American Staffordshire Terrier with a orange rose in the mouth before white background.

Pit bulls thrive at training classes in Sheboygan

Kelsey Taubenheim throws her head back in a fit of giggles at the antics of her pit bull, Maia, on the agility course at the train-a-bull classes hosted by Tilly’s Pit Crew.

“You’re not supposed to go under it!” she exclaims, watching Maia try to duck below a bar jump.

Taubenheim pulls her large, muscular dog into a bear hug. She marvels at the relaxed environment offered by the classes, relieved that she doesn’t have to worry about the prying eyes of those who might have anti-pit bull sentiments scrutinizing her young dog’s every move.

“It would be nerve-wracking to take her to a normal dog obedience class,” Taubenheim told the Sheboygan Press. “I don’t want to have to worry about something happening and people right away saying, `Oh, it’s because she’s a pit bull,’ and trying to carry on that bad name.”

Tracy Firgens, president of Tilly’s Pit Crew, a Sheboygan-based nonprofit that offers free training classes and spaying and neutering to local pit bull owners, among other services, founded the organization on the idea that “every dog deserves a chance, no matter what they look like.”

The name “Tilly” comes from a pit bull that Firgens had gotten to know through volunteering at the humane society.

Tilly was adopted and returned on the basis of “severe people aggression” despite the dog never showing these signs before or after the adoption. Ultimately, she was put down, which broke Firgens’ heart but revealed a new calling to her that was the foundation of Tilly’s Pit Crew.

The nonprofit kicked off May 1 and has already helped approximately 15 dogs.

“We’re really just looking to help people create a bond with their dog and work with basic obedience, so when they do take them out in public, people will see behaved dogs,” Firgens said.

Firgens explained that a lot of people will adopt pit bulls because they are such adorable puppies, but then when the dogs becomes really big, energetic and “maybe a little smarter than you want them to be,” the owners are at a loss.

“Rather than people surrender them to the shelter, we try to help people keep their dogs,” Firgens said. “They’re very smart dogs, so a lot of times they’re easier to train. You just have to be on the ball about it.”

Dog owners Taubenheim and Gina Hitleli said the training has really helped them socialize their pit bulls, Maia and Nanuk. In addition, Taubenheim might like to open her own shelter someday and appreciates how the volunteers at Tilly’s have given her insight into training.

Lead trainer Tara Johanek said running the classes is a great volunteer experience for her.

“What excites me is getting people to see these dogs as part of the community and being an advocate for them,” Johanek said. “At the same time, we’re promoting good ownership and watching that awesome bond between a person and dog. That’s why I do it.”

Tilly’s Pit Crew services pit bull owners in Sheboygan County and those who have adopted from a Sheboygan County rescue. For more information, visit and “like” their Facebook page, “Tilly’s Pit Crew.”

This is an AP member exchange story.

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