"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

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Video du Jour

For more about Stella's story, see:

For a fantastic article that'll help you think clearly through the hysteria and sensationalism that surrounds pit bulls, read this :

For more indepth information about life with pit bull type dogs, see :

For more about the benefits of adopting an older dog, see :

Are you an artist (photographer, painter, sculptor, film maker, craftsman, etc., etc)? Know someone who is? Have a look at http://www.heartsspeak.org to see how your work can help in the fight to get shelter animals out of shelters.

Elsie the Artist

Despite surviving abandonment and breast cancer,
Elsie expresses nothing but joy in her singular pit bull art

By Tanya Turgeon, first posted on Dec. 5, 2011 and updated on Sept. 25, 2012
(Reprinted from StubbyDog.org)

Elsie’s story began in a way that is, sadly, not unfamiliar for many pit bulls in New York City. In 2006, she was picked up off the streets by Animal Care and Control in Manhattan, where she quickly became the staff favorite, but also ended up on the euthanasia list as so many of pit bull type dogs do. Thankfully, they reached out on Elsie’s behalf and were able to find her a foster home before she found her forever home a few weeks later with me.

Elsie’s “mug shot” is the only clue to her first few years of her life. When they picked her up, she had obviously just given birth to a litter of puppies. Where she had them or where they ended up we’ll never know. Elsie was most likely used as a breeder dog and then simply discarded, an all too common practice.

A rough beginning has turned into a love affair. Elsie and I are best friends, roommates, couch coddlers, bed buddies, walking partners and so much more. This made it all the more devastating when in 2009, after only three years together, Elsie had a tumor removed that turned out to be breast cancer. Research has revealed that simply spaying female dogs before their first heat can prevent breast cancer completely.

Thankfully, we caught it early and a partial mastectomy has kept Elsie cancer free. In 2010, Elsie ended up with aural hematomas in both ears, and in 2011 she was diagnosed with a leiomyoma at the base of her tail – a kind of benign tumor. Although Elsie has been spirited through all of her six surgeries over the last three years, I did not fair so well. Each surgery was a brutal reminder of her mortality, and as I found myself pulled towards depression, I realized what we needed was a project, something unique to do together. It had to be something positive and fun, something that maybe we could even share with others.

With a bit of paint, a few treats and some dog shampoo standing nearby, Elsie and I decided to create art – but not just any art. We use pink paint (dog-safe, of course) to represent her breast cancer survival. Elsie uses her paws, her tail and whatever else she can get on the canvas to leave her mark as a pit bull that is so happy that she wants to share the love with everyone.

With the help of fellow pit bull lover, Leila Nelson, Elsie’s art has blossomed into a full-fledged website, Something Elsie, featuring Elsie’s art and other fun things she does as a cute, friendly and well-respected member of the community. Elsie puts a smile on the face of every single person she meets – and she meets a lot! She loves stuffed animals, sitting on laps or feet, and despite what people did to her early in her life, what she loves most is making every person feel like they are the most special person in the world. Elsie is an exquisite example of a pit bull’s strength of character marked by the ability to forgive.

Update by Tanya:
Thanks to our first appearance on StubbyDog, Elsie’s artwork has made its way to 10 different states and even across the sea to Germany! We’ve been able to make regular donations from a portion of the proceeds to the Humane Society of NY (whose amazing medical team has taken such good care of Elsie all these years at an affordable cost) and plan to also contribute to the rescue groups working tirelessly to save the lives of pit bulls from Manhattan Animal Care and Control, where Elsie originally came from and where I started volunteering this summer.
Elsie has acquired her own Facebook fan page where she features her new art, silly pictures of herself, and updates on her life, including surgery number seven which happened in March and resulted in the loss of a toe. But all is well and Elsie simply celebrated her three-toed foot with some new paintings showing off her now very unique paw print.
At 10 years old, Elsie’s hearing is a bit wonky, her naps are longer, her walks shorter, and her face whiter, but her zest for life and love for every person she meets is still going strong. Through her art she continues to promote the message that every dog deserves a warm and loving home and should never be judged by breed or appearance but by their spirit.

