An Accidental Advocate

An Accidental Advocate

Guest post written by Stephanie Filer, Manager of Special Gifts & Partnerships, Animal Rescue League of Iowa.

The other day I received a call from a city councilperson in Randall, IA who needed our help. They were reviewing their city ordinances and she knew about our work to help cities strengthen their dog ordinances, so she reached out. Specifically, she wanted to remove some 10+ breeds from their banned list and instead, strengthen the enforcement for dogs of all breeds. (more…)

Perfect Fit: Why “Pit Bull” Dogs Are Flying Out Our Doors

Perfect Fit: Why “Pit Bull” Dogs Are Flying Out Our Doors

Guest post written by Stephanie Filer, Manager of Special Gifts & Partnerships, Animal Rescue League of Iowa.

A young newlywed recently asked us for help. She wanted to surprise her husband with a new dog for his birthday. Excited to assist, we created a gift that included a dog application with the words “APPROVED” on it and some dog toys. After she surprised him with the gift, they would come in to the shelter together to choose their first dog and new family member. (more…)

From Shelters to Service: “Pit Bull” Dogs Change Lives as Assistance Dogs

From Shelters to Service: “Pit Bull” Dogs Change Lives as Assistance Dogs

Animal Farm Foundation’s mission is to secure equal treatment and opportunity for “pit bull” dogs. In an effort to meet that mission, we established a Service Dog Training program  so that rescued and sheltered “pit bull” dogs can be considered for the same work traditionally reserved for pure bred, purpose bred dogs.

Our first three teams have been placed: Margierose and Captain America in New York, Matthew and Jericho in Maryland, and Vicki and Parker in North Carolina. They are all “pit bull” dogs who were in regular shelters before they were evaluated for and entered our program. None were bred for this purpose, but all three are excelling in their new lives as assistance dogs.

The dogs were tasked trained by Apryl Lea, an Assistance Dogs International (ADI) trainer on our staff. Lea enjoys working with shelter “pit bull” dogs in this capacity. She believes there is a common misperception by both the public and the service dog industry that dogs can’t be service dogs unless they are a specific breed or bred for the purpose of assistance dog work. As Lea points out, no matter what breed of dog, the training process to become a service dog is the same, “A dog is a dog! The training is the same.”

Captain America pit bull service dog

Captain America and Margierose

Trained by Lea to retrieve dropped items, help with balance, brace on stairs, and get the phone in an emergency, Service Dog Captain America has been assisting Margierose since December 2012. She reports that his training has paid off, “He is not just my service dog, but my best friend where ever I go. As soon as I put his vest on he is very much like the super hero with his cape, but instead of leaping tall buildings he makes me feel safe and confident out in public. Captain picks up items I drop and braces me when my balance is off and I am feeling dizzy. He will even go get the phone for me when I am having a bad day.”

Service Dog Jericho, was also trained for tasks such as opening doors, retrieving items, and bracing his owner Matthew as he transfers from his wheel chair. Matthew, who lost the use of his legs in a car accident, is provided increased independence with the help of Jericho by his side.

Jericho pit bull service dog

Jericho and Matthew

Our most recent placement, Service Dog Parker, was trained to retrieve items, open doors, retrieve water from the fridge, brace on stairs, and go get help for his owner Vicki. Living with a lung disorder that impairs her ability walk and causes dizziness, Vicki gets help from Parker who provides her with the independence (and motivation) to visit some of her favorite public places, such as the beach!

Parker pit bull service dog

Parker and Vicki

Unfortunately discrimination against “pit bull” dogs has had an impact on service dog teams around the country. In 2011 the town of Aurelia, Iowa, which has a ban on “pit bull” dogs, forced Jim Sak, a disabled Vietnam Veteran and retired Chicago Police Officer who had recently moved to Aurelia, to remove his service dog (a “pit bull” dog named Snickers) from town limits. Animal Farm was able to assist Officer Sak in regaining custody of his dog. Read more about Office Sak here. More recently, a (former) ban on “pit bull” dogs in one Rhode Island town led to a service dog being confiscated from his disabled owner.

