05 September 2010

Peace, love and understanding

One of the most satisfying programs I volunteer with is sponsored by, in my opinion, the most unlikely organization.

We’re all, by now, well aware of the US Humane Society’s (USHS) support of convicted dog fighter Michael Vick. Most of us, a few Philadelphia Eagles fans excepted, are also aware that while Vick talks the reform talk, he has yet to publicly prove that he feels remorse for the treatment of the dogs in his “care” at his Bad Newz Kennels and that he comprehends the inhumanity of his actions. (We do understand that he’s very sorry for the impact his actions have had on his wealth and his career, but that’s an entirely different sort of regret.) Throughout Vick’s continued failure to show true remorse for his actions, the USHS continues to tap into Vick’s status as a professional athlete and continues to hope that he will come through for them in terms of PR opps more often than he fails them. It makes it hard to take them seriously as a true animal advocacy group.

And yet it is through a little grassroots, community-run program that I am able to participate in one of the more compelling programs I’ve come across in Chicago. USHS’s End Dogfighting campaign is run out of a community center in a neighborhood with few resources, plenty of room for improvement and endless opportunities for good people to make bad decisions about their own lives and the lives of those they care about (humans and canines alike). End Dogfighting includes a Pit Bull Training Team program that teaches owners (often young men—the most likely demographic to participate in dog fighting) to interact in a positive, healthy way to show off their dogs’ strengths and assets. Many of the people who work for the program are reformed dog fighters themselves, not in a Vick talk-the-talk way but in a genuine, honest way. These men understand why people make the decision to fight their dogs and know firsthand what can motivate those same people to make a change, having made it themselves. One former fighter I know will tell you that he now cooks each of his pit bulls a full roast chicken each day, among other luxuries. Another took a vacation to the middle of nowhere America last summer and had tears in his eyes as he told me about the people he met who fought their dogs simply because they didn’t know anything else to do with them. They didn’t even bet, unlike Chicago fighters who are often earning money to put food on the table or to buy gas to get their kids to school. He spent his vacation building agility runs and introducing the people he met to the basics of dog training.

I spend my time with the program in the classroom. Targeted toward seventh graders over the course of eight weeks, the curriculum takes a hard look at dog fighting; helps the students see the wider effects of dog fighting beyond just the dogs (as we know, over 70 percent of dogfighters are also connected directly to other criminal activity); strips down pro-dog fighting media and replaces it with alternative messages; and introduces students to the idea that dogs deserve our care and protection. Kids are funny at that age. They’re on the verge of being too cool to listen, but take them to an animal shelter or put the lesson into an interactive game and all of a sudden you have a willing audience.

This year I wasn’t able to be as hands-on with the program as I had in the past, but was asked if I might be able to bring Téa in to a few classrooms (actually, five classrooms at two schools for 45 minutes each—enough even to wear out Téa, it turns out). We could hardly wait! 

A lot of kids screamed and scrambled when they came into their classroom and saw a pit bull (even though Téa’s tail was wagging and she had on her goofy pit grin the whole time). We made a deal—Téa and I would stay for a whole 45 minutes if they could help her behave by behaving themselves. (I’m always happy to bribe people get what I want—in this case, well-behaved seventh graders.) I talked about T2, passed photos and explained why Toni wasn’t with us in the classroom (treated badly in the past, she gets very nervous in new situations; it just wouldn’t be kind). No, we do not fight our dogs and no we do not worry that they will just decide to kill each other one day. In fact, our dogs go to dog daycare just so they can play with other dogs. No, we also do not worry that they might kill us one day. No, we did not crop their ears; we would not have liked it if our parents had decided one day to cut our own ears off so we would never do that to our dogs. Pit bulls with no ears are harder to place in homes, which is why we open our home to pits with cropped ears. No, we don’t yell at our dogs and we don’t hit them to make them behave. If someone yelled at me or hit me every time they wanted me to do something or to not do it, I would eventually be very irritated by it…and then I might behave badly. Dogs are not very different. We treat our dogs as we want to be treated: we use calm voices to ask them to do things; we say thank you by giving them a biscuit.

Téa and I showed them some of her tricks. We invited two students from each class to come up and do a trick each with Téa. Even the kids who had screamed earlier were waving their hands to have a chance. We took more questions. Yes, they both know more tricks than just the ones we did here. Yes, they love to be around small children. In fact, pit bulls were once called nanny dogs because they are so good with children. Dog food, they eat dog food. They sleep in our bedroom on their own beds on the floor.

In one class, a student shared with us that her uncle was in jail because he had strung his pit bull up in their tree and beat it to death. We used that as a conversation about humane behavior and consequences.

To wrap things up for each session, everyone who wanted to pet Téa was invited to line up single file and quietly for a pet before we left. Even in the last class, when I was tired of my own stories and ready for a nap, Téa was ready with a butt wiggle and an occasional back roll for every single student and teacher who wanted her attention.

I think Elvis Costello got it right: “As I walk through this wicked world searchin’ for light in the darkness of insanity…there's one thing I wanna know: What's so funny ‘bout peace, love and understanding?”
Exhausted after a long day of promoting peace for pit bulls!


  1. This sounds like such a great program. Are they still doing it this year? Would I have to go through the training to have it brought to my classroom? Or would I just hook up with an existing educator? I've been meaning to ask you more about this...

  2. A - You can get my contact information from B @ UNL. The program comes to you, complete with an transport expenses covered field trip to Anti-Cruelty. I've already mentioned to the program manager that you're interested.

  3. Thanks! I think I'm also sponsoring a "Students Volunteer" club this year, so I wonder if we could integrate it to do more education within the community.

  4. Recent coverage for the program: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/chicago/ct-x-c-dog-fighting-reform-0910-20100910,0,4473458.story

  5. This brought tears to my eyes!! Hooray! You are doing a great thing here. We are ading you to our blog roll. Hope its ok?

  6. I'm catching up on all your posts. I love your blog! I heard about this program through NPR. Wonderful that you're so involved. I called last year to find out if it was in L.A. but it wasn't - not yet anyway. The whole Michael Vick/USHS association is so distasteful. I don't get it.

  7. Thank you, Susan. It is a really great program and they're expanding all of the time, so keep looking for it. I do have to swallow my words on occasion when Vick comes up in conversations, but I figure it's for the greater good to leave that one alone so I can continue to volunteer in peace.

  8. Julie, I had no idea you were involved in the ED program. I did a 4-month stint at HSUS in which I was doing a program evaluation on the Chicago and Atlanta branches! I got to review all of the daily logs from the on-the-ground advocates, the trainers, the students, and the in-classroom evaluations. It was super fascinating! Do you know Laurie?

  9. also: i'm sure you saw this, but Time Out Chicago did a great piece on the program a while back: http://timeoutchicago.com/things-to-do/76000/jeff-jenkins-and-the-pit-bull-training-team

  10. Hi, Aleksandra. I did see that article when it published. I was so excited for Anthony to be on the cover - he's one of my favorite people from the program. I learned a lot from him and his brother Antonio about how dog fighting can seem compelling to some and I learned that it is possible for fighters to truly change their lives.