A New York foundation that trains and donates rescued pit bulls to guide the blind, push wheelchairs and help people regain their mobility and avoid falls has run into opposition.
The Animal Farm Foundation's Assistance Dog Training Program is believed to be the only U.S. training school exclusively for service dogs that uses pit bulls saved from shelters, said Apryl Lea, the foundation's certified trainer.
Pit bulls aren't generally thought of as service dogs, and most training schools don't breed them for that type of work.
Lea said shelters nationwide watch for canine candidates for the foundation's program, which trains dogs based on Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines. She said with pit bulls making up a large percentage of sheltered dogs, she is careful to decide which dogs are accepted into the program.
"My job is not just to train the dog but to help the handler be a good trainer, too," she told the Associated Press.
Former U.S. Marine Joe Bonfiglio, 24, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after returning from a five-month tour in Afghanistan. His pit bull service dog Zen helps him remain calm when crowds can trigger a panic attack. Zen also jumps on Bonfiglio's bed and wakes the thrashing Bonfiglio up when he has flashbacks.
"I used to go to bars with my friends. And war movies. I am not going to see 'American Sniper,'" he said. "It would bring me back to a place I don't want to be."
"Veterans and first responders can identify with pit bulls because they either have seen a lot of trauma or been through a lot of trauma," said Kelly Yearwood, co-founder Pits for Patriots in Chicago, whose group started the same year as the Animal Farm Foundation's program, in 2011. Yearwood's group trains rescued pit bulls as comfort, therapy and support dogs for veterans, police officers and firefighters.
Comfort dogs are pets that get a few weeks of training, while therapy animals receive at least six months of training to help calm people who haven't received a diagnosis as severe as PTSD.
Colleen Lee, founder and president of DogsBite.org, opposes The Assistance Dog Training Program.
"There are over 100 dog breeds that are far more suitable to perform tasks for persons with disabilities than pit bulls, especially rescued pit bulls with unknown backgrounds," said Lee, whose group tracks bites and works to reduce attacks through bans and other laws.
Pit bulls can be unpredictable and kill or maim when they attack, she said.
DogBite.org says pit bull breeds are too blame for 62 percent of the 325 people killed in the U.S. in dog attacks from 2005 to 2014.
"There is simply no need for pit bulls, rescued or otherwise, to be utilized as service dogs for people with disabilities," Lee said.
Bonfiglio would disagree.
"Zen is a fantastic dog; the best thing that's happened to me since I've been home," said Bonfiglio, who has other dogs. "They are all great supporters. They don't talk back, just put a smile on your face."
Do you agree pit bulls can be good service dogs? Take part in our poll.