A graphic designer by day, Daisy Balawejder founded Hello Bully (www.hellobully.com), an advocacy and education organization dedicated to "rehabilitating, rehoming and repairing the reputation" of pit bull terriers. They offer free programs, such as "Pitbull 101," to groups in the Pittsburgh area. Accompanying Daisy on her interview was Mogwai, a 6-month-old brindle-bottomed puppy. And yes, he's available ...
On your Web site, you state that "less than 1 in 500 pit bulls will find a permanent home." What's going on?
Because of their reputation, the wrong people are often attracted to them and will breed and sell them for the wrong reasons. A pit bull puppy can fetch as much as $1,000 with no papers, so these dogs are, sadly, a legal way for people to make a quick buck. They're the most stolen, most abused, most neglected, most surrendered dog out there. They're euthanized more often than any other dog due to overpopulation. You only need to walk around this city and see all the un-neutered male pit bulls to know that breeding and dog-fighting is a problem here.
And Mogwai, where did you come from?
(The puppy licks this interviewer's face, then is distracted by a toy. Daisy answers for him): Mogwai's story is not unlike many pit bulls'. A woman picked up a dog on the side of the road who was abandoned, starving and sick. She brought the dog into her home and, a few weeks later, there were 10 puppies. She wasn't even allowed to have dogs in her apartment, so we took them all. Mogwai is the last of our 10 little Indians! He's a great dog, super social.
Petey, the dog on The Little Rascals, was a pit bull, wasn't he?
Yes, so was Sergeant Stubby in World War I, the most decorated dog in war history. Pits were America's dog in the 1920s, and we've really failed them since.
And pit bull isn't really a true breed, right?
"Pit bull" is really a catch-all phrase that means American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, and sometimes Staffordshire Bull Terrier. General consensus is that the breed started around 1835. Bulldogs used to be used to bait bears and bulls, so someone crossed a bulldog with a terrier to create a sleeker, faster, more agile dog. You can have pit bulls that weigh 35 pounds or 85 pounds, short noses, long noses, all different colors of fur. The reason is that they were never bred for looks, but rather for gameness. "Gameness" means that they will continue to fight when other animals are ready to pack it up and go home.
What kind of training do you recommend for pit bulls?
We recommend positive-reinforcement training. You can't really punish a pit bull physically, as do some of the "old school" trainers, because they have such a high tolerance for pain and discomfort. They're super-smart and they love people, so rewarding them for good behavior is the quickest, easiest way to work with them. Pit bulls are not for everybody. If you want a dog to take to the dog park and run around off-leash, then pits are not for you. There are maybe 5 percent of pit bulls that are "dog social" enough for a dog park, so it's just not fair to put your dog, other people's dogs and the reputation of the breed in jeopardy.
What kind of mistakes do people make when training pit bulls?
Um, listening to "The Dog Whisperer" [TV show host Cesar Millan]. We call him "a one-man wrecking ball aimed at 25 years of progress" in dog training. What he knows about dog behavior I could fit in my pocket. He's correct on two points, however: Dogs need exercise and they need a "pack leader." But they don't need to be physically manhandled. I've seen that backfire. Eventually, no matter the breed, when physically handled, a dog reaches a point where it says, "I've had enough." It will either shut down or start to show aggression because of the punishment.
How has the Michael Vick case impacted what you do?
As scary as it is to say these words, he's probably the best thing that has happened to pit bulls in a long time. Until people understand what these dogs go through, they won't be moved to advocate for them. When the Vick story broke, we put out a statement asking people to turn on CNN, even if it turns their stomach, because we need people to watch and be horrified enough to stand up for these dogs.
What are the best attributes of the breed?
They're little love machines! They're very human-like, very emotive, very smart. They are highly trainable in a variety of functions. They bond with people very quickly and are very loyal. People think they make good guard dogs, but they really don't because they like people so much. If someone breaks in, they'll bark a little, then make friends with them. Of course, I think that anything any dog can do, a pit bull can do better.