Animal Farm Foundation, a group known for its advocacy of Pit Bulls, has started a program that takes these dogs from shelters and turns them into working service animals. We talked to Apryl Lea, an Assistance Dogs International trainer who works with the foundation, as well as with Matthew, a recipient of an AFF service dog.
Apryl has been a part of the AFF Assistance Dog Training Program for the past four years. Through the experience, she has found that Pit Bulls from shelters can be excellent service animals.
“The work we’re doing with the program is evidence that Pit Bull dogs can perform the same service-dog tasks traditionally reserved for pure-bred, purpose-bred dogs,” she says.
To qualify for the program, a dog must be from 15 months to three years old and in the care of a shelter or rescue. While the age range is simply a guideline, it proves easier to evaluate a dog’s physical structure at 15 months, and the cutoff age of three years allows for a year of training time, while still granting many service years to the client. Canine candidates must also pass a series of tests.
For example, it’s important for potential service dogs to be observed around loud noises, strange people, and other dogs. “We are looking for dogs who are neutral to environmental sights and sounds,” Apryl says. “These sights and sounds are what a service dog may encounter in their daily life and should not interfere with their work.”
For Apryl, the most rewarding part of her work is being able to help change the life of a person with disabilities through a service dog, while also being able to shine a positive light on shelter dogs and Pit Bulls, in particular.
“Dogs change peoples’ lives every day,” she says. “A service dog changes a person’s everyday life.”
No one understands the extent of that value more than Matthew. He was paired with an AFF-trained service dog named Jericho in June 2013. Matthew lost the use of his legs in an accident and is confined to a wheelchair. His service animal was specially trained to open doors, retrieve objects, and brace Matthew when transferring from his wheelchair. With Jericho’s help, he has regained much of his independence.
Jericho is Matthew’s first service dog and his first Pit Bull. “I now understand the love people have for this breed; they are loving and caring dogs who only want to please,” he says. “They are great animals.”
In the almost two years that Jericho and Matthew have been together, Matthew has never had a negative experience related to his service dog’s breed. “I do get a lot of comments about that they have never seen a Pit Bull as a service dog before and how great it is to see them used in such a positive way.”
When Matthew was first paired with Jericho, he wasn’t expecting anything more than a dog who would help him get around more easily. However, it wasn’t long before he realized the relationship would mean much more to him.
“Jericho is part of me now,” he explains. “For me to go out of the house without him at my side makes me feel as awkward as someone leaving their house half-dressed would feel. We’re partners; he knows it’s his job to look after me, and he takes his job to heart. A lot of times, Jericho will know what I need before I ask, be it pulling my wheelchair to me if it’s out of reach or just picking something up that he knows I normally have. It’s a little weird feeling like your dog can read your mind, but it’s all in the training both of us received from Apryl at Animal Farm Foundation.”
One of Matthew’s favorite moments with Jericho was when Matthew, his wife, and Jericho were all out fishing. Jericho needed a bathroom break, so they pulled over to an island. They got out of the boat, and Jericho “proceeded to leap and bound through waist-high pink and purple wild flowers, chasing butterflies,” Matthew recalls. “He was just so happy, just leaping through the flowers; tongue flapping out the side of his mouth. Thinking back to that day brings a smile to my face — it was priceless.”
The AFF service dog project proves just how valuable shelter dogs, particularly Pit Bulls, are to our community and to our disabled citizens. To learn more about the Assistance Dog Training Program, visit the AFF website.
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About Meghan Lodge: Fits the Aquarius definition to a fault, loves animals, and is always pushing for change. Loves ink, whether it’s in tattoos, books, or writing on that pretty sheet of blank paper. Proud parent of Toby (cat) and Axle (dog). I’m a former quiet nerd who’s turned bubbly animal-obsessed advocate.