Together We Can Make a Big Difference

Arm yourself with accurate information and a good attitude to make every encounter a positive one

By Barbara Telesmanic (Reprinted from StubbyDog.org)

Being selected to participate in the StubbyDog Elite Superhero Squad with my dog Buddy has been a dream come true for a multitude of reasons. As advocates we have an excellent opportunity to communicate to the public an accurate interpretation of pit bulls and address the discrimination their guardians face every day. It allows us an opportunity to change those stigmas and perceptions.

As a nurse working in the healthcare field, we make decisions centered on evidence-based practice (EBP). Some changes are actually super easy; for instance, did you know that something as simple as hand washing compliance by healthcare providers can eliminate 10 percent of all acquired infections, save 3 billion dollars and save 10,000 lives yearly! Simple changes can have a significant impact. On a day to day basis, pit bull owners are met with contempt, doubt and fabricated stories based on fear, hate and misinformation. Simple changes in the way we communicate our perspective can make considerable changes on how our dogs are received.

How do we change public misconception? If there is science backing our position, nationally recognized animal organizations behind us, facts disproving myths, then how and why are we still meeting such resistance? Partly because pit bull adopters are sometimes unclear of accurate information, and we are somehow apologetic with our rationale. It can be so difficult for us not to become immediately defensive when someone insults or disparages our dogs, but we need to rise above and be smarter than our naysayers. We need to create a new culture by raising the bar and communicating more effectively by imparting simple changes.

When educating the public, focus on creating an environment that negates anger, conflict, assumptions and blame; becoming defensive will only cut off the lines of communication. A positive attitude and receptive rapport will encourage an open dialogue and discourage hateful rhetoric. Don’t overreact, take a 10 second pause and perhaps say, “I’m sorry to hear that, I’d be interested in hearing why you feel that way.” This should open up an avenue for respectful communication.
Presenting facts and accurate statistics from reputable, highly regarded organizations has a greater impact on the receiver than passionate opinions. We need to encourage pit bull adopters to be role models, good communicators, be a positive influence on their community and inspire tolerant behaviors. Historically, as mentioned earlier, we have been prone to apologize for having pit bulls; I’ve even read that we are irresponsible for wanting “such dogs.” How we manage our response is critical if we want to create a new culture of positivism and pride. Studies show that to avoid conflict, we need to collaborate, communicate and be open-minded when defending our point. Defensive interactions decrease the opportunity to increase awareness.
The media has demonized these dogs for decades, so trying to undo perceptions is not easy. Together we are better. Use resources like those on StubbyDog’s resource page and know where and how people can get correct information. Become very familiar with your rebuttal and anticipate your response. Behavior impacts change. For example, if my behavior is abrasive, the impact is being tuned out and ultimately not changing minds. Accountability reduces anxiety … if you are knowledgeable, clear and offer comprehensible data, you will be better received.

The time has come for responsible pit bull adopters to be heard. Our say is just as important as anyone else’s. When talking about your dog or any pit bull-type dog, be enthusiastic, energetic and engaged. Encourage questions and open communication. Only 25 percent of what is heard will be remembered, and non-verbal cues are just as important; present yourself and your dog in a positive light. We all want to live in a safe environment – let’s help create that. By being a competent advocate you will exceed expectations and help build the next generation of pit bull leaders.
Please support the vision and mission of StubbyDog and its Superhero Squad by donating today and creating a “world where every pit bull has the right to a good life.”

2013 Pinups For Pitbulls Calendar Shoot

Join Celeste and her team as they photograph the cover of the Pinups For Pitbulls 2013 Calendar cover featuring founder Deirdre 'Little Darling' Franklin. For this year's annual fund-raising calendar, they chose to celebrate the human-canine bond with a tribute to the famous Saturday Evening Post covers by Norman Rockwell.

The 2013 calendar features 16 stunning photos by Celeste Giuliano Photography and all the proceeds support Pinups for Pitbulls. To purchase a calendar or learn more about Pinups for Pitbulls, please visit: www.pinupsforpitbulls.org

Become a fan of Celeste Giuliano Photography: www.facebook.com/celestegiulianophotography

Sunday, October 14, 2012

BSL: Which Side Are You On?

