Best Friends Blog

Saying goodbye to Willie Boy

Willie Boy, Vicktory dog, on a walk
Willie Boy, Vicktory dog, playing with a ballOf the 22 Vicktory dogs who came to Best Friends after being rescued from Michael Vick’s Bad Newz Kennels in April of 2007, Willie Boy faced some of the biggest challenges. But neither his traumatic past nor his frail health could ever wash away the best parts of his character, and the people who became his family at the Sanctuary will always remember him as a fun, happy and gentle soul.

On Friday night, that family, which included Dogtown caregivers and members of the Best Friends veterinary team, had to make a heart-wrenching decision. Willie, who was 13 and had an extensive medical history, was fading fast.

During all the brave dog’s previous struggles — with babesia (a blood parasite spread by way of bites among dogs forced to fight), with cancer and, later, with an intestinal disorder that led to constant protein loss in his body — he’d hit plenty of lows, but he’d always rallied. This time, however, he became so weak that his family knew it was time to say goodbye.

Though Willie’s passing brought heartache to those who loved him, he left the world with ease and at peace, surrounded by their love.

Willie was one of only four Vicktory dogs remaining at the Sanctuary nearly 10 years after their arrival. In spite of his illnesses and the behavioral challenges that prevented him from being adopted, he lived a life full of friendship and love. “It’s especially hard to say goodbye to Willie Boy,” says Michelle Weaver, director of animal care at Best Friends. “Although he wasn’t able to be adopted, this was truly his home and he was a cherished member of the Best Friends family. Here he was safe, he was loved, and he lived a good life.”
Willie Boy, Vicktory dog, with caregiver Kersten

Like so many of the Vicktory dogs, Willie Boy was shut down and sick when he arrived at the Sanctuary. He got expert medical care to manage his babesia (a lifelong condition) and Dogtown caregivers and trainers put in extra time and effort to help him transition to life at the Sanctuary. Although he would always remain a somewhat fearful dog who could only handle having a small circle of friends, Willie put the worst of his shock and fear behind him.

Even as Willie started building trust and relationships with his caregivers in those early days, however, he showed signs of unpredictability. There were moments then, and throughout his life, when Willie was simply “off.” He’d get a certain look in his eyes, or he’d be standing in his room with his hackles raised, and his caregivers would know that he needed space. His caregiving team realized that creating a very consistent routine was really important for Willie. They also recognized what was rewarding to Willie and what wasn’t. By listening to him and creating stability for him, they were able to help him make progress. While those episodes were brief, and his caregivers never faulted him for them, they were one of the main reasons Willie remained at the Sanctuary while other Vicktory dogs found homes.
Willie Boy, Vicktory dog, while out on a walk

Willie also wasn’t good with other dogs when he arrived at the Sanctuary and, because babesia can be spread through bite wounds, it was safer for Willie to live by himself at Dogtown. He was far from lonely, though.

Willie Boy’s people — the few to whom he offered his heart and his friendship — will never forget how his inner light really shone through. Dogtown caregiver Paul Lindley, who started working with Willie the summer after he and the other Vicktory dogs arrived at the Sanctuary, describes him as a gentle spirit. “When he was himself, he was the sweetest, most gentle dog. He didn’t expect a lot from people; he just wanted to be your buddy and to feel loved,” Paul explains.

Paul’s favorite memories of Willie hearken back to the days when Willie started trusting him enough to go on outings with him to out-of-the-way places at the Sanctuary. “Many dogs enjoy Dogtown,” Paul says, “but Willie really thrived on the serenity and quietness here and on the peace of the canyon. There are very few dogs who deeply appreciate that, but Willie was one of them. I loved him and I’ve never met another dog like him.”
Willie Boy, Vicktory dog, enjoyed visiting the out-of-the-way places at the Sanctuary

Tyson Horn, Best Friends co-founder and one of Willie’s caregivers, remembers Willie’s playful side. He loved large red plastic coffee containers. “He liked them more than dog toys and he would bat them around in his room for hours,” Tyson says. “He would get a new one once in a while but he often kept the old ones, too. I think at one time he had about 20 of them. He was a fun dog, and we liked watching him play.”

Dogtown caregiver Carissa Hendrick recalls that things really started changing for the better for Willie as he aged, especially after he had surgery to remove his spleen (which was damaged because of babesia). “He began to have more confidence,” Carissa says. “For the first time he could go into the dog park and strut around, sniffing everything out, and it was so great to see him enjoy it.”
Willie Boy, Vicktory dog, while out on a walk
As Willie mellowed with age, Carissa and his other caregivers tried again to see if he could have relationships with other dogs. They started doing group walks, keeping the dogs safely separated but letting them be where they could still see each other. Willie took an interest in a couple of shy dogs, who became his friends and helped him blossom in the last years of his life.

Dogtown caregiver and groomer Alyssa Hill’s favorite memories of Willie are of him interacting with these dogs. She says, “He was very flirty, and he would get really animated when he was around them. You could tell he really enjoyed their company.”

Willie also enjoyed delicious home-cooked meals. Because of his protein imbalance, he needed a special diet, and because he was so special to his caregivers, they would get together every other week and cook him a huge batch of specially prepared food and supplements, portioned out carefully according to his doctors’ orders. Getting the exact nutrition his body needed (with some extra love baked in) is part of what kept Willie going strong for so long.
Willie also enjoyed delicious home-cooked meals

Although it wasn’t a surprise that Willie’s time eventually ran out, his family has been hit hard by his loss. Their love for him, however, will live on, along with the life-affirming legacy of the Vicktory dogs. And the kindness, compassion, love and support that Willie Boy, his caregivers and all the Vicktory dogs received from Best Friends members and friends will never be forgotten.

