Last week, we interviewed our own volunteer Education Director about ARLP's therapy dog program, PRIORITY PawsToday, we are thrilled to be able to share an interview with Lydia Zaidman of Love-A-Bull in Austin, Texas, about their all-pit therapy dog program known as The Pit Crew. We love reading about the similarities and differences between the programs -- there is so much to learn from the work being accomplished by the many excellent pit bull rescues around the country. If you would like your Rott- or pit-centric therapy dog program to be included in this series, please e-mail Sara Nick. Enjoy!

Photos courtesy of Love-A-Bull.


Tell us a bit about how The Pit Crew got started.

Love-A-Bull’s all-pit therapy program, The Pit Crew, launched on February 24, 2011. Love-A-Bull believes in educating and leading through example, as well as providing a wealth of community services through its programs. A major component of Love-A-Bull’s mission is to promote a positive public image of all dogs commonly labeled “pit bulls,” so by placing these dogs in a setting where they are providing therapeutic services to youth and those with special needs, it shows that pit bulls are deserving of love, praise, and respect. We hope that The Pit Crew program will open minds and replace negative stereotypes with more accurate and positive images. The dogs in this program are true “breed ambassadors.”

How many dog teams are currently participating with The Pit Crew? How often do you go on visits?

We currently have 14 dog teams and handlers in our program. We try to do between three and four site visits each month.

What are the requirements for a dog/handler team if they want to join your program?

Anyone with a dog labeled as a “pit bull” can register for the Pit Crew’s training classes if his or her dog has passed the Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test and can provide proof. The dogs must be spayed/neutered, well-socialized, possess an appropriate temperament (not overly shy or overly excitable), and respond well to a variety of situations and stimuli. Generally, the temperament that will end up graduating must meet the following criteria: (1) friendly with people of all types and abilities; (2) controllable, predictable, reliable and calm, and (3) dog social.

Describe The Pit Crew's curriculum and who it serves.

The Pit Crew offers animal-assisted therapy to students at Gullet Elementary School, many of whom have special needs and are disabled. In addition, The Pit Crew offers reading assistance to students, many of whom also have special needs, such as dyslexia. The Pit Crew also visits The BeHive, an innovative after-school program for school-age children in a neighborhood known for high crime, high unemployment, and a lack of affordable, quality care for children. The Pit Crew also services Elder Haven, an adult day care program, as well as Regent Care Center, a nursing care facility. The Pit Crew also works at St. David’s with survivors of traumatic brain injuries. In addition, The Pit Crew has visited Perez Elementary School and KinderCare daycare to offer advice on how to properly treat animals, has helped educate the public on animal care at Town Lake Animal Center's Wellness Clinic, and has attended other public events, such as festivals, farmers’ markets and community-wide celebrations. New venues are always being added, but The Pit Crew intends to service only a small number of venues so that it can keep an appropriate ratio of volunteers to venues. The Pit Crew believes that customer service is of utmost importance.

Have you faced any breed discrimination in trying to get the programs set up? If so, how did you overcome it?

It is always a challenge to combat negative stereotypes of pit bulls that have taken hold through sensationalized media and inaccurate reporting, so The Pit Crew faces the same kind of mixed reaction that all pit bulls do. But we are making progress: there is already a ‘fan club’ at Gullett Elementary School called the “Pit Crew Peeps” made up of children who enjoy seeing the Pit Crew in their school and community, so we hope that others will become fans as well!

Why do you think pit bulls make good therapy dogs?

As natural “people-pleasers” pit bulls can be perfect therapy dogs. Their ability to learn quickly and adjust to various environments is a good fit for therapy work. By providing comfort and assistance to those with mental, emotional, or physical challenges, pit bulls can prove -- in one more important way -- that they are talented, versatile, and loving animal companions.

What advice would you give to someone starting their own pit bull therapy dog program?

Love-A-Bull operates with a basic attitude of “let’s be brave and try it!” with many of its initiatives because, frankly, pro-pittie programs in many communities are rare. We decided to fill a void in terms of positive education and outreach, and what it took was guts, energy, time, and commitment. With those in place, anyone can do anything they put their minds to!

We encourage others to plant a seed of an idea and give it some nutrients (time and effort); then, given some support (contributions or shared effort by others), that idea can grow. That’s how Love-A-Bull started and how we continue to thrive. With the Pit Crew, it just took willingness from a local trainer who had therapy dog experience, openness and cooperation from a local school principal, and the hearts, minds, and time of several dedicated pit bull owners – and of course, some fantastic dogs – these are the components to get it off the ground. We are anxious to see where it goes (and grows) from here!

For more information about The Pit Crew, check out their website!

