who have now passed on, the special dogs inspire hope and create change.
“I think it’s hard to overstate what a watershed moment that was, and what an emblematic victory it was for these dogs to demonstrate what their advocates had been claiming all these years: that regardless of the abuse they’d received, that they needed the opportunity to respond to kindness, to respond to contact and attention, and to build trust,” Battista said. “They did.”
For more information or to get involved, visit: https://bestfriends.org/