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Program aims to be a lifesaver for pit bulls

L.A. may soon hire an academy that would employ parolees to train such dogs at city shelters, making them suitable for adoption.

August 05, 2007|Ari B. Bloomekatz | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles City Council may soon be employing an unlikely set of partners -- parolees and pit bulls -- in its efforts to reduce euthanized killings of unwanted pets, and a demonstration Saturday offered a glimpse of how such a program would work.

The council postponed approval of the Pit Bull Training Academy at a Friday hearing in Van Nuys until issues of liability and public safety could be sorted out. But city officials said they felt confident that the program would be approved in a couple of weeks.

Ed Boks, general manager of Los Angeles Animal Services, said the council wanted to be sure his staff had "covered all the bases" before moving forward.

The program would be run by a nonprofit group that often hires parolees newly out of prison to train the sometimes dangerous and aggressive pit bulls. The city would pay the group to train the scores of pit bulls abandoned in shelters and to work with city staff to improve handling of the breed.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday August 06, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 90 words Type of Material: Correction
Pit bulls: An article in Sunday's California section about a proposed training program for pit bulls incorrectly said that Los Angeles would contract with the nonprofit Villalobos Rescue Center. Although the city will work with Villalobos, there will be no formal contract. The article also said an internal memo from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa expressed concern over the number of animals killed in Los Angeles shelters. That 2006 memo, according to Los Angeles Animal Services General Manager Ed Boks, asked department heads to "think outside the box" in formulating new programs.

Boks said the goals were to develop better-trained dogs more likely to be kept by their new owners and to help parolees get work and hone job skills.

Pit bull trainers were on hand Saturday at the Animal Services' annex shelter in South Los Angeles to give demonstrations of how the academy would operate.

"This is Lefty," said Tia Torres, director of Villalobos Rescue Center, while getting kisses from the 4-year-old, who appeared in the movie "Alpha Dog." "This program is to teach proper, responsible ownership" of pit bulls, she said.

Torres has been running the nonprofit rescue center for more than a decade. It is the largest pit bull training facility in the United States, with more than 200 dogs, and the city would contract with Villalobos for the new academy. Torres offers free pit bull training for community residents; on weekends she volunteers for the city by conducting training classes at various city animal shelters.

Trainers use only positive reinforcement because "aggressiveness begets aggressiveness," said Cinimon Clark, who works with Villalobos. Their methods include basic obedience training and intense socialization, which means creating mock scenarios where the pit bulls come into contact with other dogs or go to a grocery store. The rescue center does not train dogs that have been involved in brutal attacks or are unusually aggressive.

In recent years Torres began employing parolees to help train the dogs, and Boks said not one of those nearly two dozen parolees has been back to prison.

The city killed more than 18,000 dogs and cats last year, and pit bulls made up about 40% of the 6,541 canines destroyed, according to Animal Services. Boks said owners often adopt pit bulls, only to return them to shelters within a short time because they don't know how to train them.

"That drives me insane," said Villalobos trainer Aaron Minjares. "A lot of people look at animals as property and not as a family member."

Torres said Lefty was one such pit bull, whose owner returned him because the dog kept running away.

After a few months of training, Lefty calmed down. He and other pit bulls trained at Villalobos' 10-acre ranch in Agua Dulce are now so well-behaved that they often are used for movies and music videos.

Torres and others at the open house Saturday said pit bulls get a bad rap because they're often associated with being extremely aggressive and dangerous.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa sent out an internal memo in November 2006 expressing concern about the number of animals killed at city shelters, and Boks said the proposed training academy evolved out of the need to address one of the two main underlying problems: the large numbers of unwanted cats and pit bulls in the often-full shelters.

Boks thought part of the solution could be to contract with Villalobos to work full time for the city. The program would cost $129,000 every six months and would employ about six parolees and two staff members.

Leah Davis, 36, of Cypress came to Saturday's open house to learn more about the center's programs for her pit bull, Rufina, whom she recently adopted from the Pasadena Humane Society.

"It's just frustrating because people assume [pit bulls are] really mean dogs just because of its breed," she said. "You can help your dog become sort of an ambassador for the breed."

ari.bloomekatz@latimes.com

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