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Several years ago A Rotta Love Plus (ARLP) began a formal therapy dog program, pairing pit bulls and Rottweilers with youth in crisis to not only help youth, but to improve the image of our breeds within the community. We didn't know it at the time, but it seems we were part of a growing movement to utilize therapy dogs to change the reputation of certain breeds – pit bulls, Rottweilers, etc. – and enhance local communities at the same time. Happily, there are now a handful of similar programs around the country, and we'll be highlighting them on our blog in the months to come. 

We're starting close to home today by interviewing our very own volunteer Education Director, Kellie French. Next week, we'll feature an interview with Lydia Zaidman of Love-A-Bull in Austin, Texas, about their all-pit therapy dog program. If you would like your Rott- or pit-centric therapy dog program to be included in this series, please e-mail Sara Nick. Enjoy!

Photos by Tara Engle Photography.

What was the inspiration for your program? Tell us how you got started.

As a social worker, I have seen a tremendous need for youth services, yet year after year so many great programs experience financial hardship and disappear. In 2008 after getting my first ARLP adopted pit bull registered as a therapy dog, I began to look for organizations that provided shelter and services to at-risk, traumatized youth to visit with my dogs. I had already been coordinating ARLP's Dog Safety Program (within schools, etc.) for a couple years and knew the healing power and positive energy dogs can bring into these environments, so I was anxious to get started with some of the most vulnerable kids. I  began by making twice-monthly visits to  a residential treatment center for youth.

Soon after, I started to connect with other Twin Cities community members who work with animals and children within a therapeutic setting. This  networking resulted in my being hired in 2009 to facilitate animal and art therapy groups to children residing within domestic violence shelters. I was amazed by the stories that the children would share about their experiences of violence, and it seemed like they were open to sharing these very difficult stories and feelings because the dogs created a safe environment. At this same time I teamed up with another dog handler to visit at a local youth shelter on an informal basis.

Kellie French and therapy dogs Cedric and Marri

Over time, I began to brainstorm a new program idea. Because I had access to other volunteers who had been part of ARLP’s Dog Safety Program for many years, I already had a pool of dog/handler teams. They were all excited about the possibility of this new program and, after many meetings and emails, we came up with a name, a mission, and a target audience. We knew we had a perfect fit, given the similarities between our marginalized dog breeds (pit bulls and Rottweilers) and marginalized youth, both groups commonly experiencing abuse, neglect, and judgment.

The program, now known as PRIORITY Paws – which stands for Pit bull and Rottweiler Interactive OutReach, Instruction, and Therapy for Youth – was officially underway in February 2010. We began our formal partnership with The Bridge for Youth in Minneapolis at that time. Later that same year, we began a formal partnership with St. Joseph's Home for Children,  also in Minneapolis.  This year, we formed a connection with Ain Dah Yung (a shelter providing services predominately to Native American youth) in St. Paul. Each of these locations provide housing and services to youth who are experiencing some type of family crisis.

Bettie, PRIORITY Paws dog

How many dog teams are currently participating with PRIORITY Paws? How often do you go on visits?

Currently, 16 pit bulls and Rottweilers and their humans volunteer with us. Each week we conduct three visits, with at least two dog/handler teams plus an extra person – a facilitator – attending each session.

What are the requirements for a dog/handler team if they want to join your program?

Pit bulls or Rottweilers who are registered therapy dogs are welcome to join our team. We very much encourage, but do not require, the dogs to be adopted from a shelter or rescue – as these dogs and their stories can make a powerful connection with the kids.

What human population(s) does your program serve?

PRIORITY Paws serves at-risk, traumatized youth who have experienced homelessness, abuse, and/or neglect.

Describe your program's curriculum.

PRIORITY Paws is an animal-assisted intervention program. We work with staff and therapists at our program locations to come up with weekly curricula that can best assist the youth in achieving overall wellness and help reunite families, which are the primary missions of all of our partner organizations. Each session deals with a topic of high relevance to youth (e.g., safety, support/trust, building positive relationships, and more); each topic is also discussed as it relates to dogs.


Rachel (ARLP President) with PRIORITY Paws dog Jana and the late great Jake

Have you faced any breed discrimination in trying to get the programs set up? If so, how did you overcome it?

Luckily, none of our partner organizations have turned us away based on the breeds that make our program possible. There has been some hesitation from certain individuals (e.g., a youth-org staff member here and there), but they often talk openly about their apprehension and make attempts to overcome their fears.

Share a memorable moment that has occurred during one of your therapy dog sessions.

I will never forget one 16-year old who, when talking about what he hoped for his future, summed up exactly what we are trying to accomplish with our programs: “I wish that I will find my own happy home. I relate to the dogs because everyone needs a place to belong.” I actually have this quote posted in my office!

