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Animal shelter tackles new initiative to improve successful pit bull adoption rate

Valerie, a pit bull available for adoption from the Humane Society of Kandiyohi County's Hawk Creek Animal Shelter, is involved in a new training program the shelter hopes will increase the rate of long-term successful adoptions of pit bulls -- a category that includes Staffordshire and bull terriers. Of the 1,000 or so animals who come through the shelter's doors each year, dogs classified as pit bulls are among the harder ones to place. Valerie is also pictured at top and below left during a walk Frida...

It has been a familiar, and unwanted, pattern: Pit bull arrives at animal shelter, pit bull gets adopted, pit bull ends up back at the shelter.

The Hawk Creek Animal Shelter is banking on a new approach to help reduce this revolving-door cycle.

With more intensive training before pit bulls are adopted, and more support and education for prospective owners, it's hoped the rate of long-term successful adoptions for these dogs will go up, said Glenda Anderson, a board member of the Humane Society of Kandiyohi County.

"We are seeing too many recycled pits," she said. "We had to revise our way of thinking. It's something that has been needed for a long time."

Of the 1,000 or so animals who come through the shelter's doors each year, dogs classified as pit bulls -- a category that includes Staffordshire and bull terriers -- are among the harder ones to place.

The shelter houses at least three pit bulls, and sometimes six or seven, at any given time, Anderson said.

"They have been confiscated. They have been found roaming the streets," she said.

Many arrive at the shelter with little or no training or socialization. Adopters who bring them home often are unprepared for the reality of living with this exceptionally strong and tenacious breed, Anderson said. As a result, the dogs frequently end up back at the shelter.

Coupled with this is the negative image of the pit bull, Anderson said. "This is a breed that has been so misused, so abused and so misunderstood that it is pitiful... They are a magnificent animal but it is through lack of knowledge and lack of care that they get that pit bull stigma. We have been conditioned to look at all pit bulls as a naughty breed and that is an injustice."

Seeing that Hawk Creek Animal Shelter needed to do more for pit bulls, Anderson contacted Dr. Melissa and Winston Shelton, who run a veterinary clinic and a private pit bull rescue in Howard Lake.

Last week the Sheltons came to Willmar for an intensive four-hour boot camp to give shelter staff and a small group of local pit bull owners some basic training in how to effectively handle the breed.

One of the keys, and one of the areas in which new owners often fail, is understanding the psychology of the pit bull, Anderson said.

"They have the attitude that everything belongs to me and I'll share it with you if I feel like it," she said. "You have to take a very no-nonsense approach with this breed. The goal is to reinforce that the owner-handler is in charge. This is what we have to teach people."

Last week's training illustrated how. As the dogs and their handlers arrived, they were barking and lunging and pulling on their leashes, Anderson said. Twenty minutes into the session, "every one of those dogs was sitting at the 'sit-stay' and they were quiet. It got to the point that we could walk several of these dogs side by side nicely," she said.

The Hawk Creek Animal Shelter is now putting together a new strategy for dealing with pit bulls.

At the top of the list is more training while the dog is in the shelter.

"These dogs need to learn some manners and be able to be good citizens in the community," said Bobbie Bauman, animal care director.

Besides helping identify sooner which dogs are the best candidates for adoption, the training also should help make more of the shelter's pit bulls attractive to prospective owners, she said.

Another piece of the strategy: training a core group of shelter volunteers to work with pit bulls. If enough funds can be raised, the Humane Society and shelter officials hope to bring the Sheltons back for another session with the volunteers, Bauman said.

The adoption application process also will be tightened for people who want to adopt a pit bull, including mandatory training for prospective new owners before the adoption is finalized.

"It might sound harsh but you have to take that kind of attitude because, No. 1, we want it to be a forever home, No. 2, we don't want anybody getting hurt, and No. 3, we don't want to euthanize," Anderson said. "We just have to make sure that it's going to be a good fit. This is where our focus and our energy are now going to go."

If the Hawk Creek Animal Shelter can develop a successful program to improve successful adoptions of pit bulls, "we could be a role model for other shelters," she said. "We are looking forward to this being a great opportunity for us to really show the public what this shelter could be capable of."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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