"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

Sunday, August 7, 2011

It’s Not Just How They Were Raised

When adopting adults, it’s what you see in front of you that matters.

By Micaela Myers (Reprinted from StubbyDog.org)

“It’s how they’re raised.” Every pit bull person has heard this refrain. When pit bulls get media attention for the wrong reasons, we often say, “It’s not the breed, it’s how they were raised.” And the idea has sunk in, with unintended consequences.

As a volunteer for a pit bull rescue, I heard it over and over again. “We really want to adopt a puppy because we want to raise it right.”

In fact, the majority of adopters I talked to wouldn’t even consider adopting an adult pit bull, especially if their pasts were unknown. When the rescue would get litters of puppies, they were always adopted quickly, while wonderful adults would stay for up to two years awaiting homes.

While how you raise a puppy is certainly important in helping that puppy grow up into a good canine citizen, it doesn’t mean that adult dogs with unknown or even abusive pasts won’t have ideal temperaments. Many adult dogs have such wonderful personalities that no matter where they’ve been, they still look at the world with nothing but love in their hearts.

“If you see the dog right now at an adult age, and he’s a good dog, it doesn’t matter what his history was. It’s a moot point,” explained expert trainer Marthina McClay. Marthina is a CPDT, certified professional dog trainer. She’s also director of Our Pack, Inc. , a San Francisco-based pit bull rescue; an Animal Behavior College Mentor Trainer; a certified tester/observer for Therapy Dogs, Inc.; and an AKC certified CGC evaluator.

With adult dogs, what you see personality and temperament wise is what you’re going to get, Marthina said. “It’s an easier decision for many to make because you can assess whether the dog matches the needs of the family.”

Case in Point

My own dog Omega (photo below) is an excellent example of why people should consider adult dogs when looking for the perfect fit for their family. Omega was 3.5 years old when we met her at a Pit Bull Rescue San Diego adoption event. I wanted a dog that could be a therapy dog. If I had adopted a puppy, no matter how perfectly I raised him or her, there is no guarantee that puppy would grow up to have the temperament or personality to make an ideal therapy dog. However, it was clear Omega’s calm and loving temperament would make her a wonderful therapy pet. Within months she was certified.

“Our Vick dog was a good example,” Marthina said. “He became a therapy dog in five weeks. He was probably around 2.5 years old when we got him. He trained very, very quickly and slipped right into that therapy dog position because that’s who he was and that’s what he wanted to do. But when he was 4 months old, we wouldn’t have known he was going to be like that. I guess that would be my point. Working with adult dogs is much easier if you just look at them and evaluate what their personalities are like in any given environment, and that’s who they are.”

As an example of a senior dog with a rough past that is nonetheless an awesome family dog, Marthina shares the story of Bernie, (photo right) one of the dogs rescued from the Ohio 200 case. Bernie was between 7 and 8 years old when he came to Our Pack. “He had a crappy start,” Marthina said. “He lived a long time on a chain. But he was just recently adopted. He’s still active, and they go and do things — they go on hikes, they go to the park. They have three kids. He loves the kids, and the kids love him. He fits right into the household. He’s one of my favorite dogs we’ve adopted out. He’s just fabulous.”

And yes, adult dogs are perfectly capable of learning new tricks. “We’ve taken dogs from dog fighting busts that didn’t know anything and taught them to sit, down and stay and do all sorts of things,” Marthina said. “Some of them were 4, 5, 6 years old learning to sit and do a down, and had never done that sort of thing. They actually pick it up a little bit faster [than puppies].”

In addition to knowing exactly the personality and temperament you’re getting, adopting adults comes with other benefits.

“Often they’re already potty trained, and if not, they potty train much more quickly,” Marthina said. Many adult dogs may also be crate trained or already know basic obedience and house manners. “They learn the rules much more quickly.”

Finding the Right Dog for Your Family

For people that are open to adopting an adult dog, Marthina offers advice on how to find the right match.