How is your program changing minds about pit bulls and Rottweilers?

As an example, the new director of the Bridge for Youth met with the PRIORITY Paws team to learn more about our program. He admitted being a little timid around pit bulls, but he changed his mind when he saw our dogs rolling on their belly for the youth and showing off their tricks. He told us how much he loves the concept of how our dogs and youth share common life experiences, like being the target of prejudice and judgment.

Highlight a particular therapy dog from your program. What makes this dog special to PRIORITY Paws?

It would be impossible to share a story about just one dog; each and every dog who is part of PRIORITY Paws bring so much to the program and each dog has something different to offer the youth! We have at least two dog/handler teams present for each group, so I try to match a more excitable dog with one that is more laid back for each session. This allows a youth who is slightly fearful of dogs (or simply shy or introverted) to connect with the mellow dog, whereas the more outgoing and excitable dog is a great match for a youth with more energy. This means at any time, within any group, each dog can be a perfect match with a number of the youth present that day.

Why do you think pit bulls and Rottweilers make good therapy dogs?

I’ve been a part of a number of therapy dog groups with various breeds, and I convinced that pit bulls make the best therapy dogs for youth. (Yes, I am biased). Pit bulls seem to absolutely love interacting with youth! The high-energy nature of some of the dogs matches perfectly with that of the youth, their shorter hair leaves the spaces cleaner, and their medium size allows them to fit nicely in tighter spaces or rooms. Overall, a pit bull's temperament of being a complete people-pleaser and clown makes them a perfect match for youth who are experiencing tough time. As for Rottweilers, their size and gentle, regal presence always have a big effect on the kids. The kids love getting to witness the paradox of the large and tough-looking, but gentle and goofy Rotties!


Josie, PRIORITY Paws dog

What advice would you give to someone starting their own pit bull therapy dog program?

For the dogs: follow the rules of national therapy dog organizations. For the human volunteers: offer trainings or times to meet so everyone knows what is expected of them and what the organization, target population, and program are going to be like. For program development: after ‘selling’ your program to a facility, be sure that there is at least one person working there who is committed to championing your program and being your main contact.

Anything else we should know?

We are so excited to watch the partnerships between human-service and animal-welfare organizations grow and develop, bringing people who care about people and animals together in ways that they have not before. We are also happy to see the tremendous amount of joy from the youth, and look forward to developing ways to evaluate the positive outcomes that we experience every week. In gathering this information we hope to publish our results and show the world the important things that are achieved when dogs are conduits for change in struggling young people's lives. Not just any dogs, but pit bulls and Rottweilers, who – similar to the youth we serve – are often viewed as discarded, unwanted, forgotten, mean, or worthless. Ultimately, we are hoping to create a better future for pit bulls and Rottweilers and our community's youth.

Where can people get more info about PRIORITY Paws?

Shoot us an e-mail at education@arottalove.org (we are all volunteers so it may take a few days to get back to you!).

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Blog post by Kellie French.

Many people who work in animal rescue can relate to having to fight the thought, “there is no hope for humanity.” In addition to animal rescue, I have worked in the child welfare system for almost a decade, so there are plenty of days that I wonder about the human race.

However, there are also many days that remind me why I love doing what I do.

Days where I can see the full picture of the community who helped keep a family – human and animal alike – intact.

Days like the one that I witnessed a family’s struggle come full circle: from asking for help, to becoming the helper.

A Family Fights to Stay Together

As a representative of the MN Alliance for Family & Animal Safety (MNAFAS), I was contacted one afternoon by Minneapolis Animal Care and Control about two pit bulls in need of safe housing. Eva, the loving owner of Bubba and Pearl, had found herself in a scary domestic violence situation and entrusted her dogs to animal control to be held until foster homes could be located to keep the dogs safe until the woman could safely reclaim them.


Pearl

I met with Eva and her daughters to learn more about her situation, her dogs, and her safety plan. Eva shared with me her story, and her oldest daughter, Ashley, spoke about the behaviors, needs, and personalities of Bubba and Pearl. I was humbled to find out that Eva and her daughters were currently residing in a homeless shelter, kenneling their dogs in someone's garage overnight. They had to take their dogs from 5 am to 8 pm each day, but since they had no place to live, they would spend their days at parks with the dogs. This significantly affected Eva's ability to focus on other areas of her life, such as finding housing. Although the family had to make significant sacrifices to care for their dogs, they were happy and strong because they were together.

That was when MNAFAS stepped in to help. Eva, her daughters, and Bubba and Pearl were a perfect fit for the MNAFAS Pet Safe Housing Program and an example of the necessity of this service within our community: families are not only comprised of humans, but beloved animals as well, and some people will compromise their own safety and well-being in order to keep their pets.

