After escaping death row, Cuddles got a PhD in good behavior
In her short life, Cuddles has been pulled from a dog fighting ring, sentenced to death, given a second chance at a prison, earned her PhD and changed a veteran’s life. It’s a life worthy of an Oscar-winning biopic, but she is content enough winning the hearts and minds around her.
The smiley pit bull’s story starts in a dark place. In 2015, Cuddles and 20 other pit bulls were pulled from a dog fighting ring bust in Ontario, Canada. Unfortunately, escaping this abuse didn’t put an end to the dogs’ suffering. After being removed from the dog fighting ring, all of the canines were taken to Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA) where their behavior was evaluated before next steps were decided. The evaluator recommended having all of the dogs destroyed because they were too dangerous to be re-homed, a decision that was likely colored by Ontario’s breed specific legislation, which places severe restrictions on owning a pit bull or pit bull-like dog.
A death sentence did not stop animal advocates from fighting for these dogs, know as the Ontario 21. Groups like King City, Ontario’s Dog Tales Rescue and Sanctuary, took the case to court, and after a nearly 2-year legal battle got the approval to bring in a third-party evaluator to assess the dogs again.
That evaluator ended up being Jim Crosby, a retired police lieutenant out of Jacksonville, Florida, who has devoted his post-retirement years to learning about dog behavior, especially aggression in dogs. Crosby is a Certified Behavior Consultant-Canine-Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA), has a Master’s degree in Veterinary Forensics and has assessed dog behavior in dozens of dog fatality on human cases.
With his understanding of dog behavior, aggression and rehabilitation, Crosby looked at the Ontario 21 — now the Ontario 31, due to puppies born after the dogs were seized — with fresh eyes.
“When I go in, I go in basically and start each dog at a 0 regardless of what I am told,” Crosby said of his process. “I don’t go in looking for a pass fail, I look for triggers and problems.”
Crosby looks to see if a dog would respond to training and a constructive, caring relationship with a human.
After his evaluations, Crosby cleared 29 of the 31 dogs for retraining and eventual placement. Cuddles was among those 29 canines and after getting her stamp of approval, she was sent to Florida and put in the care of Pit Sisters — a non-profit dedicated to finding pit bulls, often those unfairly labelled as too dangerous, loving homes.
Jen Deane, Pit Sisters’ founder, placed Cuddles in the organization’s TAILS (Teaching Animals and Inmates Life Skills) prison program. Here, Cuddles worked with an inmate to learned basic obedience and received much needed socialization. Cuddles responded so well to the program and the individual attention it provided her that she graduated with a PhD from The Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT), the highest honor APDT offers. She also earned a AKC Canine Good Citizen certification.
After turning a death sentence into a second chance, Cuddles finally got her happy ending in fall 2018, when Deane drove her from Florida to her new forever home in New York with a retired firefighter and veteran, Billy Brauer, who was looking for a friend after suffering a stroke.
“She is a true companion. She gives him a reason to get out of the bed every morning. He feeds her, talks to her, plays with her, grooms her and loves her,” Brauer’s daughter, Carolyn Schwerdtfeger, told PEOPLE, adding that her father was depressed and anxious before Cuddles bounded into his life.
The pair became fast friends. Cuddles immediately warmed up to Brauer, 73, and is ecstatic to finally have a bed and loving person of her own.
“She smiles and her tail is constantly wagging. She is always happy to see everyone and just wants love,” Brauer said. “She gives kisses and high fives.”
Brauer, who smiles a lot more these days, added that he is looking forward to nurturing Cuddles for the rest of her life. He hopes the Cuddles’ story shows that everyone should get a second chance at life and that every dog should be able to have access to the resources they need to overcome abuse.
It’s a sentiment that everyone who has met Cuddles echos.
“The biggest lesson from this whole thing is that not everyone has the ability and resources to help dogs like Cuddles, and that is something we need to work towards, but where we have the ability to give dogs a second chance, I think we have an obligation to do that.” Crosby said. “Some dogs that come from the worst scenarios, have the potential to succeed if we find the time and place for them.”
Cuddles is a shining example of this.
“Cuddles was raised and trained to fight and kill other dogs ,” Crosby added. “But with a second chance, despite the abuse she has suffered, she is now assisting someone who needs her help and they are working as a team.”