"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, June 13, 2011

“PITSburgh’s” Got the Pits! Pit Bull Terriers, That is!

Pit-bull terrier service and therapy dogs making a difference in their community.

There are many service dogs and certified therapy dogs throughout the country doing great work for individuals and groups in places like schools, nursing homes, and hospitals. These dogs provide a great service to their communities and to their guardians.

Not surprisingly because of their typical outgoing and people-pleasing personalities, pit-bull terriers fit this role very nicely in cities just about everywhere. Pittsburgh is no exception.

Michele and Nola
Nola is an experienced therapy dog, having done many visits at various organizations, including kissing booths to raise money for charity. Nola’s guardian, Michele Carso, had Nola certified about two years ago and the pair have been doing events and visits ever since.

One of their regular visits is to Crafton Library just outside of Pittsburgh. The first year they went one day a month. During their time at the library, children of all ages could spend time reading to Nola. Nola would sit patiently “listening” to each of the children. This provides a wonderful service to children who might otherwise be intimidated by reading to an adult or in front of their classmates. It also helps children to become fluent and to enjoy reading while having Nola’s companionship.

There was such a great response from the community that she was asked to come back more frequently the following year. They now visit twice a month. Shortly thereafter, they were asked to stay for a longer period of time during each visit due to the high amount of parent requests. Nola has become known as a great resource to help children in the community.

One of Nola’s favorite places to visit is Allegheny General Hospital. She comforts not only patients, but their families as well. They spend most of their time in the waiting areas outside of the ICU and trauma areas. Although they cannot visit the rooms on these floors, providing Nola’s services to the families in the waiting areas is extremely helpful.

Michele recalls one specific instance where a police officer had been injured in a police chase. He was having many surgeries done while his wife waited in the waiting area. Michele says, “Nola helps take their mind off of things even if just for a few minutes. It provides a great comfort to them.”

On one special occasion, Michel and Nola had a special request for Nola’s presence.

“This patient had specifically requested that a therapy dog come to visit him,” Michele says. “He was in an ICU room which dogs are not normally allowed into, but this man had been in the hospital for several months and it was his birthday wish to have a visit from a therapy dog. Nola couldn’t go into his room so they brought the man out for his visit with Nola. He was so excited to have Nola’s companionship even if only for a short time.”

In addition, each summer Nola is invited to the Pittsburgh School for the Blind for family day where about 20 other therapy dogs also come to visit.

Michele recalls, “We were walking in and a little boy came over and asked if he could pet Nola. He said she was beautiful and commented that he loves pit bulls, but he said that his father did not, and would be very upset if he knew he was petting one. Later on that day we were sitting there when a man came over and pet many other dogs that were near us, including a 200 pound mastiff right next to us, a gigantic Lab, and other large breed dogs. He said to me ‘I’m sorry but I can’t pet your dog, I’m afraid of it.’ This man was the little boy’s father.

“I asked the man for five minutes of his time. I told him that he didn’t have to pet her if he didn’t want to. We went and sat on the ground and he slowly started to pet her. Within five minutes Nola was on his lap smothering him with kisses. The little boy said that he couldn’t wait to show his friends and family a picture of his dad with a pit bull.”

In addition to all of these experiences, Nola has also visited Manor Care Nursing Home on several occasions. She’s gone to see those who had gone through major surgeries and were now staying at the nursing home.

Nola has also gone to the University of Pittsburgh on a few instances to help ease students’ anxiety. She has also participated in two kissing booths-one to raise money for Relay for Life for cancer patients and research, and one for the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society.

Clearly Nola is a busy therapy dog! Michele says that they will continue to do whatever they can to assist those in distress, to help children, and to help those who need comforting. Nola is certainly providing her community with a great service.

Heather and BoBo
Heather Long’s pit-bull terrier, BoBo, has a different role than that of therapy dog. BoBo is a service dog. Service dogs accompany individuals in different aspects of their lives. It could be assisting a person who is blind, a person who is in a wheelchair or even someone who has anxiety.

Heather has always had an enormous fear of flying, yet she’s required to travel fairly regularly. Heather says, “I have always had a stronger than average fear of flying. Unfortunately, my current obligations require me to fly quite often. When this need arose, I thought that more frequent exposure to my fear of flying would allow me to overcome it; unfortunately though, the more frequent exposure only made things worse.”

