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Pets Large & Small

Pitbulls - "Lost Dogs"

Jennifer Vanderau
Cumberland Valley Animal Shelter

(7/2013) I had a conversation via text message with my sister the other week and she asked me if I had read "The Lost Dogs," the book about the Michael Vick case.

Michael Vick, the NFL star, was the ring-leader in an underground pitbull fighting operation that made international headlines when authorities entered the compound. I'm sure as animal-lovers reading this, you all have many a colorful expletive to describe your feelings when that news story broke.

As do I.

But, I actually don't want to give that man any more press than he's already received, so I want to focus on the book and the dogs.

I have not read the book, but after talking with my sister about it, it sounds like it shouldn't be missed.

Even though she said it was agonizing at times, she found it incredibly worthwhile and eye-opening. One of the biggest facts that caught my attention is that during the "training" sessions for the fighting ring, a lot of Vick's pitbulls were euthanized because they weren't aggressive enough. He couldn't get them to actually want to fight, so he would destroy them.

Take a minute and let the impact of that statement really hit you.

They weren't aggressive ENOUGH.

They actually DIDN'T want to fight.

Pitbulls, in recent times, have gotten an ugly reputation because of people like Michael Vick. In fact, when I have been out and about at different off-site adoptions, I've had people recoil in fear when I bring pitbulls. I'm not even kidding.

At one event, I had a six month old puppy with me and a lady stopped by to say hello. The little four-legged squirt wanted to say hi to everyone, so he greeted her very enthusiastically. She was actually on the floor petting and playing with and cooing at the dog. Oh, she was rolling around and the pup was licking her face.

I remember thinking, now there's a true dog person. It was really quite adorable.

At one point, she looked up from her spot on the carpet, smiling with joy because that's what animals bring out in a lot of people and asked, "What kind of dog is he?"

Once I said the word pitbull, her entire demeanor evaporated. She jumped up as though I said the dog had mange and backed away quickly. It was easily one of the saddest things I've seen in a long, long time.

Nothing about the dog had changed at all and yet she treated him as though he was a real threat.

I have a volunteer who won't talk about the pitbulls at the shelter. Can you imagine this? She has such disdain for the entire breed, she won't even mention their existence at the Cumberland Valley Animal Shelter.

Forty years ago, the pitbull was actually considered an awesome family pet because the breed is so excellent with children. I've actually talked with people who say they wouldn't want any other breed around their child.

One lady said her toddler loved to use her pitbulll as a way to stand up. The dog not only let him, but would follow the little boy around in case his assistance was ever needed.

And yet, so many people today think pitbulls are monsters.

It's incredibly upsetting to me that the pitbull gets such a bad reputation when apparently -- even according to those who would try to fight them -- their natural inclination is sweetness.

Yes, the pitbull has jaws that can lock onto prey. Yes, the pitbull is incredibly strong and has muscles that make it look quite ferocious -- and if you are the kind of unscrupulous person who would want to use those traits as nothing more than a way to make a profit, then you could turn the dogs into killers.

Apparently, though, it takes a great deal of effort because not every pitbull will want to attack and kill and maim.

Not every pitbull is bad. Not by a long shot.

At the Cumberland Valley Animal Shelter, some of the dearest dogs we have are pitbulls. They're often 90-pound lap dogs. They don't realize they're really too big to jump up on a chair with you.

In a lot of cases, I would worry about some of the little dogs I've met being far more capable of biting than I would a pitbull. I've nearly been bitten by the likes of Chihuahuas, Pomeranians and Jack Russells, but never a pitbull.

The happy ending of "The Lost Dogs" is that most of the pitbulls confiscated from the Vick compound are doing really well, thanks to the efforts of the rescue groups and individuals who took the time to rehabilitate them.

These poor dogs who had such an unimaginably rough start are now knowing kind words and soft touches and warm beds and affectionate kisses.

It makes my heart feel good to know that.

Pitbulls really are a misunderstood breed and, sadly, often with misunderstanding comes hatred. If more people would really get to know that which they fear, the world would be a much different place.

So for those of us who understand -- who've been around these sweet dogs and received a slobbery kiss or witnessed their trademark smiles -- let's tell others.

Hopefully with knowledge, time and education we can reach a point where humans will not paint all pitbulls with the same brush and these adorable dogs can be given the chance to show us how wonderful and naturally sweet they truly can be.


Jennifer Vanderau is the Director of Communications for the Cumberland Valley Animal Shelter, and can be reached at The shelter accepts both monetary and pet supply donations. For more information, call the shelter at (717) 263-5791 or visit the website CVAS also operates thrift stores in Chambersburg and Shippensburg. Help support the animals at the shelter by donating to or shopping at the stores.

Read other articles by Jennifer Vanderau