Trainer Turns Pit Bull into Therapy Dog Dog trainer Mathina McClay talks about her work with one of the rescued pit bulls from Michael Vick's dog fighting ring. She has trained the dog, Leo, to be a cancer therapy dog.

Trainer Turns Pit Bull into Therapy Dog

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


You're listening to Weekend Edition from NPR News. Last year when NFL quarterback Michael Vick was arrested for running a dog-fighting ring, some 50 dogs were discovered at his Bad News Kennels. But a dog named Leo, who was rescued from the Vick compound, has become a healer.

Leo no longer wears the heavy chains of the dog fighting kennel, but a clown collar. Part of the outfit that he wears as a therapy dog at a cancer treatment facility in Mountain View, California. Mathina McClay, a certified dog trainer and the founder of the pit bull advocacy group, RPAC, trained Leo. Ms. McClay joins us from her home in Los Gatos, California. Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. MATHINA MCCLAY (Certified Dog Trainer, Founder of the Pit Bull Advocacy Group RPAC): You're welcome.

SIMON: What was Leo like when you first got him?

Ms. MCCLAY: Well, Leo certainly showed signs of the fact that he, you know, had no training. He jumped around like a puppy, he wanted to be playful with people. But just in an improper and ill-mannered fashion so there was a lot of training that did go on in a five-week period with him.

SIMON: Were there obvious signs that he'd come from a dog-fighting ring?

Ms. MCCLAY: The main thing that I saw with him was a lack of socialization and training. He didn't really have the social skills that a pet, that's grown up in a house his whole life had, and that's what really struck me about Leo.

SIMON: How did you retrain Leo?

Ms. MCCLAY: I used positive reinforcement methods, which is what I normally use in my dog-training business, and in our rescue and education group. When he would do something really good, I would reward him for it. There didn't have to be a lot of no's, stop, don't, you know, that sort of thing. Like when he would sit in front of me, then I would make sure I would pet him, and he learned that that's how he got affection.

SIMON: He's a working dog in a cancer therapy clinic?

Ms. MCCLAY: Yes.

SIMON: That's astonishing to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Where his - correct me if I'm wrong, his job is to absorb and display affection?

Ms. MCCLAY: What's interesting about that, Leo is not really unique as a pit bull terrier. He's not an exception to the rule of the American Pit Bull Terrier, he is the temperament correct pit bull terrier.

SIMON: So he walks around all day getting petted, and licking hands, and that sort of thing?

Ms. MCCLAY: That's what he loves to do, and people love it. It really does brighten up patients, you know, they smile, they feel better, they're happy to see him.

SIMON: Ms. McClay, you don't seem to think that this fearsome reputation the pit bulls have, is in any way deserved?

Ms. MCCLAY: It's not the reputation that the pit bulls should have, it's the reputation that their owners should have. If they're irresponsible owners, irresponsible breeders, it should be the reputation of these owners that suffer, not the dog itself.

SIMON: Good luck to you, thank you so much Ms. McClay.

Ms. MCCLAY: You are so welcome.

SIMON: Mathina McClay, certified dog trainer, and founder of the pit bull advocacy group, RPAC. This is NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.