The Heart-Melting Big Sur Story of Turning a Rescue Into a National Champ
June 30, 2011
For one local 6-year-old pit bull, Aztec is a fitting name.
He’s strong and powerful like the ancient civilization: His physique and athleticism have helped make him a gold-medal winning Frisbee phenom. But he is also influential, like his namesake civilization, an active ambassador for the plight of pit bulls everywhere.
Owner Jonathan Offi uses Aztec as his primary weapon in combating negative stereotypes about pit bulls, who often catch a bad rap thanks to those who breed them for illegal dog fighting (see also: Michael Vick or DMX). But he also seeks to break conventional understandings of which breeds excel in the sport-dog world: Most picture border collies or Labrador retrievers, not a bulky pit, when they envision a pup running down a flying Frisbee.
Earlier this month the pair took first place in the Freestyle Flying Disc competition at the western regional Purina Incredible Dog Challenge in San Diego, only their second year competing in the competition (they took home bronze last year). The win qualifies Aztec for the national championships in St. Louis on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, which will air live on ESPN.
“We had a really on day,” Offi says, “We connected—I threw well and he caught well. We put on a good show.”
He likens their connection to that between a quarterback and his wide receiver, with effective back-and-forth being paramount for success.
“The communication between us and his enthusiasm to play is what sets him apart from the other dogs,” he says.
Offi uses a long list of commands to direct Aztec to go through his legs, over his back or even leap off his knee. The surprisingly disciplined dog can also spin, roll over and stay, of course, and knows how to strategically drop the discs so Offi’s supply does not run out—disc management is an important aspect of competition.
Aztec is one of the seven dogs that make up Team Pit Bull, and the only one to have been raised by Offi from day one. The rest are rescues, and their ranks often swell with the addition of other dogs with aggression and behavior issues. Offi personally fosters, rehabilitates and finds new homes for them.
Pits are the most abundant pooches filling California’s animal shelters, and are also the breed most frequently euthanized. To further educate people from San Jose, Calif. to Mexico and even Puerto Rico, Offi goes beyond sport-dog competitions, doing shows and demonstrations in association with Knock Out Dog Fighting, which focuses on showing at-risk youth drawn from juvenile halls to Boys and Girls Clubs the alternatives to organized dog fighting.
“I’m constantly fighting the standard stereotype that’s out there, with much success,” he says. “They can be not only great household pets, but can be a positive influence within the community.”
Citing a lack of stimulation as the major malfunction behind most behavioral issues, Offi promotes a combination of good nutrition, exercise, obedience and socialization as a stock remedy.
One of his recruits, a 5-year-old red pit bull named Ruby, went through three homes in two years before Offi took her under his wing. She was on her “last option”—meaning she was slated to be euthanized—before Offi picked her up through Redding, Calif.’s Second Chance Pet Rescue in July 2009.
His understanding of dog behavior—combined with techniques of positive reinforcement, food motivation and reward-based training—turned her into an active member of the team.
“Now she’s in front of thousands of people doing shows and competitions, changing people’s minds about pit bulls,” he says.
Another member of Team Pit Bull, a 3-year-old female named Brooklyn, holds the world record for distance-jumping pit bulls, with a distance of 22’11” in dock-diving competition.
Salinas-based dog trainer Carmela Moreno has been friends with Offi since a chance encounter nine years ago, when she was running puppy training classes at PetSmart.
“We just bonded over dogs,” she says, recalling her first meeting with him and Sati, Aztec’s mother.
Moreno describes Aztec as a puppy whose personality Offi instantly bonded to.
“I think Aztec came along at the perfect time, when Jonathan had already been training for a while. I think they both sort of matured at the same time,” she says.
Moreno still goes to Offi when she has a problem getting through to a canine client.
“Jonathan is that person that I trust to help me step outside myself,” she adds.
She appreciates his quiet but honest prods in the right direction by giving her his straight up, honest opinion, delivered without a “you-should-listen-to-me” attitude.
”He’s better able to articulate what he does naturally and intuitively so it can help other people,” Moreno says.
In the past 12 years, Offi has successfully rehabilitated and found homes for 85 lovable pit bull type mongrels.
“It’s been a long road travelled with the dogs,” he says.
Mention of a long road is both figurative and literal. With family in San Jose and shows all along the West Coast, Offi uses his van as home base. He lets three of the dogs, Aztec, Ruby and Sati, roam free within the 2002 Ford E-150, while the others are in kennels. Team Pit Bull includes two additional pits, two cattle dogs—one of which is a foster dog—and a Jack Russell terrier. This helps emphasize part of Offi’s mission, showing people that pit bulls can co-exist harmoniously with other breeds.
Along the way he takes pet nutrition to a whole new level, personally preparing—from scratch—the raw-foods diet his dogs consume. Staples include ground beef, 11 different veggies and eggs, which are scarfed down shell and all. While this routine has made Offi more conscious of his own diet, it does get expensive.
A gig waiting tables at Nepenthe not only pays the bills, and Big Sur provides a training ground with ample venues for running, hiking and ocean swimming—not to mention skateboarding.
“To get back to Big Sur is always revitalizing,” he says.
Nepenthe manager Luis Potter says Offi is a very dependable, a very good server who is very knowledgeable about wine, willing to do anything for the guests and damn good with canines—Offi trained Potter’s golden retriever.
“I call him the dog whisperer,” Potter says, noting that “I’m very impressed that he’s doing these types of things with the breed.”
Offi brushes off beliefs he has a cross-species supernatural gift.
“I do think I have developed a skill and talent in ‘whispering’ to animals,” he says. “I think that’s part of what helps me to succeed working with different dogs.”
Offi initially got involved with animal shelters through a community service class at CSU Monterey Bay, when he chose to volunteer at the local SPCA. Two years later, in 2006, he graduated with a degree in mathematics, although his focus remained with his newly found passion.
“We create a game out of it and we play, so it stays fun,” he says.
With the most accumulated points from various regional competitions, Aztec is the current leader—out of 257 ranked, international teams—in the standings for the 2011 Unified Frisbee Dog Operations (UFO) World Cup. His top dog status was cemented on June 25 in a local competition held in Cypress, Calif. The tournament finals will take place on Oct. 21-23 in Dallas, and will air live on ESPN.