Combining innovative thinking, pet behavioral science, and smart marketing, the Nebraska Humane Society (NHS) managed to reverse what could have been a serious ban on pit bulls and other so-called “bully breeds.” Denise Gurss, Director of Shelter Training and Behavior, said, “A lot of people hear ‘pitbull’ and think ‘dangerous.’

So we created the Breed Ambassador program.” Since launching the initiative in compliance with the city’s Breed Specific Ordinance in 2009, the shelter has facilitated hundreds of adoptions—and proven that these dogs can be exceptional companions. NHS covers all the bases. “Initially, our animal control officers talk to people on the street with ‘pitties’” and make sure they understand the ordinance, which mandates that their pets be leashed, wear a muzzle, and be controlled by an adult over 19 when out in public,” said Denise.

When a dog comes through for adoption, they provide “basic manners” training and all required equipment. “It’s wonderful Purina ONE is involved, providing food for all dogs in the shelter,” she said. “Adopted dogs are also sent home with a supply, setting a high standard of nutrition.”

The centerpiece of the program is the Breed Ambassador training. All “bully breeds” are eligible for free obedience classes over six weeks that enable them to take a Canine Good Citizen test, developed by the American Kennel Club. Dogs that pass are issued a Breed Ambassador vest and can go out without a muzzle. Carol Knoepfler, a longtime NHS volunteer with four adopted dogs, chose to make pit bull Pearl her fifth so that she could help transform her into a Breed Ambassador and “make a difference,” said Carol.

“When she came to the shelter, she was very stressed out, but her nature was gentle and loving.” Pearl even “mothered some orphan kittens” that Carol fostered. To help promote the breed, she takes Pearl, proudly wearing the vest, with her all over town— to the law school where she teaches, to parades, to an elementary school class—all to demonstrate that this breed makes “fabulous pets,” she said.

In many instances it’s the first pit bull they’ve met.” Carol is a true believer: “You’d never know how soft, sweet, and cuddly pit bulls are until you get to know them. And once you know one, you’re a Breed Ambassador, too!”

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