ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Nilla, 6, is asked by Julie Buckland to go after a treat and return. She’s on a very long leash because this is a class at the city’s Lomas shelter for dogs like her, pit bulls and pit bull mixes, to become ambassadors for their breed.
Nilla is asked by Buckland several times: Go after the treat that’s about 10 feet away or more and return. But Nilla knows what’s what. She doesn’t take her eyes off the treats Buckland is carrying. Why go all that way when more treats are right in front of her? Because she’s being asked. So she goes for a treat and at “Nilla, come!” bounces back to Buckland.
“She’s really smart,” says Buckland, a shelter program manager.
Nilla is one of several pitties in this weekly class, a project that began on the city’s West Side shelter some six months before.
“It’s overwhelming either way,” Buckland says; both shelters are full of pit bulls.
The pit bull ambassador program is designed to give these intelligent, energetic dogs extra time out of their kennels and to teach them basic skills. “It helps them maintain while they’re living here,” Buckland says.
Volunteers and staff routinely exercise the other dogs as well, but pit bulls tend to deteriorate more rapidly in kennel settings, she says. And pit bulls have reputations.
“The stereotype of pit bulls is that they’re mean fighting dogs,” Buckland says. “They’re actually wonderful family dogs.”
On this day, Nilla and the others, which includes a grinning, golden-eyed guy named Domino and Sookie, who has been in the shelter for six months, practice some loose-leash walks, and brush up on sit, stay, wait, down and how to focus on their trainers. The latter skill is achieved with the use of treats – puppy kibble enhanced with a hot dog marinade or string cheese should a little extra motivation be required. Sookie gets string cheese.
The three dogs focus laserlike intensity on their trainers when in the vicinity of treats.
Treats and training
“Pit bull” is actually one of several breeds – American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, bull terrier – not a single, distinct one. Mixed breeds are often called pit bulls if they have heads and bodies shaped like any of the bull terriers. What they have in common is an ancestry of cross-breeding between bulldogs and terriers. They were bred as fighting dogs for bloodsports that were eliminated nearly 200 years ago.
All of the city’s shelter dogs get treats and training to learn skills if they have none or enhance their existing skills. The extra effort on behalf of pit bulls is made, in addition to the dogs’ needs, because they’re often overlooked. The supply, says Animal Welfare Department director Barbara Bruin, is much greater than the demand.
Pit bulls are enormously popular in the Albuquerque metro area. They’re also very popular with irresponsible breeders and irresponsible dog owners; the shelter population of dogs is nearly 40 percent pit bulls. Close to 50 percent of the dogs brought in by Bernalillo County animal services are pit bulls.
Nine county pit bulls were brought in on one day in February. One them, since named Valentine, promptly gave birth to 11 puppies: 20 dogs at once.
“Look at all these soft, wiggly dogs,” Bruin says of the puppies, now on their feet, eyes open. Four are with Valentine, others are in foster care.
The tab to county taxpayers for this one owner’s irresponsibility: about $6,000, according to what the city shelters charge the county for its intakes. The owner, meanwhile, was cited and sentenced to community service, 90 days of working for the county’s Animal Care Services.
The city shelters and the private, nonprofit Animal Humane New Mexico received grants from the ASPCA’s Partnership Program toward efforts to bring down the number of homeless pets, a large proportion of them pit bulls. This year, $178,000 will go to targeting areas that generate so many unwanted pets, like the South Valley – the former home of Valentine.
The neighborhoods will be sites for free services, such as spay/neuter, microchipping and shots.
Animal Humane also is loaded with pit bulls. One of its programs is called 505 Pit Crew, which is aimed at preventing kids from fighting their dogs. It provides humane education and free or low-cost dog training classes, which Animal Humane’s executive director Peggy Weigle says are “open to any pit bull owner and lover who wants to help make their dog a true ambassador for this often misunderstood breed and help change how our community thinks about them.”
Perfecting their skills
Back in ambassador class, Nilla is doing perfect sits, motionless, into about 30 minutes of the session. Domino and Sookie are sitting too, but it takes more treats to encourage them.
Eventually, as classes progress, there’ll be a decrease in the number of treats and training will make it harder for the dogs to win them. In time, the dogs will be weaned to verbal and hand commands.
Their kennels will be tagged as “ambassador in training” or “pit bull ambassador,” so adopters know they’re perfecting their skills.
They’ll be in class until they’re adopted.