When Fiona Gilbert, biohacker and movement therapist, was diagnosed with a debilitating degenerative neurological disorder, she looked for ways to adapt to the realities of the condition. One involved finding a service dog trained for bracing work—not an easy thing. But, thanks to Animal Farm Foundation (AFF), she’s now assisted by a Pit Bull named Koda. AFF, a nonprofit organization based in New York’s Hudson Valley, is dedicated to securing equal treatment and opportunity for Pit Bull dogs and their owners. They offer a remarkable range of services, not the least of which is giving marginalized dogs a chance at the love they deserve.
Lee Harrington: I notice that you always use quotation marks around the words “Pit Bull,” which seems like a subtle way to slowly break down stereotypes and biases. What’s the reason for this choice?
Regina Lizik: It’s a matter of shelter labeling. Pit Bull is slang—short form for American Pit Bull Terrier. But what’s happening now is that dogs in shelters are being labeled as Pit Bulls because they have, say, short hair and blocky heads. If a dog has been labeled a Pit Bull, he/she can be accepted into our program.
LH: Even if s/he is mislabeled?
LH: What motivates people to seek a Pit Bull service dog? Finances? Advocacy? To break biases?
RL: A combination. A lot of folks who apply say they are partial to Pit Bulls as pets. We have had people say, “I am discriminated against because of my needs, and these dogs are discriminated against.” So they feel a bond between themselves and these dogs.
LH: Not all service dog organizations train their dogs for handlers with neurological disorders. Nor can they offer brace and mobility service dogs, because their purpose-bred dogs may have issues with hip dysplasia. Would you say AFF is filling a niche?
RL: Because we’re a small organization, we can tailor the dogs we offer to meet an individual’s needs. In that way, we are filling a niche. We look at the needs of people and the potential of each dog to meet those needs. We match from there. We can get very specific and individualist with the tasks we train. This isn’t something everyone offers, not because they don’t want to, but because they don’t have the resources. What we’re really doing is fulfilling a need with regard to making service dogs more accessible to people who need them. Service dogs can cost up to $30,000 —training is expensive. We have the opportunity to provide dogs at no cost.
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LH: A dog intended for bracing work is trained to wear a specific brace and/or head harness. Bark readers know that many household dogs are quite resistant to head harnesses used as anti-pull walking devices. How does AFF train a dog to accept potentially uncomfortable gear?
RL: This is going to be different for each individual dog. For some equipment, we will desensitize the dog with lots of treats and train them to enjoy having the equipment put on. When done correctly, this often only takes a couple of sessions.
LH: Say you pull a shelter dog who’s very friendly, very sociable, loves people, loves other dogs. How would you recondition him/her to be less “sociable” while working? In other words, how do you reorient a behavior —sociability—that comes naturally to the dog?
RL: We want dogs who enjoy people and dogs and are not reactive to other types of animals. The dogs are taught using positive reinforcement clicker training. Most dogs enjoy this and learn that access to things they love comes through their handler. If, after training and plenty of opportunities working around distractions, a dog remains too interested in other people or dogs, they may make better pet dogs and will be placed accordingly.
LH: What if one of your dogs is returned?
RL: We work hard to reassign them or rehome them. The majority of dogs who do not make it as service dogs go on to be beloved pets. Recently, one of our service dogs, Obi-Wan, had a career change and became a K9 officer.
LH: I’ve heard it said that Pit Bulls need a strong hand in terms of training, and that clicker training and other forms of positive reinforcement will not work with them because “Pit Bulls need an alpha.” And of course, you’re successfully training dogs to work with people who, due to a variety of physical issues, may not be functionally able to supply a strong hand, even if they wanted to. What’s your response to this perspective?
RL: I assume anyone saying this has little to no experience with training animals. At AFF, we believe in creating mutual relationships between our clients and their new [canine] partners. We recommend that our clients read books like Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor and The Other End of the Leash by Patricia McConnell. The idea of the “alpha” with regard to dog training is a myth that was busted a long time ago. Dog training is about building relationships and trust. Everything we do at AFF is rooted in current canine science. If there’s new, sound research, we adjust. People who still believe in the alpha idea or other stereotypes of Pit Bull dogs (even the positive stereotypes) aren’t coming from a place of modern science. That’s really all there is to it.
LH: Many large, established service-dog organizations take the position that, in order to be effective, a service dog must start training at seven weeks of age. (These organizations also breed their own dogs, typically Labs and Goldens.) Your organization proves that even an adult shelter dog can make an unparalleled service dog. Can you comment on this— particularly the “ageism”?
RL: Dogs are full of potential. Washout rates in service dog programs are high, even in purposebred programs. From our view, when a dog is between the ages of one and two, we can truly assess who that dog is. We can also see how their bodies have developed to assess health concerns. We get to see all of those things up front when we evaluate the dogs. This doesn’t mean that dogs don’t wash out from our program or that a dog’s behavior doesn’t change while in the program—of course, that happens—but what our program, and others like it, shows is that it’s about the dog’s potential more than the dog’s age or breed. That’s our overall message here. It’s not “shelter dogs can do these things” or “Pit Bull dogs can do these things,” it’s that all dogs are individuals and it’s important to find out what their individual potential is.
LH: What else makes AFF unique compared to other service-dog organizations?
RL: I touched on some of this earlier, but we never charge a fee for our dogs. We offer lifetime training/behavior assistance to all of our clients. What really makes us unique is the opportunity our clients have to get a dog truly trained for their individual needs. Again, it’s because we’re very small and we have the resources to do it. The caveat is that right now, our application process is closed. We are working on ways to keep the tailored nature of our program and help more people, but, as you can imagine, expanding a program like this takes time and careful planning.
LH: Many dog enthusiasts—myself included—often marvel at how well trained service dogs are. In a way, we mythologize them, as if our own “ordinary” dogs could never achieve such levels of politeness, calm, poise and intelligence. What advice would you give to the average household human who wants a better-trained dog?
RL: Patience, patience, patience. And positive reinforcement. It’s important to remember to reinforce behaviors you want and ignore behaviors you don’t want. Take classes with a trainer who will help you build the relationship you want with your dog. Have short training sessions (three to five minutes) each day. Always set up your dog to succeed so you have opportunities to reinforce them for the things you like and take away opportunities to do the things you do not want.