My First Pit Bull

I'm one of those people, probably not unlike many of you, who has been around dogs my entire life. I feel an instant attraction whenever I see one. Big and small, I love them all.

At least I thought I did.

But then I started to volunteer  at a local animal shelter and came face to face with my very first "pit bull",a big pumpkin-headed creature with golden eyes. Went by the name of Justyne.

When I first made the decision to volunteer, I had no idea what to expect but that didn't stop me from having a working theory in my head. My theory went something like this:

DuPage County is ranked highly among the best counties to live in the United States. I have never seen a single rabid dog roaming the streets but I have seen a lot of (insert adorable breed here)-poos and golden retrievers. I've also seen some pretty swanky specialty gourmet dog food and pet supply boutiques.

DuPage Animal Shelter, I figured, was probably "shelter lite". Volunteering likely meant I'd be asked to take a regular timeslot, say Tuesdays from 2-4, to go walk a few shih tzus and yorkie-poos and, if I had time, maybe tumble around in a room full of kittens.

I showed up for orientation, still nervous despite the adorable images of frolicking on the lawn with puppies dancing in my head, afraid that I would fall in love with every sad-eyed dog I met and wondering how I would resist the temptation to adopt five or six.

My timing was such that I entered shelter life just as the person orienting me was about to end her tenure there. The group I was in was given an overview of the shelter and verbally told where we would find the animals (of various species) and the supplies we would need, such as leashes. It was a busy weekend and the orienter stated that touring us through the weekend crowd of potential adopters would be too difficult to manage but we were welcome to come back and jump in on Monday, or any day they were open, whenever we liked, as often as we liked.

(Please Note: New leadership is now in place and the volunteer process has improved. Details at the end if you are curious.)

As simple as that, our plucky new volunteer (who has a hard time doing anything halfway) decided she would simply come in every day and walk every dog.

But no one ever said anything about pit bulls.

So there I was, the following Monday, with the top part of the 'barn door'-style chain-link kennel door open, leaning over to attach a leash to a collar located just past the grinning massive jaws of this girl with the golden eyes.

Until that moment, I had never suspected that all the bad press this 'breed' had received had actually gotten into my head. I never had a clue. For the first time, I was face to face with a dog that made me a little nervous. Here I was, a stranger to this dog, and expecting it to trust and cooperate with me even though I was having a hard time returning that same trust.

"Hi Justyne", I cooed, "I'm Laura. Want to go for a walk with me?"

That's what my mouth said.

"Please don't eat me, please don't eat me," chanted the voice in my head to the blocky-headed beast before me as the clasp on the leash snapped shut.

I opened the bottom part of the kennel door and we were off, Justyne as enthusiastic for fresh air and sunshine as any dog has ever been.

No sooner had our feet touched the lawn than Justyne began to leap at the end of the leash with abandon. Had she been a golden-retriever, I would have had no problem reading the "ohboyohboyohboy" enthusiasm of a cooped-up dog finally getting a chance to play and roll around in the grass but this was not a fluffy goofball like that. Out on the lawn, I got a good look at those muscles. And that jumping...wait what is she doing now?! Rolling? Oh my gosh, what is all the rolling?! Isn't that what crocodiles do? Desperately, I tried to keep the leash from wrapping her up completely while steering clear of that massive head.

I was about to lose my life, wasn't I? Right there on the shelter lawn in front of all those cars stopped at the streetlight. This is how it ends for me.

But then my inner voice said, "Laura, come on. Do you really think the County is going to let a volunteer walk a dangerous, out-of-control beast intent on dispatching you on the lawn right in front of the 'Animal Shelter' sign? Get real! They would never want that kind of liability.

(Old people think like this.)

And so, with that logic in my head as her rolling stopped and she stood, Justyne and I made our way across the lawn. Sort of. She danced and leapt while I was dragged behind,  imagining County heads in depositions reviewing the circumstances of my tragic fate.

And that is when Justyne grabbed a pine cone. An esophagus-sized and shaped pinecone. And she took that pine cone and laid down in the shade, splayed out in a flying Superman pose, and began to chew.

