MAGGIE: the dog who changed my life

MAGGIE: the dog who changed my life
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Monday, May 2, 2011

It Was "Just" a Pitbull ...

Can We As a Therapy Dog Team Change That Perception?

Last week when Maddie, my therapy dog and I made our weekly visit to the juvenile center, I had intended to talk to the kids about animal cruelty. However, when we arrived and there was only 1 teen there, I thought about saving this talk for a larger group. But for some reason I decided to go ahead and talk about what constitutes animal cruelty, what an individual can do about it, and the link between animal and human abuse.

I asked a question I'd never asked before. "Have you ever witnessed animal cruelty? At home? On TV? By a friend?"

Dustin, a caseworker, with Maddie

"Yes," came the surprising answer back. Surprising because of his rapid forthrightness with his response. "I've seen a relative hit his pit bull. But it was just a pit bull. I've hit a pit bull, too. But I would never hit a dog like that one," he said, motioning to Maddie.

Maddie and me: We talk first and then the kids play with her

First, I had to keep my mouth from dropping in order to respond and not blow all rapport with this young man.

"What do you mean, just a pit bull? Hitting an animal to punish him/her is not OK," I said.

"But it's a pitbull," he said. "They're different." He made some reference to himself doing something wrong, and said if punishment wasn't OK then he shouldn't be in the juvenile center. Then I talked about the importance of drawing boundaries and having consequences for both humans and dogs -- as opposed to striking any being. I could see he was still dubious, and likely brainwashed by his relative or others with a mind set that pit bulls are fighting dogs or mean and need to be "put in their place."

Ms. Maddie paying attention to "Mom"

"You're not buying this, are you?" I asked him.

"I'm listening," he said.

Maddie and Nick, another caseworker (he really loves her!)

"Did you know animal cruelty is against the law in Colorado?"

"I don't pay much attention to the laws," he quipped.

"Hmm. Do you suppose that's why you're in here?" I was amazed at his response!

He smiled and shrugged. As he began playing with Maddie, I talked about the stereotype so many people have re: pit bulls; how it was humans who bred fighting genes into the breed and try to make them mean; and how at the turn of the century they were the family dog.

Barb, juvenile center supervisor, with Maddie

I do find it interesting that while some part of this young man believed that pit bulls somehow deserved to be hit to control them, where other breeds do not, he did clearly recognize it as cruelty given his immediate response to my first question. Did Maddie and I make a difference in this teen's thinking about animal cruelty and pit bulls? I'll probably never know. I can only hope we planted a seed.

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