My work has given me a unique and sobering look at the relationship between people and their Pit Bulls — I spend my days, and nights working with young men and their dogs that are involved in, or at-risk to entering the world of dog fighting. They come from all over the city, Austin, Englewood, Humboldt Park, Garfield Park, and just about every other neighborhood where Pit Bulls are the preferred breed and dog fighting is part of the landscape.
Additionally, I work with “everyday Pit Bull owners,” people who for all the right reasons and with ample resources have chosen a Pit Bull as their breed of choice.
Well over a year ago I started to collaborate with PAWS Chicago on spay/ neuter for the “at risk” dogs and owners I was working with at HSUS. This was a watershed moment for the campaign and all the young men involved. To understand how desperately this resource was needed you only need to look at the numbers from one of our spay/neuter days: 12 dogs were fixed, and from those 12 dogs we counted over 60 puppies that had been born that year alone.
These two worlds I work in are far apart in many ways but share some very basic realities about Pit Bulls as I see it. Here are some of my thoughts on my breed of choice. For full disclosure, I have two rescued Pit Bulls that have traveled the globe with me. Lola and Junebug regularly join me for seminars and performances at schools, correctional facilities, community events, Chicago Bulls games and anywhere else people want to see rescued Pit Bulls do really amazing things.
Pit Bulls are high drive dogs that need a job. Either you give them one that hopefully involves training, socialization and lots of exercise, or they will find one. And chances are it will involve unwanted behaviors and some level of dog aggression.
I am by no means saying all Pit Bulls are dog aggressive, but to be the best owner you can be, you must know the history of the breed. Where they came from and what they were originally breed for has relevance. Do your homework, know the origin of the breed, respect it, and honor you dog in that way.
My training philosophy is simple; firm, fair overwhelmingly positive training that engages, excites, and challenges your Pit Bull.
The most important thing you can do with your Pit Bull is giving it the tools to succeed in the world. The loud, congested, people-filled, dog friendly world of Chicago. Keep in mind, everyone on your block did not sign up for a Pit Bull… you did. And you are not doing the breed a service, or being very neighborly for that matter, if you do not step up and train your dog. An aggressive 20 lb. Cocker Spaniel out for a walk is a hassle; an aggressive 80 lb. Pit Bull is another matter altogether.
No room for gimmicks, gizmos, gadgets, or the latest training tools with a silly name and a steep price tag. A good collar and leash, some treats and Kong’s are the tools of my trade. A hybrid approach utilizing agility; jumps, a-frames, tunnels, ladders, and more combined with formal obedience; sit, down, stay, come, etc. all in a room filled with other dogs and eventually high level distractions.
Chicago has an abundance of good trainers. My suggestion is to find a trainer who can show you their work first-hand. Take a look at their Pit Bull, or ideally another high drive working breed. Is the dog happy and healthy? Is it appropriate with other dogs and people? Does it demonstrate a high level of obedience training? If the answer is yes, chances are you are in good hands. If the answer is no, perhaps you should look elsewhere. Kind of like the mechanic whose car looks terrible and doesn’t run well – are you going to trust them with your new car?
Here is what I recommend when people ask me about adopting a Pit Bull. “If you have a lifestyle that does not allow you to spend a substantial amount of time training, socializing and exercising a Pit Bull, don’t adopt one.” And than I follow up with, “Also, if you do not have the wherewithal to keep everyone in your life safe, including your Pit Bull, do not adopt one.”
Once again, in the interest of full disclosure, in addition to my Pit Bulls I have two children, Maxwell, my five-year-old son and Samantha my three-year-old daughter. They love their dogs and they interact with them each and every day. All four are living big, safe, fun, exciting lives under one roof right here in Chicago. I credit this to something a terrific dog trainer (and father) told me years ago; treat your kids like kids, and treat your dogs like dogs.