I looked at her laying there, smiling up at me and chewing. "Ohhh, nice. I'm probably not supposed to let you have things like this am I?"

That was when I realized it was not going to be me to die on the shelter lawn. It was going to be Justyne, choking to death on a pine cone.

If I was able to whistle a tune, I would have, but instead I pretended to notice a rare Bird of Paradise in the tree over our heads while whispering to her out of the side of my mouth, "You'd better know what you are doing with that thing because I am not sticking my hand in your mouth if you don't."

Justyne wearied of the pine cone after a bit and arose.

We didn't make it very far on our walk that day, what with her leaping like a gnome and me feeling way over my head at "shelter lite".

I went home that day shocked and sobered in the realization that I had unknowingly developed a prejudice against a dog I had never met, simply because it was a member of a 'breed' (pit bulls are not actually a true breed) that I'd only become familiar with through whatever media stories filtered my way.

But still, someone, somewhere (or lots of someones), had decided Justyne was safe to walk and perfectly adoptable. There had to be more to the pit story. A really important part.

I'm not the kind of person who likes others, particularly mass media, making decisions for me. I'd prefer to do my own research and come to my own conclusions, thank you very much.

So, first, I recruited DCACC volunteer dog trainer, Susan Johansen, to help me with my leash skills. Justyne behaved perfectly for her on the leash, which blew my mind and inspired me to learn how to become a better dog handler. After just one session with Susan, my confidence and understanding of what I was doing took a giant leap and my fear began to dissipate.

With every visit to walk Justyne, and practicing what I had been taught about MY end of the leash (as well as hers), I stopped seeing her as a "pit bull" and realized that, as a dog, she was a complete clown.  A very strong clown, sure, but she was a joyful dog. 

As for that rolling which had conjured up images of crocodiles in my head? That was kind of her trademark and the first thing I think of when she comes to mind. It didn't take much to make that girl happy. Just look at her reaction to getting a rawhide bone. (I'm sitting down on the lawn, holding her leash).


Justyne was adopted not long after this video but in the time since, I've met many pits, each one more beautiful than the last, it seems. All those insidious, subliminal fears have since been replaced by my actual experiences with so many of these dogs, met face to face, walked for miles, played with and welcomed into my home.

Do I think the bully breeds are for everyone?

Absolutely not. Nor do I think everyone should own a Shih Tzu. There is no such thing as a 'one size fits all' dog.

 The 'bully breed' dogs aren't for every owner but neither is a Maserati for every car driver. They are athletes, agile, clownish and intelligent with huge personalities. After you've met a few, it will be no mystery at all why they have such avid fans.. 

I can also tell you that just as there is no 'one size fits all' dog, there is no such thing as 'shelter lite'. DuPage is no more a 'no kill shelter' than any other open admission county animal control. (Their 'live release rate last year was about 68%.)

And yes, I have seen a lot of pit bulls not make it out, including puppies.

So, if you have found yourself carrying around some of those same concerns and reservations about "pit bulls" that I had, and have found yourself discounting them as possible pets, or have been hesitating to work with them as a volunteer, all I can say is:

Get Educated (and get some skills).

Talk to the shelter staff and rescue workers who have first hand experience with them. Ask questions.  Meet the dogs at adoption events. Talk to folks who have fostered them or who live with them as pets. Talk to trainers and do an honest assessment of YOUR end of the leash. (You should do that no matter what dog you are with.)

You just might find yourself falling head over heels in love.

As for the revised orientation process I promised to tell you about. DuPage Animal Shelter has since instituted multi-media presentations for their volunteer orientation AND has instituted hands on training so you will have a dog-training volunteer (or staff member) accompany you to help make sure you are comfortable and to help you with your leash and dog communication skills. 

Volunteering is an incredibly rewarding experience that makes a tremendous difference in the lives of the animals but you may just find the greatest impact is on you. Want to get involved? Here is the link to find out more about DuPage. Also, keep an eye on the sidebar links for info on other area rescues and shelters as we amass them here. There are many places will welcome volunteer help!

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