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Abbey van der Plas with Buster at Christchurch Bull Breed Rescue

A bad start shouldn’t be a death sentence…

Large chunks of Buster’s short life remain a mystery.

What is known is that this American Staffordshire (AmStaff)-Labrador cross spent much of his now two years being neglected and abused. 

Born in the North Island, he was first rescued from a life on a chain by a private dog rescue. He was carrying an injury, which would require months of rehabilitation and treatment. Saving his life and finding a loving home for him quickly came down to a small, private network of volunteers.

His first re-home was unsuccessful, and he was returned to his rescuer. She no longer had room for the palomino-coloured canine, so she made the call that would change his life.

Life-changing call

New Zealand’s sole Bull Breed Rescue shelter is run by Abbey van der Plas. Funded by blood, sweat and tears this committed group of dog lovers is changing outcomes – one dog at a time. Buster was put on a plane to Christchurch, thanks to Facebook funding by people who give a damn.

Abbey – a deceptively pretty and petite dog lover – said the trauma to Buster’s right leg was so significant it had punctured the bone. Dirt residue had lodged there and formed a deep infection. It erupted as an abscess, and the US specialist who assessed his x-ray could not say for sure what had caused the injury. A car accident was ruled out only because the force required to reach the bone from that position would have killed him.

Buster on his arrival in Christchurch and the injury he was carrying

Because the infection had been imbedded in the bone for some time, it had ignited the early onset of arthritis in his shoulder, which required extensive care and treatment. Abbey knew Buster had also been malnourished, because of the tell-tale signs she sees all too often.

His story could have ended there – wrapped up in two short years of misery and defeat. 

A bad start shouldn’t be a death sentence.

But Abbey’s philosophy that a bad start for a dog should never mean a death sentence was going to be his saviour. Christchurch became his address. He was assigned one of the roomy cages – with a double bed – and he settled in.

One of the runs provided for the dogs in care. Note the 'time out' space through the door top right.

“Initially he was on rest,” Abbey said. “And, for a shelter dog that is the worst thing. We had to do a lot of brain enrichment games with him while he was on antibiotics and healing.

“It was hard on him because he had never had the chance to be a puppy. He had lived in fear of abuse. He arrived here aged eight months, and he then he had to be confined while he was treated for his injuries. 

“We focussed on encouraging consistent behavioural training and teaching him to touch, spin, and twirl, making him work for affection and treats – giving him a purpose. We are lucky we have a reserve at the back of this property, so our volunteers could take him down, and sit on the riverbank.”

Abbey prefers long adoptions. This is not the place where people drop in and buy a dog. She wants committed dog owners so the dogs can succeed in their new environments.

“Buster didn’t know anything about the world, or about life. We had to find a person who was willing to do that with him…at his pace. 

“We had four or five applications for him. But as soon as people found out it was a long adoption that involved bonding and training, they didn’t want to continue.”

A forever home.

That was until Bob* entered the conversation. A lifelong love of Staffordshire terriers and opportunity collided when he and his partner saw Buster online. What followed was several months of visits to the shelter for training and support. The couple recently completed the final adoption process, and Buster took his final trip to his forever home in North Canterbury.

“I think its brilliant that the shelter vets the people,” Bob said. “They were very thorough. I had no problem with it because I’m a strong advocate that people should have to be licenced to own a pet.”

He said the time Christchurch Bull Breed Rescue put into making sure the adoption was positive proved invaluable.

“The first thing I would say is that if you’re looking for a dog, don’t look for a pedigree – get a rescue,” he said.

“These volunteers put a lot of work into the dogs in their care. Buster has gone through 18 months of treatment, rehabilitation, and training to get him to where he is today. 

“The knowledge and passion they all dedicate to these much-maligned dogs to help them is humbling. One of the volunteers we met on the first day has a degree in psychology and a post-graduate diploma in animal psychology. She gives her time freely to these dogs.”

Not all rainbows and butterflies

Abbey said stories like Buster’s is what gets her out of bed every morning. 

“Buster and Bob are soul mates,” she said. “They were meant to be together. We picked that up very early on. Bob would go with our volunteers on walks, and he could see how good Buster could be, and he just had to learn how to work with him.   

“Dogs can communicate everything they want to with you. You just need to be able to understand it, and 90 percent of dog owners don’t know enough about dog behaviour and body language.

“We put a lot into about teaching our dog owners how to have that bond and communication. When we do that, the dogs don’t come back.” 

She says they could fill their rescue pens every week. However, their priority remains dogs on death row. This is the only facility that the pound will release dogs to which are classified as “menacing by breed”.

