For decades, animal shelters have existed on islands, separate from each other and from the rescue groups that support them. This fragmentation of resources has been a barrier to success for many communities. Thanks to organizations like Maddie’s Fund, since the early 2000s shelters and rescue groups have been given incentives to work together to achieve common goals. Still, many continue to use archaic housing, handling, and evaluation processes that set animals up for failure. Innovative rescue groups like The Tiny Pitbull are demonstrating that a combination of appropriate housing and handling and good customer service can keep dogs mentally healthy and ensure adoption success. In this interview with Bay Woof, Christine del Ponte talks about the origins of The Tiny Pitbull, its successes, learning experiences, and plans.
Bay Woof: How did you get started in dog rescue?
Christine del Ponte: I’ve always been an animal lover, but a few years ago, things happened unexpectedly to lead me down this path. I was married and thought my life was stable. When I was diagnosed with cancer, everything changed. My life was not going to be as we had planned. My marriage ended.
During that time, when I was sick and under treatment, I started volunteering at a local shelter. Right away, I noticed that some of the dogs had been there a very long time. I really connected with one dog that had been there for years. He was the first one I promoted, and he was soon adopted.
BW: How did you promote him?
CDP: I took pictures, wrote a bio, really focused on getting that one dog placed. In a shelter with so many dogs, it’s easy to pass one over, and the longer they are there, the more depressed and less attractive they become to potential adopters. After that, I started focusing on other longtime dogs, creating individual Facebook pages to promote them. I thought, “How do I help these dogs that no one seems to understand?”
Word of my success spread, then one day I got a call from the county shelter about a dog named Tilly. She was the original “Tiny Pitbull” and the inspiration for the name of our rescue group. I created a Facebook page and promoted her, and she was soon adopted. After that, we had a run of success. Fifteen dogs we promoted were adopted one after the other and quickly. I developed a network of foster homes so the dogs could be housed and shown in a more natural environment.
BW: How did you go from promoting as a volunteer to starting a new rescue group?
CDP: Pulling dogs from the shelter became a necessity because too many were being put down for “aggression” based on their appearance in the kennels. It’s devastating to find out that a dog you were promoting, a dog that was physically and mentally sound outside of the shelter environment, was put down.
I’ll be honest with you. I don’t take dogs with significant behavior issues. Dogs in our program must be bulletproof, because they go into foster homes with multiple pets and because our adopters want a good, safe companion. So these dogs that we’re pulling, who would have been put down for “aggression,” show none of that behavior in a home environment.
BW: I understand you also take owner surrenders.
CDP: Yes, over time our model evolved, and we started taking owner surrenders for two reasons: One, the shelters are so full of strays that there is a long wait list for surrender, and two, how well will dogs do in that environment? These are dogs that have lived in a loving home and are suddenly away from their family in a kennel in a building with 100 other dogs. It’s terrifying.
Our goal is to be the space between the owner and the shelters. We are getting an average of 30 calls a week for surrenders.
BW: What about Tiny Pitbull’s partnership with Petaluma Animal Services?
CDP: I studied the models of other rescues to learn what works or doesn’t. We want to develop good relationships with shelters and with other rescue groups so we can work together for success in our community. Petaluma Animal Services gave us an office in their shelter, and we mutually support each other. PAS spays or neuters and vaccinates the dogs in our program, and they offer free training for our adopters.
BW: How is The Tiny Pitbull unique?
CDP: We offer more of a personalized service. People come to us looking for a certain personality type and we find a match. Many of our dogs are bully types, but we don’t overly focus on breed—a pit pull is just a dog. “Unwanted” dogs are a myth. We have potential adopters fighting over individual dogs. We currently have 20 foster homes, and we are careful to show them appreciation and to not burn them out. The goal is to get the dogs in permanent homes ASAP. We don’t want to keep dogs.
We only take dogs from our community, within Sonoma County. It is frustrating to me to see rescue groups and adoption-guarantee shelters pulling dogs from other counties, states, and even other countries while there are thousands of dogs in need right here at home
BW: What are your plans?
CDP: We created a program called “New Year, New Life.” It’s a sponsorship program where just $100 will sponsor one dog’s adoption. So many people say, “I can’t have any more pets, but I want to help!” and this gives them a way to help. At adoption, we provide the new owners with everything they need to get started: leash and collar, food, crate. We want them to be successful.
BW: How many dogs have you placed so far?
CDP: Since we officially started in 2014, we have placed 150 dogs.
BW: What would you say to folks wanting to start an initiative like this in their own community?
CDP: So many people say, “I wish our city could have a Tiny Pitbull,” and I say, “You can!” Start doing what you can today. You never know what will change your life.
Brigid Wasson is the head consultant with The Path Ahead Animal Shelter Consulting. She provides infrastructure building, management team support, and lifesaving programs for animal shelters across the country. She lives in Sonoma County with three dogs: an Anatolian Shepherd, a Corgi/terrier, and a Pomeranian/yerrier. For more information visit:animalsheltersuccess.com and TinyPitbull.com.
Main article photo by: The Tiny Pitbull