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Career Confidential: The Animal Behaviorist Who Rescues And Trains Pit Bulls

"The media does a lot of damage, and 'pit bull' has become more of a social construct than actually about those dogs."

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I'm the director of behavior and training at an organization that rescues pit bulls and finds new homes for them. I create training programs, called "protocols," for the dogs in our care. These include teaching the dogs how to behave in a home environment — things like house-training; being polite and not jumping on counters, tables, and people; waiting at doors and for food bowls; and obeying commands like sit, down, stay, come, leave it, and drop it. If a dog presents an issue, like resource-guarding (e.g., when a dog growls if you approach his food bowl) or reacting to other animals on leash, then our staff and I create a program for that individual dog. Then we offer behavior assistance to our adopters after adoption, so any issue they have, they give us a call and we schedule a meeting with them. There are dogs that misbehave, but usually it's just a miscommunication between the human and the dog.

I didn't have formal training for this job. I actually went to school for finance and bank management. I was selling real estate when I adopted a 5-month-old pit bull named Dixie from the MSPCA in Boston. That was 12½ years ago. About three weeks after I brought her home, she started escaping from her crate and trying to escape the house. She would bloody her paws, drool everywhere, and urinate all over. I eventually brought her to an appointment with an animal behavior consultant. Within a few weeks, the doctor offered me a part-time job as one of her trainers. I was intrigued by the behavior work, so I would sit in on appointments and observe any chance I got. A few months later, the doctor's behavior assistant left the practice and I was offered her job. I learned more at this practice helping with the behavior appointments than I could have ever learned with any training. So I feel incredibly lucky. Dixie the pit bull completely changed my life.

At my current job, we try to take dogs from animal-control facilities because they need it the most, but we also take dogs from cruelty situations. The last cruelty case we did was about two months ago, in Texas. The woman had 298 dogs on the property. Originally, she started out as a pit bull "rescuer" — I'm guessing she got overwhelmed, I don't know what happened. The dogs had been sealed in their crates and they were hosing them out and pouring in food through the top. The Humane Society had confiscated all of the dogs and we got a call asking if we could come in and evaluate them and help them get placement. Most of them were pit bull–type dogs, but there were all kinds of dogs on the property. There was a 160-pound I-don't-know-what-the-heck-it-was furry dog that they were calling a "wolf dog" (I'm sure it was just a really big mixed-breed dog), all the way down to this cute little white fluffy thing. We went in and evaluated them, but we were pleasantly surprised; the majority of dogs really were not a problem and were well-behaved. We took 17 of the dogs back with us, and then a number of other groups helped and pulled dogs as well.

We don't do show training, but we do have an assistant dog program. Those dogs go into foster care with one of our assistant trainers, not me, and she trains them for placement with people with disabilities. She teaches them different behaviors based on the needs of the client. A dog could learn to pull a wheelchair and then stand still so the human can use the dog as a brace to get himself up. Or it could learn to lie next to the human if they are having a seizure or call for help. The hearing dogs alert their human to sounds like a phone, smoke alarm, or someone at the door. Right now we have three dogs in there that should be placed shortly; we typically have between three and five dogs at a time, because they all have to be fostered in the trainer's home as well. It's a new program, and I believe that our first dog is being placed in about two weeks.

When I worked at an all-breeds practice, I didn't notice the discrimination against pit bulls as much. It's a dog. Now that I'm more focused on that issue, it's like, wow, I had no idea that people actually thought this way about a dog. I think the media does a lot of damage, and "pit bull" has become more of a social construct than actually about those dogs. And everything's a pit bull; if it did something wrong, it's somehow a pit bull, and you'll get the media to come if you say "pit bull." Even if the media shows up and it's a golden retriever, as long as you said "pit bull," somebody's coming.

As told to Alanna Okun

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