It Takes a Community

Minnesota Pit Bull Rescue (MPBR), also a member of the MN Alliance for Family & Animal Safety, put out a request for foster homes for Bubba and Pearl. The dogs were subjected to a simple temperament test to ensure that they did not pose a danger to humans, and they were soon placed with foster homes. Bubba, a social butterfly, made quick friends with his foster family's dog. Pearl, who was much more mellow, was slowly introduced to her foster family's dog and cat.

Just like with any major change, adjusting to foster care was difficult for these two dogs. Bubba destroyed his kennel – he just wanted to hang out with his new foster family!

Pearl, on the other hand, was thought to have a bladder infection. But it soon became clear that it was something more serious. MPBR began to investigate why Pearl wasn't feeling well and, after countless tests, it was determined that she had an inoperable cancerous mass. MPBR volunteers were faced with the task of breaking this devastating news to Eva and her girls. Pearl was put on a medication that would keep her comfortable and pain free.

After a few months, Eva was able to bring her entire family back together, and Bubba and Pearl were reunited with their girls.

Bubba

The Giving Comes Full Circle

More than a year later, in September 2012, I again connected with this wonderful family – this time, at one of A Rotta Love Plus’ Get Your Fix! fairs, where they had come to get their dogs vaccinated and microchipped. Unfortunately Pearl had passed away, but Eva and the girls were elated to introduce me to their other dog, Golden, who they had just recently gotten away from their abuser. Bubba was with them too, exuberant as ever, and happily being wrangled by Ashley.

 Golden

That day, Ashley asked how she could volunteer with A Rotta Love Plus to help others, like those who helped her dogs. So in October, at our last Get Your Fix! fair of the season, Ashley joined the other ARLP volunteers in setting up tents. She listened to the precise directions necessary for recording microchip information. She spoke to people waiting in line, writing down their information and letting them know about the services being provided that day. Ashley also talked about her interest in keeping dogs safe and healthy, and her internship at a veterinary clinic.

Clearly, this teen and her family have not let life’s hardships affect their ability to show compassion.

With all of the terrible things that happen around us every day, I look at Eva, her daughters, and their dogs, and remember that what we do matters. It lasts.

The compassion we show others – animals and humans alike – sets an example that will be passed along to ensure a better place for all of us.

Fellow Get Your Fix! volunteers and me
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All of ARLP's foster dogs are, and will always be, near and dear to our hearts. But some -- due to their duration of stay in foster care, their particularly unique personalities, their resilience, or, as in Tally's case, a combination of all three -- leave a lasting impression on all they meet. We know that the many people who have followed Tally's journey over the last two years will be overjoyed to hear that Tally is home for good. Here, Tally's forever mama tells a story of what you want, what you get, and the unexpected bliss can result from a mismatch between the two.

Blog post by Ruth Patton.

It started with an email message from Jen L., ARLP's lead Rott n' Pit Ed trainer, in early January: “Hey Ruth, We just started another session of class and I was wondering if you would be interested in being a training buddy for Tally. Let me know what you think!”

The answer was yes, of course (more accurately, it was “Wheeeeeeeee! YES”), and Tally and I met for the first time on January 15. I picked her up at Chez Hotchkiss [home of ARLP volunteers Amy and Larry], and she was wearing a cute little pink collar and sweater set. I remember a lot of jumping and scrabbling and lunging and snorting...Tally was Distraction in Argyle. I got her into the car, got her to class, tried over and over to get her attention while she pulled and yodeled, and ran out of treats.

Ruth and Tally at Rott n' Pit Ed soon after they met. Photo by Lp Reyes

The next day, Amy emailed, “No pressure...but do you love her????? :)”

The truth? No. I mean, not in that way. Not in the 'adopt her' way. I grew up with dogs, and loved dogs, and knew I’d have one someday, which meant I’d thought about it a lot and had a fantasy dog in mind. Fantasy dog was male (so, not Tally), tall (strike two), laid back (three), and he’d run miles and miles with me (have you seen Tally’s wonky wrist?). And on the limited occasions I was willing to admit the depth of my psychosis, fantasy dog would also convince the cats to love him, he’d get along with all other dogs, and he’d protect me from muggers. (I know. I’m not proud of it.)

Not that the ARLP chicks didn’t try. “So-and-so was saying that Tally's totally your dog.” SIGH. I thought Tally was cute and had fun at Rott n' Pit Ed with her and cried just a tiny bit when I dropped her off at home for the last time in early March, but she totally wasn’t my dog.