“One of the first things is your activity level,” she said. If you love to hike, run or play ball, than a more active dog will be a great match. Those who prefer snuggling on the couch should look for a mellower adult.

“If you’re adopting from a rescue, ask the foster home or ask the rescue how active the dog is and how affectionate,” Marthina said. “Ask questions about the dog’s personality. Often rescues like ours, we foster the dog for a minimum of a month before we put the dog up for adoption. That way we kind of know the dog inside and out. That way you can get a better match in regards to what you’re looking for.”

Adopting an adult can be perfect for a family with young children, as raising a puppy and little ones at the same time easily becomes overwhelming.

“If you have children, you want to bring your kids in to meet the dog,” Marthina said. “How does the dog react around your children? Is it a match with the kids as far as the children’s energy and the dog’s energy?”

Finally, make sure the dog gets along with your current pets through careful introductions in a controlled environment.

Take Home Messages

“I’ll hear people walk by a kennel with an adult dog in it and say, ‘No, I really want to get a puppy so we can mold him and raise him the way we want.’ I think, wait, check this guy out, he may already be what you want,” Marthina said. “See if he works with your family. Often people are surprised. Even if you don’t know his background, check out his temperament now.”

She also urges people not to overlook senior dogs. “Seniors are great,” Marthina said. “They are usually housetrained. They aren’t chewing on anything. They’re usually much more calm. They like cuddling on the couch with you more. I think what’s really sad about it is that people will just walk by those kennels. They just don’t tend to take them. Seniors are awesome. They just seem so thankful. It’s so easy to give them a nice bed, good food and love, and they’re very appreciative of just that. They don’t need to be walking three miles a day. They’re very happy to just lounge around and relax.”

Marthina’s rescue focuses mainly on taking in adult dogs. After growing up with Dobermans, she was familiar with how myths, misconceptions and stereotypes can haunt certain breeds. Now, she helps change pit bull misconceptions through foster, adoption and training programs, and her website blog posts. She hopes to rescue more senior dogs in the future and promote their fabulous attributes to adopters.


  1. I live in Yavne Israel and would love to adopt a pit bull can anyone assist me. Please contact me by e mail-raymondsassu@yahoo.com

  2. I totally agree. I adopted my pit mix when he was 2 years old and I am so glad that I did. Aside from the fact that he was already house trained, he knew how to ride in the car and walk on a leash too. I really didn't want to have to train a puppy since I work full time. He clearly had a rough past since he has some scars on him still, but he was the most loyal and affectionate dog at the rescue. He was well behaved and listened to me (which is more than I can say for my Shepherd/Lab mix). It only took me 1 weekend and a few slices of lunchmeat to teach him the sit command. He is just so eager to please.

  3. I totally agree with this. We got our 2 yr old pit lab mix after he was dumped because he wouldn't fight and he is the happiest dog I have ever seen. He will love and lick you all day if you let him and his only downfall is that no one ever taught him that a 70 lbs dog is not meant to be a lap dog!

  4. I am so happy to hear all the great stories. I cannot afford the extra cost for insurance related to owning this and a few other breeds. But I was raised by (with) pit bulls. I have never believed the stories of misbehavior are breed specific. I want to applaud all who can and do, make the lives of all animals as good as possible. Just another citizen in your corner. Appreciate all you do.

    1. change your insurance company if u can. their r many out there... google: breed friendly insurance companies.

  5. I have told many, many people that it's not how they are raised. Mr. Buddy Rose is a perfect example. At about 2-years-old, he couldn't walk, sit or stand because he had spinal injuries likely caused by being beaten with a tire iron. His previous owners fed him gunpowder to make him mean, so he would fight. He's not a fighter he's a lover. He, like many other Pit Bull type dogs have a whole lot of reasons to hate humans. The only danger you are in with Buddy is he can't hold his licker. Love the comment about no one ever taught the 70 lb. dog he's not a lap dog... Buddy never learned that either. Thanks for this post. Although how they are raised is surely important, sometimes, it has not bearing on the dog they really are.

