A third of the dogs coming in to the Hillsborough County pound are one type of breed -- pit bulls. They're hard to adopt out,and most will be euthanized after only five days. But a new program at the shelter is trying to save some of those lives.
The Pit Bull Ambassadors are a select group of pit bulls with a mission: to convince more people to love the breed, and to take them home.
Pam Perry, the investigations manager for Hillsborough County Animal Services, says, "It's about changing people's stereotype that these are bad dogs. These are great dogs. They're not bad dogs."
Perry calls pit bulls special needs dogs. She says they're far more likely to be abused than other breeds.
"They're put in situations such as dog fighting, " she says, "they're tethered out, they're improperly housed, they're bred and sold."
In a parking lot behind the shelter, dog trainer Victoria Parker is leading a group of several volunteers. They each have a pit bull "ambassador" on a leash and the metal pinch collars jingle as they trot around in a circle. The dogs are being socialized, and taught basic commands.
There are 12 kennels that are available for the pit bull ambassadors. These dogs are safe - they won't be euthanized, and will be housed and trained until they're adopted. But Perry says adoptions aren't easy.
"A lot of good people come in and want to adopt our pit bull ambassadors," Perry says, "but the landlord won't let them have them. We've gone so far as to take the animals out there to meet the landlord, inviting them to classes to see what good dogs they are. In some cases, it does change their mind."
Volunteer trainer Theresa Daley is handling a pit bull named Tank, who was brought to the shelter as an animal cruelty case. "With him, we have to take it slow so that he can build his confidence and know that everything's going to be okay," Daley says.
The volunteers like Theresa Daley spend many hours every week working with the dogs, and then spend their weekends taking the pit bulls to Christmas parades and other events where they'll meet people who might want to adopt them.
She says she loves the pit bull breed, which she calls intelligent, loving and loyal. "And they have such a bad reputation," Daley says, which she hopes to help change.
The Pit Bull Ambassadors program has adopted out 100 dogs since it started in April of last year.
Perry points to the Center for Disease Control, and the American Veterinary Medical Association, who both defend the pit bull breed on their websites and caution against any breed specific regulations.
But she knows the stigma runs deep. Most people won't be convinced until the actually get to know one -- so the pit bull ambassadors still have a lot of work to do.