“That’s because they know we are going to take good care of them. Pound dogs have to take priority. Nine times out of 10 the dogs that people try to drop on us will end up in the pound, but they are not there yet.

“Emotional blackmail is a big thing here. People who drop in often tell me, ‘If you don’t take it, I’m going to put the dog down’. People want someone else to take the responsibility away. And, I have to say to them, ‘That’s on you’. It is a reality of rescue and I want people to understand this. That it’s not all butterflies, rainbows and happy endings. 

Because I literally do lie awake in bed at night wondering about certain dogs. I’ve had to unlist my number. People have no barriers – they will ring me at 4am – and they are very expectant. I’m not sure if they know that we’re all volunteers.”

Facebook saviours

That extended network includes three permanent volunteers, a duty manager for behavioural training and a volunteer crew of between 20 and 25 people. They also have foster families who commit to caring for dogs that are not re-homeable – because of medical reasons or age – for the rest of their lives. Foster families also care for puppies.

This is a privately funded shelter – with none of the resources that are extended to the SPCA.  The expensive parts of the business are funded by its 25,000 Facebook followers. That includes dog food which is distributed to families who are struggling to feed their pets. 

It is also a well-oiled collective that wants to debunk the stigma attached to bull breeds. In 10 years, they have put down 12 dogs. 

“It’s the absolute last resort,” Abbey said. “It might be because of cancer, or puppies that are very sick with pneumonia. 

“Some dogs are too far gone, there is nothing that we can do, and we are actually helping them by letting them go. I’ve been very open about that. It is no life for a dog to be constantly living anxiously and wired, worrying about who he has to defend himself from today. Their quality of life is a big consideration for us.”

Christchurch Bull Breed Rescue's facility showing the dog runs

Debunking the stigma

Abbey remains a fierce advocate that bull breeds are misunderstood.

“Any dog is a dangerous dog breed in the wrong hands,” she said.  “I’m not a believer that it’s all about how they are raised. We hear that all the time. But we take in adult dogs that have been raised terribly, and we give them a new start, and they become amazing dogs. 

“Dogs are environmental animals. They react to the environment they are in. If they are in a nasty environment, with a nasty person who is doing nasty things to them – they will behave nastily. A bad start for a dog should never be a death sentence.”

She puts some of the blame on the media.

“I had a lady at a rugby league game come up to me and my dog, and she was saying how lovely he was, and how well trained he was. He was smiling at her and she spent 15 minutes patting him and getting kisses from him. Then, she asked me what breed he was, and when I said he was an American Pit Bull she turned on me and said all these horrible things. But, until she knew what he was, she was really happy to pat him.

“More often than not when a bull breed has an altercation with another dog it probably doesn’t start it – but it has the ability – and the power to finish it. You cannot be a responsible Pit Bull owner without acknowledging that Pit Bulls were bred for fighting other dogs and they have that terrier determination – that drive – to do what they were bred for. And, if there is a fight, your dog’s instincts are going to kick in.” 

The debate on Pit Bulls has raged for years. The New York Times still carries an archived piece on its website from 1908, reacting to a controversy over Pit Bulls describing them as “the greatest fighting machine, pound for pound, on four legs.”

Ironically, the same source in 1971 explained how Pit Bulls were often used as “Nanny Dogs” for children with the President of the Staffordshire Bull Terrier Club of America, Lilian Rant saying: “The Stafford we know today quickly becomes a member of the family circle. He loves children and is often referred to as a ‘nursemaid dog.’”

It is worth noting that the same publication also carried a story in 2000 after a Pomeranian dog [adult weight to 3.5 kg] killed a six-week-old toddler.

Judge the people, not the dogs

Abbey says the discussion about Pit Bull temperament could more logically be levelled at the people who own them.

“That’s why it’s important they are in the hands of people who understand and manage them. They were built for fighting, and now they have that reputation even though it isn’t their fault. 

“You don’t see tough guys walking round with poodles or Labradors, because it’s not cool. But I’d challenge anyone to come and spend 10 minutes with my dog, before they make a final judgement on whether these dogs are dangerous. 

“We’ve got families and older couples – everyday people – giving Pit Bulls their forever homes. 

“At the end of the day, they’re just a dog that wants to be loved.”

Buster settling in to his forever home

To learn more about Christchurch Bull Breed Rescue visit their website, https://www.chchbullbreedrescue.org.nz.

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Bob* = name withheld for privacy.

If you would like to help Christchurch Bull Breed Rescue with their work please click here to visit MyGivingCircle, contribute, vote and share.


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