These cases are sad examples of what happens when local governments discriminate against dogs based on breed or appearance. Breed discriminatory legislation does nothing to enhance public safety, but it’s expensive to enforce, tears apart families (including service dog teams), and divides communities. On a federal level, banning “pit bull” service dogs violates 2010 guidance from the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) on breed limitations for service dogs and violates Title II of the American with Disabilities Act. Animal Farm is committed to securing the rights of service dog teams who are adversely affected by discriminatory policies.

In an effort to educate the public about Service Dogs (otherwise known as Assistance Dogs), the people who live with them, and our program here at AFF, here are a few things to know:

Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Service Animals are legally defined (Americans With Disabilities Act, 1990) and are trained to meet the disability-related needs of their handlers who have disabilities. Federal laws protect the rights of individuals with disabilities to be accompanied by their service animals in public places. Service animals are not considered ‘pets’. Examples of the work or tasks they are trained to perform include: guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability.

Captain America pit bull service dog

Service Dog Captain America

Dogs of all breeds and mixes can become service dogs. It’s the individual dog, not the breed that matters most when selecting dogs. After further assessments, some dogs who enter our program at AFF wind up not making the final cut. We are careful to only choose and train dogs who exhibit a desire to perform the tasks we are training them to do. If a dog isn’t the right fit for our program, they are placed up for adoption through our shelter.

Therapy Dogs are not the same as Service Dogs (Assistance Dogs). Service dogs are protected by federal law. Therapy and Emotional-Support dogs are not. Therapy dogs are those that provide comfort to people in a variety of settings, such as hospitals and retirement homes. Emotional Support dogs can provide comfort to their owners, but are not the same as Psychiatric Service Dogs. They are not required to perform certain tasks related to a person’s disability and can be refused access to places where service dogs are allowed.

There is no national certification process for service dogs, nor are they required to be trained by a certified assistance dog trainer. Owners are allowed to personally train their service dog for their own specific needs. What qualifies a dog as a service dog is the help the dog provides for an individuals with a disability.

AFF has an Assistance Dogs International (ADI) trainer on staff, even though it’s not required. We believe in the objectives of the ADI. Having an ADI certified trainer on staff is a demonstration of our commitment to the program. It’s also a way for us to help “pit bull” dogs secure inclusion in ADI’s respected program.

Parker the Pit Bull Service Dog

Service Dog Parker

It is illegal to ask someone what their disability is or require training certification. When it is not obvious what service a dog provides, only limited inquiries are allowed by law. Businesses cannot ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task. Businesses may ask two questions:

Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

It is illegal to impersonate a service dog team in order to gain access to public space or transportation with your pet dog (even if they are a therapy dog). Fake service dogs are a growing problem and cause serious problems for legitimate service dog teams. Faking a “service” dog has real consequences for disabled people who rely on their specially trained dogs. Imposters create a hostile, distrustful environment for dogs and their handlers.

If you encounter a service dog, do not distract them from doing their job. In other words, do not pet them, do not call out to them, and do not allow your dogs or children to approach them. Distracting a service dog could result in an accident for the handler. For more on service dog etiquette please visit this site.

Jericho pit bull service dog

Service Dog Jericho and Matthew

For more information about assistance dogs, please see ADI.

To nominate a “pit bull” dog for our program or to learn more about our work, please visit our site

“Too Many Pit Bulls”: A Case of Psychic Numbing

“Too Many Pit Bulls”: A Case of Psychic Numbing

We have too many pit bulls. All we have are pit bulls. We have a pit bull problem. Nobody wants to adopt our pit bulls.

Across the country, in interviews with the local news, these sound bites are repeated over and over. Usually intended to be a call for help, a positive plug for the dogs, or to evoke sympathy for the dogs, these kinds of blanket statements from animal shelters may be doing more damage than we realize. When we tell the public we have “too many pit bulls” we unintentionally frame the dogs as less valuable than other dogs at the shelter.

In other words, it makes the “pit bull” dogs sound like a problem: Dear Public, Our organization has a problem, because we have too many of these dogs who are a problem for us to adopt out. Can you help us with this overwhelming problem?

It is easier for us to value one individual than it is for us to value an entire group. It is easier for us to devalue a group than it is for us to devalue an individual.

