08/28/2015 12:17 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Pit Bull in the Closet: How a Pit Bull Basher Evolved

Johanna Falber

If you are like me, you belong to a myriad of Facebook advocacy groups and pages aimed at saving the lives of pit bull type dogs. And if you are like me, you also once belonged to a myriad of these groups. I'm sure that you have also read plenty of comments made by proud advocates and enthusiasts boasting about having had screaming matches when someone has crossed the street to avoid interaction with their dog. I'm sure you have read nasty exchanges in the same groups, between pit bull people and those that dislike our dogs. And I'm sure that you have read comments about pit bull people that don't spay/neuter, referring to them as "ignorant" and "stupid", and "selfish." A few weeks ago I read a similar exchange about "stupid, ignorant people" that dislike our dogs and I chimed in and was very honest when I wrote --

I was once one of those people you hate.

Truth is that while today I run a fast growing advocacy and activism organization with a focus to save these dogs, I once hated these dogs. That's an understatement because I actually despised them. I thought that they were hideous, ugly, thick neck, gargoyle-looking dogs with slanted eyes, and muscular bodies. I wondered, who on earth would ever love a vicious creature like a pit bull type dog?! Today, I'm jumping up with both hands waving wildly.

When I lived in New York, the only dogs that I knew to be pit bulls lived in the city and in neighborhoods where people were copping blow and pot. Guys usually had these dogs in thick metal collars with thick metal chains and the dogs seemed mean and unsocialized. Not one of these dogs ever gave me reason to believe this based on action, but first impressions matter when fear is a driving force. It wasn't that I wasn't a dog person, as my family had a chi named Holmes and a Rottie mix named Scoobie. I just didn't like big head, thick neck, gargoyle looking dogs with slanted eyes. I did not disagree that these dogs should be banned, and didn't realize that I had a dog at home that would also cause alarm in the ignorant. In hindsight, I also did not realize that these dogs were actually living as pets in other parts and not just in the city. My world started and ended in certain parts and so I associated these dogs with only those parts. Years later when I started to pay attention, I realized that one of our neighbors in the suburbs had had what I think was a pit bull type dog. Again, I hadn't been paying attention outside of the stereotype that I had concocted in my head about dog and owner.

When I was in my late teens, I visited the home of a then friend. She was dating some wannabe, small time drug dealer that hustled on the street, and she was really digging this kid. As soon as I went inside her home, I heard a dog crying and scratching at a closet door. I asked her what was going on and she said "(Name here) got him a pit bull puppy from (name here) and he's trying to make the little m---- f----r mean." And this is the part where my heart wants to leap out of my chest today and the tears always start. (I'm crying with tears down my face, and clouding my vision.) I was 17 years old and I knew that although I did not care for these dogs, that this wasn't right. I told her, "Nah, don't do that shit. Let him out." She told me that she couldn't or this fine gentleman (many, many curse words here) would come home and beat her. I remember feeling nauseous and telling her that I was going to let him out. She told me that she couldn't let me do that and stood in front of the door. She told me these words that I can't escape, "Jo, you know like I know that this dog won't live long. None of these dogs do. It's just a dog." I was pissed. I left and was on my way to walk down the street to the barber shop to find her boyfriend. I do not exactly know what I was going to say to him or why, since I didn't care for these dogs, but I knew that this wasn't right. On the way to there, I ran into him and he told me that he was about to let the dog out and not to worry that his boy he knew wanted the dog and he was on his way to go drop it off there.

I know that you hate me right now and I agree and understand. I have hated myself for not having done more and this has made me cry on many occasions, if it makes you feel better. I have to be honest that it took me years to forgive myself. All I can say today is that I was 17, I didn't know any better, I didn't know who to call, and maybe this guilt is what motivated my actions years later. No, I do not know what happened to that puppy. I have prayed on many nights that he was loved, cherished and knew a good long life. I have to think this.

Fast forward about 20 years and I moved my family from New York to Atlanta. I had left everything behind -- my favorite thrift stores and shopping, my favorite bagel store and my hair dresser. It was a huge move as we didn't have family or friends here. One Saturday, I went to Pet Smart to probably buy something for our one dog, Charlie, a golden spaniel mix. I saw that they were having adoptions. I was so naïve to this that I didn't know that rescues held adoptions there on Saturdays. One of the women volunteering had a t shirt of a chained dog and it said something about not chaining dogs. I remember thinking how smart that was and asked her about the organization. When I got home, don't ask me what motivated me to do this, but I reached out to the organizations founder and asked her if there were plans to start a chapter in Atlanta. Long story short, my family and I, along with three women that would later become lifelong friends, started the Atlanta chapter an anti-chaining organization. This organization primarily did two things for pets and pet owners -- they built fences for dogs that were chained and provided free spay/neuter and vaccinations. What this organization did for me, however, is something that I can't undo. They showed me that with respect, compassion and empathy, people will listen; and they taught me that when people trust you, they will allow you into their lives. Once that happens, you have built community partnerships. I met many a person that chained their dogs and although I once did think that everyone that chained was a terrible owner, I later found out that most of these dogs had ben inherited, found and saved from the streets, and that the dog caretakers actually did not want them chained but had had no means by which to have a fence built. I also realized that the majority of these dogs were pit bull type dogs. While I was still afraid of these dogs, I no longer had a hatred for them, so I forced myself to face my fears. Once we had built the dogs' fence, a ball was thrown into the fenced area and the dog that had at times been chained all of its life, was now able to run. You do not know the feelings associated with seeing a dog run and chase a ball for the first time after the dog realizes that it's not dragging a chain....I can honestly tell you that it was because of this experience that I realized that I had been ignorant when it came to these dogs, and to their caretakers even.

