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Rescue Pit Bulls Act As Service Dogs For People In Need, Fight Against Stigma

02/11/2015 01:08 pm ET | Updated Feb 19, 2015
ASSOCIATED PRESS

LOS ANGELES (AP) — When former Marine Joe Bonfiglio starts thrashing in his sleep, his pit bull service dog jumps on the bed, climbs on top of him and wakes him up to end the flashback.

The dog named Zen has allowed Bonfiglio, 24, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after returning from a five-month tour in Afghanistan, to get back to everyday activities. He can now do things such as shop at malls in Poughkeepsie, New York, because Zen helps calm Bonfiglio when crowds trigger a panic attack.

"I used to go to bars with my friends. And war movies. I am not going to see 'American Sniper,'" he said. "It would bring me back to a place I don't want to be."

Pit bulls aren't the typical choice for a service dog. They are feared, banned in hundreds of cities and blamed for sometimes deadly attacks. The Animal Farm Foundation in Dutchess County, New York, wants to change that stigma through a program that trains and donates rescued pit bulls to guide the blind and push wheelchairs or help people regain their mobility and avoid falls.

The effort faces opposition from those who believe the breed is dangerous.

The Assistance Dog Training Program is believed to be the only U.S. training school exclusively for service dogs that uses pit bulls saved from shelters, said Apryl Lea, the foundation's certified trainer. It's placed five dogs that require two years to breed, socialize, train and acquaint dogs with handlers.

A smaller group, Pits for Patriots, trains rescued pit bulls as comfort, therapy and support dogs for veterans, police officers and firefighters but has yet to place any service dogs. Comfort dogs are pets that get a few weeks of training, while therapy animals receive at least six months of training to help calm people who haven't received a diagnosis as severe as PTSD.

"Veterans and first responders can identify with pit bulls because they either have seen a lot of trauma or been through a lot of trauma," said Kelly Yearwood, co-founder Pits for Patriots in Chicago, whose group started the same year as the Animal Farm Foundation's program, in 2011.

The handful of major training schools and a few smaller ones all typically breed German shepherds, Labradors and golden retrievers for the lengthy, costly process to become a service dog.

Shelters nationwide watch for canine candidates for the foundation's program, which trains dogs based on Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines, Lea said. With pit bull breeds making up a huge percentage of dogs in shelters, she has to carefully decide which dogs are accepted. They must have the right build, aptitude and focus to help a person get through life with disabilities or injuries.

"My job is not just to train the dog but to help the handler be a good trainer, too," she said.

But the program faces pushback.

"There are over 100 dog breeds that are far more suitable to perform tasks for persons with disabilities than pit bulls, especially rescued pit bulls with unknown backgrounds," said Colleen Lee, founder and president of DogsBite.org, a national group that tracks bites and works to reduce attacks through bans and other laws.

Pit bulls can be unpredictable and kill or maim when they attack, she said.

From 2005 to 2014, dog attacks killed 325 people in the United States. DogsBite.org blames pit bull breeds for 62 percent of the deaths.

"There is simply no need for pit bulls, rescued or otherwise, to be utilized as service dogs for people with disabilities," Lee said.

Pit bulls have helped people like Bonfiglio get back to their normal lives. The former Marine has made such progress with Zen that he's now taking cybersecurity classes at Mercy College in New York.

"Zen is a fantastic dog; the best thing that's happened to me since I've been home," said Bonfiglio, whose other family dogs also provide comfort. "They are all great supporters. They don't talk back, just put a smile on your face."

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