Why Pit Bulls Make the Best Therapy Dogs

February 12, 2014  

therapy collage final

“Today, you can’t get on Facebook without finding Thera-Pits. But in 2002 when I first started using pit bulls as therapy dogs, very few people were using them in mental health therapy due to their ‘bad rap.’ They were viewed as “the other” and I felt they were the perfect metaphor for my clients who are also often viewed as the ‘other’ by society.”

By Kay Beard

My sister told me when I was interviewing as a Mental Health Therapist that I might have more luck if I stopped showing up to job interviews with my Thera-Pit Frankie. It was 2007 and I had just moved to Indiana from New Mexico.

My specialty as a therapist is PTSD and Bipolar Disorder. The majority of my clients are poor and live on the fringe of society. Many are on SSI, have histories of abuse, live in shelters, and barely make it from month to month. Society’s outsiders.

Today, you can’t get on Facebook without finding Thera-Pits. But in 2002 when I first started using pitbulls as therapy dogs, very few people were using them in mental health therapy due to their “bad rap.” They were viewed as “the other” and I felt they were the perfect metaphor for my clients who are also often viewed as the “other” by society.

Puddin with Janette Reever

Puddin’ with Janette Reever of the HSUS Dog Fighting Task Force, an integral person in his rescue from the Ohio 200 Fighting Bust

I chose to use pit bull style dogs for several reasons, but the main reason is – I love everything they encompass. I have tried several other breeds as Mental Health Therapy Dogs, but I haven’t found them to have the emotional and mental stamina the pittie style dogs have, or the level of empathy and ability to work as a “co-therapist.” I’m often asked how a MH Therapy Dog is different from a traditional Therapy Dog. Exactly what do my dogs do? Each Thera-Pit is chosen for a specific quality that I saw and developed in them. Once they actually start working I’d say it takes about a year before they actually have learned their job. I look for dogs that are a bit of a show off, super people driven, and have certain “flair” to them. I tell people when they ask me about Therapy Dogs, that I think they are born to do to it. You can’t make a Therapy Dog. You can develop one, but they are either born with it, or not. If they don’t have fun and literally crave the work, it shows and they burn out. I do 9 groups a week and see individual clients as well. I work with men and women with past and current trauma histories, combat vets, people with mood disorders, and people who have had a lot of self-harming behaviors such as cutting. My work can be very intense and emotionally draining, not just for me, but also for the dogs. This work requires more self-restraint than the “guided work” performed at nursing homes or hospitals, but in the morning when I grab the working dog vest, I have a crowd around me waiting to see who gets to go to work.


Thelma Sparklepants at work as a Therapy Dog

Here is a lot of the difference between what I perceive as a MH Therapy Dog and the other kinds. My dogs have to learn to work independently of me a lot of times. Especially doing group work, I teach them what I call “targeting” behaviors, such as how to learn to spot anxiety, sadness, anger, etc. It’s difficult to explain, but a lot of it happens through repetition and reinforcement, especially in the individual sessions and then it transfers over to the group settings. When they are in group, they usually do what I call a circuit and check in on everyone.  What I notice and have been told by clients is that if they are having a strong reaction to something, the dog will literally plant themselves at the person. That cues me to make sure I pay attention and follow up during group. Sometimes the dogs will avoid a person entirely and that can cue me into that person having some aggression going on in them so I’ll make sure to focus on that person.  This is a learned trait that I call knowing when to “move into a situation and when to move out of a situation.” I also have some clients that literally will lie on the floor and cuddle with the dogs during the session/group and the dog has to be able to tolerate an intense outburst of feeling, sometimes from someone they’ve never met, and sometimes the hug is pretty tight. But the dog can’t get excited and want to jump on the person or get all kissy face. That is where the emotional maturity comes in. They have to recognize that they are there for the person, and the person isn’t there for them. Of course I’m always checking and placing the dog’s safety as a priority during these emotional exchanges.


Thelma with her best friend, Abby, a PTSD Therapy Dog

Other issues MH Therapy Dogs encounter are working with staff and having to constantly be around strangers in the waiting room, agitated people that may be hallucinating, boring meetings, office parties with a lot of food, and knowing when to switch gears at a moments notice. They may have a session with a client that is really into interacting with them, giving them treats, cuddling, talking with them, etc., and then the next moment be asked to sit under my desk and be “invisible” for an hour because I have a dog phobic client. If you think about it, for a lot of dogs, this constant changing of expectations could be very stressful, particularly day after day for about 16-20 hours a week.  This is what makes these pit bulls so special.

Right now the primary working dogs are Thelma and Diego. Puddin’, who is 13, is down to working one 12 hour day.  Thelma Sparklepants, is the youngest of the group, and was adopted from the Animal Protection League in Indiana. She earned her Thera-Pit title last year through Therapy Dogs Incorporated.  Diego Salsapants was chosen out of 100 pit bulls from Mariah’s Promise Rescue after being banned from Denver in 2005 for his breed. He left behind a loving family, but has been working steadily since his rescue and works specifically with PTSD clients. He passed his therapy certification in 2005 and is also a Canine Good Citizen. Puddin’ Pops was rescued by the HSUS and Measle’s Animal Haven Pit Bull Rescue in 2009 during the OH 200 Dog Fighting Bust and became a Thera-Pit at age 10. He is also a Canine Good Citizen.   Frankie Fancypants, now retired, was at one time one of only 22 pit bulls in the country certified by the Delta Society. He has had a documentary made about him, presented at several national conferences on the use of pit bulls in therapy, has been featured in newspapers, and worked 10 years accumulating over 10,000 clinical hours before retiring this past April.