  6. Our family a 3 yr old female pit from a homeless pet foundation. She is amazing.

  7. The one you call omega looks identical to my pit mix Petey Marie who was kidnapped from me over a year ago, if she is one in the same it brings great relieve to know she is now in good hands and is a therapy dog, she was amazing when I had her, and for the last year I have done nothing but worry if she was even still alive. I'm so glad I was compelled to click on this link and saw her picture. It will finally let me rest easy about her.

  8. I love this article because we rescued a 3 year old pit bull female & after 4 months of searching, we still cannot find her a home! No one wants an adult pit bull and it makes me sad for her because she is such a sweet dog & all she wants is a family that can love her back! Hopefully she will find a home before we have to give her up this month :( If anyone is interested, email me at beccakr06@msn.com. Her name is Lucy & we created a blog for her too savinglucy.blogspot.com

  9. I'm sure you are completely right and I would like this not to be a problem anymore. On the other hand, if this problem didn't exist, I might not have given our Jerry a chance. Yes I really didn't know about these dogs but my brother-in-law brought home a pit bull stray dog who had been hanging around with the guys at his brother's work site for months and the poor thing was in terrible shape. The Dog Whisperer says no breeds are bad breeds, and I don't always trust the media in general, but I have to err on the side of caution, for my kids' sake. I said ok keep him secured away from the kids, just get him healthy and we will see how he turns out (feeling doubtful). What really made my decision to let him stay was because I knew the shelter would probably put him down. Then I fell in love with him. He is the absolute best dog I have ever known in my life, period. My husband thinks I am just silly, to ever have doubted it. He is from a very small town in very rural Mexico, had a pit bull as a boy, and says "everybody knows" back home what great dogs they are! Good for you, helping get the word out.

  10. adopting my adult pitbull has been a picture perfect story of "who saved who".
    the dog was found in a field walking through snow and ice and was very skinny. the dog had bite marks and cuts on him (looked like he was maybe a bait dog) but came right to them when called. he was a very sweet dog but needed TLC. 3 months after bringing him into there home the man was transfered to denver colorado. knowing that he couldn't take him there he started searching for a new home for him. he put out many ads and one was on facebook. we have a mutual friend who reposted it for him. which is where i saw him.
    3 days before i saw the post i had put down my 10.5yr old basset hound. i had no interest in getting a dog, especially a pitbul, until i saw that face. i met with him a few days later and even though i didn't feel in the mindset for a new dog, my heart said to save him.
    the twist to the story is that the day i picked him up, i was 450 pound. moving was a chore to me so i didn't do much of it. "pokey" forced me to get up every morning, mid day, and evening for a walk. i instantly started feeling better which gave me confidence to eat better, which resulted in more weight loss. that was 3yrs ago.
    this morning when i woke up at 5am Pokey was waiting at the end of the bed with his leash. i put on my athletic gear, took my Gatorade pre-run gel, and me and Duke had our best time at a 5k run. Pokey saved my life

