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Head, a six-month-old pit bull with tattered ears and a passive demeanor, learned to sit on Saturday, a small but notable achievement for a dog once bred to fight.
On a sidewalk in Humboldt Park, Head was part of a small group of neighborhood pit bulls participating in a dog obedience class taught by Tony Gordon, whose mission is more than just turning around a few hostile canines.
Gordon, a disciple of Pavlov, said he also hopes to educate pit bull owners and transform public perception about a breed that has been maligned by the media in high-profile attacks on children.
The newspapers portray the pit bull as this vicious, mean, ferocious animal," he said, "When in fact, the pit bull is a kind, gentle, loyal animal."
Tio Hardiman, who works with a Chicago Coalition to Stop Dog Fighting, estimated that organized dog fighting occurs in about 10 percent of blocks on the West Side, with owners competing for as much as $5,000 or "just for the fun of it."
Signs that a dog has been involved in dog fighting include scars around its face, neck and chest area, Gordon said. In addition, dogs involved in dog fighting display a defensive posture the presence of other animals, with their ears back and tail tucked.
The seminar came less than a month after authorities have made high-profile busts on organized dog fighting in suburban Chicago and across the country.
Last month, Atlanta Falcons star Michael Vick was indicted on dog fighting charges and a South Holland man was charged with 74 counts of dog fighting and animal cruelty in connection with an alleged dog fighting operation at his home.
This fall, Hardiman plans to hold "The Positive Pit Bull Dog Olympics" in Garfield Park, where dogs groomed to fight will compete in events that include pulling a weighted sled, jumping through hurdles and a beauty contest for the pit bull with the fewest scars.
As Gordon rewarded a pit bull named Gucci with a treat, Deandre Hill, 18,and Kione Ford, 15, watched closely.
"I think it's good that he's putting a positive image on something that people have made so negative," said Hill.