A 10-acre stretch of land just outside Los Angeles is pit-bull Nirvana. It's called Villalobos Rescue Center and it's run by Tia Maria Torres, an unabashed pit-bull lover. Torres has found homes for thousands of pits since the rescue opened its doors 15 years ago. Some of these animals were abandoned. Some were shelter dogs slated for euthanasia. Others were confiscated in drug busts or fighting rings. And some—like Mouse, a small white pit bull—are victims of nature, the so-called Hurricane Katrina dogs of New Orleans. (Article continued below...)
It's a 24/7 job, but Torres gets help from a posse of volunteers, her four children, and six ex-cons, who she calls her "pit bulls on legs." Her work is chronicled in a new six-part documentary, Pit Bulls and Parolees, airing on Animal Planet, the first of which premiered on Friday night. You'd have to carry a cold heart to not feel something for what these dogs have endured.
But I have a problem with pit bulls. And it has more to do with the two-legged creatures holding their leashes (if there is a leash).
Because of their sheer numbers—estimates show that there are anywhere from 5 million to 10 million pit-bull-type dogs in the U.S. today, out of about 61 million total dogs—pits have become the dog du jour for a lot of people, not just gangbangers and wannabe thugs who use a pit as proxy for toughness. About 20 percent of dogs in ASPCA shelters are pit mixes.
I've seen those who adopt these dogs for all the wrong reasons. The fearful might get a pit because they want a great guard dog. (Pits make lousy guard dogs. A well-bred pit is just too human-friendly to protect your property.) Some get a pit because Rachael Ray has one and they want to rescue a dog. (Why didn't you take up cooking instead of getting a dog that you know nothing about?) And the trendiest pet owners spend thousands of dollars for a "blue" pit because the dogs are rare. (No, they aren't, and you just got swindled by an unethical breeder who contributed to the overpopulation problem.) But pets aren't purses, and people who jump into pit-bull ownership without the requisite training and education can often do more harm than good. That's why when I see a pit off-leash and I'm walking Turk, my 20-pound schnoodle, I'm scared.
Let's face it: pit bulls are public enemy No. 1. That's quite a comedown for a pup once considered "America's dog." They were owned by the likes of Helen Keller and Teddy Roosevelt, and when I was a kid, a wiry American pit-bull terrier named Sam endured the indignity of being called a "horsy" as he pulled me around in a wagon on an upstate New York farm. But in talking with pit-bull experts, it's clear that some current owners are too easy to spook, are too ill-informed, and have unrealistic expectations of what pit bulls can do.
Torres knows all about the pit bull's people problem. "Oh, my God, I see it all the time," she says. "Some of these people are completely clueless. They get a pit and then they want to get rid of it if it grabs and shakes a toy and barks. They don't understand why it loves everybody, but scraps with dogs. It's insane. And it's hurting the pit bull."
Some of the so-called pit problems are directly linked to the dog's history. Today's pit bull can trace its roots back to bulldogs, which were used for bull baiting, a gruesome spectacle in which the dogs would try to pin a tied bull by latching on to its nose. When bull baiting was outlawed, these bulldogs were then bred with small terriers, feisty dogs known for their drive. The end result was the original pit bull, a "canine gladiator" bred specifically for dog-on-dog combat.
Though the majority of pit bulls today are no longer being purposefully bred along fighting lines, pit bulls still can be dog aggressive (as are many other types of dogs). How that plays out will vary from pit to pit, and the dogs need a smart owner to keep them in line. Dog aggression can be managed by getting a pit into a training program that offers structured, controlled socialization, says Mary Harwelik, a certified dog trainer and founder of The Real Pit Bull, a pit advocacy and education organization in New Jersey.
Pits are also among the most human-friendly canines. In tests conducted by the American Temperament Test Society, which evaluates stability, friendliness, and other traits in several hundred dog breeds, the American pit-bull terrier scored 85.3 percent, higher than a golden retriever. Their human-friendly nature remains strong even in horrific circumstances. "I thought I was going to meet a bunch of Tasmanian devils," says Dr. Frank MacMillan, a veterinarian with Best Friends Animal Sanctuary who is working with some 20 pit bulls rescued from Michael Vick's Bad Newz Kennels. "I was stunned at how sweet they were."
That inherent sweetness toward people can lead well-meaning humans to be too permissive with their precious pooches. Because of its tendencies toward dog-on-dog aggression, Torres advises pit owners to keep their dogs out of mosh-pit, free-for-all dog parks. "Not a lot of pit owners want to hear that," says Torres. "If there's a fight, no matter what dog started it, the pit will be blamed."
At Villalobos, Torres does an exhaustive interview with potential adopters. She wants to know what kinds of dogs they owned in the past, whether there are kids in the house, if it's a multidog household, if they have a cat, and what they want from their pit. Once they answer those questions, Torres tries to match them up with the right pit bull. "Everybody thinks they want a Ferrari, when they really need a Yugo," she says. "The good thing about a pit is that some of them can be high energy, others just want to watch TV. "
Despite laws in many parts of the country that place restrictions on pit ownership, things might be looking up for the breed. "People are having a lot more empathy for the pit," says Torres. "They understand that this is a great dog that is enduring a lot of hell." If you want to rescue a pit bull, Torres's advice is simple: Make sure the dog is the right one for you, and you are right for it. Get the dog spayed or neutered, obey leash laws and any local regulations, and do ongoing training. That's smart advice for any dog owner, even if you want a yappy Shih Tzu.