Compared to larger cities like Chicago and Atlanta, Milwaukee's dog fighting community is relatively tame. Still, it does exist here and what's worse is how many young people it attracts.
A non-profit organization founded by husband and wife team Jeremy and Michelle Serocki called the Brew City Bully Club has made it its mission to combat it. Formed in 2008, the Bully Club is now a 450-member group dedicated to rehabilitating the reputation of pit bulls and reducing fear about them in the community.
Last month it launched End Dog fighting in Milwaukee, a program modeled after The Humane Society of the United States' successful End Dog fighting programs in both Chicago and Atlanta.
"There are a couple different tiers of dogfighting and to the best of our knowledge, here in Milwaukee it consists of the lower two tiers," says Michelle.
"It's mainly younger people, like teenagers, in the street or in basements or backyards, betting shoes, sweatshirts, electronics, maybe some drugs, or a little bit of money -- $50 or less. So it's a problem with the youth and most folks don't even know that it's going on. We want to address it before it gets to the level of Chicago, where they are betting thousands of dollars and have a much more organized system."
The organization's most successful combatants has been its pit bull training team. The Serockis and their volunteers seek out 12- to 17-year-old inner city kids in a specific target area -- currently it's Milwaukee Police District 3 -- by offering them an alternative to fighting their dogs on Saturdays. The young dog owners are invited to work with basic agility equipment and on basic commands with their pets in a 12-week course. At the end, they can test their dog to earn a canine good citizen certificate.
"Through this course, kids find out that their dogs are not property and that they have feelings," Michelle says. "They are able to bond with the dog because they are getting respect that, a lot of times, they have never gotten in their life from anyone."
The Serockis require that the kids give their dogs praise when they obey a command.
"A lot of these kids have no idea what positive reinforcement is because they have never experienced it in their lives," she adds. "These are brand new concepts for them. They have been watching dog fighting since they can remember and are entirely desensitized to it. Working with their dog in this way helps them become sensitive to the fact that they don't want to hurt their dog."
The program has changed the lives of hundreds of kids in other cities and her hope is that it's now Milwaukee's turn.
Serocki points to education as a critical factor in enabling change, which is why she's getting the Brew City Bully Club into public, private and juvenile detention and correction schools throughout Milwaukee to introduce a program called Bully Buddies. Along side a team of therapy-certified ambassador dogs, volunteers teach the kids about bite prevention and how to approach a dog appropriately.
The club also sets up more than a dozen educational booths a year at various functions to get in front of people and better inform them about topics like the difference between human aggression and animal aggression, as well as dispel myths, such as pit bulls having locking jaws.
"We promote our organization not as a radical one -- we don't think everybody needs to have a pit bull or love them. We're here to reduce fear in our community. We want folks to feel comfortable when they see a pit bull with its owner walking down the street. We don't want them to feel like they should have to cross the street or pick up their kid or dog. Why should these people have to live in fear?"
OnMilwaukee.com staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.
As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When OnMilwaukee.com offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”