SociaBulls walking club aims to socialize dogs, rehabilitate their reputation.
Katharine and Kevin Mershon and their dog, Zoe, walk through Hyde Park Saturday with about 30 members of the SociaBulls, a group founded to socialize pit bulls and help shake the public stigma that surrounds them. (Stacey Wescott, Chicago Tribune Photo)
A week after two dogs mauled a jogger on the lakefront, about 20 pit bulls and their owners walked along Drexel Boulevard in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood.
Some suffered from minor issues. Izzy, a 2-year-old pit bull, gets a little too excited when she sees other dogs. Gordon, a white-and-tan dog, has a bit of a leash problem. Levi, 18 months, can't seem to stay focused.
Helping the dogs overcome these problems while also improving the public image of pit bulls are among the goals of SociaBulls, an organization that organizes weekly walks around the city for owners of pit bulls and other dogs.
With some aldermen calling for a conversation on legislation regarding dogs in light of last week's attack, SociaBulls leaders want to show what responsible pit bull owners do to keep their dogs and the public safe.
SociaBulls founder Amy Kang said she didn't want to get a pit bull when she and her husband, Edward, went to adopt a dog in 2006. But when they met Mazzy, an excitable pit bull who had been taken in by the city pound, her fears disappeared.
"I was like, wow, these dogs are fantastic," Amy Kang said.
It took some training, but Mazzy, now 7, can put her toys away on command. She knows how to play dead. She rolls around and she shakes. She gets along well with the couple's second pit bull, Bruno.
After adopting Bruno in 2008, the Kangs started a blog called "Two Pitties in the City." There, they offer advice to fellow pit bull owners, chronicle their experience as foster parents for dogs up for adoption and write about their own dogs. In August, the Kangs and some of their readers got together for their first walk.
Inspired by reading about HikeABull, a similar group in California, Amy Kang thought walking their dogs in a pack with other pit bulls would help them get used to being around other dogs and people in a city environment.
"I think it's great for the dogs," said Jeff Jenkins, who offers training classes for pit bull owners. "If you get 20 pit bulls together that's a lot of energy. And they don't have to love each other, they just can't attack each other."
SociaBulls members want to counter what they see as a misguided public perception about pit bulls.
Jack, a light-brown, 3-year-old pit bull who on Sunday's walk sported a fleece-trimmed leather jacket, was a little shy when his owners first adopted him from the city pound. But after proper socialization, Jack started relating eagerly with other dogs and people, his owners said.
Now, "he's got a little girlfriend in the group," said his owner, Kim Vargo, pointing to another pit bull named Lola.
"We like to be visible," said Kang. "People are going to judge the entire breed based on what they see from your dog."
Of the 1,931 bites by dogs of all breeds reported to Animal Care and Control last year, 118 resulted in dangerous dog investigations. And only 34 dogs were actually classified as dangerous, according to Animal Care and Control executive director Cherie Travis.
"Do I think that pit bulls are more likely to bite?" said Travis. "Anything with teeth can bite. I don't want to malign a particular breed. … So much has to do with how the dogs are socialized."
Ald. Sandi Jackson, 7th, whose district covers the area where last Monday's attack occurred, said last week she plans to examine how officials can better enforce city ordinances governing dog ownership.
"Hopefully there are things we can do legislatively with all of these abandoned and stray dogs," she said.
Kang and others said they hope pit bulls won't be unnecessarily targeted by any actions taken by city officials in the coming weeks. The energy that might scare some would-be pit bull owners away is exactly what can make them great companions, advocates say.
When Jerry Kirkpatrick, 51, was scouring websites for a dog to adopt, he wasn't looking for a pit bull. But he is now the proud owner of Dude, a golden-brown pit bull mix, who was shot when he was younger, but still maintained a playful spirit.
"I didn't know any better and I hadn't been exposed to any (pit bulls)," said Kirkpatrick. "Now I'm pro-pit bull."
By Naomi Nix, Chicago Tribune reporter