Breed Ambassador: Bastardized

Breed Ambassador: Bastardized

The idea sounded like a good one.

In an effort to make some sense of the slaughter of pit bull after pit bull in shelters across the country and develop pit bull adoption programs where there were none, Breed Ambassador programs were created to showcase the best of the best.

Breed Ambassadors would shatter the myths of pit bulls as crazed creatures, bent on destruction.

Breed Ambassadors would set an example in the community and encourage more pit bull adoptions. 

The theory behind Breed Ambassador programs was simple: to highlight the best of the best in an effort to introduce pit bull adoption programs in shelters that were resistant and to challenge and even sway public opinion towards this oft maligned dog.

But the good idea neglected the reality that the overwhelming majority of pit bulls were not crazed creatures but just dogs after all.  And in the wrong hands this seemingly good idea that started with the best of intentions … became a bad one. 

What started as a positive program has now been co-opted by those who are using it as an excuse to continue to kill savable dogs. Just as the term No Kill was used (and still is used) by organizations who kill 50% or more of the animals entering the shelter, Breed Ambassador programs have shined a spotlight on a precious few while hiding the deaths of the majority backstage, behind the scenes.

At first glance a shelter trumpeting its pit bull adoption program may not appear to be the one where good pit bulls are likely to die but if you look a little closer, you might be disturbed by what you see and hear. I was disturbed myself when I walked through the halls of a shelter and overheard a meeting of that shelter’s managment and behavior staff. The phrase that hit my ears as if it had been broadcast over a loudspeaker was shocking to me.

You don’t understand, it’s not that we are opposed to pit bull adoptions, it’s just the dogs we are going to bring to the adoption center have to be ambassadors of the breed.

The words were ringing in my ears as continued walking. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to decipher the code in that message. As I walked away I noted the frustration in the faces of the staff I knew to be pit bull advocates working in a shelter literally filled with pit bulls. Tragically for the dogs, I knew that they had little power to create change. 

What it meant in real terms was that dogs who were simply normal dogs, bouncy, energetic, obnoxious at times, chewy, barky, untrained, you name it, would not be considered as candidates to move to the adoption center. Without that consideration they had very little chance of leaving alive.  Ultimately, unless major changes in leadership and focus occur at that shelter, there will be a large number of wonderful, normal pit bulls who will lose their lives because of this now bastardized policy.


MOJO in his undies

MOJO is a dog who barely made it out alive. Although he looks comfy enough dressed up in his underwear, if it wasn’t for Hurricane Katrina, MOJO would have never found his new home. He faced many challenges along the way but they weren’t just water related. 

When MOJO was rescued he was just one of many dogs in need of placement. Most strikingy, he was one of many pit bulls. As in most sheltering situations he was evaluated for temperament. In MOJO’s case though, he was deemed “unadoptable” by his evaluators who were looking for …

… ambassadors.

Faced with so many dogs they were searching for the best of the best and MOJO

didn’t pass the test.  

Luckily for MOJO the large number of animal rescuers gathered together to save lives after Katrina meant he had other options. Those options eventually lead him to a loving home where he is the prince of the household and even went on to become a calendar dog, featured on the cover:


Whenever I have the pleasure of visiting MOJO (after he’s done licking my ankles, perhaps knocking me over in his excitement to say hello) I can’t help but think about what would happen to MOJO if there hadn’t been a hurricane. What would have happened to MOJO if he was in a shelter that restricted those precious few adoption cages for the best of the best?

What would have happened to MOJO if he hadn’t been in the eye of the storm?

And looking into his eyes I can’t help but wonder if he redefines the idea of a Breed Ambassador program for pit bull advocates. If, in our efforts to save them we have ultimately given shelters an excuse or a free pass to kill many, we need to rethink our tactics.

  • Have we allowed shelters to set the bar too high? 
  • Have we allowed shelters to pay little attention to comprehensive adoption programs because so few reach the lofty standards of Ambassador? 
  • Have we segregated these dogs so singularly that they aren’t even included in otherwise successful adoption efforts? 

I’m all too familiar with a program that, although it did not use the term Ambassador to describe it, used the philosophy behind it. Yet despite being the best of the best, the dogs for adoption were prohibited from off-site events. The dogs were prohibited from being walked by volunteers. The dogs had special application and adoption counselling requirements.

The dogs were treated as so very special they were literally loved …

to death

What have we done.


By all accounts, the 3-month-old pit bull puppy at Loudoun County’s animal shelter was a happy, sociable and gentle dog. He didn’t fit the breed’s vicious image. The brown-and-white puppy jumped up on shelter employees’ laps and loved to play. In evaluations, workers described him as “silly,” “wiggly” and “very lovey.”