You may have heard by now that Cynosport, the annual national event held by the United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA), happened over the weekend. The USDAA is, according to their website, “the world’s largest independent authority for the sport of dog agility, with more than 25,000 registered competitors and more than 200 different breeds of dogs, including mix breeds.”

And yet, they chose to hold this national event in Commerce City, Colorado – a town with a breed ban (otherwise referred to as Breed Specific Legislation or BSL). They were fully aware of the ban.

It got us thinking: Why would any dog group voluntarily bring their event and therefore a ton of money, to a town that bans and kills dogs based on their physical appearance?

You’re either against BSL – and take your business elsewhere – or you support it. Choosing to hold an event in places like Commerce City is a passive way of condoning bans that are tearing families apart. There’s no free pass on this sort of choice.

So why would any dog group or animal welfare organization purposely choose to do business in an area that discriminates against dogs and their families?

It must be because they think BSL doesn’t affect them.

If that’s the case, then we’ve got some work to do.

There must be a disconnect within the dog community (and perhaps the larger animal welfare community as a whole) if large, national groups think that BSL isn’t something they need to be concerned about or take a stand against.

BSL affects us all, no matter what kind of dog we have. In fact, it affects everyone, whether or not they even own a pet.

While it’s true that BSL discriminates against certain dogs and certain owners, it does one thing across the board: BSL jeopardizes everyone’s safety equally.

BSL is not a “pit bull” dog issue. It’s not something that only affects “pit bull” dogs and their families. BSL denies all of us the opportunity to live in a safe, humane community.

So why are “pit bull” dog advocates often alone at the plate, standing up against BSL so that everyone will benefit from fair and equal policies?

Why are they the only ones boycotting events like the USDAA’s Cynosport? Where’s the group outrage?

Perhaps it’s time to get clear on how BSL fails all of us and why we all need to step up to the plate together:
  • BSL is ineffective and expensive (your tax dollars are being wasted). It has never been proven to increase public safety. Learn more about how BSL fails here.
  • BSL is time-consuming and nearly impossible to enforce. Animal control officers must spend time and resources seizing and destroying family dogs, based only on their physical appearances, rather than focusing their efforts on protecting the community from truly dangerous animals.
  • BSL doesn’t treat all citizens equally. Every citizen deserves to be protected from ALL reckless dog owners, regardless of what kind of dog they own. BSL only targets certain breeds or breed mixes, based only on how they look and not based on how a dog actually behaves. Every dog owner should be held equally accountable.
  • BSL has targeted more than 30 different breeds of dogs – from Boston Terriers and Chihuahuas to Siberian Huskies and Great Danes, plus countless mixed breed dogs. Think your dog is safe? BSL is a slippery slope and your dog might be the next victim. See what happened when one woman’s mixed breed dog was reported to be a “pit bull” dog.
  • BSL and “no kill” are incompatible. Cities can’t claim to be “no kill” if a breed ban is in place. Euthanizing any dog identified as a banned breed, regardless of the dog’s individual temperament, is incompatible with the “no kill” philosophy. Forward thinking animal welfare policies don’t allow for discrimination.
  • BSL creates an atmosphere of fear. Families who can’t move to other towns wind up hiding their dogs. Neighbors get the message that “those dogs” aren’t safe and look at their neighbor’s dogs differently. Myths, lies, and hype take the place of facts, truth, and personal experiences. Fear replaces logic.
  • BSL perpetuates myths. BSL suggests we can accurately identify a dog’s breed based on their looks and that a dog’s breed is an accurate predictor of behavior. Science, like this analysis from the AVMA, has repeatedly shown that both of these concepts are false. We cannot accurately i.d. a dog based only on their physical appearance. And we cannot predict or assume to know how a dog will act in the future, based only on their breed.
Breed Specific Legislation fails us and our communities. Clearly, it’s not just “pit bull” dogs that benefit from putting an end to BSL. Everyone benefits when breed neutral laws, that hold ALL reckless dog owners accountable for their actions, are in place. It’s in all of our best interests to defeat BSL.

