Can Pit Bulls Make Good Service Dogs?

pit-bull-service-dogs-oakland-countyWhen Karen and Keith Maxey of Rochester Hills were on the search for a new dog, they weren’t expecting to get involved with a project aiming to improve the image of pit bulls.

“I’d heard some horrible things about pit bulls and now, I can’t ever imagine not having a pit bull,” said Karen.

The couple own Dixon, a 6-month-old pit bull in training to become a therapy dog. Dixon and his nine littermates are part of a local program called K-10: Project Reputation Rescue.

Many of the 10 puppies found homes in Oakland County, like Jan Sanecki of Ferndale who has Weylin. Sanecki has chronic fatigue syndrome and intends to train Weylin to dial 911 if she were to fall while home alone. Joanna Noble, the Warren woman who spearheaded the project, said she was moved to do something about the breed’s reputation after she became an “accidental pit bull owner.” A filmmaker by trade, she’s also documenting the process of turning 10 pit bull puppies into working dogs and hoping a television network will pick up the finished product. Noble said she and her husband, who had owned an aging Parson’s Russell Terrier, more commonly known as a Jack Russell, decided that after their dog died, they were done with dogs.

“We were in our 40s and I thought, ‘Let’s just travel and be free and have fun,’” Noble said. But then, she caught sight of a tiny puppy shivering behind the fences of a junkyard in Detroit’s eastside.

“I said, ‘How much for that dog?’ and they gave me a price. I probably paid way too much, but I took that dog out of there,” Noble said.

At first, she thought the dog was a Shar-Pei mix, but it quickly became clear he was a pit bull.

“Everywhere I went, I found myself defending my dog to the public,” Noble said, who named her dog Leopold. “I was getting really exhausted convincing every person, one at a time, that I had a good dog.” She started building a website that “put out positive information about pit bulls” but didn’t feel it was reaching enough people.

“So I turned to my craft as a filmmaker and said, ‘I have to come up with some sort of way to let people know the truth about these dogs and what wonderful animals they can be,’” Noble said.

After seeing shows about working dogs, including some pit bulls, she got the idea to document the process of turning a group of rescued pit bulls into working dogs – be it for therapy, as helpers for disabled people, for search and rescue or other roles. She started reaching out to rescue groups, hoping to find a pregnant female, but said she was dismayed at the response she got. Around the same time, she and her husband also were looking for a female dog to call their own.

“No one was willing to give me a pregnant female because I’m not a rescue,” Noble said. “And a lot of rescues and shelters said to me, ‘Pit bulls, oh no, we just put them down the minute they come in – they’re time bombs.’”

In the end, Noble found another pit bull puppy – this time on Detroit’s west side. She named her Evaleena and as with Leopold, she suspects Evaleena would’ve had an otherwise grim future.

“I’ve talked to (Evaleena’s owners) again … none of her siblings are alive,” she said. “And when I’ve gone back to where Leopold came from, you just get this headshaking.” She believes the dogs would’ve been used for dogfighting, but said, “Nobody’s going to tell you ‘I’m a dog fighter’ when they don’t know you.”

Noble decided to breed her dogs for the program and said their heritage, and their puppies, prove that how a pit bull is raised has more to do with what type of dog it becomes than their genes do.

“Our whole motto is nurture, not nature. We know nature plays a big role, but our belief is that nurture is a bigger thing,” she said.

Leopold and Evaleena’s 10 puppies turned 6 months old on Dec. 19. Noble has placed each dog with permanent owners who have agreed to go through a rigorous training course. A total of 22 trainers and mentors are working with the dogs and their owners.

“The trainers have been great, the mentors have been great,” Sanecki said. “The training process is relatively easy with (Weylin) – he is a very smart dog.”

The group of 10 pit bull puppies has been seen at a variety of places throughout in the local area  – they went to Yates Cider Mill in the fall, did an outing at the dog-friendly Partridge Creek mall and the Maxeys also had Dixon in Rochester’s Christmas parade. Noble said she’s formed a nonprofit organization and in the future, will be looking to match rescued pit bulls with people in need of service dogs. The organization will arrange for the training needed to get the dogs certified.

“If (pit bulls) are in very good homes and properly taken care of, they can contribute to society as service dogs,” Karen said. “Our goal is that good people make good dogs.”

Contact Karen Workman at (248) 745-4643 or karen@oakpress.com. You can also find her on Facebook and @KarenWorkman on Twitter.

Courtesy of The Oakland Press. Click the link to see videos!

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