Ruth and Tally consider each other. Photo by Lp Reyes

Aaaaand then I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I kept checking the list of available ARLPups to see if she was still there, and I’d make cheerful, promotional comments on her Facebook pics (e.g., “She’ll make a GREAT companion!”). And I kept hoping she’d get adopted so I could let it go.

In the meantime, Cory and I decided to give fostering a try. It seemed like a great way to have a dog in our lives without having to make any kind of permanent commitment. For me, the cats were a serious concern. No so much Jasper, the lazy male with three settings – sleep, make biscuits, cry for dinner. It was Poppy I was worried about. She’s seven pounds of fury. She’s the one who runs to the door whenever someone comes over...not to greet them, but to assess if they’re a threat that needs to be neutralized. She’s faced off with two dogs at once totaling over twelve times her mass. She backed the neighbor Labrador into a corner of the kitchen and kept him there, hysterically yelping, until I managed to get a towel over her.

Jasper in front, Poppy in back. Photo courtesy of Ruth Patton

I was afraid that if a dog showed any interest in her, or chased her, or heaven forbid, tried to attack her, she would scratch their eyes out. So having a dog in the house could turn out to be ultimately unworkable for the long-term.

We submitted the foster application in early April and heard back from Amy, who wanted to come over to see the house and yard and make sure we weren’t hoarders and were fit for fostering. I asked her to please bring Tally. We locked up the cats, the guests arrived, and Tally destroyed two toys, popped our kickball, and rolled in her own pee. I emailed a friend later, “DOGS ARE SO GREAT.”

Smitten much?

Tally works her charm on Cory. Photo by Ruth Patton

Soon after, Amy asked if we’d like to dog-sit Tally while she and Larry were on vacation in early May. I let Cory decide because I felt biased. He agreed, I did a secret celebration, and it was decided. On April 30, Amy dropped her off with all of her doggie accessories, gave feeding instructions and some sage advice, and went home. So there we were, with Tally in the house, wondering how we were going to handle the next couple of weeks.

Photo courtesy of Ruth Patton

You know how the story goes. She hasn’t left.

I remember Tally as a bit out-of-control back in January, and apparently when she first arrived in Minnesota her distractibility was legendary. But her many months with kind, caring foster families helped her settle down into a very easy dog. From the beginning, she was great in her bin – went in easily, didn’t complain once there. She’s great in the car. She doesn’t bark, doesn’t get in the garbage. Really, the only naughty thing she does is chew plastic things (water bottles, food containers, plant pots...with the plants still in them, but we know that, so if she gets one, it’s our fault). She’s very trainable – what started with “leave it” with treats became “drop” with toys, and she’s decided she likes to fetch.

I’m not sure I can explain how ridiculously delightful Tally is. She loves to play, and her capacity for fun is almost matched by her clumsiness. When she wants your attention, she’ll grab a toy – a ball of some sort – amble up with it in her mouth, and just bonk right into you, toy-first. BONK. Tug is super fun, and she’s surprisingly good at catching high fly balls, but sometimes she’ll leap up to catch one and throw herself completely off balance, landing hard on her side (but up the next second, chewing the ball as she toddles up, reluctantly but eventually dropping it for another go). She snorts and sneezes and makes funny noises. Her ears don’t match. She sleeps hard and is happiest on the couch next to or on top of someone. She seems particularly content while a beloved person holds a Nylabone for her as she gnaws on it, gazing deeply into her person’s eyes, gnaw gnaw gnaw.

Family photo by Lp Reyes

Perhaps my favorite Tally quality right now is her adoration of the neighbor kids. Especially Cora, who’s eight. When they visit, Tally won’t leave Cora’s side. She stares at Cora with unmitigated devotion. If Cora sits down, Tally lays in her lap. We showed Cora how to play fetch with Tally, and it’s heart-swelling to watch this little girl with her little girl’s voice say, “Tally, drop,” and see Tally, so intense, drop the ball, sit down, and look up into Cora’s face.

Yep - that's the adoring look. Photo by Lp Reyes

And the cats? We took it super slow, kept the species separate. They didn’t even see each other for the first month. Then we moved Tally’s crate into the dining room and covered it with a blanket when the cats were around. Then the blanket came off. We increased their exposure to each other over the course of weeks: we’d have Tally out and let the kitties into the room for five minutes. Then ten. Then fifteen. In general, and to my huge surprise, Tally is completely intimidated by them. Her usual reaction is to look away, as though trying to convince herself that if she doesn’t see them, they won’t see her. There have been two incidents of Poppy-on-Tally violence, both of which began with a great deal of cat menacing behavior (growling, stalking) and ended with Poppy swatting Tally on the butt, even though Tally was exhibiting the most pathetic expression of canine submission you can imagine. (And both of which happened when the human intervenor was on the toilet.) I’m pretty sure Pop didn’t even use her claws; she just wants everyone to admit that she’s in charge. As I’m writing this, Tally’s asleep next to me on the couch, and Poppy’s on my other side. Jasper’s next to us on the back of the couch. It’s better than I’d dared hope.

