Gunnar Carlson breathed a sigh of relief when he heard Senate bill 178, legislation regarding the ownership of pit bulls, was withdrawn. Growing up around the breed and having spent the past two years training pit bulls to be service dogs, Carlson knows firsthand that the dogs are just misunderstood.
Sitting with two of his own service pit bulls, Carlson cannot image how this legislation would have affected his work.
“I worry a lot,” about breed-specific legislation, he said. Legally speaking, he says his dogs “are tools for me; they are my assistants.”
Senate bill 178, submitted by Senator Christopher Ottiano on behalf of a constituent, would have required pit bull owners to keep the dogs muzzled or in cages at all times and pay a fine if their dog inflicts harm. In a phone interview, Ottiano said that the plan was never to specifically penalize pit bull owners.
“We had no intention to do anything breed-specific,” said Ottiano, saying the goal was to simply start a conversation. “Now, the National Canine Research Council is working with constituents to draft something for next year.”
With breed-specific legislation in Rhode Island off the table for now, Carlson can return his focus to what he believes is his life mission,
“All that I do is to help the human and help the dog, but it’s more about the dog,” said Carlson.
Carlson said a rough childhood and the trauma of being mugged and left for dead has left him suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“I went into hibernation mode,” he said of life after the mugging in 1994. “I wouldn’t leave my house.”
Carlson took action and contacted television dog trainer Cesar Milan for tips on how to train his pit bull, Bovine, to be a service dog. Instead of sending suggestions, Milan sent two plane tickets to Carlson.
“Milan taught me the energy factor,” said Carlson, explaining that pit bulls have the ability to sense negative energy in the people around them. The dog can alert their owners if there is any need for concern.
“The experience solidified what I had been doing with the breed for 30 years,” he said. Carlson said pit bulls actually have a history of being people-friendly dogs, serving as pets to protect royalty and as a symbol for the U.S. Army.
Following Bovine’s training, Carlson lived life as normal as possible. When the economy collapsed in 2007, he had to sell his self-storage business and his wife left him. There was a PTSD re-lapse and Carlson retreated for three years until he decided to make another change.
“I wanted to pay forward what Cesar had done for me,” said Carlson.
In 2010, Carlson began training pit bulls as service dogs for veterans suffering from PTSD. It is his only job; he survives on assistance and donations.
“Everything I have goes to the dogs,” said Carlson.
The process is simple. Carlson starts by contacting area VA hospitals, asking if there are any patients suffering from PTSD that want a service dog. He conducts interviews with patients to determine what they are looking for in a dog. Then he goes to a shelter in New York City to pick up pit bulls, although he also rescues dogs from anywhere.
He goes back to the hospital and spends four hours on basic obedience with the veterans. The dogs go home that day, and Carlson follows up with individual training.
“Training never stops. You run into a problem, you call me,” said Carlson. In addition to pit bulls, Carlson will train any breed. Training time varies with the dog and the owner, Carlson said; on average a dog can be trained in nine months to a year.
Carlson never charges for the training.
“I’d rather see you put oil in your boiler than pay me,” he said. “Crochet me a doily and I’ll be happy.”
He will accept any donation, or simply food for the dogs.
Carlson lives on the same five-acre property he did when he was married but now in the small cabin that once served as a “man-cave.” The main house is a kennel for the pit bulls he rescues. Carlson is housing seven pit bulls right now: four will go to veterans and the other three are his own.
At one point, Carlson was in charge of 22 pit bulls and he will truly never turn down a dog in need.
“I rescued one on my way here,” he said.
Carlson’s own dog, Isis, who was found tied to a tree in Coventry last September, is adopted. Carlson was taking his weekly bike ride with Bovine, now 8, when Bovine kept looking into the woods. After three weeks, Bovine finally lead Carlson to the tree where Isis had been left. He rescued his third dog, Baby Huey, from a kennel where he was deemed aggressive, put in and scheduled to be put down. Now, according to Carlson, Baby Huey is as lovable as his other dogs.
“Media has made the misconception,” said Carlson when asked about the danger of owning pit bulls. “There is no such thing as something being born vicious.”
According to Carlson, pit bulls are naturally prey-driven but with proper training and an understanding that the owner is in charge, pit bulls are as sweet as any other dog.
Carlson said he feels like he has finally found a purpose. He hopes to apply for non-profit status. He will continue to speak out against breed-specific legislation.
If you know a veteran who can benefit from a service pit bull, have a problem dog you would like help training or know of a pit bull in need of rescue, contact Carlson at firstname.lastname@example.org.