Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Pit Bull Barriers

By Dawn Aulet

What breed of dog did Helen Keller choose as her companion? What breed is the only dog to grace the cover of Life magazine? What kind of dog was used to recover the remains of the astronauts killed in the Challenger disaster? What kind of breed was Petey, the dog on "The Little Rascals"?

The answer to all these questions is the same: American pit bull terriers.

Today, the image that comes to mind when you hear "pit bull" is one of ferocious dogs attacking, full teeth bared and locking onto a victim, never letting go.

Even though some pit bulls are vicious, have bitten, mauled and killed, the problem is not in the breed, some animal lovers say.

"You can't just label a breed," said Andy Ivanicky, director of Joliet Township Animal Control. Ivanicky practices what he preaches. His dog is a Doberman.

'Judged individually'
When a dog comes to Animal Control, including a pit bull, it has to be evaluated. Although the township does not have time for intense temperament testing, it can evaluate a dog and see if the dog is friendly.
"Each dog is judged individually," Ivanicky said.

Once temperament is established, Ivanicky does have a clear rule: His first priority is to keep the public safe. So if a dog is aggressive, Ivanicky will euthanize it, especially if it has been in a fighting situation.

"You can never untrain a dog from that type of behavior," Ivanicky said.

For pit bull puppies, Ivanicky usually works with rescue organizations, including A&S Rescue. The group, founded in 2000 by Silvia Simmons, evaluates a pit bull's temperament before placing the dog in a foster home or making it available for adoption. Once a dog passes temperament tests, though, it goes from being a stray to being a beloved family pet.

Take Ty and Sox, for example. Garrett Peck of Plainfield has been a foster parent for A&S. Once Ty came to his house, he found his forever home.

"We took him as a foster with the intention of adopting if it all worked out," he said.

Today, Ty is 1-year-old, and Peck said the male pit bull is just a pushover.

"Ty's a wimp, he's a big baby," Peck said.

Both his dogs, Ty and Sox, 9 months, have been through intense obedience training. Peck took his dogs to Alex Brooks School of Dog Training in Des Plaines. The dogs stayed there for one week, while undergoing thorough training. When Peck and his wife, Christine, picked up the dogs, the trainers taught them how to reinforce the training. Ty and Sox will sit, stay, lie down and maybe most importantly, they will "leave it."

Pit bulls are terriers. And though their aggression is sometimes overstated, their tendency to be hyper is not.

"They are terriers, and these dogs can be extremely high driven," Ivanicky said.

As far as Peck is concerned, Ty passed the ultimate obedience test. A few weeks ago, on a walk through the neighborhood, another dog got loose and attacked Ty. When Ty turned to defend himself, Peck said, "Leave it," and the dog did.

One family's experience
Joliet resident Brian Johnstone is not surprised by that at all.

"Basically, dogs do what they're trained to do," he said.

Brian and his wife, Kari, already had a bulldog named Scully. They were contemplating getting a second dog, but had not really acted on it.

Then, they were at PetSmart and saw Ghia, a red pit bull.

"We fell in love with her," Brian said. "We had our two kids with us, and she was being very docile with them, she was licking them."

Brian was concerned about how Ghia would get along with Sally, but not because Ghia was a pit bull.

"I would have the same concerns if it were a poodle," he said.


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