If you think of pit bulls as a dangerous, vicious or unpredictable breed of dogs, you might be surprised to see the dog show offered daily at Purina Farms in Gray Summit this summer.
Jonathan Offi, a native of California who moved to Gray Summit recently to work at Purina Farms for the season, is performing the canine demonstrations in the Visitor Center’s Incredible Dog Arena three times a day Tuesday through Sunday (11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.) with his team of eight pit bulls.
They run the agility course, jump high to catch flying discs and show how far they can dive in the pool.
Pit bulls aren’t commonly seen in the dog performance field, and that’s a big reason why Offi likes to get his dogs out and seen as much as possible.
Through his company, The Canine Stars, Offi and his pit bulls have performed entertainment shows for over 500,000 fans across North and South America. They have been featured on Animal Planet, ESPN, ABC, NBC, Televisa and Univision.
They do outreach programs for at-risk youth and also gang intervention.
They even do therapy dog work visiting with the elderly and others recovering from injuries or illnesses.
Earlier this month Offi and five of his Canine Stars performed at Major League baseball’s Home Run Derby in Kansas City. After the first round of play, they took the field for a 3 1/2-minute show.
And in late June Offi and his Canine Stars were in Denver competing in the Central Regionals 15th annual Purina Pro Plan Incredible Dog Challenge.
Offi and his dogs had been there, at the regional competition, before, but never in Denver — where pit bulls have been banned for 22 years.
For Offi, that was a particularly important competition, not just because he wanted his dogs to win and advance to the Purina Pro Plan Incredible Dog Challenge finals that will be in Gray Summit in October, but because he wanted to show the community that pit bulls, as a breed, are not what they think.
“They are not aggressive by nature,” said Offi.
“They are a powerful dog breed,” he admits. “They have to be socialized.”
All but one of Offi’s eight pit bulls are rescues from shelters across the country.
He got into the canine performance and competition world in 2009 when he noticed an opportunity.
His pet pit bull, Aztec, was already a Frisbee dog, just playing in the park as a hobby, and he knew the dog would naturally take to the training to be a competitor.
And because no one in the competition world was working with pit bulls, Offi knew his dog could be a real ambassador for the breed, helping change people’s perception of the dog.
“If I walk my pit bulls around the park on leashes, people are always intimidated,” said Offi. “But if I take them to the center and begin throwing Frisbees to the dogs, people come to me.”
That first year, Offi and Aztec won the California state championships after just seven months of training.
In 2010, Aztec placed third in the Purina Pro Plan Incredible Dog Challenge western regionals, and last year he placed first, moving him forward to compete in the finals at Purina Farms in Gray Summit, where he took first place in the freestyle flying disc competition.
Just a few weeks ago in Denver, Aztec did well again. This time he took first in the incredible speed and catch distance game.
He was in the middle of the pack, “around fifth place,” for the freestyle flying disc catch.
“In the outdoor competition, the wind got to us,” said Offi.
Offi took two of his other dogs to the competition, and they did well too.
Ruby, a red American pit bull terrier that Offi rescued from a shelter in Northern California, took second in the freestyle flying disc, which qualified her to compete at the finals in Gray Summit in October.
She also competed in the dock diving event and took fourth place with a jump of 27 feet, 11 inches to the nose.
Brooklyn, another of Offi’s rescued pit bulls, also competed in dock diving. She jumped 26 feet, 5 inches, to the nose.
Regardless of how the dogs finished in the competition, Offi felt like he’d won just by being in front of the crowd in Denver.
“I got a lot of spotlight for these dogs,” he said.
That included a high jump demonstration that he did just for fun working with four of his “Canine Stars” pit bulls at once.
“That way people can see how they are able to play and not fight over a toy,” said Offi.
‘They Taught Me How to Train Them’
Offi has been training dogs for 15 years. It grew out of his work volunteering with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).
Over the years, Offi said he has taken in a total of 150 dogs as fosters, some for just a few weeks, others for six months to a year.
“I’ve had as many as 16 at one time,” he noted.
He said he learned how to train dogs through trial and error, hands-on practice. As he worked with the dogs, he paid attention to what worked and what didn’t.
“They taught me how to train them,” Offi remarked. “I learned from them.”
He likes working with pit bulls, particularly rescues from animal shelters, for several reasons.
First, people don’t expect to see that breed of dog giving an entertaining performance, so when they do see it, it’s meaningful.
Second, people sometimes think dogs in animal shelters are there because they’re trouble makers. Offi counters that idea with the story of Ruby, who lived in a no-kill shelter for 2 1/2 years before he adopted her.
“Two families had her before I began to work with her. She is just a high-energy dog, and she needed a performance outlet.”
Now Ruby is one of the top freestyle flying disc catching dogs in the country. That, Offi says, proves his point.
“Any dog has the potential for greatness,” he said.
“It gives people hope that any dog can do this.”
For more information on Offi and his Canine Stars, people can visit www.thecaninestars.com.
For more on Purina Farms, people can visit www.purina.com and click on the About Purina tab.