One of the first things required to teach an adult pit bull is how to walk up a couple of stairs. "They're coming in at one to two years old, and they've never been inside a house," said Cape May County Animal Shelter Director Judith Davies. "A lot of people with pits, and I honestly cannot tell you why, just tie up their dog and leave them outside."
Pit bulls and pit bull mixes make up the majority of dogs that arrive at the shelter in Cape May Court House - probably 65 to 70 percent, Davies said - but many potential adopters refuse to even consider taking one in.
"We hear it all the time," Davies said. "'So what type of dogs are you interested in?' And very often you hear, 'Anything but a pit.'"
Pit bull advocates have declared an annual National Pit Bull Awareness Day, and last year The Gail Pierson Gallery in Cape May hosted a pit bull-themed art exhibit and photo contest to "counter balance of all negative media that's out there," event organizer Joan D'Avanzo said.
But there have been a number of violent incidents involving pit bulls in the news recently. A pit bull attack in Absecon in June left one man injured, a retriever dead, one pit bull shot dead and another euthanized. Two weeks earlier, a pit bull in Middle Township attacked a child and a police officer. And in Bridgeton in March, a man was arrested for allegedly using a pit bull to attack two men trying to repossess a car. This week, a Ventnor man was charged with using a pit bull to burglarize a house.
In Pleasantville, Capt. Rocky Melendez said a trained animal control officer is called for situations involving dogs.
"But if we get to a scene and the dog is aggressive and about to hurt people or other dogs, those are the very few unfortunate times we'll have to dispose of the dog," Melendez said. "Everyone in the Police Department is an animal lover, and it's hard for officers to have to take that kind of action."
Melendez, who once owned a pit himself, said most problems stem from how owners treat and raise their dogs.
"A lot of times you'll hear, 'There's a pit bull on the loose,' and everyone scatters because of the unfortunate connotations the dog has," Melendez said. "But a lot of times the officers pull up, the dog is friendly, they open the door and it jumps right in. And most likely, when a dog comes from a home where it's taken care of and loved, the first place they call is the shelter."
In Pleasantville, 24 pit bulls were licensed in 2011 and another 23 in 2012, with 13 already licensed as of late August this year. Twelve addresses registered two pits in one year, including one that registered three. But there are many more pit bulls than the ones properly licensed. And if the dozens of pits in local shelters are any indication - exact numbers change day to day - many had hard lives before arriving there.
"Some were left for months outside in the heat, and their ears had fresh wounds from bug bites," Davies said. "After the life they were subjected to, the right person has to come in and give the dog a chance."
At the Cape shelter, there were several reasons why the dogs were given up by their owners. Mamma: "Landlord said no." Hope: "Can't afford or handle." Frost, found roaming Poplar Avenue in Wildwood: "Needs training."
But many dogs present themselves to potential owners in a way that either marks them as too excitable or too shy.
CLASS, or Canine Life and Social Skills was created by dog behavioral expert Carol Siegrist - a pit bull owner herself. It teaches volunteers how to train dogs to behave not just once adopted, but before adoption.
"The first thing we talk about is that when someone walks into a shelter, the dogs start jumping and barking," Siegrist said. "It's the high point of their day. They're used to being involved with people."
The program teaches a "positive approval" technique, with clicks and treats, that rewards the dogs for behaving when people (and potential owners) move along the "barrier" of kennels.
"So even if they don't sit down, you don't want them bouncing and jumping off the walls," Siegrist said. "If a dog looks like Cujo or is bouncing off the walls, it looks too crazy to adopt. Or if it's a shy dog, as soon as someone approaches they're not going to pay attention."
Another part of the training utilizes a trailer with stairs, originally set up for vaccinations.
"Some dogs don't know what to do with little steps like these," Siegrist said. "They're afraid to go through the threshold of the doorway. The overall goal of the program is to prepare them for a new life in a house."
Inside, dogs go through "crate training," learning to go and spend time in kennel-like crates.
"You have to get them to like crates," Siegrist said. "It should never be used as punishment. If a dog gets acclimated to a crate when they go to a home, it will help them become better housetrained."
Soft music played in the trailer as one pit happily chewed on her snack, creating "a calming effect," Siegrist said.
Other training includes polite greeting, calm behavior, walking on a leash, and learning to stay and wait for different periods of time.
"I was a little apprehensive," said shelter volunteer Laura Turner, of Wildwood Crest. "I had never worked with a pit bull. But this one" - Princess, a pit bull mix - "is just like a big teddy bear. I think they're stereotyped."
Another volunteer, Connie Funk, of Philadelphia and Avalon, recalled one pit that was "out of control" when it arrived in April 2012.
"We thought it was deaf because it didn't listen," Funk said. "By August, it was walking on a leash, and it was adopted by a young couple."
One recent adopter, Neil Gabbadan of Philadelphia, drove the hour and a half to Cape May County specifically to adopt a pit - in this case, it turned out to be a mix named Gracie.
He and his girlfriend, Gabbadan said, "had always wanted to adopt a shelter dog, and whenever we went to a shelter in Cape May or elsewhere, there were tons of pit bulls. They were always ignored or neglected. We wanted to find a dog and provide a home for it."
The goal of the program, Davies said, "is to show people that pit and pit mixes can be smart, trainable and loyal. We want people to come in, walk through the kennel and say, 'That's a well-trained, good-looking dog there!' And then maybe they'll consider it."
Danielle Calcagni, of Galloway Township, adopted two pit bulls from the Camden County Animal Shelter.
"My dog was picked up off the streets of Camden," said Calcagni, a volunteer at the Camden shelter. "And I picked her because she was there the longest, seven months. My experience is, no matter where they came from or how they were treated, pit bulls just seem to bounce back really quickly - and are real quick to forgive humans. I say it's exactly how people should be to each other."
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