Unfortunately for him, he made a few key mistakes in two required behavioral assessments in July 2007. Most puppies would have survived the gaffes, several animal rescue groups allege. But this puppy — he didn’t have a name, only a county-issued identification number, 43063 — was a pit bull in Loudoun County, the only Northern Virginia jurisdiction that prohibits public adoptions of the breed. So he was euthanized. …

… Loudoun euthanized all abandoned pit bulls for years before changing its policy in 2007 to allow the animals to be transferred to rescue groups or shelters in other jurisdictions – as long as the dogs passed a temperament test.

(all emphasis mine) Two-Day Trial Challenges County’s Policy on Euthanizing Pit Bulls: Washington Post, May 7, 2009


Read Nathan Winograd’s companion piece Sit, Fetch, Stay or Die: The Pit Bull Ambassador Program here.

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10 Responses to “Breed Ambassador: Bastardized”

  1. MOJO is a great looking pit and I am glad he found a home. If a dog has to be trained and perfect before being put up for adoption then we may never reach a time when we are a no-kill nation.

  2. Kami's mom says:

    I admit my pitbull isn’t an ambassador of her breed. She can be destructive to the unlucky dog toy, and she sometimes forgets that we go out to potty. She can sit still for about three seconds. She can sleep and nuggle my feet for hours even though she’s not been asked onto the bed. She can be dog aggressive, and so isn’t left unattended with our other dogs although she’s always good with them when we’re here. But for all her imperfections (which I take credit for 99% of them) she is the ambassador of my heart, and for a dog that was thrown from a moving vehicle and who experienced who-knows-what before we literally resuced her, that is more than I could ever have hoped for.

  3. jon bozak says:

    Such great points. The Ambassador program doesn’t change a thing, really.

  4. John says:

    I am a fan of well-constructed, well-administered temperament tests because they have the potential to provide important information about the dog that can help match them with an appropriate family, but I am mystified by the pass/fail model as a criteria for death by injection, no matter what the breed. Truly, irredeemably violent dogs are the 1% of the 1% - exceedingly unusual. “Unadoptable” is a label that should be immensely rare. The right people are out there.

  5. Dianne (DC) says:

    I agree with Nathan in principle. But I took this as a slap in the face to BADRAP. They’ve convinced the Oakland open admissions shelter to allow them to come in and evaluate dogs for the scarce space. They call them ambassadogs. All of these dogs would be PTS otherwise.

    Real social change is incremental. Changing attitudes toward pit bulls isn’t going to happen overnight. There’s no Lassie or Rin Tin Tin to save the day for them.

  6. sue_cosby says:

    Well, Nathan didn’t write this - I did. And it was written based on my direct experiences with organizations, none of which include Bad Rap. I am on the complete opposite side of the country.

    So it’s only a slap in the face to the organizations I know for a fact have, and continue to bastardize a program that was started with the best of intentions for these dogs.

    Someone needs to see through the facade and I THINK that Bad Rap would not be happy with a shelter that used their program’s name or a similar idea (in a community where no adoption restrictions or ownership restrictions exist) in a manner that ultimately did more harm than good. I can’t speak for them so that’s just a guess.

    The changes that Bad Rap has been able to create have been incredible but that shouldn’t allow communities that don’t face those same challenges off the hook for doing better.

  7. Barbara Saunders says:

    I honestly am not familiar enough with all of the exact workings of BADRAP to weigh in on all of their strategic decisions. However, an Oakland (CA) friend I trust who has rescued many dogs (including but not limited to pit bulls) has voiced a similar criticism of BADRAP’s stance.

    It’s complicated: their position unquestionably saves dogs lives today. At the same time, by reassuring people with their “high standards”, they lend credence to the idea that “even pit bull advocates admit that these dogs ought to be held to ‘higher standards’.”

    • What I also notice from many of these pit bull groups and advocates is they seem to reinforce the ideas that these dogs are different and need to be handled differently. They say to never take them to dog parks, for example, which seems prejudiced to me. I guess nothing is simple or black and white … I think their stance is to avoid issues and avoid your pittie being the one to blame if something goes wrong, but what if you have socialized your dog around others and he/she plays well with others? Why the blanket edicts??

  8. Pai says:

    Because they see Pittie dog-aggression as something instinctual along the lines of the strong prey-drive many hunting breeds still have. Their logic is that it’s irresponsible to tempt a genetic drive to respond to challenges from other dogs with violence by taking them to dog parks where there are often rude or aggressive dogs that could provoke them.

  9. LS says:

    One thing on Loudoun- it’s a policy set by the Board of Directors- not shelter staff. So, back to that old conversation about policy being a function of leadership. I don’t necessarily think that the staff is in agreement with the policy and only the good ole’ boys/girls/board can change that.

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