Even so, Tally’s not completely comfortable around them. When one saunters into the room, she’ll often lick her lips and look at me. It’s that looking-at-me part that melts my heart. She’s nervous, and she turns to me. Every time, I tell her, you’re okay. I’ll protect you. And her history is always in the back of my mind, with the fight ring and then the substandard shelter where so many of the other dogs died, so I feel like I’m making amends for the human race, you know? I mean it when I say to her, I will keep you safe for the rest of your life.

It's official! Photo by Lp Reyes

I still have a hard time believing she was in foster homes for so long – almost 18 months! I don’t think she was waiting for us. I don’t believe it was meant to be; I just don’t think the world works that way. But I do feel very, very lucky that it all happened the way it did, that Jen thought of me and that Amy brought her over and that Cory was here and that I’m finally ready to let go of my fantasy dog and cuddle up with a real one. That’s how it goes, right? There’s what you want, and there’s what you get, and the two don’t have to match up for life to be good. Tally is amazing. Loving her makes me a better person. I’m going to keep her safe and happy for the rest of her life. And I’m grateful for ARLP and the work it does bringing dogs like Tally into the lives of people like me.

Amy, Ruth, and a group of ARLP supporters at Tally's adoption party. Photo by Lp Reyes
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Kellie French and Kaitlin Martiny contributed to this post. Photos by Tara Engle Photography.

ARLP's therapy dog program, PRIORITY Paws, provides formal animal-assisted interventions in youth service organizations (specifically, shelters for youth who are homeless, have run away, or have been removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect from caregivers).

PRIORITY Paws welcomed two new facilitators over the summer: Kelsey Brown and Kaitlin Martiny. Kelsey and Kaitlin, both of whom are dog lovers, heard about the work being done to use therapy dogs to help youth in crisis and jumped right in to help out while on break from college. Kelsey is a sophomore at University of Colorado at Boulder studying neuroscience and psychology and Kaitlin just started her second year at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign studying psychology.

As Kaitlin explains, "I wanted to be a PRIORITY Paws facilitator as soon as I heard about the program." Not only would participating in PRIORITY Paws mean she'd be able to be part of "such a unique program," but Kaitlin thought it would make a good addition to her resume: "I knew that an experience with PRIORITY Paws would help me with my future goals of becoming a counselor for teens or children. I wanted to be able to help those kids as much as I could with what little time I had with them, and PRIORITY Paws was the perfect way for me to do that."


Cedric, PRIORITY Paws dog 

Both women did a tremendous job with PRIORITY Paws, first as observers and then as facilitators. One of the staff members at The Bridge for Youth commented to Kelsey and Kaitlin that because of their young age, simply having them present encouraged the youth to open up and begin to process their struggles. The staff member stated that it was obvious that the young girls from The Bridge gravitated towards Kelsey and Kaitlin and were eager to ask them questions, like they would a mentor or older sister.

Kaitlin describes one of the rewarding experiences she had facilitating for PRIORITY Paws: "My favorite part of being a PRIORITY Paws facilitator was being able to watch how the kids acted around the dogs. For the most part, the kids were ecstatic to see and play with the dogs. But there were also times when the kids weren’t so thrilled. My very first time observing at St. Joseph's Home for Children, we had a small group of elementary school-aged kids. About half of the kids that day weren't so fond of the dogs, but as the session continued those youth became more and more warm towards the dogs...they were very interested in learning about them and intently watched their tricks. We had completed our goal of the day just by getting them to increase their attention by that little bit."

In addition, Katilin points out, she witnessed the unique way that PRIORITY Paws can change kids' preconceived notions about dogs in general and ARLP's particular breeds. "There are many kids who only have experiences with poorly trained dogs, and they assume all dogs are mean and aggressive like that," she observes. Moreover, "The youth seemed to be very moved by all the dogs’ rescue stories. Many times, at the beginning of the session, the teens are not paying very close attention. They aren’t being rude, but they aren’t giving their full attention either. Yet after we share the dogs’ rescue stories and how they were treated in the past, the youth perk up. They always seem to have so much empathy for the dogs. The youth are able to really connect to the dogs’ stories. Then, being able to see how well the dogs are doing now, they are encouraged to continue working hard to get their lives back in order."


