Pitty Party

second chance dog walkingNick Perl, Kate Dyson and their son, Henry, pose with their pup, Comet, in their Somerville home. Photos by Jess Benjamin.

Second Chance Dog Walking and Sitting is working to change the perception of bully breeds—one walk at a time.

“I know that people have this idea of pit bull owners—and maybe one of those ideas is me.”

Jill Stammer laughs and leans back in her chair, running a hand through her close-cropped hair. Stammer owns Second Chance Dog Walking and Sitting, a company that caters to pit bulls, bull dogs and other “bully” breeds. And it isn’t lost on her that she’s the poster pet owner when it comes to these pups. Strong and self-assured, with tattoos lining her arms and legs and plugs dangling from her ears, she is, without doubt, the stereotypical bully breed owner.

Kate Dyson and Nick Perl, on the other hand, are not. Dyson is an attorney with a large firm; Perl is a chemist who works in drug discovery. They own their Somerville home, where they live with their two-year-old son, Henry, and a 110-pound American bulldog named Comet.

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Dyson grew up with big dogs—though not dogs quite as large as Comet—and she didn’t hesitate to adopt him when they were introduced at the MSPCA in 2012. But others aren’t always so sure. Dyson says that while it doesn’t happen often, people will occasionally cross the street while she and Comet are on their walks. “I would say that owning Comet is not that different from owning, say, a standard poodle or a golden retriever,” she says, “except that people are afraid of him.”

Stammer, who has worked with bully breeds for close to 20 years now, says Dyson and Perl are like many of the dog owners for whom she works. Lots of Second Chance’s clients are successful career-types, and a surprising number are homeowners. “If you walked past them on the street, you’d think, ‘Maybe you own a chihuahua. Or a cat,” jokes Madelein McCormick, Second Chance’s operations director. “Or a lab.” adds Stammer. They say that they walk one dog for a guy who fits the bully owner mold—tattooed, muscular and tough.

“But not even!” Stammer interjects. “He’s a vegan, and his dog is a vegan.”

Second Chance founder Jill Stammer and Comet share a moment.

Second Chance founder Jill Stammer and Comet share a moment.

It’s this diverse group of dog owners who Stammer says are helping in the mission she’s had since she founded Second Chance: to change the perception of bully breeds. She explains that many breeds have been where pit bulls are now: german shepherds and dobermans, for example. But pit bulls are having trouble shaking the stigma; they’re being banned in some U.S. cities, and they’re often the first to go at a kill shelter.

That doesn’t sit well with Stammer, who rushes to defend these dogs. She says that her pit bull, Frank, like many of Second Chance’s dogs, is really a big baby—slow to go out in the cold and the rain, the first one to shiver in the park, great with kids. “All they want to do is cuddle,” she says. “I’ve never met a pit bull that didn’t love and protect children.” According to the United Kennel Club, the world’s second-largest all-breed performance-dog registry, “The American pit bull terrier is not the best choice for a guard dog since they are extremely friendly, even with strangers.”

Still, Stammer explains that there are several dog walking companies and kennels that won’t take these breeds. She kept meeting owners who had pit bulls, rottweilers or bulldogs and couldn’t find someone to care for them. When she decided to start a dog walking group, she knew she wanted to specialize in bully breeds.

But while Second Chance’s focus is on providing a place for bullies, the company welcomes all breeds, from tiny Pomeranians to bulldogs like Comet. And regardless of size, McCormick and Stammer say that the bigs and littles truly get along. “They really love their pack,” McCormick says. “They know exactly who’s in their crew, in their squad … whatever the kids are calling it these days.”

“I always tell people,” Stammer adds, “your dog is gonna have, like, 25 bodyguards.”

That’s not to say that taking a pack of pitties to the park is the same as strolling around town with a pug—it isn’t. These are big, high-energy dogs that need tasks and structure, and the Second Chance Walking crew does take precautions. New walkers train side-by-side with Stammer for a month until it’s clear they can handle the work, and all new dogs have to learn hand signals as well as verbal commands. After dogs have been trained in the basics, they join the “welcoming committee,” the Second Chance group made up of the biggest dogs (including Comet). And in the park, Stammer says walkers are vigilant, monitoring each canine’s body language and occasionally “resetting the energy level” by bringing them over, making them sit and releasing them.

second chance dog walking

Madelein McCormick, Second Chance’s operations director, pals around with pups at Nunziato Field Dog Park.

There are owners who won’t sign their dog up with Second Chance, or who balk at the sight of six bully breeds together in the park. “I knew that this was going to deter a lot of people from hiring us,” Stammer says. But while some owners may be turned off by this bully-friendly business, many more are seeking Second Chance out. Their pack is growing, and the business is expanding—especially among owners in the South End, where Stammer says there’s a lasting stigma surrounding the breed.

That’s part of the reason that Second Chance walkers actually go to Back Bay and beyond—Cambridge, Allston, Arlington—to pick up dogs and bring them back to the park at Somerville’s Nunziato Field. “It’s just a little bit more of an inclusive feeling here,” McCormick explains. Recently, when they told a woman who lived more than 45 minutes away that the distance was too much for the team, she replied to ask if she could drop her dog off in Somerville every day.

In this way, the Second Chance walkers are a welcoming committee all their own. “We keep it local and let people know that there is a space for their dog here in Somerville,” Stammer says. “I think a lot of people come here, they move here, because of that.” Owners have reached out to Second Chance on Instagram to find out where they’re located, and McCormick says they’ll connect people with local real estate agents who have bully breeds and know the dog-friendly apartment buildings and landlords.

At the end of the day, Stammer and McCormick say they’re trying to provide their bullies with what all dogs need: somewhere to play and someone to watch over them.

“And someone to stand up for them, really,” Stammer says, “when it comes down to it.”

This story originally appeared in our May/June print edition, which is available for free at more than 150 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription

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