Animal Farm’s Foundation Programs: Helping Create Assistance Dogs and K9 Officers

Bernice Clifford, Director of Behavior and Training at Animal Farm Foundation knows very well the difficulties pit bulls (and look-alike breeds) have to face.

Often abandoned and difficult to adopt out, pit bulls in New York state are getting a second chance thanks to a unique initiative: a series of training programs that prepares them to become K9 officers or assistance dogs.

We talked to Clifford about the importance of these programs and what AFF is hoping to achieve.

The Honest Kitchen: Can you tell us a bit about the Animal Farm Foundation’s Assistance Dog Training Program? What is it about and how did it get started?

Bernice Clifford: Animal Farm Foundation is a not-for-profit corporation, which has been rescuing and re-homing animals, as well as making grants to other humane organizations, since the mid-1980s. Animal Farm Foundation’s mission is to secure equal opportunity and treatment for pit bull dogs. Animal Farm Foundation’s mission work consists of several programs, like the Assistance Dog Training Program, which feature sheltered and rescued pit bull dogs in roles that help people and communities.

The program shines a positive light on the value of shelter dogs and pit bulls while bringing independence to people who, without the help of an assistance dog, may otherwise be unable to enjoy aspects of life that others often take for granted. The Assistance Dog Training Program is also an important way to show that pit bulls can successfully do the same type of work traditionally reserved for purpose-bred service dogs.

Dogs selected for the program are trained by Apryl Lea, Animal Farm Foundation’s certified Assistance Dog International (ADI) trainer. Following evaluation and training, Lea matches the dogs with a client who meets the requirements established by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to provide increased independence and support. The assistance dog and training support is offered at no cost to the recipient for the duration of the match.

THK: What’s involved in training dogs to become narcotics detection dogs for law enforcement?

BC: Through Animal Farm Foundation’s partnership with Universal K9 and Austin Pets Alive!, the Detection Dog Program trains rescued pit bulls to become narcotics detection dogs for police and sheriff departments across the country at no cost to law enforcement.

The narcotics detection dogs undergo four to eight weeks of training in San Antonio, Texas, with trainer and founder of Universal K9, Brad Croft. During training, the dogs master a variety of tasks by playing games, such as finding hidden toys and retrieving items using their sense of smell.

THK: Your program focuses on training pit bulls as detection dogs. Can you tell us why you decided to work with pit bulls and how well does the breed fit into this role?

BC: In the same way that not every German Shepherd is meant to do law enforcement work, not every pit bull dog is a good fit for detection work either. Every dog is an individual and must be evaluated as such to find it’s calling: whether as a family pet or narcotics detection dog. The term pit bull itself is misleading, since it is often applied to any dog with a muscular frame and block-shaped head. As a result, many of the dogs are condemned to shelters and euthanasia simply because they were labeled a pit bull dog, when they should be treated as individuals.

Both the detection dog and assistance dog programs encourage the public to think of each dog (labeled pit bull or not) as an individual.

Similar to the Assistance Dog Training Program, The Detection Dog Program offers a chance for everyday dogs, including rescued pit bulls, to showcase their potential. Further, by training rescued dogs to be detection dogs, the program is not only saving the dogs’ lives, but also helping to support local law enforcement, while saving valuable taxpayer dollars. Without the grant, departments may pay as much as $15,000 for a purebred, trained detection dog.

THK: Where do you find the dogs that you train? Do they all come from shelters? Are these surrendered animals?

BC: The dogs come from a number of places: shelters, animal control and even dogs rescued from animal cruelty cases. All dogs are vaccinated, spayed/neutered and microchipped.

THK: Any particular success story you can share?

BC: In November 2015, the City of Poughkeepsie Police Department welcomed a new narcotics detection and missing persons tracking dog to its force, a rescued pit bull dog named Kiah. Kiah had been recently rescued and cared for by the Kirby Animal Care Services in San Antonio, Texas. After recognizing Kiah’s drive to play, the staff reached out to Brad Croft, trainer and founder of Universal K9 in San Antonio, to suggest Kiah as a candidate for the Detection Dog Program.

Bearing witness to Kiah’s potential, Croft immediately began training her in narcotics detection and tracking with funding provided by Animal Farm Foundation. Following weeks of training, Kiah was matched with Officer Justin Bruzgul and the City of Poughkeepsie Police Department in New York. K9 Kiah and Officer Bruzgul are now a powerful pair working in the field.

Meet the Author: Diana Bocco

Diana Bocco is a full-time writer and avid adventurer. She's gone hiking in Siberia, snorkeling in Thailand, and canoeing in the Mekong River. She also loves caves and has been known to get lost in one or five around the world. Diana's work has been published in the Discovery Channel website, Yahoo!, Popular Mechanics, and more. You can read more of her work on her website at

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