Shelter dog

There’s a commonly held belief there are no bad dogs, only bad dog owners. Dog lovers adhere to this motto, and routinely rescue pets from abuse and abandonment.

For the last two years, Andrea Sikorski, of Palos Hills, Ill., has dedicated her free time to a breed of dogs that have a viciously bad reputation—pit bulls.

Through a rescue initiative called It’s a Pittie, Sikorksi and other volunteers work to reverse the negative perception of these loyal and kind pets, she says, and find them loving and patient homes.

“I like the breed, and I feel they’re really misunderstood,” she says. “I want to do what I can for the breed.”

Pit bulls and other dogs are routinely rescued from negative environments—the most extreme being puppy mills, hoarding situations and dog-fighting rings—and are often left with behavioral issues as a result. But with proper training and love, owners can fix a majority of these bad behaviors.

Pamela Reid is a behaviorist with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. She says pets rescued by the agency are rehabilitated according to their needs.

“When we talk about trying to treat these animals, there are really two kinds of populations,” Reid says. “The puppy mill and hoarding dogs all tend to show fear from lack of exposure. If it’s a history of fighting, they’re more likely to be aggressive with other dogs, or scared. But most dogs we see in those cases are very friendly with people.”

Helping aggressive and fearful dogs can take days, weeks or months. Some may never be “completely normal,” she says.

“We put the most resources in the puppies or young dogs,” she says. “If we can put time and resources into them, they can turn out to be great pets. For dogs with a history of fighting, we only recommend rehabilitation for those who show some social skills 

with other dogs, and their first inclination is not to fight.” Owners who adopt rescued dogs need to realize upfront how much time and energy they’ll have to give. Often, they have to maintain behavior modification techniques, and regularly provide positive reinforcement to keep their dog normalized.

“It can be a big commitment, but the rewards are tremendous,” Reid says. “You saved this animal, and learned so much.”

It’s critical to match the animal with the right person and environment, she says. Even then, some dogs don’t bounce back. “We’ve had dogs that transitioned into the home well, and others have regressed,” she says. “You just don’t always know.” Sikorski makes sure dogs rescued by It’s a Pittie are placed with good owners. They must go through a rigorous adoption process, which includes a phone intake, background check, vet- erinarian check, reference checks, a home visit and more.

“Sometimes people get annoyed with the process, but it weeds out the bad people,” Sikorski says. “We look for someone who will be patient and willing to give them some time to adjust.”