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Training Program Prepares Shelter Pit Bulls For Adoption

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Volunteer Lori Woodward gets ready for two pit bulls to meet in a pen at Sacramento County Animal Care. Volunteers monitor the animals and are ready with spray bottles if the dogs are too rough with each other.

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Step inside the Sacramento County Animal Shelter at any given time and you'll find one type of dog makes up half the population: pit bulls. Shelter operators say it's hard to find homes for the dogs because they often receive pit bulls that haven't been socialized as pets.

A group of volunteers called The Pit Bull Socialization and Obedience Crew are training these dogs to be pets. These volunteers are also hoping to improve the breed's reputation.

Delyse Gannaway has directed the pit bull socialization program at the Sacramento County Animal Shelter for three years. But her passion for the breed began 16 years ago while walking a pit bull she had rescued.

"When we would walk down the street sometimes people would grab their kids and pull them away or turn their stroller in the opposite direction," Gannaway says.

Gannaway was shocked by her neighbors' reaction. Then she realized that most people are intimidated by the breed's muscular frame.

But she insists pit bulls aren't "naturally aggressive or mean." In fact, she says they're the most popular large breed dog adopted from the shelter.

"And a majority of us who have pit bull type dogs as pets are your average family with children. We're drawn to a great breed that is a great family dog," Gannaway says.

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Pit bulls run and play in the pen, rough-housing without toys. Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

The shelter houses 200 dogs at any given time and half of those dogs are typically pit bulls. But some pit bulls aren't so easily adopted out.

And that's where Sarah Shintaku comes in. She trains pit bulls that aren't ready to be adopted. These dogs are taken through a training process called "socialization." Shintaku says she begins by evaluating the dogs.

"And if they are social, or if they're a dog that we feel that we can work with to socialize them, then we match dogs according to activity level and behavior type. And they just run around and play and jump on each other," Shintaku says.

She says the amount of time it takes to socialize a pit bull varies. Some take a few days. Some take a little longer.

"It really depends dog to dog," says Shintaku. "I mean, if you get a dog that's been chained up for two years of its life in somebody's backyard that's never experienced anything, that's a much more extensive rehab process than somebody's family pet that escaped and they're just ready to go already."

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Pit bulls at Sacramento County Animal Care play in a pen together. The animals crave exercise and attention from other dogs. Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

The dogs that need socializing go through a rigorous process that includes obedience training and weekly play groups.

Gannaway says there's no special training for pit bulls.

"They're dogs like any other dog, so there's no different protocol." Gannaway says. "Every dog learns exactly the same way. Our small breed dogs are trained the exact same way as our large breed dogs . . . socialized the exact same way. A dog's a dog."

Gannaway is proud of her work with put bulls and says the public perception has changed. She no longer gets the same reaction she used to get from her neighbors.

"Now I'm working down the street and you'll get a thumbs up by someone driving by because they have one too," says Gannaway. "Or you'll get stopped on the street, 'Hey can I pet your dog.' And coming over to see your dog, and then they say, 'Hey we have one too.' And we start talking about our animals. So it's definitely changed. And I think it's just going to keep changing."

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Pit bulls are paired up for play at Sacramento County Animal Care based on their behavior. This prevents some animals from being overwhelmed. Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

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