Wednesday, January 12, 2011

HABIT dog changes sterotypes

By Kim Johnson, Farragut Press

Many people have preconceived notions regarding the American Pitbull Terrier’s temperament and aggressiveness.

Farragut resident Lisa Johnson and her pitbull, Thor, are challenging those notions.

Thor, a 9-year old pitbull Johnson rescued from a life-threatening situation in a breeding mill, has been accepted into, and currently is the only American Pitbull serving in, the Human Animal Bond in Tennessee program.

HABIT, a community group of volunteers, uses sponsors programs that foster pet visitation to nursing homes, assisted-living residences, retirement centers, mental health centers, residences for children with special needs, rehabilitation facilities, hospital settings and other facilities.

Thor visits Summit View Nursing Home in Farragut each week.

“He gives the elderly people some cheer. He puts his head in their lap and he will give a kiss if you want one, he is just the sweetest dog. He is completely unlike the stereotype that America has with Pitbull Terriers right now,” Johnson said.

In spite of that stereotype, Thor has been well-received at Summit View.

“A couple of the patients were aware of the breed, and one gentleman in particular said, ‘This is a pitbull isn’t it? I didn’t think they would let that kind of dog in here, but he is as sweet as can be.’

“It is all in how you raise the dog. I can take a Chihuahua and make it mean. I have had all the power breed dogs. I have had Doberman pincers, German shepherds and rottweilers … all the dogs people have been fearful of over the decades, and it is all in how you treat and raise the dogs. These are not aggressive dogs by nature,” Johnson said.

Johnson hopes to expand Thor’s service with HABIT to the Ruff Read program soon.

“They let a dog go into a classroom with children who are not reading so well, and the dog sits in the class with the child and they read to the dog. They seem to be able to do that whereas they can’t stand up in class and read in front of other children. So I am hoping Thor will be able to do that next,” she said.

Thor, like any other HABIT certified dog, had to go through a battery of tests before receiving his certification.

“They held his face, they grabbed his feet, they would lunge forward at him and do things that a child or an elderly person might do without realizing it. If he acted squeamish when that happened, that would have been a red flag,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s friend, Carla Welch, is credited with saving Thor’s life.

“He was a breeding dog and his life was nothing but a steel kennel with food thrown through his cage and a female thrown to him … hardly any human interaction at all. The people started paying less and less attention to him, and when they stopped breeding dogs, he got almost no attention and sometimes not any food either, so he started going downhill,” Johnson said.

Carla was watching this happen and it was really disturbing to her. She begged them to let her have him, but they said no.

Finally, when he was just skin and bones, she pleaded for his life. The guy said he was going to go put him down anyway, so she got him. She had three dogs of her own and couldn’t keep him, so she was desperately trying to find him a place.

“I had lost my dog, so I adopted Thor last May, and he has been a wonderful dog. He loves kids, he loves cats, and he is just a phenomenal dog,” she added.

Having come from such a troubling situation, there is one danger with Thor.

“He is a lick-o-potamus,” Johnson said. “He will lick you to death.”

On a more serious note, Johnson hopes people will reevaluate some of their fears about the aggressive nature of pitbulls.

“They are just wonderful and loyal dogs. They will give their lives for their owner or their family. It is just so sad that people think all the dogs are like Michael Vick’s … and an interesting point about that, of the 53 dogs that were rescued from that situation, there were only two that could not be placed into homes. So even from the worst of circumstances, those poor dogs were able to go to a new home, a lot of them a family home, and do just fine,” she said.

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