Two years ago, Alyssa Michnick and a group of shelter volunteers were faced with a reactive dog conundrum. You see, any individual dog of any breed or mix can be reactive. Through training, these dogs can become less reactive. A key part of that involves walking with other dogs – which brings us to the conundrum. Some people judge dogs they perceive as “pit bull” dogs differently than they would another reactive dog. They don’t view that dog as an individual. For that reason, Alyssa and her group had trouble finding people who would walk with reactive “pit bull” dogs. (more…)
Here at Animal Farm Foundation our grants program is constantly evolving to keep up with the changing needs in animal welfare. Where in the past we funded exclusively to “pit bull” specific programs, today our focus has shifted towards granting to programs that are inclusive of “pit bull” dogs, but are not exclusive to them. This approach reflects the many changes in animal welfare we’ve been a part of over the past two decades.
Today, programs that treat all dogs as individuals are the path to a better future for ALL dogs. One of the types of programs we’re most happy to see are ones in which a safety net is created for all pets within the community through the offering of a variety of owner support services.
Pit Sisters, one of grant award recipients, is doing just that! Their unique pilot program, Mobile Training, is offered in targeted areas of Jacksonville, FL where the highest rate of pet surrenders are generated from. Their Mobile Training Program provides dog training at no cost to the owners, so that families can keep their dogs at home, where they are wanted and loved, rather than surrendering them due to training issues.
We had the chance to talk with Jennifer Deane, founder of Pit Sisters, about their program.
AFF: Can you tell our readers about how the mobile training program works?
Pit Sisters: We work in partnership with two of our local shelters to determine the areas of town to focus in. We target the areas that have the highest numbers of dogs turned in to the shelters and we offer free training for families and their dogs. We constructed a book of training tips in conjunction with several area training experts that are easy to use and have lots of ideas for inexpensive solutions, including a treat suggestion sheet and toy suggestion sheet using everyday items.
Why did Pit Sisters decide to focus on supporting this particular area (dog training) of the human-canine bond in your community?
We decided to focus on training because we were receiving lots of emails from families who wanted to keep their dogs, but the dogs needed training. Hiring a trainer can be expensive and we know how important building the bond between the family and the family dog(s) is, so we decided to focus on training. There are no programs like ours in our community, so we felt that we could fill a gap with a much-needed service.
Your program does a great job of viewing all dogs and their families as individuals – no stereotypes or judgement allowed! Instead, you focus on getting to know their individual needs, so you can better address whatever issues might be barriers to the dogs staying in their homes.
How has that approach been helpful for you and your clients? Can you share how you’ve built trust between your program/trainers and the community you’re serving?
Building trust has been the most challenging part and we continue to work on that. I think what helps a lot is our partnerships with our local shelters and other animal welfare organizations, as well as local businesses. They help us to get the word out by distributing information and telling people about the program. One of the low cost animal clinics even gave us coupons for a free office visit for participants in our program. This is approach works incredibly well. All of our trainers have caring, nonjudgmental attitudes, and as such are well received by the community.
Can you share a success story with us?
Sure! We had a family with two dogs come to us – one of the dogs was highly reactive to other dogs and the other had separation anxiety. When we met the owners they were frustrated and didn’t know what to do. And they couldn’t afford to pay a trainer. Because of our program, they were able to get the help they needed. Our mobile trainer gave them advice and worked with both dogs. We met with the family for quite a bit and watched them practice the techniques that we taught them and then we followed up with them to see how things were going. The dogs are doing much better and the family is volunteering with us now as well!
If someone wanted to start a similar program in their community, what advice would you give them?
Form strong relationships with your local animal shelters and animal welfare organizations! Pit Sisters would like to help others start similar programs, so we’re willing to talk to anyone who may be interested in starting their own program. They can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Thank you for talking with us Jen and for the great work you’re doing in your community! For more information about Pit Sisters, please visit their website. And for information about our Grants program, please visit the Animal Farm Foundation site.
We recently read a blog by the good folks at Your Pit Bull and You called: Can Animal Advocacy be Divorced from Animal Behavior? In this thoughtful post, the authors contemplate if animal welfare advocates would be more effective in the long run if they were as educated in animal learning and behavior as they are in the issues related to improving animal welfare.
They wrote, “It behooves advocates (and the dogs who inspire their work) to have a basic understanding of how animals learn, and what drives their behavior. The Humane Society of the United States estimates that 2.7 million adoptable cats and dogs were euthanized in US shelters last year. Behavioral issues are ranked among the top reasons for the relinquishment of pets to shelters.”
We agree. It’s only a good thing when advocates have a deeper understanding of dog behavior and how our actions on the other end of the leash impact the dogs. Dog behavior doesn’t happen in a vacuum after all! Dogs live with us. Dog behavior cannot be understood apart from humans or the situations in which humans have placed dogs.
As we advocate for fair, effective non-discriminatory dog laws and better animal sheltering practices, it’s important that we have a foundation of understanding about how dogs learn and how their behaviors are related to and influenced by our actions. In this way, we can better support pet owning families, create dog owner laws that work, and prevent more dogs from entering our shelter system in the long term.
