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The story behind the story of Michael Vick’s dogs

The 47 dogs rescued from Michael Vick were given a chance to live — and helped changed laws
The 47 dogs rescued from Michael Vick were given a chance to live — and helped changed laws. (Photos by The Washington Post and Handout images)

This Q&A with Post Sports reporter Emily Giambalvo, about her comprehensive look at the dogs rescued from Michael Vick’s dogfighting operation, first appeared in the Best Of Post Sports newsletter. Sign up here for that weekly selection of The Post’s most ambitious work.

How did the story idea originate?

I watched the National Geographic documentary about these dogs when I was in middle school, and I’ve loosely followed their stories since. From a young age, I realized we could learn a lot from animals and my dog had an important role in my childhood, so the story of the Vick dogs stuck with me. I added it to my story ideas list when I was still in college about a year and a half ago, and finally this May, I mentioned to [sports editor Matt Vita] that I thought this could be a sports story. He believed in the story as much as I did, and that day, I created the Google doc and spreadsheet that consumed my life for the next few months.

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What was the most challenging aspect of the reporting?

It always felt like this was a story that would be most impactful if it was comprehensive, so the scope of the reporting terrified me. The challenge is always finding the time needed to report a story fully, especially when it’s a bit of a side project. I interviewed Michael Vick from a vacant booth up in Maryland’s press box on football media day, and I called John Garcia from my hotel room in Nashville the day before the U.S. men’s national team played in the Gold Cup semifinal. It was challenging in that I dove in and out of the reporting depending on what else I had to do.

I talked to about 60 people and have hundreds of pages of notes. I transcribed every word that was said to me. (Now that it’s over I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with these massive stacks of paper on my desk?) Once I had all the reporting, the fear shifted to wanting to do the story justice. I had gathered so much material that it was tricky to balance the overarching impact of the dogs collectively while also highlighting individual anecdotes. But if I had to pick the most painful and terrifying part, it would be fact-checking the dates and name spellings of the adopters for the interactive element with all the dogs.

What was the biggest surprise you discovered during the course of the reporting?

Even though I knew a bit about this case and these dogs, I was still surprised by how different all the dogs were. They didn’t just fit into buckets of shy dogs, aggressive dogs and well-adjusted dogs. They all had different challenges. Some lived completely normal lives and you’d never know where they came from, while others remained fearful for life. Even when I interviewed the adopter of Jonny Justice, dog No. 47 on my checklist, his story seemed interesting and fresh to me. It never became boring or felt like I was hearing repeat information.

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You tweeted that you felt it was important to find out what happened to all 47 dogs. Was there ever a point at which you thought you might not find them all?

I was exceptionally worried I wouldn’t get to all of them, but I think something in me always knew I would. From the beginning, I thought readers, editors and I would all want a definitive answer of how many are still alive. To do that, I knew I’d have to track them all down. A couple of the rescues that took in some of these dogs have closed or changed staffs, so that made finding those dogs significantly harder. Plus, a lot of the adopters initially wanted to keep their dogs out of the spotlight, so for many, it took a while to even track down a name.

But I knew these people existed. For every blank row in my spreadsheet, I always knew someone out there would be able to help, and that, combined with my obsessive tendencies, made me confident we’d get all 47.

What kind of reaction have you received since the story published?

It’s hard to go wrong with cute dog pictures, but I still worried maybe the story wouldn’t resonate with readers as much as I had hoped. The response, though, has been overwhelming and far exceeded what I could have imagined. I’ve been surprised by the number of people who have emailed or tweeted to say the story made them cry. The most rewarding part for me has been how other journalists — and some readers, too — have praised the depth of reporting, which to me is the greatest compliment.

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