Defeating BSL makes the world a better, safer, more humane place for ALL dogs and all humans. Those of us with “pit bull” dogs can’t get there without the help and support of the wider dog community.

So all of us, especially dog lovers involved in pet related businesses, dog sporting associations, and animal welfare groups, need to take a stand against BSL and say: We want safe, humane communities and we won’t stand for or support this discrimination.

If you believe that all dogs should be treated fairly and equally, please stand with us.

Here’s how:
  • Boycott towns that have BSL: don’t hold conferences, competitions, or events in these towns. Take your money to places that don’t discriminate. Money talks.
  • Don’t be silent. It could be your dogs next. Help us stop the cycle of discrimination now, so that no other group of dog owners ever has to take up this fight again. Join “pit bull” dog families in your town and demand fair and effective breed neutral polices. Let your policy makers know that you won’t stand for discrimination and ineffective laws that compromise everyone’s well being.
“Pit bull” dog families and advocates can’t defeat BSL without your help.

Please help us stand up for all dogs.

You’re either part of the problem or part of the solution.

To download a copy of this poster, please visit:http://www.animalfarmfoundation.org/pages/Posters

About Animal Farm Foundation

Animal Farm Foundation, Inc., a not-for-profit organization, dedicated to securing equal treatment and opportunity for "pit bull" dogs. For more information, visit: www.animalfarmfoundation.org

“Pit Bull” Dog Families: Stepping Into the Spotlight

Earlier this week, Kelly Ripa, a popular morning talk show host, in an interview with a guest, made a comment that set the “pit bull” dog community into a minor tailspin. For those that missed the show, Ms. Ripa said to her guest, in reference to his character’s dog, “But the gangster’s dog is uh, I mean if it’s a gangster it would have to be a dangerous, uh, Pit Bull kind of dog, right?”

The blowback has been swift – the “pit bull” dog owning public does not want to be mischaracterized as a bunch of gangsters. We agree.

Ms. Ripa relied on stereotypes and myths when she made the choice to characterize the dog as a “pit bull”. The public perception continues to be that only criminals own “pit bull” dogs, despite the fact that they are the overwhelming majority of “pit bull” dogs live completely wonderfully unremarkable lives as everyday pets in everyday families. We have a lot of work to do to change the deeply ingrained stereotype that led Ms. Ripa to think otherwise.

What we’re working to help the public understand – including lawmakers – is that problematic “pit bull” dog owners, like “gangsters”, are the chronic fringe of the population of people who own dogs.

They are not the majority (not even close to it) and yet this small group has a disproportionate effect on how the dogs are perceived and treated.

The real majority is made up of everyday, average “pit bull” dog families. It’s an unremarkable bunch. They follow the law, care about their dogs well-being, want to live in safe communities, and are, overwhelmingly, just like any other dog owner.

The news cameras aren’t lining up to cover the millions of law-abiding, good neighbors and just plain boring “pit bull” dog families, but they are, WE ARE, indeed, the majority:

Banfield Pet Hospitals, the largest general veterinary practice in the world, reports that the percentage of “pit bull” dogs visiting their clinics in the U.S. has increased by 47% over the past decade. Not only are “pit bull” dogs popular, but they’re owned by people who are responsible enough to take them to the vet.

And a recent survey by Vetstreet concluded that dogs identified as “pit bulls” are one of the most popular family dogs in this country.

It’s not easy to come up with a flashy stereotype for responsible “pit bull” dog owners. There’s no hook in the mundane, everyday lives of responsible ”pit bull” dog families who hang out on the couch with their dogs. But it’s the truth.

To download this poster, please visit: http://www.animalfarmfoundation.org/pages/Posters

This not-so-exciting truth needs a lot of help to be pushed back into the spotlight, in order to crowd out the fringe minority that, with their powerful stereotype and hysteria-inducing headlines, have taken center stage away from everyday families.