The blog got us thinking that an equally fair question to ask would be: Can Animal Trainers and Behaviorists be Divorced from Animal Advocacy? And to that the answer is also: No.
Just as advocates have a lot to learn about dog training and behavior, dog trainers have a responsibility to learn from advocates as well.
The language and the information that dog trainers and behaviorists use is perceived as fact by lawmakers, shelter workers, and dog owners. This means there is a responsibility to think carefully about how our words might be perceived and the potential our words have to influence wider audiences. Unfortunately, we sometimes hear dog trainers (as well as advocates and veterinarians) relaying information to the public that can be quite damaging for the dogs.
For instance: sometimes well-intentioned dog trainers will speak positively about “pit bull” dogs by referring to their supposed “high pain threshold” as an example of how they’re a good match for families with younger kids who may handle the family dog in a rough manner. While we understand that the intentions behind statements like these are good ones, there are three ways this kind of information sharing does not help the dogs:
1. It’s a generalization about a large group of diverse dogs. Like any dog, from Labrador Retrievers to mixed breed dogs, some “pit bull” dogs may be good with younger, rowdy children, while others are not. Using generalizations about a large group of dogs distracts potential adopters from focusing on getting to know dogs as individuals. For example, a better method for selecting a kid-friendly dog is for families to choose an individual dog that is good with their children.
2. It’s easy to misinterpret. This kind of statement fails to set dogs and kids up for safe and successful interactions because, to the average listener, it suggests that it’s acceptable for parents to allow children to play roughly with dogs to the point of inflicting pain. We can help all dogs by sharing information that clearly communicates to families how they can set dogs up to succeed in our world.
3. It perpetuates myths. This statement perpetuates a myth about the biology of “pit bull” dogs which has been used against the dogs in court by those who wish to characterize “pit bull” dogs as deviant and dangerous. Misinformation like this is used to support discriminatory laws and policies which ban the dogs based on breed, not on individual behavior.
Take a look at the graphic below, which illustrates some common refrains we hear from dog trainers (as well as veterinarians and advocates) and the corresponding quotes that we’ve pulled from BSL hearings, laws, and other discriminatory statements:
Can you see how words spoken about dog behavior and training can also cause confusion for some audiences? And worse, how it can be used as ammo for fueling discrimination against dogs? With good intentions, dog trainers often say sweeping things about large groupings of dogs (not just “pit bull” dogs) and this information is then used by decision makers to justify hysteria-based discriminatory laws and policies.
That’s why it’s important to consider how we speak about the dogs.
Our words really do matter. Dog trainers are considered experts and their words are perceived as fact. Saying things like “it’s all how they’re raised” and “that breed isn’t appropriate for first time dog owners” about an entire group of dogs can cause real long-term problems.
It’s not always easy to carefully consider our language choices, but we owe it to the dogs to think about how we communicate and how the information we share might be misunderstood or used to justify dangerous and discriminatory policies.
The dogs and their families will benefit when all of us take the time to educate ourselves about the work being done on the other end of the spectrum.
Dog trainers can learn how to communicate more accurately and effectively from advocates and advocates can learn how to better support the dogs, their families, and communities through a better understanding of canine learning and behavior from dog trainers.
Learning from one another in this way, we can truly make a positive, lasting impact for the dogs we all love.
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 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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
We just heard that February is “Responsible Pet Ownership Month.” Who knew? And maybe a better question is, shouldn’t every month be Responsible Pet Ownership Month? Better yet, every day!
Responsible pet ownership is one the KEY elements to creating safe, humane communities. So when dog owners disregard the basic rules that govern responsible pet ownership, they don’t just cause a problem in their immediate circle, they also make it harder for every single dog owner out there.
For example, calls for BSL usually stem from a single incident involving one irresponsible dog owner whose actions (or inaction) caused trouble.
Being an irresponsible dog owner creates community-wide problems!
That’s not to say that “pit bull” dog owners need to be more responsible than other dog owners. ALL dog owners need to be equally responsible…all the time, every day, in all kinds of ways. Responsible dog owners are aware of how their actions impact those around them.
Are you responsible? Let’s take a look!
You may be an irresponsible dog owner if you:
- Allow your dog to roam loose and unattended.
- Ignore leash laws.
- Fail to scoop your dog’s poop on public property.
- Allow your dog to be a nuisance to your neighbors.
When you do these sort of things, it upsets everyone around you, it’s unsafe for your dog, and, frankly, it makes us all look bad.
If you said yes to any of the above points, you have the potential to be a community problem with repercussions that may spread far beyond just you and your pets.
Not being a community problem should be a goal to strive for every single day, not just during the month of February. Because let’s get real: we all notice the irresponsible things dog owners are doing. And we’re tired of it. Stop messing stuff up for the rest of us, will you please?
That’s a year-round request!
For more on the humane care, custody, and control of dogs, please see NCRC.