Michael Santo did not grow up “a pit bull guy.” He was not a “pit bull guy” when his friend told him about dogs in trouble. He was not a “pit bull guy” when he and a friend stole dogs from someone who was fighting them.
Today, Santo is a “pit bull guy” and the founder of All-American Bully Buddies, an organization that rescues and rehabilitates dogs that fall under the pit bull category.
The goal of All-American Bully Buddies is to educate, advocate and rescue. “This we do, so they may live,” is the motto that Santo and his other volunteers go by.
Santo’s organization rescues dogs classified as pit bulls, then rehabilitates them and finds them homes. On top of that, they try to educate the public and government about the breed and advocate for the dogs, which he feels have been demonized.
“We advocate for responsible ownership of all dogs, not just pit bull type dogs,” Santo explained. “We want to match up people properly. What people do not understand is that people need to be educated with their choices and the dogs that they are getting. They have to match up with their lifestyle.”
Santo’s group is organized, having just received non-profit status. All-American Bully Buddies works closely with No-Kill Pima County, of which Santo is also a member, PACC and K9's for Wounded Warriors.
Santo used to rescue fighting dogs by taking them from those who were fighting them.
Santo and a few others formed what was essentially an underground rescue group. They would take dogs from what he describes as “low level fighters,” explaining that high level fighters were too organized and surrounded by drugs and guns.
At first Santo was not interested in taking any dogs, but a friend of his, who owned pit bulls, was intent on freeing some dogs who were being used for fighting. Santo went with him and wound up keeping one of the dogs.
“That sold me on the breed,” Santo explained. “My first dog was a former fighting champion and was monstrous on all accounts. By the time I had rehabbed him and that took about a year and a half, I could have him out in public and have him off leash, playing with dogs, playing with people, playing Frisbee or tennis ball.
“He completely changed my mind,” Santo added. “When I first got him he wanted to kill everything that moved that was not a human. By the time I got him out in public and did all the things I needed to do with him, he was a perfect dog. He was scarred from head to toe and had been fought extensively. It sold me on the breed to come from that background and become the dog that he was.”
A later rescue became the catalyst for him to become more organized and eventually for All-American Bully Buddies. The group tries to help all of the dogs that fall under the pit bull classification, which included actual American Pit Bull Terriers, Bull Terriers, Statfordshire Terriers and American Bullies.
“Pit bull is a general term for about six or seven breeds,” Santo said. “They all have short hair, muscular builds and block heads.”
What many people forget is that these dogs are in the terrier family, not unlike a Jack Russell Terrier or a Boston Terrier, except for one major thing.
“They are high-energy dogs, they have drive and focus,” Santo explained. “These are a big version of those dogs. They need obedience, need a leader. Need to expend energy both physical and mental.”
Once they rescue the dogs they begin the rehabilitation process. Sometimes this can be easy, but most times there is a lot of work to get the dogs to a place where they can socialize with other dogs and people. Not only do they have to discover the dogs’ issues and triggers, but they also have to work on normal obedience and other training. Many of the dogs become therapy dogs or service dogs.
Santo currently has two dogs of his own and is fostering two more, one of which just came into his care within the past few weeks. One of his dogs, Aristotle, came to him suffering from night terrors and had a fear of canes and crutches. Today, after a year and a half of work, he is not only a therapy dog, but one that can go into hospitals without fear or aggression.
Another aspect of the organization is the fighting of Breed Selective Legilation, or as they call it, Breed Discriminatory Legislation. Many municipalities are passing laws against pit bulls, despite evidence that the laws are cost prohibitive and do not really make the community safer. Santo explained that pit bull incidents get the headlines, but that most news outlets fail to cover dog attacks by other breeds.
“The only news stories you see are the ones with pit bulls,” Santo explained. “Negative stories get headlines.”
“The vast majority of these types of dogs are loving family members, a tiny minority that behave badly are the only dogs that ever get any press, resulting in misconceptions and misinformation being spread about to people who have never had any contact with these dogs,” added Sara Dent, an adjunct professor on animal law, who also serves on the board of several rescue organizations, including All-American Bully Buddies.
Both Santo and Dent know the secret to helping these animals is education.
“By continuing to advocate and educate people that they are just dogs, like any other dog, showing people pit bull type dogs are valued family members just like any other dog, the negative stereotypes and urban myths about these types of dogs will eventually be changed,” Dent explained.
“Getting them (dogs) out there and having them do the things they do,” Santo said of the best way to educate people. “Have people actually meet them. Just give them a chance.”