Which means that as “pit bull” dog advocates, we have work to do – on ourselves. We need to be mindful of the language we use when we discuss our dogs, the messages we send to our community, our behavior when we speak up in defense of our dogs, and the stereotypes we ourselves buy into.

Because, make no mistake about it, the animal welfare world relies on some of the same stereotypes that Ms. Ripa rubbed up against in her interview.

Here are a few examples:

STEREOTYPE: “Good Families Don’t Want “Pit Bull” Dogs”: We frequently hear from shelter executives who, as justification for NOT adopting out “pit bull” dogs, tell us that ”good” families don’t come to shelters to adopt ”pit bull” dogs. They tell us, over and over, that only people in “baggy pants” want to adopt “pit bull” dogs and in order to keep the dogs safe, they don’t place them for adoption or they place heavy restrictions on “pit bull” dog adoptions.

This kind of rational winds up causing damage on two levels: it’s an unfair policy that prevents good dogs the chance to go home with adopters and it sends a message to the larger community that only criminals want “pit bull” dogs. This perpetuates the stereotype and solidifies, in the minds of the public, that somethings is different about “those” dogs.

STEREOTYPE: “Our Shelter is Flooded with Unwanted “Pit Bull” Dogs”: Another way animal welfare advocates feed the stereotype is by declaring that their shelters are “flooded with unwanted pit bulls.” Once again, the message to the public is that no one wants these dogs.

While the intentions behind the statement may be good – “please adopt a pit bull!” – the message the public receives is different. It tells the average person that there must be a reason no one want these dogs. And, using the power of stereotyping and myth, they can only infer that the reason the unwanted dogs are flooding the shelter is that there must be something is wrong with the dogs themselves.

STEREOTYPE: “If a Dog Has Cropped Ears, It Was Probably Fought”: When we speculate about a dog’s past, particularly those with an unknown history, and we guess that dogs with cropped ears, scars, or fearful behavior are victims of dog fighting or other criminal activity, we burden the dogs with labels that may or may not be true and, more importantly, have little relevance to their future.

This type of speculation does two damaging things: it distracts us from seeing the dogs as they are, in the present. And it further solidifies the stereotype: “pit bull” dogs are criminal’s dogs.

So, let’s face it: the animal welfare world is guilty of reinforcing stereotypes too. It’s not an easy habit to break, but we must, if we want to help the dogs.

To download this ebook,
please visit our website
Rather than perpetuating the idea that “pit bull” dogs are unwanted, except by gangsters and dog fighters, we’re asking animal advocates to help everyday “pit bull” dog owners to step into the spotlight and take the starring role as stereotypical “pit bull” dogs owners.

We can do this by:
Speaking positively and accurately on behalf of the dogs and adopters, rather than speculating about their past, assuming no one wants them, and stereotyping the adopters that want to adopt “pit bull” dogs.

Highlighting successful adoptions in our communities, rather than relaying the message that no one cares. Let the public know that millions of “pit bull” dogs are family pets. Tell the public that ”pit bull” dogs are wanted, adopted, and cared for by loving, responsible, diverse families that live right next door.

It’s time that we get serious about helping average families step into the spotlight, so that they have a chance to push the old stereotype off of center stage.

And maybe one day, Ms. Ripa, in searching for a good stereotype, might say, ”But the neighbor’s dog is, I mean if it’s your neighbor it would have to be a family pet, a Pit Bull kind of dog, right?”

Want to learn more about this topic? Please see our website section: Labels and Language.

p.s. Kudos to Will Wheaton for using social media to remind us all of this very point (via a quote from Caesar Milan). It’s up to all of us to help the public see the dogs and their owners in a whole new light.


About Animal Farm Foundation

Animal Farm Foundation, Inc., a not-for-profit organization, dedicated to securing equal treatment and opportunity for "pit bull" dogs. For more information, visit: www.animalfarmfoundation.org


Thursday, October 4, 2012

‘It Was Meant to Be’

Petey the pit bull terrier finds the perfect home thanks to the
County of San Diego Department of Animal Services Pit Crew

A star pupil has found himself a forever home, all because he showed off his skills as the perfect gentleman, impressing potential adopters.