Jana, PRIORITY Paws dog 

Kaitlin notes that the youth involved with PRIORITY Paws aren't the only ones who can experience a change in perception about pit bulls and Rottweilers. "Honestly, even I was [initially] shocked to see that Rottweilers and pit bulls were the dogs being used in the PRIORITY Paws program. I had my own prejudice against pit bulls because I had only seen how they portray them on TV and movies," she says. "Volunteering with A Rotta Love Plus has completely changed my idea on pit bulls and the stereotypes against them," just as it has changed the kids' ideas about them.

Kaitlin tells us that she is "so thankful for all the experiences I had while working with PRIORITY Paws. I learned so much from the kids and the dogs. The kids and the dogs have both been through so much in their short lives, so it is inspiring to see them doing something good with their lives."

The compassion, empathy, and understanding that Kelsey and Kaitlin displayed as facilitators is something that these struggling youth will never forget. Their energy, enthusiasm, and natural leadership skills are something that the PRIORITY Paws team will miss while Kelsey and Kaitlin are back at school. We hope they will join us again!

If you are a dog lover who has a social service or education background and are interested in volunteering as a youth group facilitator with the PRIORITY Paws program, please email Kellie.


Ella, PRIORITY Paws dog
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Story and photos contributed by Paige.

"Two things stand like stone: Kindness in another's trouble, Courage in your own."  -Adam Lindsay Gordon

Stone is a regal, chestnut-colored boy with a black mask, a thin white snip going all the way up between his eyes, four white feet, and a beautiful wide tuxedo blaze covering most of his chest. 


Lulu, also served by Get Your Fix!

He arrived at Get Your Fix! crated in the backseat of his mama's car, stepping out in a bright blue harness and a beautiful studded leather collar. Stone charged around with excitement, dragging his mama along with him. He greeted two other dogs as well as several people, flying from curb to picnic table, landing just outside the spay and neuter recovery building. Stone’s energy level in this highly stimulating situation made perfect sense. And knowing her dog, Stone’s mama handled Stone herself until it was his turn to climb aboard the spay/neuter truck.

When Stone began waking up from his surgery, his papa came back to the Get Your Fix! Fair right away. This photo of Stone and his human says it all:

Tattoo reads "Family"

Stone had his family with him every step of the way. The care that Stone's family showed for him, from an exciting morning with mama to a loving recovery with papa, is what GYF is all about: assisting families who love their dogs. 

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Foster homes - the first stop in our program dogs' journey to the good life - are an invaluable part of A Rotta Love Plus. When a foster home decides to keep its foster dog forever, you may overhear us joking, "another one bites the dust." But as you'll see in this post about the Williams' family experience with Sula, like many other "foster failures" before them, the match between dog and home was just too perfect to resist. Click here to learn more about fostering for ARLP.

Blog post by Seth Williams.

In early June, we were spending a typical Saturday out and about and had no idea that a new chapter in our lives was about to open. A phone call from ARLP foster coordinator Amy let us know that ARLP had visited Minneapolis Animal Care and Control (MACC) to evaluate a Rottweiler for foster care and, while there, they were alerted to a second female - of the 'Rottweiler mix' variety - that might be a good candidate as well. Seems the MACC staff arrived at work one morning and found her tied up in their front yard and saw some potential "amazing" in her. But she needed a home.  Could we take a dog? Sure! Today? No, but how's tomorrow work? Done. She had her temporary home.

Amy and Larry arrived the next day with a stunning little female on the other end of the leash.

That 60-pound, grey and tan Rottie mix walked into our patio that Sunday in June and, though we didn't realize it at the time, into our hearts as well.


Sula. Photo by Lp Reyes

We did the initial meet n' greet, got her settled, and rustled up a bag of food, some treats, and toys, and off went Amy and Larry.

We had decided on the name 'SULA' the night before her arrival based on a photograph Amy sent us. Sula's snout had a tan marking that looked like a mountain, and I was instantly reminded of a beautiful peak in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana named Sula Peak. She was as beautiful as that peak.

We began our Foster journey, intent on finding out what made this girl tick. Why was she abandoned? Was there something we weren't seeing? What could it be? A few weeks passed without learning any such information. What was happening, however, was Sula's subtle yet effective integration into our family.

Sula was brought into a home that already had two humans, a four-year old Lab named Hoolie, who has seniority,  and a four-year-old (or thereabouts) Rottweiler named Andy, who came to our home a little over a year ago from the State of Texas. Also in residence was a 13-year old feline with an attitude to match.


Andy, of TX200 fame. Photo by the Williams' family

Sula meshed into the daily routine and was readily accepted into the pack by the pack dudes. The cat tested this new arrival but soon decided she was worthy of feline companionship as well.

Training started with Rott n' Pit Ed, and attendance at Adoption Day events was planned and executed. All this time, we humans found we were constantly challenged by the idea of Sula one day leaving our family.