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Because I am a student, I threw myself into the study of these types of dogs and realized sadly, their demise at the hands of dog fighters, law makers, the back yard breeders, the irresponsible owners, and yes, the fearful. I continued to study -- training, behaviors, breeding, legislation... I joined groups. I associated the dogs with the underdog and studied the social aspects, the emotions surrounding these dogs (either you love them or hate them), and the history of the dogs. I looked inward and in the end, I established that it was because of what I had heard, and because of their body type, that I had, had a deep rooted fear. The best form of hatred is based on the intellectual ability to make the emotional argument sound valid, and true. I hated these dogs because of their body type. I was disappointed with myself, being what I consider to be a very progressive, open minded, and yes, a smart woman.

I started to connect with more advocates and I started to speak publicly in regards to the perils associated with chaining dogs and it was at one of the speaking engagements, at the Atlanta Bully Rally, that I met my first own pit bull. Polly had been seen running around an elementary school playground with her litter mate. Someone called Fulton County Animal Control, Atlanta's city shelter, and while Polly's litter mate ran off, Polly ran towards the animal control officer to greet him. It was this same temperament that kept Polly alive for several weeks while I worked on my husband so that he would allow us to foster her. Several pit bull type dogs later, I am no longer allowed to foster dogs or bring home any to add to our pack of five rescue and stray dogs. Being a woman that is crafty, since I wasn't able to add any more dogs, I started my organization, Stubby's Heroes, named after the pit bull terrier dog of all dogs, Sgt. Stubby.

What happened to me, the growth and personal knowledge, is not so uncommon. Had I been treated poorly while ignorant, had I been screamed at for not knowing the benefits of spaying and neutering pets, my dogs may not all be altered today. Had I been bashed online for not knowing how to properly introduce dogs, I may never have learned. Had I been embarrassed, humiliated or ostracized from the online pit bull community, where would I have ended up?

I have painfully watched what happens to people with accidental pit bull litters on some of the pit bull group pages, and have always tried to intervene and be the sound of reason. I have sent private messages to people -- "Please don't mistreat that person on the (such/such) page. We're trying to help them and their dogs. You are only making it harder for our cause. Please calm down. Don't respond to their posts if you can't be respectful to them." I have been met by hostile responses, by people telling me that I think that I'm better than them, and have been told that I'm arrogant and asked "whose side are you on anyway??!" I have always replied to them, "I am on the dogs' side. Dogs don't know county lines, zip codes, or that their owners don't know better. I was once one of those owners. I understand them. They don't know any better, but when people do know better, they generally do better. If we bash them in these Facebook groups and on these Facebook pages, they'll just go underground, and we will lose touch with them, which means we'll lose touch with the dogs. They are on the page because they sincerely are asking for help. Do you want them to go off of this page, delete their post and just disappear? Focus on the goal, please!"

Last year, as my 21-year-old son packed up to leave our Atlanta home and return to NY to live, we had a discussion over lunch and he said, "Mommy, can you believe how our lives have changed because of pit bulls? We have built them fences and unchained them. You have spoken at rallies, marches, candlelight vigils, at jails and at Emory University. We organized a huge march in Atlanta and hundreds of pit bull owners showed up with their pit bulls to march. We volunteered with Rebecca Corry's One Million Pibble March in Washington, DC. We have several bully breed pack walks in counties in the south. We have transported dozens of pit bulls, paid for spay/neuters, fed the homeless with their pets, walked shelter dogs, organized drives for shelter dogs, you are friends with leaders across this country, you have been interviewed several times and have been on the news many times, you have spoken before council and have been to the House of Representatives to speak against breed specific legislation. You have done radio interviews and oh my gosh, remember that one council member that wanted to change the law after you spoke before council so that outsiders were no longer allowed to speak? (He laughs)'ve met some of your best friends because of pit bulls....Can you believe this, mommy? We wouldn't have Polly, Honey and Gem today....Wow....our lives sure have changed!"

I looked at my son as I beamed, knowing that he was proud of our work and that he "got it".
I replied, "Not too bad for some gargoyle looking dogs, huh?"

My son said, "BEAUTIFUL, gargoyle looking dogs, Mommy."

All of this was made possible because someone once took their time with me and treated me with respect, even while they may not have agreed with me, and probably while they thought I was ignorant. For my dogs -- Charlie, Lyla, Polly, Honey, Gem, and in the memory of the pit bull in the closet, I dedicate my life to people and pit bull type dogs. To me, both are valuable and worthy of our love and assistance, even when we disagree with them, and especially when you know that they really want to do better. Canine AND's the only way to make this work and save lives...often times, our own....

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