October is National Pit Bull Month and today, October 27, is National Pit Bull Awareness Day. For animal lovers in the Seattle area, this is a particularly important time to educate people about both the inaccurate stereotypes of Pit Bulls and their wonderful qualities.
Pit Bulls worldwide have been the victim of Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) which is enforced by many cities. According to the ASPCA, BSL is not just for Pit Bulls, but for many dogs, including American Bulldogs, Mastiffs, Dalmatians, Chow Chows, German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers, any mix of these breeds, and dogs who may resemble these breeds.
The unfair death of Lennox the Pit Bull in Ireland garnered national attention and brought about a greater awareness of the tragic consequences of BSL. While Lennox was euthanized due to BSL, the Save Lennox Petition remains open as a sign of respect to Lennox and victims of BSL worldwide. Fortunately, Seattle does not enforce BSL and does not outlaw any dog, including Pit Bulls (or Pit mixes) based solely upon their breed.
National Pit Bull Awareness Day is particularly important to Seattle-area dog trainer Shaun McBride – and she can vouch for Pit Bulls – from both personal and professional experience. Her Pit Bull, Cassius, tips the scales at 80 pounds, but those who know the gentle dog would assert that most of that weight is his heart.
Shaun McBride is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (Knowledge Assessed) (CPDT-KA) whose Pit Bull, Cassius, is an ambassador for his breed and for those who need therapy. Cassius is CGC, Certified Therapy Dog, ATTS (American Temperament Test Society) tested: TT-672-APBT.
CGC stands for “Canine Good Citizen” and his Therapy Dog certification is with Project Canine.
“I got Cassius when he was 5 months old,” Shaun explained. “I knew that if I was going to be a Pit Bull person, then I wanted to have a dog that was well-trained beyond reproach. I wanted to see what I could do in terms of credentials to really show people that he’s a great dog. He’s been evaluated by so many people who know that he’s a great dog – which really helps if people have trepidation about my dog.”
Shaun had always hoped that Cassius, who is now four-and-a-half, would be an ambassador for his breed. “I also wanted to get out in society and show people what great dogs Pit Bulls are,” Shaun stated. “I enrolled in the therapy dog preparation class at Great Dog to prepare for Project Canine’s exam. That was the first class that I ever took at Great Dog with him. From there, Laurie [Hardman, with Project Canine] was teaching it – she said that they love to have pit bulls on their teams. They’ve been really supportive and eager.”
Shaun hopes that Pit Bull Awareness Day can bring about an awareness that Pit Bulls are wonderful – but they’re also “just dogs.”
“There’s a lack of understanding of general dog behavior – whether it’s a German Shepherd, Dachshund, or Pit Bull,” Shaun explained. “The general public doesn’t understand what dog behaviors mean. Someone might see a dog bark and lunge and they assume that it means something that it doesn’t. There’s a lot of misinformation and lack of experience with what dogs are communicating.”
Shaun has carefully monitored peoples’ responses to Cassius.
“When I see people avoiding him, I’ve said, ‘Can I ask you a question? What about my dog’s behavior makes you feel insecure?’ in every case, my dog’s behavior was nonthreatening. They don’t have an answer for that – it’s ‘the way he looks.’ I used to work out a lot – are you afraid of body builders because they’re muscular? They are strong dogs, and they’re physical dogs, but they’re as sweet as can be, if you give them a chance. They love to be touched, they love using their bodies just like an athlete,” Shaun explained.
“One of my favorite things is to tell people that Helen Keller had pit bulls – talk about vulnerability! They are extremely loyal. That’s their biggest fault is their loyalty. They want to please whoever they’re with. If they wrong people ask them to do really horrible things, they will – to be loyal. They often don’t have much choice in life.”
Shaun, who scored well on her certified pet dog trainer exam (knowledge assessed, or KA) hopes to take her skills assessment (KSA) soon.
“You have to know quite a lot about learning theory and how dogs learn and how best to teach them what we want,” she stated.
Pit Bulls have been a part of Shaun’s life for many years. “When I met my husband, he had a pit bull named Jax. She was nine years old when I met her. When she was ten, we got a bull mastiff puppy and they were best friends. They had about three-and-a-half years together. She was about 13 ½ when she passed. She was my introduction to the breed. Before that, I hadn’t had a dog in my life for quite some time,” Shaun stated.
While Lennox’s tragic story resonates with animal lovers, Shaun and Cassius are fortunate to live in a tolerant, educated city. “I’m fortunate enough to live in a neighborhood that’s very dogcentric,” Shaun stated. “My zip code is one of the highest dogs per capita in King County, if not the state. I’ve been seeing a lot more pit bulls and dogs in general.”
