Program aims to change culture of pit bull ownership

By PEGGY O'HARE Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle
Oct. 8, 2009, 9:12PM

MacArthur High School sophomore Daniel Monsivais remembers the days when his pit bull, Apache, would chase motorcycles and cars down the street or dash after small children. But now when Monsivais, 16, tells Apache to stay, the dog obeys.

There was also a time not so long ago when Apache chewed the family's TV remote control, angering Monsivais' mother. Now the dog backs off when Monsivais commands: “Leave it!”

Apache's behavior changed thanks to a novel program that recruits teenagers who own pit bulls for a free, 10-week dog-training class. The program, “Tricks for Pits,” also offers free vaccinations and spaying or neutering.

Harris County Public Health's Veterinary Division started the classes in August after seeing significant increases in the number of pit bulls being abandoned, pit bull bites and police calls concerning vicious members of the breed. Public health employees went door to door in high-risk areas to recruit their first students.

On Wednesday night, the first two classes graduated during a ceremony at James Driver Park in the Aldine area. Two more classes will graduate Monday, meaning more than 40 teens in Aldine have been trained to properly care for and control their pit bulls with verbal commands.

Changing the culture
The next classes — again targeting Aldine teens — will begin in January, and some courses are already full. The training drew so much interest that other park visitors approached program officials asking how to sign up.

“Tricks for Pits” aims to change the culture of pit bull ownership in urban areas where misuse of the animals and dogfighting are prevalent, county public health officials said. Its slogan is “Off the Chain, On the Leash.”

“These programs were initiated because of the noted rise in numbers of pit bulls coming into the shelter, the numbers of pit bulls that we had complaints about and the numbers of pit bulls involved in bite cases,” said Colleen Hodges, a spokeswoman for the county's Veterinary Division. “The numbers were just peaking out all over the place, so that's why we focused on the pit bull.”

Aldine, Channelview and Katy had the county's highest numbers of pit bull bites, loose and stray dogs, pit bulls surrendered by owners and vicious dog reports, public health officials said.

The first set of classes were open only to teens between 13 and 18 years old who lived in the Aldine area and committed to attend all training sessions.

One doggie dust-up
Despite everyone's best efforts, Thursday's graduation ceremony did not pass without incident. One pit bull on a leash started a fight with two other dogs, and all the canine graduates tried to join in. Their owners separated them quickly before any blood was shed. It was the first time a fight had happened in the 10-week course.

“There are a couple of pit bulls in class that are not totally agreeable, and you recognize that early on and respect it,” said instructor Bobbye J. Smith of Huffman, who taught the courses at no cost to the county. “But it doesn't stop me from wanting to train that pit bull and help his family.”

The effort was funded by a $10,000 contribution from a private donor — only some of which has been spent — and numerous in-kind donations from various businesses.

“We asked these teenagers to overcome a stigma about pit bulls, and we asked them to bring (the dogs) to a training program where they would be learning obedience, manners and socialization,” said Fiona Jones, research development specialist for the veterinary division. “Attendance was required. Sometimes it was over 100 degrees, and then sometimes the roads were flooding. And they came regardless.”

Smith said 85 percent of the enrolled dogs have been spayed or neutered in the last four months, which she called “absolutely phenomenal.” Only one of the dogs was current on his vaccinations before classes began, she said.

Public health officials have now begun outreach efforts in Channelview, where they will likely hold pit bull training classes in the spring.

Smith — who has trained dogs for 30 years, and said she has been bitten only once, by a Chihuahua — refused to use prong collars or choke chains during the course.

“There's a better way to teach,” Smith said. The prong collar, which has spikes inside that can dig into the dog's neck if the collar is tightened, she added, “is a very macho tool. As a trainer, I don't want to promote that. We use treats, praise, belly rubs, lots of excitement.”

Jose Ruiz, 14, an eighth grader at the Harmony School of Excellence, said his dog, Blade, has become less aggressive since they took the course together.

“Before the classes, if other dogs were outside just minding their own business, he would go up and try to start a fight with them,” Ruiz said. “Now he actually stopped.”

peggy.ohare@chron.com