Friday, January 16, 2009

The Story of Missy

Earlier this week you met Missy, the pit bull who changed my mind. Here's the story of how I came to love pit bulls.

During the volunteer training for my shelter, they talked about pit bulls and asked who knew what about pit bulls. No one wanted to raise their hand and say that they had heard and bought what we had all heard and that I at least had bought, so one guy stood up to say that his brother had trained pit bulls, they were actually very sweet but really energetic and just needed good training in large quantities. He also brought up that they had been Victorian nursery dogs which the staff person confirmed. (This was the first time I had heard this claim. Since then I have heard and read it many other places—most recently in a Sports Illustrated cover story.) What I had heard was that they were used for fighting and were naturally aggressive, mean dogs. While I felt awful that they were used for fighting, I didn't really think much beyond that.

A few weeks into my volunteering at the shelter, I felt a pro at walking dogs, brushing cats, and taking pets up to the socialization room. The staff liked me and knew that I felt I was there to get work done, not just hang out with animals (though that was my favorite part of the socialization room). One evening there were only four dogs to walk. One was a pit bull.

I didn't want to say I was scared of pit bulls, especially when she didn't really jump much higher than the others and did look kind of cute with her black and white coat, so I took out other dogs first and hoped the other dog-walking volunteer that night would take the pit bull. After my second walk I came back to find that the only dog waiting to be taken out was the pit bull and the other volunteer had already left for the night. Swallowing my fear, looking the black and white pup in her sparkling eyes, I grabbed a leash and approached her cage door.

I was on my butt within seconds. Missy had jumped and licked me so much that I fell to the floor in surprise. Instead of running off, she stayed and kept licking me—somehow this dog was just that happy that I was going to take her for a walk. At that, I just had to laugh at this feisty girl. Part of me was still worried about how she would be on the leash, but at least I was pretty sure she wasn't about to attack me on purpose. I got her leash on and headed outside into the warm spring evening.

Missy pulled. A lot. Apparently pit bulls do have a lot of energy and need long walks or runs. Leisurely fifteen minute strolls were just not using up enough energy for this dog. I broke into a jog whenever I got Missy to stop pulling for even a moment, breaking into a walk every other block (it had been over six months since I had jogged regularly). After fifteen minutes of this, I sat down on the grass and she lied down beside me, rolled onto her back, and wriggled with obvious doggie delight. Eventually I got up and walked back to the shelter with her, won over to a pit bull's personality.

I began to take Missy for runs every time I was at the shelter. I walked her over a mile to an outdoor shopping and civic district where I knew she would meet lots of people. She still pulled a lot, but she seemed to be getting better with each long run. Missy was the first dog I handled at an adoption event.

Sh was also the first dog to ever ride in my car. After finding that she did not fit on the tiny ledge behind the back seat of my Corolla, she cleaned my car by finding a week old PBJ sandwich and wolfing it down in pleasure.

The day that Missy was adopted was one of my happiest. It was the first time I felt like I had helped an animal get adopted. She helped me, too. Knowing Missy not only got me back in shape, gave me confidence with every other dog who seemed too energetic, but won me over to her breed.

One of my favorite aspects of interacting with the public now is telling them how great pit bulls are. We have so many in shelters. One county near us won't allow any pit bulls. Another requires a special permit and mountains of paperwork. Multiple states are considering breed specific legislation aimed at keeping out pit bulls. The pit bull PR problem continues: even today the Washington Post mistakenly said that the pit bull reputation is “well deserved.” There is hope. Salon had a lovely post regarding one author's love for his sweetheart of a pit bull. The pit bull featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated is a loveable dog, rehabilitated from a horrible situation.

I genuinely believe that if more people learn about pit bulls and if more legislators meet these dogs, the discriminatory laws will be taken off the books and all communities will be allowed to love pit bulls. Dog fighting is an awful crime, but making the dogs illegal only hurts the canines, it doesn't solve the problem. Humane education and greater security in all areas of a town—not just those with fancy homes—is how we'll stop dog fighting. Let's let everyone love a pit bull if they want to, without worrying what county he lives in.

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