Conversation with Liz Henderson

Canine advocate uses ‘Puppy Bowl’ to teach pit bull awareness

For more on Puppy Bowl X, go to the Animal Planet website, at For more on Henderson's groups, go to and

Spoiler alert.

Neither Alafala nor Arya were particularly notable in their performance, or in Arya’s case, nonperformance, in Puppy Bowl X, Animal Planet’s canine version of the Super Bowl that begins airing 3 p.m. Sunday. Sometimes, just being part of the team is worthy of some treats.

The Atlanta area pit bull pups were selected to join dozens of other pooches in New York City this past October for the show’s filming. As they sniffed their way through the Big Apple, Alfalfa and Arya became great ambassadors for pit bulls and rescues everywhere. “We walked these two puppies all over Manhattan and everyone wanted to pet them and kiss them and talk about them. It was an amazing outreach opportunity,” said Liz Henderson, a business analyst who lives in East Cobb. Henderson also is founder of an educational group, Atlanta Pit Bull Parents, and vice president of Atlanta Underdog Initiative, a rescue primarily for pit bulls.

While Puppy Bowl is all about fun and games, Henderson said sticking up for pit bulls is anything but. “Pit bulls are dogs just like any other dogs,” Henderson said. “It is all in how you care for them.”

Q: How did you end up on Puppy Bowl?

A: I sent in audition videos of five pit bull puppies to one of the Animal Planet sites that hosts rescue dogs. They chose Alfalfa, named after one of The Little Rascals, and Arya, named after a character from Game of Thrones.

Q: What is the purpose of Puppy Bowl?

A: To showcase all the puppies and kittens you can adopt from shelters. A lot of people have this misconception that you can’t get puppies except from breeders or pet stores. The Puppy Bowl also is just fun. Everyone likes to look at puppies.

Q: How was the experience?

A: It was crazy but so much fun. There are a lot of dog friendly hotels in New York City. At the studio, the puppies were grouped and put on a set of a mini football stadium where they ran around. The filming only took a few hours so we had a bunch of time on our hands with puppies in Manhattan.

Q: What did you do?

A: We were walking all over. Of course, puppies don’t like to walk that much because they are puppies so we had to carry them. In the two days we were there, we met and talked to over 100 different people. It was amazing.

Q: How did you become a pit bull owner?

A: I was looking for a companion for my lab mix. I took him to a rescue event and he was snotty to all of the other dogs until he passed a pit bull puppy in a crate. Once I became a pit bull parent, it became increasingly obvious that there was a lot of stigma associated with having one.

Q: What do you mean?

A: You and your dog face a lot of discrimination. There can be limits on where you can live and whether you can get homeowners’ insurance. Several years ago, municipalities began passing legislation to ban pit bulls. The city of Albany, Ga. currently is considering such breed restrictions.

Q: How has that been?

A: I had never faced discrimination before. I have become a warrior on these dogs’ behalf. When you love a pit bull, advocating for them becomes a way of life.

Q: Is there something about this breed that makes it more aggressive?

A: The term pit bull is not a breed. It is a description for a group of dogs of different breeds: the American Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Amerian Pit Bull Terrier and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier. That doesn’t even include all of the other breeds and mixes that people mistake as pit bulls. You are talking about dogs that have so many different characteristics, both physical and behavioral, you honestly can’t say pit bulls are this or that.

Q: So you think aggressive dogs are being labeled as pit bulls when they aren’t?

A: That is a lot of it. But dog fighting still is a serious problem and some people raise pit bulls for that purpose or for intimidation. Dogs that are mistreated, neglected or allowed to roam are more likely to harm people or other animals.

Q: What do you need to know to be a responsible pit bull owner?

A: Purebred pit bulls are terriers so they need lot of mental stimulation and exercise. Across the country there is an overpopulation of pit bulls and mixes. Metro Atlanta animal controls are euthanizing about 150 pit bulls each week. Atlanta Underdog has a grant from the Humane Society of the United States that will pay to spay or neuter owned pit bulls, mixes and other large dogs at no cost. When you leave your home, you should always have your dog on a leash. In the yard, the dog should be contained by a secure fence but not chained up.

Q: Did your trip to New York influence how you will do outreach here?

A: The next time we have puppies, we are definitely going to take them around downtown Atlanta, Piedmont Park, around the Beltline. The puppies are such a draw and a great way to talk to people about pit bulls.

Q: So how did your puppies do in the Puppy Bowl?

A: Arya benched herself and slept on the sidelines the whole time. Even though she will not be on screen for the Puppy Bowl, she is going to be part of a special adoption feature on the website. Alfalfa was a bit overwhelmed and tried to stay out of the way of the more active pups. You can see him in some of the preview footage. He trips over another puppy and falls on his face.

Q: Were you disappointed that they choked?

A: A little. When you have rescued and raised as many puppies as I have, you realize that puppies are unpredictable. But it is hard to feel anything but joy when you are with puppies.