Sonny, the greeter for the Richland County Sheriff’s Department gym, fits the part.
He’s got a chiseled physique, an insanely low body fat percentage and boundless energy. And he is much happier to be there than most of the people coming in. If he were fully housebroken, he would be perfect.
Sonny, a 2-year-old pit bull, was adopted by the gym’s head trainer, Deputy Scott Puckett, as the Harbison facility’s mascot. Puckett hopes the dog, who spent most of its first two years chained to a tree with little human contact, will brighten up gym members’ moods and get them ready for a workout.
“He fits the family,” he said. “He loves everybody that comes in the door.”
Sonny was one of 24 dogs rescued from a dog fighting ring discovered in the woods near Camp Ground Road in northern Richland County in September. Deputies responding to a tip found dogs chained to the ground and to trees and a group of people watching two pit bulls fight. Three people were arrested, and Richland County took possession of the dogs.
Sonny, a little younger than 2 at the time, was one of the dogs chained to a tree, Puckett said. He probably never fought – his floppy ears aren’t cropped and his tail isn’t docked – but he might have been used as a breeder. It wasn’t a good existence, Puckett said.
Sonny and the other dogs went through a lengthy rehabilitation process, said Richland County Sheriff’s Investigator Holly Wagner. The Columbia Animal Shelter kept them until deputies could get an agency specializing in dogs used in fighting rings to advise them. Some of the dogs who had fought really loved people but couldn’t come in contact with other animals, Wagner said. Others, she said, were so scared of people that they ran away the second they saw someone. Dogs that hadn’t fought, such as Sonny, were easily spooked.
“We tried to get them to come out of their shells,” she said. “It was a lot of hands-on time with them.”
None of the dogs had to be euthanized, but several had to be taken to rescuers for more individualized care. All were fostered by local volunteers, where they were socialized around people, and in some cases, other animals. Most of the more socialized dogs have been adopted by people with experience with pit bulls, but the sheriff’s department is still looking for homes for the last few.
Puckett adopted Sonny after Wagner told him about the dogs. He had always had a soft spot for pit bulls and was looking for a new pet. After seeing Sonny play for a few minutes, Puckett's mind was made up.
“It was instantaneous,” he said. “I knew he was the dog.”
Despite the rehabilitation, Puckett still had to work with Sonny. The dog was completely untrained – “like a 2-year-old puppy,” Puckett said. Sonny would run and hide if loud music played at the gym or someone dropped a weight, and he was wary of most men.
“He’s a ladies’ man,” Wagner said. But “he really wasn’t comfortable around women at first,” either.
Only three weeks later, you can hardly tell the dog had been mistreated and malnourished.
He trots up to every person who walks into the gym and is completely unfazed by the grunts of people finishing an exercise or the buzz of police radios. He barked for the first time a few days ago and has really come a long way, Puckett said.
“What challenges I thought he may have, he’s overcome,” he said. “He’s really coming out of his shell.”
Deputies working out like having Sonny around.
Master Deputy Warren Cavanaugh of the department’s K-9 unit said he has enjoyed watching Sonny’s progress. He appreciates seeing a good outcome from the department’s work and thinks Sonny couldn’t have ended up in a better place.
“What you see right now is the best thing for this dog,” he said.