By framing the dogs as a problem that needs fixing, we wind up teaching the public to view “pit bull” dogs as less valuable than other dogs who are not a problem. We teach the public to think less of the very dogs we’d like to inspire them to adopt. And these language habits of ours end up making the public numb to this grouping of dogs we have created.

That’s not to say that in some areas there aren’t large numbers of dogs labeled “pit bull” who are waiting for adoption. Or that in some areas, adopters are hesitant to adopt “pit bull” dogs, therefore making it more of a challenge to send the dogs home. That very well may be the case.

However, when we talk about the dogs – internally or publicly – it’s important that we consider how our words might be framing the dogs in such a way that the dogs become a negative abstraction – an overwhelming problem – rather than individual dogs who deserve our compassion. This is important to understand because it can actually stop people from adopting the dogs. Big problems, that feel overwhelming, can cause a freeze in the public’s willingness to help.

Psychologist Paul Slovic, author of If I Look at the Mass I Will Never Act: Psychic Numbing and Genocide found that the greater the number of victims, the more we depersonalized the individuals involved. And when we stop seeing others as individuals, it makes it easier to create psychological and emotional distance from them. This causes indifference to those in need.

If we feel overwhelmed by the number of those in need of help (in this case pit bulls at the shelter) we are less likely to see them as individuals, and therefore less likely to take action to help them.

animal farm quote

Psychic numbing also affects shelter workers. If we feel overwhelmed by the volume of the dogs that are in need of our attention, it can cause us to throw up our hands. It’s not unusual to feel a sense of powerlessness or helplessness in the face of broad or complex problem such as homeless pets. This can cause us to feel numb and detached from the dogs, incapable of getting to know them as individuals. You may feel as though none of your personal efforts matter. And this can generate a sense of apathy towards the “problem dogs” in your care.

Slovic notes that the numbers of victims and psychic numbing are related. The blurring of individuals can start in as little as just two victims! In order for humans to feel compelled to help or take action, they must be able to recognize individuals who are in need of compassion or assistance. Seeing the victims as valued individuals – not just an abstract group – allows us to identify with and feel empathy for them. This compels us to act.

So what does this mean for shelters that have “too many pit bulls?” If you want to boost the staff’s enthusiasm for the dogs, as well as their sense of possibility, AND encourage the public to adopt, we need to stop devaluing the dogs. We can start to do this by ceasing to communicate about “pit bull” dogs as if they are a problem. Instead, we can celebrate the dogs.

Teach the public see the “pit bull” dogs as individuals who are worthy of their compassion. Help them get to know the personalities and preferences of some of the individual dogs in your care, so that they can appreciate the singular dogs that are a part of this big group called “pit bull” dogs. Help the public make a more personal connection to the dogs, to get them to care and then take action.

Overwhelming negative abstract problem = apathy and numbness.

Valuable individual with likes and dislikes = empathy and action.

Remember, when it comes to eliciting compassion and inspiring action, there is no better, more effective approach to snapping out of the numbness then identifying an individual in need, with a face and a name.

As Mother Theresa said, “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

For the Dogs It’s All Pain, No Gain

For the Dogs It’s All Pain, No Gain

Recently we wrote a blog about “pit bull” dog websites and the damage that well-intentioned advocates cause when they post outdated information about the dogs.

A prime example of this is the perpetuation of the old myth that “pit bull” dogs have a higher tolerance for pain than other dogs.

One advocacy website writes, “Sometimes presented as a negative trait, the fact that pitbulls have a high pain tolerance makes them exceptional family dogs. They easily (and happily) put up with the rough play of children without reacting.”

Tragically, the myth of high pain tolerance is also used on pro-BSL websites to justify why “pit bull” dogs are uniquely different, dangerous, and therefore need to be regulated. It’s even shown up in court as justification for bans via claims that their supposedly high tolerance for pain makes them uniquely dangerous in comparison to other dogs.

Let’s set the record straight, shall we?

There is nothing unique about the neurological system of a “pit bull” dog. All dogs, regardless of breed label, experience pain. How each individual dog responds to that pain will vary, but the response cannot be accurately predicted by physical appearance or breed.