Shaun has noticed wonderful and unexpected responses to Cassius. “One of the most pleasing things I’ve noticed is how open people are to meet Cassius. In particular, people with kids. Seattle is a pretty intelligent city, though. People are probably less apt to buy everything that they hear and they are more open. I’ve had some great experiences where people ask what breed he is and then they ask me about him, saying, ‘wow, he’s really not what I expected!’”
As both a dog trainer and a Pit Bull owner, Shaun is conscientious and aware of public opinion. “As a trainer, when we meet people on our walks, I have the dog sit down. People can see that I’m working with my dogs, they listen to me, and they’re polite. I’ve been pleased on that level. There’s an open-mindedness out there.”
Cassius, all 80 pounds of him, never misses an opportunity to meet a friend. “He’s a charmer,” Shaun enthused. “Sometimes, he gets impatient if I’m socializing and he wants to go, but he loves everyone and loves other dogs. He’s never met anyone – human or dog – that he didn’t like. He’s a total sweetie pie.”
Cassius has attended therapy sessions for all ages. “On the therapy sessions, we’ve talked to high school students and really young kids, and depending upon what they can comprehend, we talk about prejudice – how could someone want to hurt this dog, why would they think he’s mean – and they get it right away. There was one visit where someone mentioned something about pit bulls. We went around the room and there weren’t any horrific thoughts – it was first and second grade. I’ve heard they’re scary, I’ve heard they’re mean, but a parent said that they’d met 4 or 5 and they were all great. Then Judi asked me to tell them what Cassius was – does anyone want to guess? Well, Cassius is a pit bull. No way – their eyes were popping out of their heads. That moment, right there, for a lot of those kids was indelible. They’ll never forget that. Lessons like that stay with you for life.”
“I’m so proud that my little guy can win hearts like that. That’s one of the things that I love doing about the visits – he’s a good messenger.”
For Shaun, Pit Bull Awareness Day is extremely important. “I think that it’s essential to educate and point out that these are just dogs,” she stated. “They have a fabulous history that’s buried in the media hype that exists across the country and across the globe. Millions of Pit Bulls lead happy, peaceful lives with families. The ones that we hear about are likely, in most cases, really mistreated. In a lot of cases, supervision was probably lacking.
“I love the awareness day and I do hope that it grows. I had my first booth ever and it was at an event called Pit Bulls on Parade. I had the best day ever. I was there as a massage practitioner and spent most of my day doing massages on big, muscly dogs. The next day, I had my first bite ever from a little 7 pound Pomeranian. I don’t take it personally – she was a puppy mill puppy and she’s afraid of people. But how ironic is this? This little 7 pound dog takes a bite out of me, and I’d spent all day only two days earlier with pit bulls.”
Pit Bulls have many qualities that are not highlighted by the media. “Pit Bulls are intelligent and sensitive,” Shaun explained. “I have noticed that out in public, Cassius knows right away when someone is receptive to him and when they aren’t. If they are on the fence, he will do his best to win them over.”
While Shaun is the trainer, Cassius has often taken the role of teacher. “Cassius has been an amazing teacher in my own education about dogs and dog behavior,” Shaun explained. “He is a thinker – he likes to make up tricks and then teach them to me. Another reason he is able to win over so many fans is that he has some pretty great tricks and he likes to show off. If I could, I would stay home all the time and just work with him. He can focus for well over an hour as long as I stay interesting. He often will remind me when I have neglected to lock the back door as he sees me getting ready to leave the house.”
While Pit Bulls are often targeted as being “aggressive” dogs, Cassius has only growled once – and with good cause.
“The only time I have ever heard a real growl from him was when he was sitting on his perch in our sun room and there was a mentally disturbed person on the corner of our block doing some rather unusual and bizarre behaviors,” Shaun explained. “Cassius just sat there and kept an eye on the guy and let out a low rumble to let me know there was something I needed to be aware of.
“He is also a great partner when I am training dogs. He has such great communication skills that I use him a lot with under-socialized dogs. He doesn’t take it personally if another dog yells at him. He just gives them space, looks away and lets them know it’s all cool.”
Cassius’ intelligence and patience have also helped puppies. “He is a fantastic puppy mentor,” Shaun stated. “He helped another pit bull puppy learn some better play skills so that she could attend day care. He is just incredibly patient and tolerant. Not quite the same picture the evening news likes to paint.”
National Pit Bull Awareness Day is important for dog lovers worldwide to recognize this loving, loyal dog breed.
“We have to get more people understanding that it’s more about the people than about the dogs,” Shaun stated.
To learn more about National Pit Bull Awareness Day, visit this site.
To learn more about the photographer for this article, visit www.marcoprozzo.com.