Arti was the first dog Joela and Bret Calhoun met when they went looking for a pit bull terrier at the County of San Diego Department of Animal Services shelter in Carlsbad, California. Arti is now named Petey.

Now named Petey, this Pit Crew graduate is now one happy dog with his new family.

And that’s not the only first. “This is my husband’s first experience with a dog — he’s never had one before — and every day I see him falling in love with Petey,” Joela says.

She had a pit bull terrier named Rocky who died from a brain tumor 12 years earlier, and she always wanted another one. But she and her husband were waiting until he graduated from college and landed a job before they adopted. That day came, so after learning that the Carlsbad shelter has a good selection of pit bull terriers and mixes, they headed there and found Petey. “I’ve been waiting for another Rocky all these years,” Joela says.

The couple recently took their new companion to a friend’s backyard barbecue, and he was the hit of the party. “There was food everywhere and he didn’t beg at all,” she says. “Our friends have an English bulldog, and the dogs played for hours until they couldn’t play anymore. They had so much fun.”

Joela and Petey jog before work on a trail next to their neighborhood. And when her husband gets home from work, he takes Petey for another walk. And when Joela gets home, they go on another walk.

“When we take him out, everybody comments on how cute and sweet he is,” she says.

It is no accident that Petey is a crowd pleaser with good manners. He went through Best Friends’ Shelter Partners for Pit Bulls’ training component and came out of it the gentleman dog he is today.

This is one loved pup!

At the shelter when the couple met him, “Petey put the side of his head against the kennel and his ear stuck out,” Joela says. “My husband pet his ear and Petey gave him his paw.”

That was all it took. “It was meant to be,” she says. “Petey is the dog for us.”

To prepare Petey for adoption, he spent serious time with dog trainers and a Pit Crew made up of volunteers who are part of the Shelter Partners for Pit Bulls program made possible in five cities, including Carlsbad, through a grant from PetSmart Charities.

Trainer Nan Arthur, who runs Whole Dog Training, says the work her training team does with the pit bull terriers in Carlsbad is geared toward giving them the skills they need in a sometimes stressful shelter environment as well as prepare them for homes.

“Studies that have been done in shelters have shown that stress can be reduced with training and human contact,” Nan says. With that, she continues, “We strive to help the dogs cope better during their stay at the shelter and to present better when people are interested in meeting them.”

Petey received plenty of training prior to being adopted.

Jamie Healy, who manages the Shelter Partners for Pit Bulls program for Best Friends, applauds the investment in Petey and other dogs who are getting similar one-on-one time. “The pre-adoption training work in our shelter partner locations has been instrumental in preparing adoptable dogs for success in their future homes,” she says. “The dogs are learning and being rewarded for good behavior, which can only translate to happier and healthier adoption matches.”

She adds, “It provides the dogs with enrichment and an outlet while they're waiting for homes, as we all know that pit bull terriers characteristically experience a longer length of stay in shelters. Volunteers and trainers work side by side, instilling positive behavior and interactions to help better the dogs’ chances of adoption.”

“And that, ultimately,” Jamie says, “is what it's all about — working together to save more lives.”

Mike Harmon, who heads Best Friends’ Community Training Partners program, which enlists the trainers, could not agree more.

“With the Carlsbad project, up until recently our focus has been providing the shelter with pre-adoption support by developing a structured program that trains volunteers how to work with dogs in the shelter environment to help make them more adoptable and better prepared for home life. We just recently started providing post-adoption support.”

Petey has the distinction of being the first dog in the program to get that post-training support in his new home. And Joela is taking advantage of it. “I want to know how he was trained so I can continue it,” she says.

Petey is a an excellent example, says Cordelia Mendoza, Best Friends’ coordinator in San Diego for the program, of how training is helping shelter dogs land forever homes: “Working with and placing at-risk dogs like Petey in homes, one at a time, is helping toward our goal of No More Homeless Pets.”

Everyone in the Calhoun family is all smiles.

In large part because of that work, Cordelia says, “Petey is so sociable. At the shelter, he was regularly selected for training playgroups and interactions, and he gets along beautifully with dogs and people. Everyone is thrilled he found such a wonderful family and that they found one terrific companion.”