Diego SalsapantsThis amazing group lives at what is affectionately known as Puddin’s Pittie Palace and you should definitely follow their adventures on Facebook. They also work closely with Project Bully in Indiana, a nonprofit organization promoting rescue, adoption, and responsible ownership of pit bulls.

If your heart hasn’t already filled up with all the warm and fuzzy it can take, watch this Flipagram clip showcasing the incredible dogs that make up Puddin’s Pittie Palace.  We bet you won’t be able to watch it just once!  Enjoy!

« « Victims of Dog Fighting in Ohio Finally Seen as Victims | Meet Jambo: Trick Dog Champion and Much More! » »


14 Responses to “Why Pit Bulls Make the Best Therapy Dogs”
  1. EDH says:

    Last year I was hospitalized for six weeks after major breakdown involving bipolar I, PTSD, and depression (including some pretty severe auditory and visual hallucinations). I should add that I have two pit bulls myself, who are 13 and 15. One of the obsessive thoughts at the hospital was that the older, my soul mate, would die was I was there.

    Anyways, we had dog therapy twice a week and I went each time, but they kept bringing these dopey, blank slate labs and hyperactive little dogs that just made my heartbreaking separation from my own guys that much worse. On the fourth visit, I asked the lady who brought the dogs, “Don’t you have a pit bull you can bring?” She looked at me like I was crazy – funny, huh? – and said, “Oh, goodness, no.” In week three I asked her again, “Do you know anyone who has therapy pit bulls?’ She said, “No, I don’t.”

    On the second visit of week four she showed up with a second lady who had … a blue pit bull. He was so beautiful and was built like a tank. Probably seventy pounds, pure muscle and a head the size of a cinder block. I just started crying because, well for so many reasons, and I sat down on the floor. He started pulling. The second lady let go of the blue guy’s leash and he came straight over to me and started nuzzling my face. No licking, like my dogs do to no end. Just rubbing his face against mine. I was stroking him, of course, and after a few minutes he laid down and put his head in my lap and made little purring sounds. A few minutes after that, I laid down beside him and we spooned for the rest of the visit.

    He stayed with me the whole time. Never interacted with any of the other patients or the other dogs. When it was time to go, the lady made a little clicking sound and he stood up. He walked over to her, but then came back to me and attacked my face with kisses, the first time I had encountered his tongue. (I love dog kisses and was known in my neighborhood in New York as “That guy who makes out with all the pit bulls and bulldogs.”) I noticed that the first woman who had so abruptly dismissed the idea of the pit bull as therapy dog had tears in her eyes.

    He came back for the next four sessions that I was there. On the last one I was saying good-bye and that first woman came over to us. She said to me, “I’ve been working with therapy dogs for 15 years and I have never seen one like him. He’s amazing. He has changed everything I ever thought about pit bulls and I only wish he was mine.”

    • Mitzi Bolanos says:

      Wow, this brought tears to our eyes. We can’t thank you enough for sharing this with us.

      • Melinda says:

        Brought tears to my eyes! Thank you for loving the pitty breed. They are truly an amazing animal. I have been fortunate enough to have a wonderful little red nose girl that is my everything. I’m glad a pitty was able to change one persons misconception of the breed.

    • Kakes says:

      LOVE. <3 <3 best of luck as you continue healing

      • Shannon says:

        I love my very sweet Sadie, a red nose pitbull. She is so loving and her expressions seem almost human! How can people fight these dogs to the death sometimes??? Someone should put those people in a ring to be ripped apart! Sick.

    • kay beard says:

      Thank you for such a positive feedback on the story and for sharing your own story. You’re the reason I do the work I do. Keep getting healthy!

  2. Julie says:

    They are amazing Dogs! All of my family members own them and they truly have the best and most loving personalities. They can read your energy like no other dog and live to connect and keep their owner in good spirits. I don’t know how there can be such a common misperception about this breed. Beautiful article. Thank you for the work you do for humans and fur babies alike.

  3. I totally agree with this article. Dogs are a real stress reliever. I love coming home to my dog.

  4. Lara says:

    Pass the kleenex please! I love the story but I am not surprised! Pibbles are so loving and giving; although I do have to confess that I did not always feel that way myself. It took just one sweet homeless pibble running around in my neighborhood for me to change my mind. That homeless pibble became a member of my family and changed the way I thought and felt about pitbulls! I BELIEVED all the horrible stories I heard and was very afraid of them until sweet Cocoa became part of the family. Unfortunately sweet Cocoa has gone to the rainbow bridge but she taught me so much about pitbulls that I will ALWAYS have a pibble in my life! Right now I share my home with two beautiful, silly and loving pibbles that I can’t imagine being without!

  5. bcs says:

    We got a pitbull “by mistake” – didn’t know what breed the puppy was. Since him, we have only had pitbulls. I love dogs, but pitbulls are special.

  6. Christina says:

    I have a 7 mos old pit. He has already helped get me out of panic/hyper ventilating by leaning on me and out of a violent anxiety attack by pulling me away from everything. Only problem i dont get ssi and cant afford to get him registered. Is there any place i can go that will help me?


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