Is this any way to treat your ‘best friend’?

I got my first dog shortly after I learned to walk, and would waddle around with the fat little puppy named, for the obvious reason, “Blackie” clutched to my chest. So we grew up together, and became closer than many siblings do.

Since those early days I’ve had several other dogs of various sizes and personalities, and have fond memories of each. One thing they’ve all had in common, however, is that no matter how repulsive I might have been to others at any given time in my checkered past — dirty, smelly, drunk — these loyal friends have always been happy to spend time with me. (I believe it’s called “unconditional love,” something people claim to value and strive to achieve, although few do.)

Some find this slavish, unwavering canine devotion pathetic, but I’ve always felt it is quite touching, having an animal companion so trusting, who becomes positively joyful at my mere presence. (Not to mention being a real boost to my fragile self-esteem.)

This is, I’m sure, one big reason dogs have earned the dubious distinction of being dubbed “Man’s Best Friend.” (Along with, of course, their willingness to protect you with their lives, the innumerable times they’ve rescued people in dangerous situations, their tracking and herding talents, and their huge capacity to amuse and entertain.)

So I’ve never understood the emotional underpinnings of alleged humans who enjoy watching dogs tear one another apart, who are so much attracted to dog-fighting that they will risk arrest and jail time to attend these surreptitious displays of naked cruelty.

The issue — if it can be called that — has been much in the news lately, with former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick recently pleading guilty to financing a dog-fighting operation in Virginia, of being present during the fights and agreeing to the executions of several dogs who weren’t sufficiently vicious. Under his plea deal with the feds, he didn’t admit to personally killing the dogs, which were dispatched by electrocution, shooting, hanging, drowning and being slammed repeatedly into the ground; or to gambling on the outcome of the fights, even though those additional heinous crimes were alleged by his cretinous partners, who pleaded guilty to their parts in the ring and had agreed to testify against the former superstar.

Sadly, a few fans have tried to defend Vick’s brutish behavior, and many more have made lame attempts to diminish its monstrosity.

One of his pricey lawyers, for instance, issued a statement saying Vick realized he’d made “a mistake,” which to my mind is like Hitler, had he lived, saying he, too, had just made a mistake. A mistake is turning left when you should have turned right (not likely for me, of course!) or buying whole milk when you meant to get fat-free.

Vick, on the other hand, fully intended to organize a dog-fighting operation, enjoyed watching the repulsive exhibits and, according to his cohorts, made money off them. So what was the mistake? Getting caught? Lying to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, to whom he swore the ugly rumors that preceded his arrest were false? Believing his career wasn’t in jeopardy and his fans would somehow save his sorry ass?

Still, in a brief unscripted damagecontrol statement, Vick, too, maintained he’d simply make a “mistake in bad judgment (whatever that means) and bad decisions,” adding the incredible claim that he’d suddenly become a born-again Christian and now believes dog-fighting is really terrible. It was simply a case of his own immaturity, he explained.

R. L. White, head of the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP, which is becoming more and more of an anachronism, also tried to paint Vick in the best light possible, initially equating shooting dogs with shooting deer, and saying his only mistake was “that it was a dog.” White argued Vick was probably innocent anyway, and pleading guilty doesn’t mean Vick is really guilty, that he was only copping a plea because his scurrilous friends had rolled over on him.

Why the NAACP chose to make this a racial issue remains a puzzle, although some apologists have tried to account for Vick’s behavior by saying it relates to a “cultural” difference, that African-Americans have a different “perception” of dogs than the rest of us colorless citizens. Other black professional athletes reinforced this view in their rush to protect a brother, one saying the dogs belonged to Vick and he should be free to do what he wanted with them, and another claiming there is no difference between Vick and hunters. (Hello! The goal of “ethical” hunting has always been a quick, clean kill, not prolonged suffering on the part of the animals.)

But I’m convinced the majority of blacks would be deeply offended by this stereotyping implying they are more amenable to cruel, depraved forms of “entertaiment” than the rest of us. Besides, there are plenty of whites and Hispanics and God knows who else that attend these blood-sport events.

So, no, I can’t understand the workings of the twisted minds of whatever racial, ethnic and cultural persuasion that derive enjoyment from watching the torture of animals who have given us so much.

But there are a couple theories I’d like to posit for the consideration of dogfighting enthusiasts. (And don’t think they don’t exist in the Four Corners.)

One is that the participants get a perverse sexual thrill out of the gory exhibitions, in which case probably little can be done to help them change. If this is what turns a guy on, reruns of “Lassie” just aren’t going to get it up.

The other is that they see the dogfights as making a manly statement about themselves: If their dog wins, it means the owner is a real tough cookie — as in, My dad can beat up your dad. You know, what Vick calls immaturity.

Either way, that’s not just pathetic, it’s really, really sick. And there ain’t no excusing it.

David Grant Long, a pet owner, lives in Cortez, Colo.

From -September 2007, David Long.