ANGELES ó Larry Hill is the dean of a small network of
dog trainers who are out to save the bully breeds ó
pit bulls, mastiffs and Rottweilers ó of South Los
specialty is tough dogs in tough neighborhoods. In his
professional work and monthly free classes, he takes
lunging, yelping masses of dog flesh and molds them into
mantra is there is nothing wrong with the dogs. Itís
the owners who have the problem, as I discovered one
Saturday morning at St. Andrews Recreation Center in
in a brown uniform with the name of his nonprofit, Puppy
Imprinters, embroidered on the vest, Hill kept his
distance, sending us out with our dogs into the field
for a walking exercise.
woman in a purple velour running suit jogged by on the
track. Pamela Henderson, an Altadena financial advisor,
struggled to get her pit bull Gabriel to heel.
the alpha?" Hill asked.
other pit Smokey," said Henderson.
other alpha," he said.
me," Henderson said.
lectured us about our profound ignorance of basic dog
behavior, occasionally drowned out by the jets rattling
overhead on their way to LAX. We either turn our pets
into babies in sweaters and bows, or trick them out in
spike collars and bristling harnesses, he said. But weíre
clueless about how to get them to do what we want.
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quickly showed him how clueless. "Turn to the
right," Hill called to Henderson. "Donít
sorry. Iím thinking which way is right," she
didnít even get to left or right. Before the first
turn, I tripped over my own dog.
loves the bully breeds and gets surprising things from
them. His own dog Ryder, a pit bull from fighting stock,
stays, comes on command, climbs an obstacle board and
speaks in response to hand signals and oral directions.
Hill knows what goes on in the streets, where dogs are
chained, beaten and thrown in the ring. Growing up in
Los Angeles, Hill put dogs into fights before he knew
any better, he said.
started on the other side of the fence, rolling and
bumping these dogs," he told one young man who
stopped by to check out the class. "Now Iíve
learned to do this."
background has given him credibility in these
neighborhoods and stripped him of illusions. Hill breaks
with many pit bull activists on the question of
euthanization. Not every dog can be saved, he believes.
Some sick and dangerous dogs inevitably have to be put
down, and animal shelters should be frank with the
public about this, he says.
put him at odds with Animal Services, where he worked
for 10 years as a clerk at the South L.A. shelter. Hill
was quoted in a magazine article accusing Ed Boks, the
department chief at the time, of misleading people by
calling shelters "no kill."
a supervisor complained Hill had taken home two bags of
dog food and the city attorney prosecuted him for petty
said a co-worker told him the food was going to be
thrown away because the bags were damaged. Earlier this
month, Judge Karen Ackerson-Brazille dismissed the case
for lack of evidence. Hill ended up retiring in November
with a reduced pension.
hurt. But Hillís sentiments are as strong as ever.
"Are there some people in society who just canít
conform to the rules?" he said. "Some dogs are
like people ó incorrigible."
really gets him is that Animal Services makes no effort
to teach people how to handle their dogs so they wonít
end up in the shelters. Training ó of people and
animals ó is the real solution to the cityís bully
breed problem, he believes.
write you a ticket and get rid of a dog," he said.
"That doesnít educate people."
isnít the first trainer in South L.A. to take that
task on himself ó he knew TV personality Cesar Millan,
the Dog Whisperer, who also started here, "before
he could speak English," he says. Nor are his
training techniques completely unique.
sets Hill apart is that heís stayed right here, whereís
heís needed, at the epicenter of the pit bull
explosion, for more than four decades, learning as he
goes. "Iíve thrown out all the stuff that doesnít
work," he told us.
can be gruff, barking out orders, but heís also a bit
of a clown. Thatís just how he wants us to treat our
animals. Thereís a time to play, and a time to
identifies the basic drives that predominate in each dog
ó prey, socialization, aggression ó then tailors his
instruction to each animal. The harshest correction is a
tug on the leash and sharp command, never physical
punishment. The incentives are praise and affection ó
several strokes down the flanks, followed by a couple of
is not one for false modesty ó he credits himself with
"an uncanny ability to read dogs." But that
doesnít seem like an overstatement.
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of his students had tried obedience classes at mall pet
shops and parks, to no avail. Hill shows them that there
is more to training than generic treats-and-clickers
approaches, and that they can indeed control their dogs.
of Hillís regular students was having trouble handling
a blue-point pit bull she named Blue Bunny, a name he
objected to; in Hillís world even a dogís name
told her to take off the training collar and let the dog
loose. "I donít want you to control her. I want
her to do whatís inside of her," he said.
rolled on his back, leaped in the air and slithered on
isnít an ounce of aggression in that dog," Hill
is dead serious about his mission, and he expects his
students to feel the same.
dog backwards. Spell dog backwards," Hill
commanded. "Thatís right: God. Iím not playing
out here. Ö Everything I say is like the Bible out
wants to do more education work with kids and adult
groups. He volunteers with the Downtown Dog Rescue to
bring its mobile spay and neuter clinic into Watts. His
entire career has been spent between Watts and Gramercy
Park, and here he plans to stay.
here in the community, the majority of people canít
afford training," he said. "Somebody had to be