    1. That is beautiful - congratulations!!

    2. This is such a great story!

  11. This may be kinda long but I'm very passionate about two things, adopting/rescuing and pibbles, and I tend to ramble on... so here goes. I have 6 rescue dogs and 1 rescue cat. All six of the dogs are some kind of Terrier mixes and include one APBT mix (with Greyhound I think) from a puppy mill situation, one Staffy from an abusive home (as well as one of my small dogs from the same "home") and one Staffy (possible mix) from a shelter. I got most as puppies with the Staffy from the shelter being the oldest when I adopted her at approx 4-5 years old. Since she was the oldest at the time she joined my family, she's the one I'll focus on here. Awesome dog!! I know nothing of her past except that before she came to me and was spayed, she had had "many, many" litters of pups per my vet. Her rear end is very weak from having so many litters so I can only imagine what she was USED for. I do think she was a "pet" because she was house-trained and knew a few simple commands but she was very dog aggressive. My dogs and I worked very hard with her and she's now, almost 3 years later, a very important part of our little family. She and one of my other girls, the APBT mix are the only two of the pack that don't do well together but that's not her fault. The two got into a couple of scraps back in the early days and the APBT is very unforgiving. She just won't let it go... lol. But we take turns with "family time" and everyone is happy and loved. She is super easily trained, very willing to learn new things, and because she's very food motivated, she learns anything I ask of her after just a couple of times of me showing her. Pats on the head are good, food is AWESOME! :) She's a very happy, healthy, and prissy gal that had lots of marks against her. She was in a high kill shelter, she was an adult, she had an unknown past because she was picked up as a stray, she is a brindle, and of course, she's a "pit bull". *gasp* I feel blessed that I saw her pic on petfinder.com one day and couldn't get her eyes out of my mind. Even though she was in a shelter several states away from me, that picture spoke to me and I couldn't let it go. Between the rescue that listed her, the people at the shelter working with me, and Pilots 'n Paws (love love love them), she is one of my babies and the favorite "toy" to my little JRT/Chihuahua mix. ♥

  12. I love this article. I adopted my purebred blue nose pit bull from a shelter at 2.5 years old. Purebred - at a shelter! I wish people would stop paying breeders when so many wonderful dogs end up in shelters. I brought home my 96 lb 'teenager' with slight hesitation. I was nervous about how his temperament would be outside of the shelter. However, I have been so happy with him and he has been amazing with cats, kids, and other dogs. He is super smart and learned quickly! He already knew sit, stay, shake, and was house broken. I will NEVER get a puppy. From here on out, adult dogs it is!

    1. We also adopted a purebred blue nose pit from a rescue group. Although we were a bit apprehensive at first due to the fact that he was abused. He has become one of the best dogs I've ever owned. He's great with my other dog and kids. He has also developed a strong bond with my wife. He's the perfect watch dog. Not at all aggressive towards strangers but, when he hears a knock on the door or a noise in the middle of the night. He's up and letting everyone one know with his barking and growling. Being a veteran with ptsd I've also gotten him registered as my service dog.

  13. What a great article. I volunteer at a large humane society where we get a lot of adult pit bulls & they're the hardest ones to adopt out. I always have a hard time convincing people that pit bulls ARE good dogs because everyone believes the negativity they get so often from the media. I will re-read several times so I can remember this great info to pass along to potential adopters. Thank you for posting!

  14. We adopted a one-year old pit-mix who seemed to have been raised by an abusive person who may have raised her around guns because she freaked out around toy guns. She was so sweet and became the greatest companion to my brother and me. We would take her out to the field to play soccer and she would dribble the ball. At the end of the day, she was just a 65lb. lapdog. She would still flinch whenever anyone raised their arms but she never bit and you were in more danger of being drowned by her or whipped to death by her wagging tail than anything else. She was a true joy and I am glad we didn't go looking for a pup.

  15. Our 12 year old pure pit bull is the gentlest dog I've seen with our 7 month old son. They frequently snuggle on the couch and Oz sleeps next to his crib every night. In the car, if my son is crying, Oz lays his head at the end of his car seat and doesn't blink an eye when my son pats him on the head. It never fails to calm him down. My son has even started to try and feed Oz his baby puffs from his high chair. It's beautiful and I am not sure that a puppy would have the same patience and tolerance for all the squirming and loudness my little boy can create!

  16. I would take a senior dog any day. They seem so grateful and ask for so little. It's really a shame that people walk past them like they're not even there. Wake up people and please adopt a senior dog.

  17. My 14 year old American Pitt is one of the best dogs I have had. She is the last of the pack of 7. ( Not all pitts but labs and retrievers ) She has been around my grandchildren from the day they were born and watches over them at night. She still runs and plays like a puppy. She plays with the cats and actually picks them up and carries them sometimes...lol