Remembering Handsome Dan
Handsome Dan was one of the 22 canine survivors of Michael Vick’s dogfighting operation who came to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in January 2008. They arrived at the Sanctuary following eight months of kenneling while their fate, along with that of the rest of the dogs rescued from Vick’s Virginia property, was being debated. Should they be summarily executed because of their involuntary association with dogfighting or should they be assessed as individuals and given a chance at a new life? A federal judge ruled that the dogs should be given a chance. The story of the Vicktory dogs is beautifully told in the award-winning documentary The Champions, in which Dan and his adoptive family are featured as one of the follow-up stories.
That was 10 years ago and most of the rescued dogs were adults in 2007 when they were rescued. Handsome Dan crossed the Rainbow Bridge last week and his story, like many of the animals who come to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, began sadly but finished with a happy, loving ending.
Handsome Dan was a sweet, shy dog who made many friends after his rescue from Michael Vick. Like many of the Vicktory dogs (who went on to become therapy dogs, agility champions and amazing pets), Dan was a celebrity in his own right and his family set up a rescue organization named after him.
Here are a few recollections from some of the staff he touched in the time he spent with us here at Best Friends.
McKenzie Garcia (caregiver): I cared for Handsome Dan in his very early days at Best Friends. I just loved Handsome. He had such a sweet soul. I remember the sheer joy he had frolicking around when we first let him run off-lead in the exercise run. To our complete surprise, he even picked up a toy and took off running. This was when they were all afraid of pretty much everything. He had this look he used to give me that said “Aww, shucks” and was a little coy. I always thought it was that look that earned him his name. A special dog who I'm so thankful I had the chance to know. Rest in peace, sweet Handsome.
Betsy Kidder (caregiver): I took care of Danimal (Handsome Dan) when he was first paired with Little Red (another Vicktory dog). Dan was the gentlest of souls. He was sweet but always so unsure of everything. When he was with Little, though, a brightness showed that we rarely got to see in him. They loved the dog park; that’s where Dan would really let loose. Suddenly, all his fears and trepidation would wash away, and he could really and truly just be a dog.
That brightness is what I saw when he met Heather and Mark and Cameron. It was during a golf cart ride with his prospective people — I saw him really open up to someone else, truly connect. It was during this meeting that I knew he had found his forever home. Heather and her family accepted Dan as he was, where he was in his rehab, and loved him for exactly the dog he was in that moment. It was this acceptance and understanding by his wonderful family that allowed Dan to thrive all these years. While I am unbelievably saddened to hear of his passing, I am also overjoyed at the life that Heather and her family gave him. No matter his struggles, they loved him for him.
Michelle Weaver (Best Friends director of animal care and Vicktory dog trainer): When I think about Handsome Dan, what comes to mind is his charm. Of course, his name fit him (who could resist that smile!) but more than that, there was just something about him that could lighten your day. He was shy but silly once he got to know you. He was so great with the other dogs, which is when we would see his true personality really come out.
Each time we lose one of the Vicktory dogs, I think about how truly fortunate I feel to have been part of this incredible journey. I am grateful to Handsome Dan’s family for giving him the loving home he deserved and accepting him for himself.
John Garcia (Vicktory dog trainer): Handsome Dan was one of those dogs who really changed my life. First of all, his name really fit his appearance: Handsome was an understatement! When I first met Handsome, he was being housed at an animal shelter that was pretty loud and active. I noticed right away that he was the only dog in the building with his head always in the corner, trying to make the scary things go away. He couldn't walk on leash, didn't solicit any attention and generally wanted nothing to do with humans.
I was lucky enough to work with Handsome from day one, both before and after he came to the Sanctuary. All the work we did together wasn’t easy and there were tough times, but I learned just as much from him as he learned from me. I remember when we were doing home visits (part of the training) for the first time; he loved to sit and watch TV together. He also grew to love car rides and experiencing things with the people he trusted. I saw him go through so many different changes and to see him mature was truly amazing.
Handsome and the other Vicktory dogs have changed the world and I'm lucky to have been a part of it. It's true that every animal is an individual, but there was definitely something special about Dan, something that I haven't seen in too many dogs. He'll always be a part of my heart and I will never forget the time we spent together.
Lee Greenwood (Best Friends legislative attorney): Dan has had and will have a lasting legacy for dogfighting survivors throughout the country. His story has inspired changes to dogfighting laws in Wisconsin and Rhode Island (his adopted home state), and there is pending legislation in Michigan and Massachusetts. None of these things would have been possible without him and his fellow Vicktory dogs. But more important, I had the honor of calling Dan my friend. I'll miss him, but I'll never forget him.
It is not possible to overstate the impact that this small group of unfortunate animals have had on the world of animal welfare, simply because they were given a chance to demonstrate who they are and not be judged by a misguided reputation or the circumstance of their prior abuse at the hands of criminals.
Thank you, Handsome Dan, and thank you to all of the Vicktory dogs, who taught us much about what we thought we already knew. Here is a short video of Handsome Dan and his adoptive family when they came to Best Friends to meet him.
Together, we will Save Them All.
Best Friends Animal Society