Together, we will Save Them All.
Willie Boy, Vicktory dog, was beloved by all his caregivers
Note: The story of the dogs rescued from Michael Vicks’ dogfighting ring was memorably told in the award-winning documentary The Champions. If you haven’t seen it, you should. It can be downloaded here or streamed on Netflix.

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Francis Battista

  • Margret Schreck

    Is it not truly wonderful to live in a world where there are people who will take the time, with love and patience, to understand the individual needs of an animal that has come under their care, and make that animal’s life one worth living and covers over many of the emotional scars of the past!

  • Betty Keith

    so sorry for your loss, but thanks for giving him love and kindness after being treated so cruelly by Vick, who evidently has no feelings for anything but the money he made for being cruel to dogs. I personally will never be able to understand that.

  • Justice17

    This is such a beautiful tribute, and truly shows the love of all individuals involved in saving and caring for Willie Boy all these years. Thank you Best Friends, you are angels to man’s best friend.

  • katboxjanitor

    Fare well Willie Boy, free of illness and sorely missed by your family of caregivers. I am glad you were surrounded by people who loved you for YOU and that you had the best home and family.

    Thank you to Willie Boys family of caregivers for giving him a fabulous chance to have happiness, even if it was not a more traditional home & family. ??❤???

    And again many thanks to the investigator and judge for saving these dogs and giving them a chance to become confident dogs.

  • A Men

    Thank you for giving him a life of love. I hate ignorant Michael Vick! Does he realize what he did to these angels. God = Dog backwards!

  • latpatty

    What a beautifully written tribute! It warms my heart to know that even though Willie couldn’t be adopted, he still had a family, and a life, and love. I use my Best Friends key ring every day, look at it at least once a day, and think to myself, “It will happen. We WILL save them all.” And Willie is an example of that. He was saved just as much as the Vicktory dogs that went to homes. Thank you so much for all you do.

  • Andy DiMare

    I’m SO very sorry about Willie. It sounds like he was a great boy, well taken care of, and never short of amazing people who never let him be alone, and took wonderful care of him. Never forget… You all gave him complete happiness, and md being content and peaceful. Thank you SO MUCH for all you continue to do, and for this wonderful story. Never forget him…. Ever….

  • Bernadette Robson

    Thank you so much for all that you do for all the creatures who are fortunate to be cared for by you. Willie Boy knew he was loved, and he crossed the Rainbow Bridge with a happy heart.

  • Judy Swinehart

    Thank you to the special people who gave Willie Boy hope and love.

  • Helen Jean Mitchell

    That is a beautiful tribute to Willie Boy’s spirit and zest for life.

  • Cindee Fox

    Thank you for giving Willie Boy a good life. My heart breaks for what the Victory dogs endured. I am so thankful to those that helped them go on and saved them from being put down. I pray that he has crossed the Rainbow Bridge and can play with all dogs now. Thank you.

  • Sylvia Fredricks

    Such a courageous boy! Thank you BFAS for surrounding him with loving care and the joy he so truly deserved. RIP Baby Boy.❤️

  • Tina Krenov

    Ohhhhh…thank you all for the work and the love. Restores my faith in humanity. What a lucky unlucky friend he was <3

  • Debbie Taylor Darino

    Thank you for saving him and giving him the best life he could have considering….he may be gone from this physical world and those that loved him but he continues to live on in God’s kingdom where he will continue to be happy and healthy with his creator and all of God’s creatures that He loves so much..much love to all that helped this baby boy…Run free Willie Boy and we’ll see you on the other side <3

  • Christina Anderson

    Every one of the dogs you saved has come to know they are loved – that they are safe. They are finally Home. You gave Willie that, and you give that to all who come or are brought your way. Blessings <3

  • MonarchPass

    Every time I begin to doubt my fellow humans, I remember this place exists, and that I was once a fleeting and tiny part of it. Sail on, Willie. Sail on.

  • Ammobama

    So glad he knew love and friendship. R.I.P Willie.?

  • Tadaaaaaaaaa

    Rest gently Willie…love you <3

  • Anne Enright

    Wonderful tribute!

  • Jackie Reddy

    Very sorry for your loss of Willie Boy. What a beautiful dog. Thank you so much for taking wonderful care of him. RUN FREE WILLIE BOY ❤

  • robin jones

    Sending love to all that loved Willie Boy.

    • Laura Austin

      And the same to you as well. Thank you

  • Madison59

    Beautiful tribute to a beautiful dog. Dog-town certainly played a huge part in changing people’s minds about the pitfall breed by showcasing the gentleness and loyalty of the Vick dogs. Great documentary and I certainly miss your television series. Would love to see it return.

    • Laura Austin

      I agree, wish they would have their TV series on again

  • Judi Biss

    Thank you for caring for & LOVING these unfortunate dogs that were so mistreated by Vick.

  • Susan Basinger Johnson

    RIP Willie Boy! So glad you got to live out your life in such a great place with people who loved you. Run happy & healthy at the bridge.

  • Michael White

    I’m so sorry to hear Willie is gone. But the God of love, who in love made him has a beautiful place to welcome him to. Romans 8:18-21 Amp
    Thanks for giving him a life full of love…

    • KAM

      So very well said! Thank you!

    • Shawn Arstill

      Thank you for your spiritual reply. So many people don’t think there is an after life for our furry family. . .SO NOT TRUE. I appreciate your acknowledgement. THANKS

    • Laura Austin

      That is so Beautiful and crying my eyes out. Thank you for sharing this it mean a lot to all of us. I hope you don’t mind me sharing it on my page.