Despite graduating high school early and having his pick of several enticing college scholarships, John Garcia went to work at a nearby animal sanctuary right out of school because he had a debt to pay — though not the financial kind.
“I grew up in a very small town, and my best friend as a kid was my dog,” says the 28-year-old dog trainer and star of the National Geographic Channel’s series DogTown, a show that chronicles the lives of the dogs in DogTown, the designated dog area at the Kanab, Utah–based Best Friends Animal Sanctuary.
A self-described chubby Latino kid growing up in a conservative Anglo town, Garcia wound up as a loner much of the time. He says only the animals in his life refused to judge him and never tired of his company. “Pretty much my entire life I knew I wanted to work with animals. I always felt I had a debt to repay to them for what they’d done for me growing up.”
He got that chance when he landed a job at the 3,700-acre Best Friends sanctuary. Tucked into the majestic red-rock country of southern Utah, the center came to national prominence in 2007 when it took in the 22 most-abused dogs the government rescued from former NFL star quarterback Michael Vick’s illegal dog-fighting ring.
Unlike many humane societies and other rescue organizations, Best Friends was committed to working with the dogs — all American Pit Bull Terriers or pit bull mixes — rather than euthanizing them. While the government mandated that two dogs remain at the sanctuary for life for their own safety and happiness, the other 20 dogs (once they pass the rigorous stipulations set out by the government) will eventually find new homes — an outcome many people once considered impossible.
Garcia, however, was not surprised. Despite their reputation, he says, American Pit Bull Terriers are filled with potential. “Pitties, by nature, are very loving and very loyal. If they are brought up properly and socialized properly, they are the best dogs in the world.” (Garcia is pictured here and on the cover with Georgia, 7, a rescued Vick dog who has become such a shining example of pit bull potential that she travels around the country with Garcia doing media events — they appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show together last winter.)
Garcia and his wife, Mckenzie, share their home with a cat and two dogs, including Spikey-Doo, a Pit Bull Terrier mix. “I’ve had my girl since I was 16 years old. When I first got her she was touted as one of the prize bloodlines for fighting dogs,” Garcia says. “But she’s lived with a menagerie of animals. I still have foster dogs rotating through my house very frequently, and she is one of the best role models.”
So, despite all this evidence to the contrary, why do some dogs get written off as impossible cases? It’s all about perception, says Garcia, who just finished shooting the fourth season of DogTown. “With the Michael Vick dogs we have at the sanctuary, it’s not their behavior that we have to overcome, it’s the fact that they’re pit bulls; it’s the fact they’re fighting pit bulls; and it’s the fact they were Michael Vick fighting pit bulls. They actually have three major things working against them — not their behavior.”
What those dogs have working in their favor are people like Garcia and the rest of the DogTown staff at Best Friends, who believe in every dog’s ability to overcome trauma, and whose patience and determination help them succeed.
“Really, all we do at DogTown is help unleash the dog’s potential,” says Garcia. “I’ve seen dogs come from everywhere from war zones to puppy mills to hoarding situations, where they were living with hundreds of other animals. Then you have the Michael Vick dog-fighting case, where dogs were literally put in a pit and had to fight for their lives. That is some pretty severe emotional trauma.”
And there are days when that trauma rubs off on Garcia. “It’s always a bit of an emotional roller coaster here,” he admits — especially when physically abused animals show up. But, there’s always an antidote nearby: “If I have a bad day,” he says. “I just walk into a dog run and pet a dog and it’s all better.”
That’s just part of the magic Garcia finds working with dogs. They are, he says, remarkable creatures that teach him something every day. “When they survive those horrible circumstances — and can come back and show love and respect and look to us for guidance — that is a huge testament to not only the breed itself, but to dogs in general and how resilient they truly are.”
There’s a lesson in their example for all of us, he adds. “I know people who seriously get traumatized on their way to work! Just sitting in a bit of traffic! And here are dogs who have to fight for their lives and they are not half as traumatized,” says Garcia. “They say humans are at the top of the food chain, but when it comes to resilience and living up to our full potential, I still think we have a lot to learn from dogs.”
Go behind the scenes at our cover shoot with John and Georgia at experiencelife.com/videos.
Laine Bergeson is an Experience Life senior editor.