Sula and Seth. Photo by Lp Reyes

It was becoming evident that we were bonding and enjoying having her in our family. Besides, we were learning about the 'inner' Sula. Who else would understand her, know her likes and dislikes? But we found comfort in ARLP's ability to find the 'perfect' home and knew our job was to give her the best foundation as possible for success in her new home.

...but still...

Sula and Hoolie were fast becoming play companions and seemed to find great joy in eachothers' company. Andy, the cerebral Rottweiler, would engage Sula once in a while, but mostly seemed to watch in awe as Sula and Hoolie expended great energy in nothing more than play -- a concept that baffles Andy.


Hula and Soolie. Or is it the other way around? Photo by the Williams' family

When the applications for Sula started rolling in, our discussions of making Sula a permanent member of our family took on a sense of sincere purpose. Several days of discussing the pros and cons helped us discover that Sula had, in a bit under two months, in fact become a family member. If she were to be adopted into another home, we would miss her terribly, Lab Hoolie would lose a true play companion, and at the end of the day, our family would have an empty hole left behind.

Discussions conducted, evidence weighed, decision made. Sula was in her forever home.

Now we understood. Now we found, in the decision, joy, peace, and completion. It was, and is, the right thing.

We will continue to foster, albeit short-term, but anything we can do to help these critters successfully navigate waters they are thrust into, through no intent of their own, is time and effort well invested.


Home for good. Photo by Lp Reyes
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Story and photos contributed by Lp Reyes.

Zeke's mama brought him through the fair for vaccinations while his brother, Nightmare, was getting neutered. Nightmare charmed many volunteers before his surgery, and Zeke is best remembered for his bravery at the microchipping table that drew cheers from bystanders when it was done.

Nightmare, pre-neuter

Nightmare and Zeke's human, Gina, struck up a conversation with ARLP volunteer Paige as Gina sat with Nightmare in his post-op blur. Gina proudly told Paige about the professional photo session of her two boys that took place at a local pet store. A short while later she left the recovery room and returned to show off her two wallet-sized photos of Zeke and Nightmare, heads cocked to the side, wearing bright blue and red bandanas. Just like any proud parent, Gina carries her photos of her “kids” in her purse. Paige and Gina exchanged contact information so that Paige could send Gina more photos of her boys’ activities at the Get Your Fix! fair.


Proud mama: Gina and Zeke

The pride of ownership we witness so frequently at Get Your Fix!, such as that demonstrated by Gina, energizes us throughout tiring GYF fair days and deeply connects us to the human attendees. While ARLP volunteers may initiate their involvement in GYF because of their love for dogs, it is often the human-to-human relationships developed at GYF that drive their continued dedication to the cause.


Proud owner-in-training

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Rachel Anderson and Laura Anderson contributed to this story. 

Three young teenage boys and their guardian, who was also quite young, showed up to Saturday's Get Your Fix! fair with a beautiful blue and white pit bull.

Photo by Lp Reyes

ARLP volunteers noticed that the dog seemed to have hives, and told the dog's people so. The oldest of the three boys, his long hair combed into a ponytail, proudly told the volunteers, “I went up to Family Dollar and bought that pet shampoo and gave her a bath.”

He listened intently as Rachel A. explained to him that Benadryl would help with the hives and that he had allergies, like people get. Not only were we grateful for the opportunity to dole out a bit of health information but,  as Laura A. put it afterward, “The thought of the young boy using his hard-earned money on dog shampoo and lovingly giving her a bath was just so wonderful.”

Photo by Lp Reyes

Laura A. then asked if he was the dog's chosen human, which he proudly proclaimed himself to be. The other two boys reluctantly agreed that he was, indeed, the dog's favorite and was in charge of most of the dog's care.

Rachel told the boy that he had a wonderful dog and that it was clear how much he cared for her. He replied very earnestly, “I don't fight her or nothing, I love her.”


Photo by Sara Nick
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Once upon a time, there was a princess named Tallulah  Twinkletoes. Though she was once held captive by forces of Darkness (backstory here), princess Tally has now found herself smack-dab in the middle of the good life, thanks to her dedicated "foster" (cough cough) family. But just because she's reached her happily ever after doesn't mean her adventures can't continue!

Today's fairy tale and photos are brought to you by Ruth Patton.

 

One bright sunny day, Princess Tally ascended a mountain to survey her realm.
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Then the princess had an idea.
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There was a little bit more mountain to climb...perhaps she could go even higher!
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The princess quickly realized that the top was rather slippery and pointy.
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She called for her #1 henchman, who immediately came to her aid. 
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Perhaps next time Princess Tally will be happy with not-quite-the-top of the mountain?
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Nah.
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The End.

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