(With Alexander Castiglione)
My first encounter with Barbells For Bullies was actually on a podcast series called “Make Pods Great Again” hosted by John Wooley. At the time, I was listening for both entertainment (John’s hilarious even though he won’t call himself a comedian) and to learn more about the CrossFit community. Now, this isn’t about me in any way, but I think it’s important for me to expose my “why”.
Listening to Alex talk about the public perception of pit bulls reminded me of growing up with rottweilers. On one side of the fence, you would run at the first sight of our 150-pound barking rot coming right toward you. And on the other side, you would be scared to death—until you were slobbered head to toe with kisses.
Hollywood and pet owners have exploited rottweilers’ strength by using them as attack/ guard dogs and, in turn, have demonized the breed. In fact, if you ask people today what dog breed was used in Stephen King’s 1983 American horror film Cujo, most recall it being a rottweiler when in fact it was a St. Bernard.
Fast forward to the first dog I had myself, a pit bull I found in Georgia while I was going to school in Tallahassee. She was about six-months-old and covered in mud so I named her Terra, after the Earth. I had Terra for a couple of years before I found out my living situation was changing as our home was being foreclosed on. Unable to give her the space she needed, I found a new home for her with a firefighter friend of mine who owned a home with several acres of land. When I dropped her off, I cried like a baby. It was the last thing I wanted to do, but I knew it was completely necessary. A few weeks later I found out she jumped over the fence and ran away. I often wondered if perhaps she was looking for me.
I wasn’t able to help Terra, but when I finished listening to the podcast I knew I was in a position to help Alex in some capacity or another. We connected on Instagram and started talking about ways we could work together.
So far, we have worked together on the “Sit-ups for Pups” initiative and we have launched the Barbells For Bullies AbMat (a donation from each sale is made to support the great work that he does). Alex is one of the most passionate people I have ever met, and I consider it a great honor to work with him on a small stepping-stone toward reaching his ultimate goal: “AS MANY RESCUES AS POSSIBLE.”
~ Dylan Tellam
Barbells For Bullies represents a passion for both fitness and bulldog breeds. Why did you decide to combine the two?
(As an aside, it’s “bully breeds,” which encompasses over 35 breeds, inclusive of bulldogs, “pit bull type dogs” but also mastiffs, rottweilers, etc.)
That’s a good question and one I get a lot. I got the idea to utilize CrossFit/Fitness as a means to raise money and awareness in two ways. Firstly, I had been CrossFitting since 2012, and almost immediately upon arrival, thanks to my sister and brother-in-law, I found Barbells For Boobs. I lost my mother to breast cancer when I was 9, so this cause was near and dear to me. From 2013–2015, I raised about $7,000 personally—putting my own spin on it and pledging to do 1 rep for every dollar. Some years I raised $2,500 and spent 2.5 hours doing a WOD with barbells loaded to my bodyweight. So, that’s where the fitness-for-charity idea kind of came from.
Secondly, I noticed a problem with shelters being “overrun” by pit bull type dogs when we went to adopt our current pups (Moxy and Slater) in an Atlanta–area shelter. Two months prior, we tragically lost my first pit mix, Chops. He was 115 pounds of snuggle monster, but people crossed the street when they saw him. It’s a long story and I’ve told it on other podcasts and it may even be on our blog, but suffice it to say, I was heartbroken. The only solace I found was in the gym, turning 90-minute training sessions into three-hour beatdowns because home felt empty without him.
I went to adopt Moxy and Slater in October of 2014, and I saw that in some pens, there were 5 or 6 “pitties,” and they all had nobody wanting to adopt them. Conversely, the little dogs and shepherd mixes all had stamps that said “adopted.” I knew I wanted to do something, knew I had to do something, but didn’t know what exactly yet.