Joela cannot say enough about the work the trainers, Pit Crew and shelter staff did with Petey.

“Thank you, everybody, and all the people at the shelter for taking such good care of him,” she says. “Your patience and love is evident. Bret and I promise all of you that Petey is and will be forever loved. He is a gift, and I am glad he found us at the shelter.”

Read more about the County of San Diego Department of Animal Services Pit Crew on Facebook.

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 legislation designed to bring about their extinction. Best Friends hopes to end discrimination against all dogs. Dogs are individuals and should be treated as individuals. Read more about Best Friends’ pit bull terrier initiatives.

By Cathy Scott, Best Friends staff writer
Photos by Amy Mansfield Photography

Kids, Books and Peaches … Oh My!

Peaches the therapy dog helps children gain confidence and reading skills with her sensitive and engaging nature

                             By Emily Douglas (Reprinted from StubbyDog.org)

Not quite two years ago, I found myself sitting on the hallway floor in Abbott Elementary School in Ann Arbor, Mich. – waiting. I was invited by our dog trainer to serve as a demo-dog team for orientation night for one of her obedience classes. I arrived at the front door of the school and realized we might have a problem. The “we” being the other half of my team, my 18-month-old therapy-dog-in-training, Peaches. And the “problem” being the carpeted entryway to the school abruptly transitioning to oh-so-dreadful tile floor. We reached the end of the carpeting and, sure enough, Peaches came to a halt, her eyes pleading with me to turn around and head back. No amount of coaxing or treat luring was moving this gal. So, I sat. For 10 minutes we sat on the floor at the edge of the tile, waiting. And sure enough, eventually, opportunity knocked: kids.

Through the school doors came a mother and her two young children, at which point Peaches’ subdued wiggle-butt promptly began wiggling again. Just as they passed us, I hopped up off the floor and said in my best casual training voice, “Let’s go!” And off we went down the terrifying tile hallway after the little people who, in Peaches’ world, must be made of sunshine and cheese because as long as they were there, that tile floor was the last thing on her mind.

Team Peaches

With her one-year anniversary as a registered therapy dog with Therapy Dogs Incorporated and a Reading Education Assistance Dog with Intermountain Therapy Animals approaching, not to mention her 3rd birthday in July, Peaches is still a relatively young therapy dog with plenty of maturing left to do. And yet I often forget this, given how far she’s come. Every dog has that special carrot they love working for when training.

For Peaches it has always been interaction with people, particularly kids. Children are quite often the only variable that make an otherwise scary place for Peaches not just tolerable for her, but enjoyable. Which is why we feel so incredibly fortunate to have found that special place with kids to visit as part of her therapy dog work.

After several months of successful visits to our local hospital, we were offered the opportunity to volunteer as a R.E.A.D. team at Ann Arbor Open School in Ann Arbor, Mich. With a background in education and a dog infatuated with all things children, I jumped at the chance to add a school to our visitation roster. The big question mark remaining for me, however, was how Peaches would really do with the R.E.A.D. program. All those pictures and videos I had seen of big, snuggly dogs lying calmly on the floor with kids lounging on them like pillows kept playing in the back of my mind. Peaches isn’t that kind of dog. She’s a stand-and-stare-at-you-while-smiling-and-wiggling-her-butt dog, not a lounge around on command dog. How was this going to work?

Luckily for Team Peaches, we hit the jackpot with Ann Arbor Open because it has since proven to be the perfect combination of supportive, open-minded staff and easygoing, enthusiastic students that any successful R.E.A.D. team would love to have. I often think about Kris Butler, in her book “Therapy Dogs Today,” noting how strangely common it is for people in the therapy dog world to value high levels of skill in dogs over a genuine and demonstrated “desire to engage.” And I often think about this oddity in relation to Peaches who is the epitome of an engagement-centered therapy dog, rarely performing much more than an occasional down, kiss or place it (placing her head on someone’s lap) on command during visits. She may not roll over on her back for a belly rub, let alone perform fabulous tricks, but she will proactively hold eye contact with, smile at and welcome prolonged body-to-body contact with any and all strangers – the last of which is a rarity in most dogs. And it is this level of engagement that both the staff and students at Ann Arbor Open School have come to admire and appreciate.