Once while traveling, Heather brought her Jack Russell terrier in a carrier to fly under her seat. “Being focused on keeping her situated during the flight, I realized afterwards that I was so focused on her that I didn't have time to focus on my fear,” says Heather.

It was at this time that Heather’s doctor recommended that she always fly with a canine companion to ease her anxiety. Only Heather had a better flying buddy in mind, who she knew would tolerate the airports, public, and airplanes better than her Jack Russell. That’s where BoBo came in.

BoBo is a 6-year-old pit-bull terrier, one of four that Heather has who enjoys working. Heather says that she and BoBo share a special, unique bond. When she first rescued him, he nearly died and Heather was there for him every step of the way to help him through his sickness. He is now a healthy, sweet dog who accompanies Heather on all of her flights.

“The first time I flew with him, his behavior put a smile on my face from ear to ear, and in my heart,” Heather says of the experience. “He made me so proud. He generally walks well on leash, but pulls on occasion when he smells something irresistible. But in the airport, he walked right by my side, without me ever having to correct him. He stayed fully focused on me, maintaining eye contact. When I stopped walking, in the stop-and-go fashion that one must move through a crowded airport, he automatically sat, without me asking. Rolling suitcases and crowds of people coming from every which direction did not faze him.

“But the most amazing and endearing part came during that first take-off. Take off and landings are the most troubling times for me. When we boarded the plane, he settled in on the floor like a good boy. But he seemed to sense my anxiousness during take-off, because he didn't skip a beat: he arose from his resting position on the floor, and softly but intently placed his paws in my lap, gently looked me in the eye, and gave me loving licks on my face. Once we were leveled up in the air, he went back on the floor and settled back down. We both drifted to sleep, something I could never do before as I spent the entire flight quietly gripping my seat! Then, as we began our descent, BoBo repeated the same intuitive gestures that he had during take-off.”

At home, BoBo is free to be “just a dog,” stealing food from the counter, chasing squirrels, and other typical dog behaviors. But when it’s time to work, it’s all business for BoBo.

Amy and Porter
Porter is an 11-year-old rescued pit-bull terrier/Lab mix. He earned both his Canine Good Citizen award and Therapy Dog International title when he was 4 years old. Porter’s guardian Amy Dengler, who is also a trainer and Hello Bully volunteer, says, “Porter is a gentle, loving dog, who is naturally good with the people he encounters.”

Some of Porter’s visits have included nursing homes where he did hospice visits, a women's shelter, and events for the nonprofit organization Hello Bully. Amy points out, “A therapy dog must have a solid temperament because visits can be stressful and emotionally challenging to many dogs.”

Porter has spent time visiting hospice patients where some patients left behind their family pet. Receiving attention from Porter during this time seems to offer comfort to the patient and their family. Porter gets stopped by the patients in the hall and the staff, who always had time to give him attention.

Amy talked about one place in particular where she felt their presence really made a difference.

“Visiting the women's shelter left a lasting impact on us,” Amy recalls. “These women and their children left their homes and family pets to escape abuse. Studies show that domestic abuse typically does not stop with the humans involved. When the families get to spend time with a visiting dog, it can create a very emotional response. Many of the children have so much experience with physical and mental abuse.

“Part of Porter's visits included demonstrations using positive reinforcement, instead of punishment. Porter's demonstration included picking up markers on the floor and putting them away in the toy box. Doing this task without using force or yelling showed the children that using praise and rewards, instead of punishment, helps build relationships out of trust, not fear.”

Interacting with Porter not only helped demonstrate this, but it also allowed them to spend time with a dog, something many of them missed. “Just spending time with Porter seemed to brighten their day, and gave them a momentary break from the stress they were experiencing,” Amy says.

“One mother had tears in her eyes and she stated, ‘We miss our pit bull so much. Porter's visit was such a pleasure!’ "

  • Best Friends Animal Society is working throughout the country to help pit-bull terriers, who are battling everything from a media-driven bad reputation to ineffective and expensive breed-discriminatory legislation. Best Friends hopes to end discrimination against all dogs. Dogs are individuals and should be treated as such. Find out how you can help by visiting and becoming a fan of Best Friends' pit bull terrier initiatives.

By Lynn Ready, Best Friends Network volunteer
Photos courtesy of Michele Carso, Heather Long and Amy Dengler

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