Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Pit bulls get a second chance

Wood River Valley shelter finds room for kill-shelter dogs

Express Staff Writer

Adoption counselor and dog trainer Sabine Muskari cuddles with Bruno, a pit bull mix, at the Animal Shelter of the Wood River Valley on Friday. Bruno was transferred from the Idaho Humane Society shelter in Boise 137 days ago and is still waiting to be adopted.

    When a shelter dog comes running toward you with a wagging tail and an obvious, desperate need for a snuggle, it’s easy to see that dog for the individual that he or she is, rather than judging by the stereotypes wrapped up in that dog’s breed. But staff members at area shelters say pit bull mixes are continually overlooked, in part because of negative stereotypes.
    The Animal Shelter of the Wood River Valley in Hailey has begun working more closely with shelters in southern Idaho to help find homes for dogs in kill shelters who are either in danger of being euthanized or who will likely not get adopted in their current location. Among those are the ever-controversial pit bull mixes.
    Nadia Novik, operations manager and veterinary technician for the shelter, said the shelter’s number of dogs has remained stable over the past year, in part because of its free spay and neuter program.
    “We kind of thought, ‘What can we do now?’” she said, adding that the shelter kept falling below its goal population. So Novik reached out to shelters in Jerome, Twin Falls and Idaho Falls—all shelters where animals can be killed if the shelter runs out of space.
“These are shelters still struggling to become no-kill,” she said “They have great adoptable dogs, and we feel like we can help them find homes.”
Anne Hecht, adoption specialist for the Twin Falls Animal Shelter, said she’s been working with the Animal Shelter of the Wood River Valley for more than two months, and has sent more than 20 dogs to the Wood River Valley and the Idaho Humane Society in Boise, which is also taking in pets from kill shelters.
    “We run out of room,” Hecht said, a simple explanation for why they simply can’t keep the dogs in the shelter until they find homes. “These shelters are saving lives.”
    Jo-Anne Dixon, executive director of the Animal Shelter of the Wood River Valley, said the shelter can handle up to about 50 dogs, but that the shelter’s programs have kept the canine population stable at about 30. In contrast, Hecht said the Twin Falls shelter can handle about 40 dogs, but serves a county with a population roughly triple that of Blaine County’s.
    Dixon said the shelter is able to offer free spay and neuter programs because it has two veterinarians on staff, and the other local shelters do not have vets. She said the number of surrenders has also been reduced because of the shelter’s Paws for Hunger program, in which it works with the Hunger Coalition to provide pet food for families in need, and the shelter’s adoption counseling program, which can help prevent returned animals.
    Novik said she still gets dogs that have been surrendered from Blaine County residents, but that they are usually adopted quickly. Surrender fees are no longer in place at the shelter, but Novik said the shelter still couldn’t keep up with adoption demand.
    “We’re adopting a ton of animals out,” she said. “The community is doing such a great job of coming to us when they want to get an animal.”  
    Novik said she won’t take just any dog for the local shelter—she prefers dogs that will get adopted quickly, that are well-behaved and easy to house and hike.
    She also picks dogs that are friendly and social, but might be getting overlooked because of obedience problems. These problems can be straightened out by the shelter’s trainers, but other shelters may not have the resources to take care of minor behavioral issues.
    But for the most part, the dogs Novik chooses are “vetted” by shelter staff and are found to be family-friendly, social and well-mannered dogs that can be hiked off leash without incident. That includes what Novik calls “pit bull types,” or dogs that the staff suspects are either partly or purebred pit bull.

“There is always a breed. It was the German shepherd for a while, it was the Doberman for a while, it was the great Dane for a while that was targeted as a killer dog.”
Nadia Novik
Animal Shelter of the Wood River Valley

    The term “pit bull” refers to the American Staffordshire terrier and the American pit bull terrier. These dogs have been embraced as family companions by some but vilified by others who say they are vicious killers of people and other dogs.
    “There is always a breed,” Novik said. “It was the German shepherd for a while, it was the Doberman for a while, it was the great Dane for a while that was targeted as a killer dog.”
    A study of 30 dog breeds done by the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in 2008 showed that pit bulls are not particularly aggressive toward people. By percentage of dogs in each breed showing aggressive behavior, it was small dogs that topped the list—dachshunds, Chihuahuas, beagles and Jack Russell terriers, in that order.
    Pit bulls placed eighth, with 7 percent showing aggression toward strangers and 22 percent toward other dogs.
    The problem with pit bulls is that when they are aggressive, they can be deadly. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the years 1979 to 1998 determined that pit bulls killed 66 people in the United States during that 20-year period. Rottweilers came in second with 39 fatalities.
    The Animal Shelter of the Wood River Valley had five pit bull mixes as of Monday, three of which Novik said are transfers from other shelters that did not get adopted as quickly as she had hoped. Hecht said it’s hard for her to adopt out pit bulls because of the negative stereotypes.
    “We can have the best, most well-behaved dog and people will be, like, ‘Well, it’s a pit bull,’” she said. “You do get some that are not the best family dogs, but you get Labs that are that way or Chihuahuas that are that way. The image is hurting pit bulls in shelters.”
    Part of the problem with the local animal shelter’s animals might be that they are mixes, not purebreds, Novik said.
    “The purebred pit bulls tend to get adopted quicker, because people who like pit bulls tend to like that look,” she said. “[The mixes] are amazing dogs, but they are all red—they’re all pit bull-looking, but they don’t have the traditional look. People who don’t want pit bulls veer away from them.”
    Novik said pit bull types can have limitations, and may not be comfortable sharing their home or their people with another dog.
    “It’s a terrier trait,” she said. “They are not always affectionate with other dogs. Pit bulls would rather bond with a person than another dog, for the most part.”
    However, she said, once the dogs bond with a person, they are ridiculously loyal and affectionate, with tails that never stop wagging. Pit bull and Labrador mixes can be some of the best family dogs, she said.
    “They are athletic, they are loyal, they can take on the [best] traits of both breeds,” she said. “You get a dog that is a super-duper family dog that can go hiking with you.”
    And, she said, when the hike is over, a pit bull cross is more than willing to curl up on the couch with its owner.
    “I don’t think there’s a better snuggler out there than a pit bull,” she said with a laugh.

Shelter hours
The shelter, on Croy Canyon Road west of Hailey, has recently expanded its hours to include Mondays. The shelter is now open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays.

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