One year ago, Leo the pit bull was destined for the cruel life of a fighting dog. But today, he pads the halls of Camino Medical Group, lifting the spirits of cancer patients as they undergo chemotherapy.
Leo was one of 50 dogs seized last summer from an illegal dog fighting ring on the Virginia property of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick. Vick, who was kicked out of the NFL, is currently serving a 23-month prison sentence in federal prison.
All but one of Vick's dogs were rehabilitated, and Leo's story led him to Marthina McClay, a Los Gatos dog trainer and president of Our Pack, a Bay Area advocacy group for pit bulls.
"Leo is a love dog," McClay said. "The entire time his tail is wagging."
McClay says Leo (who under Vick's ownership was called Bouncer) was "conditioned" while living on Vick's property. After hearing about the dog fighting ring, McClay contacted the shelter where Leo was living, and eventually brought him to California.
She said once Leo was here it was easy to teach him to sit, lie down and perform other commands crucial for passing the test for potential therapy dogs. After five weeks of training, Leo was certified as a therapy dog, and began visiting local rest homes and hospitals, including Camino Medical Group -- the Mountain View facility operated by Palo Alto Medical Foundation -- where he spends Friday afternoons with patients in the Cancer Infusion Center.
His turnaround life has made Leo a celebrity, and People and Fox News both did stories on him.
McClay dresses Leo in clown collars or silly scarves before heading to the medical center. Once there, she walks Leo around to visit each patient.
"He quietly and calmly brightens spirits," said Cynthia Greaves, a spokesperson for the medical center.
Once McClay puts Leo in his therapy dog vest, "he knows it is time to work," she said. He is very gentle with all the patients, but approaches them differently depending on their response to his presence. Since the patients are often hooked up to IVs or infusion tubes, it is important the therapy dogs are calm.
McClay said all the patients love when her dog comes around. "If he misses one week the patients all ask, 'Where is Leo?" she said.
For more on Leo, visit www.ourpack.org/leo.html.