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From Shelters to Service

Animal Farm Foundation (AFF), a not-for-profit corporation located in Duchess County, New York, works to secure equal treatment and opportunity for Pit Bulls through a variety of programs. In an effort to meet their mission, AFF established a Service Dog Training program so that rescued and sheltered Pit Bulls can be considered for the same work traditionally reserved for pure-bred, purpose-bred dogs.

Animal Farm Foundation’s first teams were placed in 2012-13. The dogs lived in shelters across the country before they were evaluated for and accepted into the program. None were bred for this purpose, but they are excelling in their new lives as assistance dogs.

Dogs in the program are trained by Apryl Lea, an Assistance Dogs International (ADI) trainer who is part of Animal Farm Foundation’s staff. Lea enjoys working with shelter Pit Bulls in this capacity. She believes there is a common misconception by both the public and the service dog industry that dogs can’t be effective service dogs unless they are a specific breed or initially bred for the purpose of service-dog work. Lea’s quite certain this is not the case. “A dog is a dog!” she says. “And the training is the same.”

“Working with shelter and rescue dogs is a very emotional experience for me,” she continues. “Dogs enrich people’s lives everyday and assistance dogs are able to change a person’s everyday life.”

Trained by Lea to retrieve dropped items, help with balance, brace on stairs, and get the phone in an emergency, Service Dog Captain America has been assisting client Margierose since December 2012, who reports that his training has paid off. “He is not just my service dog, but my best friend wherever I go,” she says.

“As soon as I put his vest on he is very much like the super hero with his cape, but instead of leaping tall buildings he makes me feel safe and confident out in public. Captain picks up items I drop and braces me when my balance is off and I am feeling dizzy. He will even go get the phone for me when I am having a bad day.”

Service Dog Jericho, was also trained for such tasks as opening doors, retrieving items, and bracing his owner Matthew as he transfers from his wheelchair. Matthew, who lost the use of his legs in a car accident, has increased independence with Jericho by his side. Matthew says Jericho has changed his life in more ways than one.

“We go into the store like two friends, side-by-side and not caring about anything,” he says. “I know what he’s thinking and he knows what I’m thinking. Simply put, Jericho is my life-saver, my life-changer, and what I needed to face the world. Now I’m never alone anymore.”

In some cases, discrimination against Pit Bulls has had an impact on service dog teams around the country. In 2011, for instance, the town of Aurelia, Iowa, which has a ban on Pit Bulls, forced Jim Sak, a disabled Vietnam veteran and retired Chicago police officer who had recently moved to Aurelia, to remove his service dog (a Pit Bull named Snickers) from town limits. Animal Farm Foundation assisted Officer Sak in regaining custody of his dog, and thankfully public opinion about Pit Bulls has continued to improve since then.

Cases like this are sad examples of what happens when local governments discriminate against dogs based on breed or appearance, but thankfully instances of breed specific legislation are on the decline nationwide. On a federal level, banning Pit Bulls violates 2010 guidelines from the U.S. Department of Justice on breed limitations for service dogs, as well as Title II of the American with Disabilities Act.

Animal Farm Foundation is committed to securing the rights of service dog teams who are adversely affected by discriminatory policies and educating the public as to the facts. Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Service Animals are legally defined (Americans With Disabilities Act, 1990) and are trained to meet the disability-related needs of their handlers who have disabilities. Federal laws protect the rights of individuals with disabilities to be accompanied by their service animals in public places.

The tasks these extraordinary dogs are trained to perform include: guiding a person who is blind, pulling a wheelchair, reminding a person with cognitive issues to take prescribed medications, or calming a person with PTSD. The work or task the dogs are trained to provide are directly related to an individual’s disability.

The truth is that dogs of all breeds and mixes can become service dogs. It’s the individual dog, not the breed, that matters most when selecting dogs. To nominate a Pit Bull for our program or to learn more about our work, please visit AFF’s website at

Caitlin Quinn is the Foundation Manager at Animal Farm Foundation and is proud to serve shelter workers, rescuers, animal control officers, and advocates in the work that they do to end discriminatory policies both in their organizations and in their communities. She is passionate about the increased role of marketing in saving shelter animals’ lives. Caitlin lives in upstate New York with her dog, Patrick.

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Main article photo by: Apryl Lea