Larry Hotchkiss has been bitten by a poodle. But he's never been bitten by a pit bull terrier.
Not that there haven't been opportunities for that. In the last six years, Hotchkiss and his wife, Amy, have provided temporary refuge to 36 rescued pit bulls at their Maple Grove home. They have two rescued pit bulls of their own -- Ora, a now-retired "disc dog" that once competed in Frisbee-type competitions with Larry, and goofy Jasper, a tawny rocket of a dog that is Larry's current disc partner.
"They're pretty easy to love," said Larry, as the panting Jasper ran from lap to lap for some affection.
The Hotchkisses are volunteers with A Rotta Love Plus (ARLP), a rescue group that specializes in saving pit bulls. Following in the paw prints of German shepherds, Doberman pinschers and Rottweilers, pit bulls are the current bad boys of the dog world. In some neighborhoods, they're a tough-guy status symbol. Bred for dogfighting, protection and profit, their reputation is scary enough that people cross the street when they see one on a leash.
Amy, who is an ARLP director, said the pit bull craze has gone on longer than she'd like. The dogs are victims, she said.
"I love them for their affection, and I want to see their bad reputation turned around," she said. "They're sweet and kind and good companions for people."
Tough but special
As pets, they're not for everyone. They're strong, smart and charged with energy. They want to be with people, sharing the couch or a lap. They can be destructive if bored. And as ARLP acknowledges and deals with head-on, they were bred to be dog-aggressive.
"Many people don't have the energy to deal with that," said Michelle Klatt, another ARLP director. "But with training, it can be dealt with."
Klatt has a male beagle and two female pit bulls, one from the Minneapolis Animal Care and Control shelter, the other rescued after a pizza deliveryman saw the dog wandering down the middle of a St. Paul street on a frigid winter night.
Female pit bulls can be touchy with each other; ARLP tries to place dogs in households where the new dog will be the opposite sex of any canine that's already there. Klatt walks her three dogs together, but in the house the pit bull girls are kept separate with baby gates.
It's the kind of discipline that someone who adores the dogs is willing to maintain.
"We rotate them and play hard, and I think they're worth it," Klatt said. "They're a big underdog, so people-focused with the energy and love they display. They're very special.
"To know a pit bull is to love them."
ARLP was founded as a Rottweiler rescue in 1997. As the Rottweiler craze faded and the need for pit bull rescue increased, ARLP merged with another group to help both breeds. About 10 very active volunteers form the core of the group, which has about 15 foster homes that take dogs in for a few months to assess and work with the animals before putting them up for adoption. Another 50 to 100 people work on events like parades and expos.
The group's motto is "rescue/rehome/educate," and the group takes that mission seriously, Klatt said. All rescue dogs are temperament tested and handled. They go through a training program, and the group runs obedience classes that are free for people who are fostering or adopting ARLP dogs. Those classes are open to other pit bull and Rottweiler owners who make a donation to the group.
This year, ARLP expects to neuter and spay 300 pit bulls and Rottweilers through free clinics. And it takes dogs into the community to try to counter breed stereotypes. Much of the work is with kids, taking pit bulls that are certified therapy and canine good citizen dogs into classrooms and programs for troubled and needy youth.
"We start when kids are young, show the kids tricks and do dog safety programs," Klatt said. "A lot of times kids open up to dogs in a way they won't with adults. They've been beaten and abused, too. We tell the story of these dogs, and the kids relate."
Committed for life
The Hotchkisses got Ora after 44 dogs were seized in Sibley County in 2006. Before she developed health problems, Ora was Larry's "disc dog" and won the state championship in one category in 2008. After the couple's Rottweiler died, Jasper joined the household. He had been found in someone's backyard, and came to the Hotchkisses after another foster home couldn't cope with his energy.
Cuddly Ora is the dominant dog, and she and busy boy Jasper get along fine. Right now there's a new foster dog in the house: Robin, a 3-year-old brindle pit bull that came into rescue after her owners had to give her up for health reasons. Robin was fostered by the Hotchkisses when she was a pup, part of an unwanted litter. She's a strapping girl now, but timid and a bit cautious around men.
Three weeks into her stay, Larry has been plying her with treats, and she eagerly sits for him. ARLP follows a "two-week shutdown" routine when a foster dog joins a household, keeping them isolated from other pets so they bond with people. Robin recently has had some play time with Jasper. But she is being kept separate from Ora for now.
ARLP's standards for adoptive families are stringent. Potential adopters have to explain why they want a pit bull or Rottweiler, provide three references and allow a chat with their veterinarian. They must have homeowner's insurance that covers pit bulls. All the dogs are spayed and neutered before they are adopted.
People do get turned away, Amy said. Some are upset, while others realize that perhaps a pit bull is not for them. It's all about education, Larry said. He said he hopes that someday, parents at adoption events will not frantically pull children away from a dog that had been wagging its tail and licking the kids' faces until mom found out the dog was a pit bull.
That's why fun, happy dogs like Jasper and Ora, the disc champion, are ambassadors for the breed, Larry said.
"They are not for everyone," he said. "But responsible pit bull owners can bring out their best."
The couple has had two foster pit bulls that had to be euthanized when it became clear they had too many problems to be adopted. ARLP occasionally takes in sick, old or unadoptable dogs for what is called "compassionate hold." For a few months, the animals live in a household where there is a warm bed, plenty of food and people who will not hurt them.
When their final day comes, the Hotchkisses take the dogs to the vet and stay with them until they are gone.
"There is dignity in that, and they deserve it," Amy said.
Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380 Twitter: @smetan