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Going to the dogs, owners

Goofy looks fearsome at first glance. He’s a strapping Staffordshire bull terrier, with big teeth, a barrel chest and a baleful stare.

But he waddles more than he swaggers. And when this pit bull jumps on a stranger, it’s to deliver a slobbery kiss, not to rip an ear off.

Juan Arevalo bought the dog as a puppy for his teenage son, who promptly lost interest in him. So, Goofy has been Arevalo’s canine partner for the past four years. They walk or run together every day. “And I watch ‘The Dog Whisperer’ a lot,” Arevalo said.

On Saturday they walked through Hollenbeck Park and stumbled into a training class that might make the TV show an afterthought and earn the sweet-natured Goofy a gold star. The dog wound up executing a maneuver that left Arevalo beaming with pride -- and covered with drool.

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Welcome to the inaugural class in the Boyle Heights Pets for Life program -- a project of the Humane Society and the legacy of a notorious pit bull owner: NFL quarterback Michael Vick, whose involvement in a dogfighting ring landed him in prison in 2007.

Vick got out of jail three years ago, resumed his NFL career and began touring the country with the Humane Society, lecturing young people about the horrors of dogfighting.

Now Vick’s on the stump promoting his autobiography, “Finally Free.” And the Humane Society is still taking heat for its association with a man who admitted to stomach-turning brutality.

“A lot of people just can’t get past the violence he committed with dogs,” said society President Wayne Pacelle. “I understand that. What he did was horrible ... heinous and repugnant.”

But Vick’s high profile managed to bring a back-alley problem into the light. His case led 40 states to toughen laws against dogfighting and intensified law enforcement action, Pacelle said.

Now, cash rewards and a tipline funded by the Humane Society are helping to spur local dog-fighting arrests.

This spring, an Antelope Valley couple was convicted; they had 11 pit bulls, some bearing fresh scars. Last month, 12 people were arrested and four dogs were rescued in connection with another Antelope Valley ring.

Vick’s story helps explain the twisted allure of dogfighting as sport, Pacelle said. “These men are proud of their dogs. They value them as winners, competitors, gladiators.

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“We’re trying to teach [young men] that they can admire that beauty, that physicality.... That they can have a bond with that dog that doesn’t rely on fighting and aggression.”

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The Humane Society’s Pets for Life campaign aims to bring free training classes to neighborhoods that, like Boyle Heights, are “animal services deserts,” said Pacelle: “no vets, no low-cost spay-neuter services, no grooming, no pet supplies.”

Field crews spent weeks going door-to-door, handing out leashes and water bowls and inviting residents to Saturday’s session.

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Ceasar Solis showed up on his bike, a hulking pit bull draped in chains ambling alongside him. When trainer Robert Sotelo tried to pet him, 2-year-old Gris made it clear that he was not happy about being there.

Gris is not dangerous, Solis said. And neither are the other two pit bulls he keeps in his Boyle Heights backyard.

But the trio has made him a target. Animal services officers have visited his home more than once to examine his pets for bites or scars. “They check their skin, their neck, their ears.... I understand,” Solis said. “They’re just doing their job.”

He’s raised the dogs together since they were puppies. They roughhouse, they play, they bark. “But they don’t fight,” he told me.

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So why have pit bulls? I asked. Solis shot Gris an admiring glance. “They’re big and strong and muscular,” not unlike their owner.

But they can also be testy and hostile to strangers. And Solis would like to have a little more confidence that they’ll behave in public.

That’s what brought him to Saturday’s class and prompted trainer Sotelo to offer him free in-home lessons for all three of his dogs.

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Behavioral problems play a big role in filling animal shelters and creating packs of wild street dogs. “An animal is rambunctious, occasionally aggressive, and people get frustrated,” Pacelle said. “So they turn them in to the shelter or turn them loose on the streets, when sometimes all they need is help solving the problem.”

Jorge Nunez came for help with Chino, a tiny stray he found wandering the streets. “He’s terrible,” Nunez said, shaking his head like an exasperated dad. “He’s chewing up the sandals and getting into everything around the house.”

But he’s also pretty adorable. “You should see him, the way he sleeps.” Nunez made the motions of a puppy burrowing under the covers. Chino wagged his tail at his owner’s feet.

Then there was Trooperto, a terrier-ish dog who wound up with Gabriel Zamora’s family because his brother accidentally hit the dog, which limped across the street after being run over by another car.

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“His girlfriend convinced him to take the dog to a vet. He had a concussion and a fractured hip,” Zamora said. They paid the vet bill and kept the dog.

“He’s a pretty cool dog,” said Zamora, who brought him to class “to get some obedience -- how to sit, and how not to act so crazy when he sees a skateboarder.”

The first day of training was pretty basic. Sotelo explained in Spanish that dogs learn by association, and choke chains don’t work as well as treats. He handed out food and plastic bags, encouraging owners to pick up after their dogs.

He offered leashes and water bowls, trimmed nails and administered flea treatments. And he promised free vaccinations to any spayed or neutered dog.

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There weren’t many takers for that. “Some people don’t even know what spaying and neutering is,” Pets for Life manager Alana Yanez said.

Then Sotelo launched an impassioned spiel -- not the “Animal Planet” version his Beverly Hills clients might get, but an offer to provide the free surgery and explanation of its benefits: Sterilized dogs are less aggressive, have fewer health problems and are less likely to run off or roam.

Solis listened, chatted with Sotelo, then signed up his three pit bulls.

I’d count that as a victory as big as any Vick scored on the football field.

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sandy.banks@latimes.com


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