Christine Deucher, the school’s library media specialist responsible for welcoming us into the program, had previously worked at another school that utilized a reading program dog. She was already an enthusiastic supporter of R.E.A.D. But before our first visit, I worried she might expect Peaches to lie down and maintain that lovely, Zen-like state that some of the other dogs she’d worked with in the past had probably done. As it turned out, similar to how she thinks about her students, Christine avoids preconceived notions of what a therapy dog should or shouldn’t be and simply values Peaches for who she is and what she has to offer the students. “I am a believer in the power of dogs – for reading or any other activity,” Christine told me. “They’re a sort of healing balm for all of our anxious souls. That we can provide positive feedback about pit bull type dogs is a great way to say thank you to the Peach for all that she has done for our students.”

Once a week, Peaches and I visit the school for an hour and read with three or four different pairs of students for 15 – 20 minutes each. Typically the student pairs consist of a struggling reader and a high-achieving reader who work well together, and each student takes a turn reading from a book of their choice. Interestingly, it wasn’t until I spoke with one of the teachers after our third or fourth visit that I learned that several of the students reading with us were intensely shy or reluctant to read on their own in class. And the reason I had no idea was because they all read without hesitation to Peaches. Tucked away in our private reading corner in the library, I become a neutral, if not invisible presence at the end of the leash, while Peaches quietly encourages reticent students with her wiggles and smiles.

Now, with a few months of reading visits under her collar, Peaches has become a popular gal at school. We get mobbed in the hallway by students on their way out to recess and are accompanied by hollers and shouts of “Bye Peaches!” as we head across the parking lot back to our car after visits. Each time a student reads with Peaches, they get a smiling Peach sticker, bookmark or trading card to keep. Often when students arrive to read now, they’ve specifically selected books they think Peaches might enjoy, such as books about training service dogs or even a Gerald and Piggy series book because they know that Peaches’ nickname is “Piglet.”

A Superhero

Looking ahead, I know better than to speculate on the future of Peaches’ potential as a therapy dog because, realistically, she may not be one forever. Peaches is a sensitive dog, and it’s that sensitivity that allows her to engage with people of all types and ages at the level that she does. But sensitivity also has a price in the working dog world, and as the responsible half of our team, I am constantly aware of the stimulation and stress involved with therapy visits and know there may come a day when it will be time to let the visits go and let Peaches just be Peaches, sans the therapy dog label.

In the meantime though, I am forever grateful to have found a place for Peaches bursting with the children she loves and oozing with support for the dog that she is and the nature of the work she does. Finding facilities and staff members interested in having a therapy dog visit is one thing, but finding a place that genuinely understands that even therapy dogs are individuals and have their own special gifts and needs is quite another. The experience is perhaps best summed up by the following words from Lori Hayes, one of the student’s teachers: “When the kids finish reading to Peaches, they all return to class excited, happy and confident. Peaches makes a difference. Peaches should be wearing a superhero cape! She’s our hero at Ann Arbor Open.”

About Peaches: Peaches lives in Chelsea, Mich., with our family, which includes her other rescued canine brothers, Charlie, Hudson and Buster, and the love of her life, a black cat named Mose. Peaches was one of a litter of seven orphaned puppies rescued near Detroit, Mich., in July 2009 by the Buster Foundation Pit Bull Rescue. We brought her home as a foster at 6 weeks of age and adopted her because we couldn’t imagine life without her. You can find more fun facts, photos and updates on Peaches the Pit Bull’s Facebook page. We are forever indebted to Michelle McCarthy of K9 Homeschooling who is not only responsible for facilitating Peaches’ therapy dog preparation and training, but also for the countless volunteer opportunities we have been given in the southeast Michigan community. Thanks to Michelle and the wonderful students and staff at Ann Arbor Open, life is just peachy for the Peach, who just happens to be a “pit.”