I kicked it around for a few months, and then thought: “Hey, why don’t we do a CrossFit comp in Atlanta, and donate the money to a local organization?” After all, my wife and I spend $100 or so to enter a partner comp, and none of that money goes anywhere except in someone’s pocket. So in 2015 the idea crystalized, and in June 2016, we did our first event in Atlanta, drawing 75 competitors or so. I have no event planning experience whatsoever. I wanted to do something, and I just made it happen.
As it turns out, there are many parallels between bully breeds and lifters/gym rats (I mean that in the most complimentary of ways), and many people have made this observation (being judged for the way they look, looking tough but being sweethearts, etc.). I just wanted to do something so I took an idea and ran with it. And as I write this, we’re just over 4 years in, $127,000 donated, over 100 dogs spayed/neutered, and we’ve sponsored 86 dogs directly. It’s all been done as a volunteer—primarily by my wife and I. I still to this day will not pay myself.
Out of all of the incredible things you have done with Barbells For Bullies, what have you found to be the most rewarding?
This is such a loaded question because I’m very proud of all the work we’ve done. But each event is rewarding in its own way. Since 2016 we’ve hosted over 25 live competitions, and since 2019, 5 or 6 virtual competitions. I think all the stress and work that goes into these events, all the stress dreams the night before, when we do a live event and we see people coming together, leaving it all on the mat, high-fiving, cheering one another on, that’s very rewarding. But even more so, it’s when I find out that X number of dogs were adopted, in addition to being able to donate all the net proceeds from the event to the rescue. That’s the most rewarding part.
If I HAD to pick outside of that, I’d say connecting people with dogs that would have otherwise been put down, but we and our fund—The Underdog Fund— kept them alive. We’ve actually struck up some friendships with some of these people.
What keeps you going after all this time?
If you ask my wife, she’d say equal parts insanity and stubbornness, lol.
But in all seriousness, it’s the knowledge that these dogs—pit bull type dogs—are being put down in alarming numbers, far more than any other “breed.” (I put that in quotes because “Pit Bull” is slap-dash shorthand for any dog that looks a certain way: broad chest, stocky build, big head, muscular body. There have been studies like THIS ONE that show even dog experts can’t tell, and there is no such thing as a pit bull, there are breeds like the American Pit Bull Terrier or Staffordshire Bull Terrier).
While we are making progress, they’re villainized in the media, they are the targets of Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) in over 850 communities in the US, and BSL doesn’t work—the CDC, ASPCA, HSUS and many others have concluded.
That’s my long-winded precursor to saying they need our help. We help all dogs, but we’re Barbells For Bullies and nothing else because I wanted to cast a light on this issue. To answer your question directly, what keeps me going is the knowledge that hundreds of thousands of dogs, just as sweet and goofy as my own and the hundreds we’ve helped, are being killed every year. This is a complicated issue, but at the core of it is mis/disinformation about the breed, media hype, and shelter overpopulation.
You educate the fitness community on some hard truths in regard to shelter overpopulation. What sources do you trust and recommend for someone looking to learn more?
Great question. Numbers and statistics can be deceiving, and I myself have tried to overcome this. Fortunately, as a graduate student, I’ve gotten access to data sets and been able to create custom reports on overpopulation and shelter euthanasia rates. While it’s not perfect, and not all organizations need to report— and not all of them do —it’s something, and I’m able to plot it on a map and see where we need to do some work. Specifically, Texas, California, Georgia, and Tennessee need a lot of help with respect to live outcomes from shelters.
I’d recommend people to look to the ASPCA and HSUS, but I’d also warn them that numbers and statistics are deceptive. Some municipalities, like ones by me just outside of Atlanta, aren’t legally required to share their kill or intake numbers. Some places are understaffed. Some just don’t have the protocols. If you want to learn more, I have an open door policy with pretty much everyone. Email me, and I’ll find you the info you need to keep you informed.
Apart from adopting a dog, what are some other ways people can help?
