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Monroe classes to teach responsible ownership to "pit bull" - type dogs owners

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From left, Steve Purcell and Kim Rogaczewski wait while Trina Stillwagon instructs Meghan Eurenius. They are in training for classes expected to start in January.

The Blade/Lisa Dutton
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MONROE - Across the Michigan line from Lucas County, the shelter manager of the Humane Society of Monroe County is setting up classes to teach prospective owners of "pit bull"-type dogs the ins and outs of living with these canines.

Trina Stillwagon is training humane society volunteer staff members, who will conduct the classes next year at the Horizon Outlet Center on LaPlaisance Road.

The classes, called "Pit Stop," are expected to begin in January and will mostly be restricted to people who want to adopt "pit bull"-type dogs from the shelter at 833 North Telegraph Rd. Ms. Stillwagon plans to open the classes to the public in spring.

"It will be low-cost," she said. "I can't give a dollar figure yet, but we want to keep it affordable for people."

She said she expects strong interest. Word of mouth already has generated 25 to 30 inquiries.

In Ms. Stillwagon's experience, many would-be adopters of "pit bull"-type dogs don't know what they're getting into.

She said she adopted her first "pit-bull"-type dog in 1993 and fell in love with it. She considers herself an advocate for these dogs but describes them as high maintenance and not for everyone.

"These dogs are not for dog parks where they can run off the leash and mix with other dogs," she explained. "You can have a very social dog all the way up to an aggressive dog, but 'pit bulls' don't like to be challenged by other dogs. They'll get along fine most of the time - as long as the other dog doesn't start a fight."

To have the best experience with any dog, the owner must show who is in charge, but this is even more important with "pit bull" types, Ms. Stillwagon noted.

She said she looks for "a strong personality and even leadership skills" in would-be adopters of "pit bull" types. "They should be pretty assertive," she added.

Pit Stop classes will start by introducing the prospective adopter to his or her dog in a setting with other people and dogs.

"It's primarily about socialization," she explained. "We then work on technique and handling methods. We want the handler to be calm in the presence of the dog. We want them to stand up straight and be assertive."

Joanie Wazney, director of operations for a Wayne County, Michigan, group that provides foster homes for "pit bull"-type dogs, said Ms. Stillwagon has the right idea in focusing on preparing the owner.

"The old adage is it's what's on the other end of the leash that counts," said Ms. Waz-

ney, whose group is called the Buster Foundation. She said she currently has 19 "pit bull"-type dogs at her Van Buren Township home.

She said that most shelters, unlike Ms. Stillwagon's, won't put "pit bull"-type dogs up for adoption because of liability worries. She said her group will not place them in foster homes in Ohio because of the state's law that defines the breed as vicious.

Ledy VanKavage, senior legislative analyst with Best Friends Animal Society, said her group conducts classes similar to Pit Stop's in inner-city Chicago neighborhoods. "They are working very well," she said. Her group rescued the almost 50 fighting dogs kept by NFL player Michael Vick.

Animal Friends, a large shelter in Pittsburgh, also takes in and adopts out "pit bull"-types, but very carefully, according to its chief operating officer, Kathleen Beaver.

"We have a very thorough temperament test," she explained.

"We make sure the 'pit bulls' we adopt are safe and have no aggressive tendencies. They need to be breed ambassadors."

David Swisher, president and chief executive officer of Animal Friends, said the shelter's animal cruelty investigations include dog fighting.

"Animal Friends is committed to ensuring the well-being of companion animals while ending abuse and neglect," he explained.

Ms. Stillwagon said "pit bull"-type dogs are misunderstood and unjustly maligned.

"Our mission here at the humane society is to educate people about them and place the dogs with the right owners," she explained.

Contact Carl Ryan at:

carlryan@theblade.com

or 419-724-6050.

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