- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 15, 2008

BALTIMORE (AP) | Lawyer Paul De Santis has an interest in pet rehabilitation, especially the “maligned” pit bull and pit bull mixes. In 2001, while he was studying for the bar, Mr. De Santis rescued a pit bull named Gracie, and the two quickly became inseparable.

“It was a guy and his dog,” Mr. De Santis said. “We did everything together.”

Mr. De Santis passed the bar and got married. Now he’s president of Recycled Love, a Baltimore City nonprofit organization that helps find homes for homeless animals.

He and his wife, along with Gracie and two other pit bulls, are moving to a home with a large plot of land in Baltimore County so he has the room at home for rehabilitation work.

Mr. De Santis practices in the law office of G. Macy Nelson in Towson. He says pit bulls and pit bull mixes make up 70 percent of the animals in city shelters.

“You get the feeling that those who have issues with the breed, a lot of it is a misunderstanding,” he said.

Pit bulls are associated with dog fighting, which Mr. De Santis said is an “epidemic” in Baltimore. The main issue, however, is that there are too many pit bulls in the city.

“That’s the real crisis facing Baltimore,” he said. “There are a lot of them, and they are not being handled the right way.”

A pit bull obtained as a status symbol and kept leashed in a yard all day, Mr. De Santis said, could lack social skills.

“That dog is going to be afraid and possibly act out aggressively,” he said. But a non-socialized dog could also shut down around people as a coping mechanism, he pointed out.

Recycled Love has been working with several pit bulls previously owned by Michael Vick for nearly a year. The dogs had been trained to fight, and at first were afraid to walk from one room to another because they were used to being in a small, confined space, Mr. De Santis said. They are in foster homes and continue to undergo rehabilitation.

“You have to work with the personality you’re faced with,” he said.

Mr. De Santis has worked with dogs for 15 years. He started as a kennel hand at a veterinarian’s office while he was an undergraduate student at Franklin & Marshall College, in Lancaster, Pa. He took courses to go to veterinary school, but chose law school because he found a veterinarian’s job to be too emotional, ranging from the joy of puppies’ births to the sadness of a dog being put down.

Mr. De Santis says he uses analytical thinking required in the courtroom to select which dogs are best candidates for rehabilitation.

One of the first things he does with dogs is use heart-rate monitors to find out what triggers a dog’s stress.

“Once you figure out what’s stressing a dog out, you can figure out the problem,” he said.

The training also involves a lot of “attention work,” or putting virtual blinders on the dog as Mr. De Santis corrects problems.

For example, if a dog is unruly in social settings, Mr. De Santis will hand-feed the animal while the two walk together in a crowded place. That way, the dog focuses on getting the food, not its surroundings. If a dog freezes up around people, Mr. De Santis might add more stress to demonstrate to the dog that its inaction only exacerbates its fear.

The payoff comes when the reinforcement sinks in and a dog goes from tentative to carefree.

“It’s always enjoyable when you get a dog that’s been shut down to turn loose,” Mr. De Santis said. “The tension’s gone.”

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