Tufts Veterinary Medicine Magazine examined the issue of pain in their Winter 2013 issue. Here’s what the experts had to say:

“Pain medicine as a veterinary specialty is relatively new. As recently as a decade ago, most veterinarians assumed that animals didn’t feel pain, or at least experienced it differently than humans. Now all evidence points to the contrary. Research has shown that animals and humans have similar neural pathways for the development, conduction and modulation of pain, making it pretty likely that our pets experience pain in much same the way we do.”

This tells us that all animals experience pain. All of them.

The perception of pain is unique to each individual: human or dog. Humans have the choice to be stoic and decline treatment for issues such as chronic pain, but our dogs can’t speak up for themselves. When we perpetuate the myth that “pit bull” dogs are different in the way they experience pain, we may wind up missing an opportunity to provide them with the care they need.

The article goes onto say that even in people, pain is often undertreated. “If we’re looking at practically half of the human population that’s in pain getting undertreated, I have to believe that over 95 percent of animals in [chronic] pain are not getting proper treatment,” says Michael Petty, president of the International Veterinary Academy.

While all dogs will express pain differently, this doctor is saying that an enormous amount of our pets are not getting relief! That is a lot of “stoic” animals or, more likely, a lot of owners that are either ignoring or not observing subtle symptoms of pain (for more on how pain may present in a dog’s body, please read the full article).

photograph by Alonso Nichols for Tufts Veterinary Medicine Magazine

photograph by Alonso Nichols for Tufts Veterinary Medicine Magazine


So, not only do the experts in companion animal pain tell us that there is no truth to the idea that certain dogs feel pain differently than others, there is also NO benefit to promoting the myth that “pit bull” dogs have a high pain tolerance.

This high pain tolerance myth implies:

That parents can allow their children to inappropriately handle “pit bull” dogs in a rough manner. The experts on family dog safety tell us that this type of rough play leads to dog bites – no matter what breed or mix the dog may be. To reduce dog bites and increase pet retention, children should always be taught to treat dogs gently and respectfully – “pit bull” dogs included.

That dog owners should be alarmed if their “pit bull” dog does not “happily” accept rough play from children. If the dogs react, something must be wrong with them, right? Wrong. All dogs deserve to be handled respectfully and will have varying tolerance levels for physical play. There’s nothing wrong with dogs that prefers gentle play (or no play at all) with children.

It suggests that they are biologically different than all other dogs. For people that are afraid of “pit bull” dogs, it suggests the dogs are uniquely capable of causing damage because they cannot be stopped by regular management techniques.

It makes a convenient excuse for humans that wish to exploit them and/or abuse them. It should go without saying that we should never justify cruelty by suggesting the victims have a high tolerance for being abused.

This pain myth does nothing to help “pit bull” dogs. There are many ways to promote the wonderful pet qualities and proper care of “pit bull” dogs without having to resort to perpetuating the pain tolerance myth.

pit bull and family

We can promote “pit bull” dogs as family pets, without bringing pain into the picture. Focus on each individual dog’s pet qualities and help families meet dogs that will be a great fit for their kids.

Now that we know better, we have an obligation to consider the way we communicate on behalf of the dogs and the information we’re sharing. The dogs are depending on us to stop adding to their problems by recycling old content like the myth of high pain tolerance.

However, if you’d like to discuss pain in dogs, here are some talking points:

• The perception of pain is unique to each individual, human or dog. Factors that affect each dog’s individual response to pain include age, gender, and health status. Activities they’re engaged in might also affect how dogs perceives pain. For example, if dogs are engaged in work or a sport, it can effect how they perceive pain in that moment (just like humans).

• Recognizing and determining the source of pain in dogs can be a challenge, especially since the early signs of pain can be subtle. One of the best ways to assess pain in any dog is to know what’s normal for them. In your everyday life, really pay attention to your dog’s regular behavior and habits, so that anything abnormal will be obvious to you. There is nothing better than being familiar with an individual dog in order to recognize a change in their behavior and the symptoms of pain.

• There is nothing unique about the neurological system of a “pit bull” dog. All dogs, regardless of breed label, experience pain. How each dog responds to that pain will vary, but the response cannot be predicted by physical appearance or breed.

The veterinary experts are telling us that like humans, individual dogs have varying pain tolerance levels. It’s time we all kick this tired pain generalization to the curb once and for all. It’s not helping the dogs – it’s hurting them.