Pit bulls thrive at train­ing classes in She­boy­gan

Wisconsin Gazette - - Front Page - By Leah Ula­towski She­boy­gan Press

Kelsey Tauben­heim throws her head back in a fit of gig­gles at the an­tics of her pit bull, Maia, on the agility course at the train-a-bull classes hosted by Tilly's Pit Crew.

“You're not sup­posed to go un­der it!” she ex­claims, watch­ing Maia try to duck be­low a bar jump. Tauben­heim pulls her large, mus­cu­lar dog into a bear hug. She marvels at the re­laxed en­vi­ron­ment of­fered by the classes, re­lieved that she doesn't have to worry about the pry­ing eyes of those who might have anti-pit bull sen­ti­ments scru­ti­niz­ing her young dog's ev­ery move. “It would be nerve-wrack­ing to take her to a nor­mal dog obe­di­ence class,” Tauben­heim told the She­boy­gan Press. “I don't want to have to worry about some­thing hap­pen­ing and peo­ple right away say­ing, `Oh, it's be­cause she's a pit bull,' and try­ing to carry on that bad name.” Tracy Fir­gens, president of Tilly's Pit Crew, a She­boy­gan-based non­profit that of­fers free train­ing classes and spay­ing and neu­ter­ing to lo­cal pit bull own­ers, among other ser­vices, founded the or­ga­ni­za­tion on the idea that “ev­ery dog de­serves a chance, no mat­ter what they look like.” The name “Tilly” comes from a pit bull that Fir­gens had got­ten to know through vol­un­teer­ing at the hu­mane so­ci­ety. Tilly was adopted and re­turned on the ba­sis of “se­vere peo­ple ag­gres­sion” de­spite the dog never show­ing these signs be­fore or after the adop­tion. Ul­ti­mately, she was put down, which broke Fir­gens' heart but re­vealed a new call­ing to her that was the foun­da­tion of Tilly's Pit Crew. The non­profit kicked off May 1 and has al­ready helped ap­prox­i­mately 15 dogs.

“We're re­ally just look­ing to help peo­ple cre­ate a bond with their dog and work with ba­sic obe­di­ence, so when they do take them out in pub­lic, peo­ple will see be­haved dogs,” Fir­gens said.

Fir­gens ex­plained that a lot of peo­ple will adopt pit bulls be­cause they are such adorable pup­pies, but then when the dogs be­comes re­ally big, en­er­getic and “maybe a lit­tle smarter than you want them to be,” the own­ers are at a loss.

“Rather than peo­ple sur­ren­der them to the shel­ter, we try to help peo­ple keep their dogs,” Fir­gens said. “They're very smart dogs, so a lot of times they're eas­ier to train. You just have to be on the ball about it.”

Dog own­ers Tauben­heim and Gina Hitleli said the train­ing has re­ally helped them so­cial­ize their pit bulls, Maia and Nanuk. In ad­di­tion, Tauben­heim might like to open her own shel­ter some­day and ap­pre­ci­ates how the vol­un­teers at Tilly's have given her in­sight into train­ing.

Lead trainer Tara Jo­hanek said run­ning the classes is a great vol­un­teer ex­pe­ri­ence for her.

“What ex­cites me is get­ting peo­ple to see these dogs as part of the com­mu­nity and be­ing an ad­vo­cate for them,” Jo­hanek said. “At the same time, we're pro­mot­ing good own­er­ship and watch­ing that awe­some bond be­tween a per­son and dog. That's why I do it.”

Tilly's Pit Crew ser­vices pit bull own­ers in She­boy­gan County and those who have adopted from a She­boy­gan County res­cue. For more in­for­ma­tion, visit Tillyspitcrew. org and “like” their Face­book page, “Tilly's Pit Crew.”

This is an AP mem­ber ex­change story.

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