When 31 pitbulls were first seized from an alleged fighting ring near Tilbury, Ont. in 2015, some felt they were beyond hope, that they would always be aggressive animals.
Now, five years later, some of them have been spared, rehabilitated and trained as police dogs.
"They are very loyal — very, very loyal and they make a perfect law enforcement partner," said Carol Skaziak, the founder and CEO of the Throw Away Dogs Project near Philadelphia.
After the pitbulls were seized, there were court battles over whether 21 of the dogs should be put down. Eventually, most of them were spared and sent to a facility in Florida for rehabilitation.
Later, five of them were taken to Philadelphia to be with Skaziak's group, which rescues and relocates "misunderstood" dogs, so they can have a purpose as K-9 working dogs. Three of them have successfully been trained as such.
A new life working with police
On Thursday, Skaziak donated one of them to the Craven County Sheriff's Department in New Bern, North Carolina to become a narcotic detection K9 dog.
"Nibbles is such a great dog," she said.
"He was definitely misunderstood. Very high energy, wants to give lots of love to every human out there. He actually was very easy to train and was one of the best dogs that we actually have trained. His accuracy on scent work is right on point."
Nibbles has been with the Throw Away Dogs Project for about a year now.
Also with the group was Dallas, who is now a narcotic detection dog in Virginia, and Hansel, who Skaziak believes is the first arson detection canine pitbull in the United States.
"He's a wonderful, friendly, loving dog that just wants to please his handler."
Hansel is now working in New Jersey. Hansel's sister Gretel is currently being trained to become a therapy dog.
The fifth dog with the group is Munchkin, who was trained in narcotics detection work, but unfortunately tore his anterior cruciate ligament, so it's been decided that instead of putting him to work, he will be put up for adoption once he's healed.
Of the 31 dogs seized in Chatham-Kent, 28 eventually ended up with the group Dogs Playing for Life in Florida. It worked with the animals to rehabilitate them, before finding new places for them.
"Some of them are living quite happily in pet homes and have been placed through our amazing adoption partners," said Emily Grossheider, the chief innovation officer of Dogs Playing for Life.
She added that one of them went to a prison program in Los Angeles. One dog is currently in kidney failure, so she's in a foster hospice home. One had to be put down for medical reasons.
Grossheider says it's significant that they decided to put down for behavioural issues only one of the 21 animals who were the subject of the court case with the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
"Our experience with the dogs is that they were they were quite challenging and that they had they definitely had a lot of baggage. And so I could understand why why someone would be fearful to go down that path," Grossheider said.
"But our attitude from the beginning was, 'We'll give it a shot. Let's see what the dog wants to show us who they want to be.'"
One pitbull from the Chatham-Kent group remains at the Florida facility. She's not appropriate for placement because she's wary of strangers, so she'll likely end up in a sanctuary long-term.
'A no brainer'
For Skaziak, she's "excited and happy" to see that pitbulls working with police agencies is becoming more common in the United States. She says police chiefs and fire chiefs need to set an example to show that it's possible to save dogs that can then help the community in return.
"It definitely is a no brainer," she said.
She noted that while not all dogs can be police dogs, a lot of pit bulls do have the traits and qualities that make them easy to train.
Now, she's on a mission to reach out to law enforcement departments to prove that this can be done, not only in the United States, but in Canada as well.
"There are so many of them that are misunderstood, that need a second chance to be repurposed," she said.
As for the debate in Ontario about whether the province might end its current ban against pitbulls, Skaziak said she's following it closely.
"This needs to change, and we can utilize these dogs for something positive to help out the community," she said.
She explained that the animals just want companionship, affection, and love.
"There is no aggression. There is no anger. These dogs just want to be loved no matter what they have been through. It's like it didn't matter. They don't care. It's unconditional," she said.
"And that just makes my heart smile because we really don't know what they have been through."
Grossheider admits it may "sound corny," but she says the 28 dogs her group took in changed the lives of many of their staff members.
"These dogs were victims of cruelty, and then ... victims of a court process, and they came out, tails a wagging, ready to love people and ready to learn."