February 2010

Audience: Executive Leadership, Foster Caregivers, Public, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers, Veterinary Team

Yes, you can save all your healthy and treatable cats and dogs - including pit bulls. Even if your kennel runs are full of them.

Just ask the members of the Berkeley Alliance for Homeless Animals Coalition (BAHAC), which last year received a Maddie's® Lifesaving Award in the amount of $474,200 for saving all the community's healthy and treatable dogs and cats.

They didn't get there because they had it easy, and they certainly didn't get there because they have no pit bulls coming into the shelters. "Between 70 and 80 percent of our dogs on a given day are pit bulls or pit bull mixes," said Kate O'Connor, director of BAHAC member organization Berkeley Animal Care Services, the animal control agency for the City of Berkeley, California.

Same thing at the Berkeley-East Bay Humane Society, the other shelter that is part of the Alliance. "People remark on the number of pit bulls we have," said program director Sara Kersey. "Our organization is committed to taking in what's out there in our community, and what's out there is pit bulls."

So how exactly are they saving them all, and are their methods something other communities could adop?

Step One: Marketing the pit bull

Busting myths about pit bulls is step one. "The biggest problem facing homeless pit bulls is the lack of accurate information," said Kersey. "How you educate people is crucial, so it's equally crucial that you first educate your staff and volunteers to do a good job talking about the dogs. People have a lot of misconceptions, so all our staff is trained to know the right answers to give and the best way to introduce people to these great dogs."

Kersey recommends letting the dogs themselves be your best teaching tool. "When you do outreach into the community, such as satellite adoptions, remember to focus on the dogs as dogs," she said. "What people love about pit bulls is what people love about dogs: they are soft with people, and they get their feelings hurt easily, but they're wonderful clownish dogs that everyone really loves.

"There may be lots of well-meaning people who say something negative about the pit bulls in your shelter, and your impulse is to write them off," she continued. "Don't do it. Instead, engage them in conversation. Tell them the history of the breed, and how wonderful they are. A really sound pit bull is one of the greatest dogs anyone can pick."

Education about pit bulls is surprisingly effective in increasing demand for the dogs. BACS has become an adoption destination in the Bay Area specifically because they're known for having really great pit bulls available for adoption.

Step Two: Treating the treatable is for behavior, too

But before you object that the pit bulls in your community aren't the great, sound family pets that Kersey and O'Connor are talking about, consider step two in pit bull adoption success: a ton of hard work by a large group of dedicated people, aimed at making these dogs the best pets they can be.

"The little cute dogs fly out the door here, just like anywhere else," said O'Connor. "The others we have to work on."

A big part of that work gets done because of BACS's longstanding partnership with Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pitbulls (BAD RAP), today one of the nation's leading rescue and rehabilitation organizations for dogs of the pit bull breeds.

"I think we were the first shelter to really work with them when they were up and coming, before they become so famous," said O'Connor, laughing. "They were doing temperament testing with us around 9 years ago, and said they loved to work with us because we were open to the pit bull breeds."

BACS and BAD RAP started holding pit bull classes, which became enormously popular. "Every week, dog owners pour into our Berkeley classes to learn how to be good stewards for their dogs," said Donna Reynolds, co-founder of BAD RAP. "Volunteers train unowned shelter pit bulls and pit mixes. It's extremely gratifying to see dogs that were once ill-mannered and a wee bit out of control turn into well behaved canine good citizens, thanks to the help of the diehards who keep trucking in every week, some from over an hour away."

But what about shelters which don't have a world-class pit bull rehab group right in the backyard?

Step Three: Building your team of pit bull advocates

"Where you have to start is to get your handful of volunteers who will be dedicated to this specific program," said O'Connor. "Every area has its pit bull advocates, people who really know what they're doing. You need to reach out to them.

"Then get in touch with a dog trainer who works with pit breeds, and see if they'll do training for your shelter's pit bulls, for pay if you have the money, or for free as a way of building their business if you don't. You need to reach out to those people, and they in turn will go out and get other people interested and involved."

BACS takes its own advice, and its programs for pit bull adoption extend far beyond their work with BAD RAP. "It's not something you can do with just your staff," she said. "You have to find that group of core volunteers first, and give them recognition."

That team of core volunteers can make a small staff feel like an army. "What we've done is take what we call our 'red dot volunteers,' the ones who can handle any dog in the shelter, and have them mentor and train other volunteers to do the same. That way, we can spread our web out into the community, with the core volunteers at the center."

Step Four: Focus on adopters

The fourth step doesn't involve the dogs; it involves the adopters. You know, the ones you've gone to all that trouble to educate about what great dogs pit bulls are? Now it's time to make sure they're great homes, too.

O'Connor was blunt about one reality of successful pit bull adoption. "We have stronger restrictions on adopters of pit bulls and pit bull type dogs," she said. "We require a home visit, the people have to be over 25 years of age, they have to have landlord approval to have a pit bull specifically."

Because BACS is known as a place to adopt a pit bull, many of their potential adopters come in pre-sold on the breed, often from the very outreach and education BACS and the rest of the Alliance have done over the years. That's when the pit bull-savvy shelter staff swings into action.

"We talk to them about their expectations," O'Connor said. "Do they want a park dog? A dog to run on a beach? We do have some pit bulls you can do those things with, and many you can't.

"We have a home check done by a volunteer with a lot of pit bull experience, and they really dig into whether this is the right dog for the person who is adoping.

"We don't push pit bull adoption," she added. "We often get people who call up and say they're interested, because we're known as a pit bull shelter. We ask why, and if it seems appropriate, we'll speak to them about the many pros of having a pit bull as well as the cons."

Kersey said that good matchmaking between adopter and dog, as well as good expectations management, are essential components of the pit bull adoption process.

"There are all kinds of pit bulls," she said. "Lots of them are very athletic, but at the same time not great dogs for dog parks. This can be challenging in urban areas, so people have to get creative. Teaching them games, playing fetch, and long walks are needed to make sure they get enough exercise. So for those dogs, we look for people who are active and will want to exercise with their dog instead of just letting them go at a dog park.

"On the other hand, we also have an equal number of pit bulls that are couch potatoes and just want to lounge around," she continued. "We have to find the right adopter for those dogs, too."

Kersey also recommended finding people with thick skin and a certain level of maturity to adopt pit bulls. "It can be tough to own a pit bull, because of the bad press and negative attention. A good pit bull owner is a mature person who is able to talk to people about their dog if they're scared, and not get upset. I know when I walk my pit bull, I get nasty comments about how I shouldn't have a kid and a pit bull together. You have to be tough."

Step Five: Following Through

The final step comes after the adoption. The members of the Alliance provide post-adoption follow-up, training and advice for pit bull adopters, including classes with BAD RAP.

"If you think our training classes at BACS are great for the shelter dogs before they get adoption, you should see how much better it gets when the shelter dogs' new adopters show up to learn the drill," said Reynolds.

"After adoption, we do follow-up calls, and they can call us at any time," stressed O'Connor. "And the follow-up training and work we do with pit bulls have actually brought in even more support and volunteers."

"The dogs who come out of our adoption program are great dogs," said Kersey. "Just walking around with their people, they're an educational opportunity. They are ambassadors for the pit bull breeds."