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Thursday, February 12, 2015
The Problem with Pit Bull Service Dogs
Sue Manning, long-time pit bull promotor and journalist for AP, has written an article about rescue pit bulls being trained as service dogs. (YIKES) She mentions two organizations doing this - Animal Farm Foundation, the best funded pit bull ownership advocacy organization in the world, and Pits for Patriots in Chicago.
When we first blogged about Pits for Patriots in 2012, this outfit was less than a year old, and they had not yet placed any pit bulls as service dogs for veterans with PTSD. They noted that they started with four candidates, but that two had washed out.
There's a photo below of the two successful training candidates fitted with prong collars. Today, three years later, they still haven't placed any service dogs with a veteran and the two candidates below both developed a case of the dog aggression for which there is no cure.
They are up for adoption. The white one, Odie, had to have his CGC and Therapy Dog certificates revoked. He must go to an experienced pit bull owner who will not "set him up to fail." FYI: That means potential owners must set up strict containment and movement protocols with zero margin of error allowable or there will be a bloodbath. And to think he was once a therapy dog.
Sheena and Odie have since washed out of the pit bull service
Pits for Patriots cites as their inspiration two "successful" pit bull service dog organizations, one in New York, and one in Tampa Bay, Florida.
The Tampa Bay organization, called Pit Bulls 4 Patriots, was founded with the intention of training rescued pit bulls as service dogs for veterans with PTSD. Unfortunately, by the time the Chicago Pits for Patriots had cited them as their inspiration, Pit Bulls 4 Patriots had already been forced to abandon their original concept.
They retooled and renamed themselves Hounds 4 Heros, a program that uses rescued greyhounds instead. Why? The pit bulls were not working out as service dogs. They took too long to train, and they found that pit bulls were too "sensitive" to work with handlers with PTSD because they "reflected" the symptoms of their handler's PTSD.
Evidently, the pit bulls were exhibiting common symptoms of PTSD: anger, irritability, hyper-vigilance, and anxiety whenever their owners did. Irritable pit bull service dogs. N o T h a n k Y o u.
"We became clear that we need dogs who are able to provide calm in any situation rather than matching the handler's feelings. Also, it is critical that PTSD service dogs can adapt and recover quickly from stress, and to be resiliant enough to do that again and again"
In addition, the wonderful pit bull "washouts" could not be easily adopted so the founders of the organization are now the proud owners of a boatload of pits. Rescue pit bulls, it seems, are not inherently (genetically), suited to service dog work. Unfortunately Hounds 4 Heros not only took down the page the above quote comes from, there is no archive of it either.
However, Hounds 4 Heros has written in depth about just what makes rescued greyhounds such great candidates as service dogs for veterans. Knowing that they were forced to scrap their original concept, it is not hard to read between the lines. It seems that greyhounds possess inherent (genetic) characteristics that that make them good PTSD service dogs and pit bulls do not:
"In our search for the "perfect" PTSD service dog, we are very excited to have Murray join us. Greyhounds tend to be calm, loving but not pushy, caring but not overly sensitive, and are happy to relax and go wherever their person needs them to be."
This second quote speaks directly to their experience with pit bulls and they speak to both genetic and a reasonably knowable and appropriate early experience for the greyhounds:
Our dogs are carefully selected for having exceptionally calm and stable temperaments. We like working with greyhounds because we do not have to train over any strong genetically bred instincts and drives (such as protection/guarding, being territorial, herding, dog aggression, or hunting).
It was surprising for us to learn that although some greyhounds have a strong prey drive, most do not. While growing to adulthood in preparation for racing, greyhounds remain in daily contact with their litter mates and other hounds.
They are spared from the jarring loss of their pack at an exceedingly young age, unlike most other dogs, who are bred and quickly sold as pets.
This continued companionship with their own kind is extremely healthy for balanced brain development and canine social skills. Since they are being groomed to become racing dogs, their lives are disciplined, with plenty of exercise, routines, and very clear guidance from all the humans they come in contact with.
As a result, they tend to be peacefully submissive to people, and easily accept direction. This is very helpful in their new roles as service dogs for our PTSD veterans.
This next quote perfectly explains the very real dangers of trying to shape dogs bred for fighting into service dogs:
We can't overstate the importance of the balanced minds and good nature of these dogs for their job as psychiatric service dogs.
It is critical that our dogs are going to be calm and stable "on their own" without the necessity of great guidance and leadership from their handler.
When living with someone who has fluctuating weak energy and leadership skills, such as anyone with a psychiatric disorder, a dog will revert to its genetically bred instincts and/or to default behaviors learned in puppyhood.
Skilled training can override weaknesses in temperament and high-drive instinctual behaviors, but our PTSD handlers will not be able to maintain training over the top of these things. The longer the team spends together, the more the dog's training would "unravel" and revert to the genetic predisposition of the dog.
Examples of this would be an unbalanced German Shepherd who falls back inappropriately to his instinct to guard and bite when threatened, or a herding dog who neurotically begins nipping at the feet and heels of anything that moves around his person.
With the greyhounds their default is to either relax, or quietly withdraw into themselves. As a result, they don't act out, become dangerously unbalanced, or create problems for their handlers or the public. They are able to maintain and return to their trained behaviors with relative ease.
These gentle, intelligent, and malleable dogs respond very well to our positive training methods. They are able to perform the many kinds of tasks and work that most benefit people who face the daunting challenge of living with PTSD.
And that is the crucial issue for safety - what instincts (genetically controlled behavior) does the dog default to when not under guidance or under the guidance of someone who is not an expert dog handler.
Animal Farm Foundation is the other pit bull service training dog organization mentioned in Manning's article. They are going at it the right way. They have put out a nationwide call for pit bull service dog candidates that they will evidently transport to the Farm at their own expense.
They must figure that by casting an enormous net, they will be able to find one or two pit bull outliers with the temperament of a lab.
But the best news is Animal Farm Foundation now admits that anyone can identify a pit bull, because they will accept any dog that was identified by anyone at a shelter as a pit bull for the program.
They have evidently already placed five pit bull service dogs with handlers, but stopped promoting their feat after blogging about the first three. The serviceman with PTSD and his dog are not listed as being one of the pit bull service dogs placed by AFF.
Stunt pit bull service dogs are dangerous for the reasons Hounds 4 Heros outlined above. And Animal Farm Foundation's efforts to promote pit bulls as service dogs and to emphasize that you can train your service dog yourself makes them even more dangerous.
In many respects, pit bull service dogs are silly stunts. If it takes 4 years to train a dog to be a service animal, one can conclude that dog is not really suited to the job.
This is just like BFAS crowing about a fight bust dog getting a CGC certificate after 6 years of training when normal dogs need only 8 to 10 weeks of basic obedience classes to become a good citizen.
But, even if all of Animal Farm Foundation's pit bulls are truly cream puff pit bull outliers, they are encouraging everyone to pick up a rescue pit bull, train it up themselves, and seat it under the restaurant table next to yours. Bon Appetit!