Really, doing anything that moves the needle. I always say every little bit helps, every random act of kindness. If you can’t adopt but you have the space or time, foster. Fostering is great for a variety of reasons—it keeps dogs out of the shelter, allows them to open up and avoid “cage rage” or anti-social behaviors, and also clears space for strays from the field. Moreover, you can help place that animal in a home as you know its personality. We’ve personally fostered 5 dogs—we have one now, a 12-year-old pittie mix that stopped eating and was shutting down in the shelter. They thought she only had a couple months, but she’s been with us since February. Don’t get me wrong, she has a litany of health issues, but we’re committed to making the rest of her life the best of her life.
Aside from physically taking a pup into your home, volunteer! Volunteer at a local shelter or for a local rescue, whether it’s scooping poop or using your social media skills to network dogs. If you can’t do any of that, advocate, educate, donate. Even something as small as donating some old blankets to a shelter can make a world of difference for the dog that gets to sleep on them and not the floor at night.
Ultimately, just care. That’s what I’d like people to do. Just care.
Many of your fundraising events take the form of a fitness challenge. Have you ever hosted an event where dog owners can get their dogs involved? Perhaps like a dog run?
We’ve toyed with that idea, and on the face of it, it sounds like a lot of fun. But any time you have dogs in close proximity, it poses some challenges. Our first event ever we set up a “doggie obstacle course” for fun, and we may do it again, but that was the extent of it. However, for Ruck Your Balls Off, we encourage people to take their dogs out and on the trail/road.
The only reason we’ve shied away from things like dog runs is that dogs have their own personalities and, like people, can be easily overwhelmed or not get along. There are about 8 to 10 reasons a dog may bite, and among them are fear and being overstimulated. That’s what could happen with a bunch of strangers going for a run together. Safety is the prime concern for ALL of our live events we manage—safety for people and pups alike. And the last thing we would want to do is put dogs in situations that are untenable. (I could talk at length about the complexities of dog aggression, and I’m only moderately qualified. I work in advertising full-time and my thesis is in strategic communication in graduate school, not anything animal related. There are several contacts I could put people in touch with that are vastly more qualified in this arena.)
Do you think laws and labels need to change before community perception can, or do you think community perception needs to change before laws and labels could?
I think it’s a two-way street, but also a chicken-or-the-egg scenario. Scholars have pointed out in many cases that the pit bull was vilified right around when the war on drugs ramped up in the late 1980s. I’m working on a research project as I write this that aggregates all the news articles about dogs and looks for themes via an algorithm I wrote. I’m trying to prove there was a marked uptick in sensationalized pit bull stories, which led to a shift in public perception. This has been proven in other avenues for other populations—media representations of minorities, for example—and I wanted to extend that research into the canine world.
Ultimately, BSL is voted on by citizens. But the media does a fantastic job, unfortunately, of sensationalizing dog attacks and painting pit bulls with a blood-colored brush. So, if the citizens are brainwashed to think that pit bulls have locking jaws and will snap without warning (two myths that are promulgated by the media, by the way. Both are completely false.), people will then vote in favor of legislation that bans them. Denver, right now, has a vote for Denver BSL in November, which would replace the current law in place from 1986.
Some shelters are removing breed labels altogether, in an effort to get people to see the individual not the breed label. And there are some great scholarly papers discussing how to manage the stigma around a breed (Twining et al. 2000; Pratt, 2004). As you can see from those citations, this problem has been around for over 20 years. I know, personally, I’ve seen how people react when I tell them my dogs are pit bull mixes.
I think we’re making progress, but it’s going to take education from me and organizations like mine and an openness to learn from people on the outside. We had a bunch of outreach plans in place for 2020, but then, well, we know how this year went.
As an aside, we used to LOVE pit bulls in America. They appeared on war propaganda, they were the symbol for American pluck in the 1920s, and lawsuits were levied over who got to use the pit bull in their imagery (see below). It seems the war on drugs was the cultural shift that took them from loveable sidekick to murderous canine.
I wrote a paper on this phenomenon but won’t bore you with the length of this. If anybody would like to discuss this, again, just email me.