Do Pit Bulls Make Good Therapy Dogs?

King earned official recognition as a therapy dog last year. But as a pit bull, some doors remain closed to him. Pit Sisters
Dog and boy cuddling.
King knows the inside of more than a few hearts. Pit Sisters

Just a few months into his new life, King seemed to have his paws firmly on the ground — and his heart high up in the clouds.

As a registered therapy dog, the big, slow-moving lug with impeccable manners seemed a natural with children and anyone looking for a little heartfelt inspiration.

Therapy pit bull comforts patient
King's composure, even at the shelter, made him a natural as a registered therapy dog. Pit Sisters

But it wasn't so long ago that King was staring through the wire fence of a shelter in Jacksonville, Florida.

Arthritis had crept into his legs. He wasn't a puppy anymore. And he was the kind of big dog that looked a lot like a pit bull.

The outlook for a big old dog of that description is typically grim.

But Jen Deane knows a thing or two about big dogs with broken dreams. As founder of Pit Sisters, a rescue based in Jacksonville Beach, she's rescued countless pit bulls from "last-hope" situations and helped them find real families.

"The shelter manager emailed me about him because she knows I have a soft spot for pit bulls," she tells MNN. "He said, 'This guy's got some pretty significant medical challenges, but he's a great dog. Would you consider meeting him?'"

Deane not only met King at the shelter, but soon realized his natural calm was infectious. He had a calling, she figured, as a therapy dog.

"He just struck me as being a very loving, soulful creature that wasn't crazy — he didn't just jump all over people — but just came up and greeted people very nicely. Nothing seemed to bother him, no matter what," she explains. "And I thought with his medical challenges... it may be a really good message to send to people that might be having similar medical challenges."

Carol Altieri, the woman who began fostering King, saw the same qualities in him.

Woman posing with pit bull.
Carol Altieri initially agreed to foster King, but soon changed her mind and adopted him. Pit Sisters

She had fostered more than 100 dogs for Pit Sisters. But King was the one she had to adopt. And soon, King would rule over many more hearts. In 2017, he passed a nationally recognized therapy registration exam. He soon found himself equally at home among hospice residents and children.

Then Altieri heard a local hospital was looking for therapy dogs. King seemed to fit the bill.

But that was when King's past finally caught up to him. After months of talks and in-person interviews, the dog was rejected.

"When it came down to it, [the hospital] did a conference call with Carol and basically said they're denying her as a volunteer," Dean recalls. "They wouldn't give her a reason."

Therapy pit bull surrounded by children.
Not everyone is comfortable with a big dog in their midst. But luckily for King, these children can't get enough of him. Pit Sisters

Deane and Altieri are pretty sure the problem wasn't King's demeanor, but his DNA.

Hospital staff may not have wanted a pit bull around the children, however calm, composed and credentialed King may be.

And there's plenty of precedent for that. Like Aladdin, the lovable lummox that dresses like a superhero in Philadelphia to warm the hearts of children — only to be turned down at a local hospital because of that great big pit bull-shaped head.

Pit bulls have long been lightning rods for controversy. Some states ban them outright. And organizations lobby for their removal from the American dogscape completely, often pulling the levers of public emotion with gruesome descriptions of pit bull attacks.

But, as Sarah Enos, director of the American Pit Bull Association pointed out in an op-ed for Time magazine, dog bite statistics can be easily skewed to drive an agenda — especially when a dog type is so loosely defined.

"When pit bulls are routinely mis-identified, it is more than plausible to see how their numbers are high on reports even though they are rated very high by the American Temperament Test Society as friendly dogs," Enos writes.

Now, think of a pit bull in a hospital, or working with children — and ratchet up that controversy a thousandfold.

Maybe that's why a Florida hospital closed its doors to King. But one thing's for sure: To judge a dog by his cover is to miss out on a lot of feel-good stories wrapped in fur.

Dog and boy cuddling.
Arthritis in all four legs hasn't stopped King from making his appointed rounds. Pit Sisters

"It doesn't matter what the dog looks like or what the dog is labelled as," Jim Crosby, a certified behavior consultant and expert in canine aggression, tells MNN. "It matters how the dog acts, and their temperament and their demeanor.

"That's what we have to start focusing on — and not worrying about the label or the look. That doesn't tell you how the dog is going to behave."

A major factor would be the rigorous testing and certification a dog gets from recognized organizations like Therapy Dogs International.

"They have to be comfortable — and show they're comfortable — around hospital beds and wheelchairs and medical equipment," Crosby says. "And people who don't smell right because there's something wrong with them. And the hustle and bustle in the hallway. There are lots of dogs who — no matter what kind they are — aren't suitable for that. There's just too much for the individual dog."

But not for King, who has it all in spades.

"I'm not aware of anything that would make me think that King is anything other than a sweetheart," Crosby says.

And yet, it seems, his job description will occasionally come second to his physical description.

Although King wouldn't know that. Despite that crippling arthritis in all of his legs, he's too busy inspiring people both young and old — and making them feel warm where it truly counts: the inside.