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Dog-walking volunteer takes on the tough cases

For the tough cases at the Buffalo Animal Shelter, like Max, a growling, playful pit bull, Tom Higgins offers hope.

“I take the bad dogs,” said Higgins, who co-owns Elmwood Pet Supplies. “I’m just not intimidated by the dogs. I’m patient with them. Eventually they get over their problem. I’ll wait them out.”

For this man who makes his living selling food, treats, leashes and toys to indulgent owners, spending a few hours every day to walk the orphan dogs at the city pound helps balance things out.

[Related: The priest and the pit bull, fast friends who take care of each other]

In the last couple of years, Higgins’ work at the pound became more serious, and trips out on his sailboat less frequent, as he put in more and more hours walking the dogs and helping them have a better shot at a new home.

“I think we treat our companion animals terribly,” he said. “These are animals that people got by choice and were discarded. A lot of dogs won’t get out if I don’t get out.”

After first coming about decade ago to adopt Bo, a cute mutt with a winning grey face, Higgins focused on dogs that needed the most – those about to be tested for adoptability, the homely and ones with rough edges, like Max.

The dark brown pit bull with milk chocolate stripes came in with his throat ripped open after a fight with another dog at his old home.
Max has an obvious dislike of some people, including the staffer who gives the tests.

“Max is not a good boy. Max should be dead,” he said. “Max has to make some improvements himself, or I don’t think he should be up for adoption.”

[Related: Dogs at Oak Street shelter eased volunteer’s pain after her father’s death]

At the shelter, dogs must eventually pass an assessment that shows they interact well with people and other dogs. Those who ace it get a “green card” and a shot at a new home. Dogs who fail can be euthanized.

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To help Max get ready, Higgins worked to befriend him since winter, feeding him treats through the kennel bars. He even consulted a trainer for tips about biscuit coaxing.

When they go on walks together now, Max loves to play ball.

“Max will joyously run after it and bring it back. He acts like a goofball,” said Higgins. “Max destroys nothing. I can give him a dollar squeak toy and he will treasure it and walk around with it.”

About 80 percent at the shelter dogs are pit bulls, like Max. This general type of muscular, square jawed dog with characteristics of breeds like the American Pit Bull Terrier, are misunderstood as fighters.

In fact, said Higgins, pit bulls have the best qualities. They can be locked in a basement for a lifetime and still come out happy.

“I find them particularly resilient,” he said. “Pit bulls roll with the punches like nobody else.”


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