"A breed of satin and steel. Pit bulls are a mixture of softness and strength, an uncanny canine combination of fun, foolishness, and serious business, all wrapped up in love."

-D. Caroline Coile

Monday, April 4, 2011

Austin’s First Pit Crew Class Graduates

Believed to be the first of its kind in the country, class of seven pit-bull-type dogs completes intensive therapy-dog training program.

On Saturday, March 27, 2011, I got to watch pit-bull terriers change lives at a local Austin elementary school. Clearly, not the venue you typically hear the media reporting on pit-bull terriers hanging out with their guardians on the weekend. Any pit bull guardian will say their dog has changed their life and that of their families in various capacities, but what made this extraordinary group of seven pit-bull-type dogs so special is they were touching the lives of children, several of whom had special needs, just by being in their company, and changing pit-bull terrier stereotypes simultaneously.

The Austin Pit Crew, a Love-A-Bull organization program, is so unique because it is a therapy dog program exclusively for pit-bull terriers. At this time, it is believed to be the only one of its kind in the entire country. Love-A-Bull founder Lydia Zaidman, mom to therapy dog Mocha, can be credited with this brilliant idea after thinking it would be another way to get pit-bull-type dogs out into the community, giving back in a positive way, and continue debunking the myths and hysteria propagated by a sensationalist media about the dogs we all love. And she’s right!

“I wanted to do this forever. I thought this was a great way to showcase my own dog, Mocha. And Julie [the trainer] feels the same way about her dogs. Pit bulls are the second most popular dog in the therapy program I previously worked with, so, I got really determined to find out what it takes to make this work and have my own group,” Lydia said, reflecting on the inception of her Pit Crew idea.

Trainer Julie Eskoff started the three-hour graduation day event with a demonstration for guests and visiting children, giving them an insight into the extensive and rigorous training all seven dogs have gone through to make it to graduation day. A few children got down on a gym mat to read with a dog. Some sat in chairs holding, scratching, and petting two dogs. And one special little girl, a 9-year-old named Rose (to the right), was walking around the elementary school gymnasium with a few of her favorite dogs. Of the nearly dozen children in attendance, Rose’s reaction to the dogs really demonstrated the power and purpose of the program.

“[Rose] loves it. [Her experience] has also carried into the home too. She’ll get the leash and want to walk our dog. Because of the problems she has, I’m more tempted to say no and then it dawned on me that she does it here, I started letting her do it with our dog.
So, she walks our dog around all the time now,” said Rachel Rozko, Rose’s mom.

Rachel added, “It’s given her so much more confidence. She’s never really in a position where she’s in charge because that’s the way her life works. And here, she feels like she’s in charge. She’s such a mother hen and she gets to be a mother hen to the dogs.”

Rose absolutely lit up walking Moby, Trainer Julie’s dog, and Carley, Katheen Hamilton’s dog. Rachel even attributes many of Rose’s recent developmental breakthroughs to her participation in the program. She credits Rose’s improvements in walking, tactile reactions, and confidence and love of new animals to her experience with therapy dogs.

Though the program is running like a well-oiled machine now, getting Pit Crew off the ground was hard work and definitely a team effort. Unfortunately, an all pit-bull-type dog therapy program stirs the pot a bit because of stereotypes associated with the breed, but physical education teacher and dog therapy coordinator Patti Brauss of host school Gullet Elementary was up to the challenge. Gullet had a history of allowing therapy dogs into the school to spend time with students, many with special needs, which at least made the Pit Crew concept more familiar to the Gullet community and administrators. But Lydia and Julie both agree, without Patti as an advocate for the program it would have been incredibly difficult to get started.

“The school has been served by therapy dogs for many years now, and many breeds are represented there, including many pit bulls. Kids love dogs and are very affectionate, and the handlers have done a lot of great things with their dogs. It’s a natural fit,” said Patti.

Learning about the backgrounds and stories of how each of the dogs and their handlers/guardians got involved in the program was also a highpoint. First, all seven of the graduating dogs came from a shelter or rescue group. And some had no formal training before studying for the Canine Good Citizen exam (CGC), a qualifying factor to be eligible for Pit Crew. Jo Jo Farris and his dog Roxie were one of the teams that really went from zero to 60 once they got involved in Pit Crew. Before the graduation ceremony Jo Jo explained just how far he and Roxie had come. Jo Jo says Roxie had poor leash manners because he usually had her off-leash because she naturally stayed by his side. However, once they got into CGC training Roxie immediately excelled, and trained and passed in a matter of weeks.

A dog like Roxie is exactly what the Pit Crew is looking for. Trainer Julie says she works towards three factors with all the dogs; control, trustworthiness, and reliability.

“I want these dogs to stop being misunderstood and misrepresented. They are such beautiful dogs, extremely trainable, and I’ve never seen such love or such engagement from a breed. I’m really excited about sharing them with the community,” Julie gushed.

“These are human companions that are inclined to be right here, next to you. This is a human-engagement breed. This is the most trainable breed on the planet right here,” she continued.

Ashley Arkin’s dog Skeemers (to the right) may not have had to start from ground zero with training, but before he was in Pit Crew, he had a serious health issue to overcome – hip dysplasia. Ashley told me about the several surgeries Skeemers went through before they started Pit Crew and how at one point, she wasn’t sure if he was going to make it. Expectedly, to have the chops to get through Pit Crew training you have to be an exceptional dog with a one-of-a-kind spirit, and Skeemers is no exception. He has rebounded beautifully and Ashley even says his scar makes him more relatable to the kids.

“At only 2 years old, Skeemers had hip dysplasia so he’s the handicap dog of the crew. I’m lucky they’re able to accept a handicap dog because he can’t necessarily do everything all the other dogs can. But the kids really understand, they ask him about the scar. It’s a miracle he walks. The vets weren’t sure he was going to make it, one even told me to be prepared to make plans to put him to sleep but he’s still going,” said Ashley.

Lydia agrees that this first class of dogs is particularly distinctive, “We have a great set of dogs, our standards are very high. It’s really important for us to have the highest standards. We require the dogs to get along with other dogs, as well as all people. A lot of people in the class I personally invited them to take the class so it was pretty nice to see them graduate.”

Looking to the future, trainer Julie explains, “We are cultivating some new venues, some new connections. I would love to see a Pit Crew program in every state in the nation, and I’d like for Lydia and I to be the founders of it, and travel around the country and put this program together. I want the breed better represented, even in the areas where they’re discriminated against.”

Congratulations to the spring 2011 Austin Pit Crew class! Jo Jo and Roxie, Morgan Warren and Coco, Kathleen and Carley, Lydia and Mocha, Ashley and Skeemers, and Trainer Julie, Moby and Pearl; this is such an achievement! Good luck!

Over the summer, the first Crew class will “cultivate,” as Trainer Julie puts it, and evaluations and training for a new class will begin in September.

If you are in the Austin-area and want to find out if your pit-bull-type dog is eligible for Pit Crew or you would like to support Love-A-Bull, please visit Love-A-Bull.org. Also, be sure to “like” Love-A-Bull on Facebook to keep up with news on what the Pit Crew. Trainer Julie can also be reached for training at the Rancho Mondo Northwest Canine Resource Center.

By Jessi Freud, Best Friends Network volunteer
Photos by Jennifer Hayes

Here is another video/article on the Pit Crew program. Check it out here.

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