An ad shows a brown and white Pit Bull—tough, beefy and ready for a challenge. Above his photo, the copy reads: “Yeah, He’s a Fighter. A Crime Fighter.” With his partner, trooper Dave Dixon of the Washington State Patrol and U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Pit Bull Neville patrols the Seattle ferry system and checks about 300 cars a day for explosives as part of a counterterrorism effort. He has sniffed out guns, bullets and fireworks.
Last year, Neville helped put away a dangerous ferry rider who, during the trip to Seattle, began ramming other vehicles with his car. “We got a call when the ferry docked,” Dixon says. “This guy just was not right.” Dixon put Neville to work. The dog began sniffing the car, then sat down to signal a find. The trunk was packed with fireworks. “The bomb squad said there were enough fireworks in there to make a bomb,” Dixon says. “Later, we found out the guy had a bunch of prior arrests for bomb making.”
It’s successes like that—and a great disposition— that make Dixon so happy with his canine sidekick. “He’s gentle. He’s loyal. He works so hard,” Dixon says. “He’s the perfect partner.”
But Dixon never would have gotten the chance to team up with Neville if not for the LawDogsUSA program, started in 2004 by dog trainer Diane Jessup, who has worked with Pit Bulls for 25 years and published a magazine called Fully Bully. Jessup—who describes most Pit Bulls as people-friendly and stable— started the program partly to show off the side of Pit Bulls that rarely makes the newspapers.
“Today’s press coverage of the American Pit Bull is one-sided. ‘Killer Pit Bull’ is a sexy headline,” Jessup says. In fact, the American Pit Bull was once America’s favorite family dog—think Petey on The Little Rascals—but started getting a bad rap when they replaced Doberman Pinschers as the fad dog for owners who wanted to look tough. Once Pit Bulls began falling into the hands of irresponsible and abusive owners, and even criminals, they started making the news— and not in a good way.
After 9/11, Jessup saw her chance to do something about it. In the wake of the terrorist attacks in New York, the demand for bomb and drug-detection dogs shot up. But Jessup knew that it takes a special kind of dog to do this kind of work. Those lacking strong drive and dogged determination need not apply. Since shelters were being picked clean of dogs with those qualities, many law enforcement agencies had turned to brokers who bring in untrained dogs from Europe and sell them at hefty sums—up to $6,000 each in some cases. That gave Jessup the idea for LawDogsUSA. “I thought, what about ‘Made in America’?” Jessup says. “I thought, ‘There are thousands of dogs dying in shelters now who can do this work.’”
So, Jessup put the word out that she was looking for Pit Bulls with the right stuff for detection work. She would provide them with a bit of training, then give them to law enforcement agencies for free. Soon after, she got a call about Neville.
From Shelter to Police Cruiser
The young, red-nosed Pit Bull had been picked up by animal control officers on a dirt road about 60 miles from Toronto in Ontario, Canada. Officers tracked down the owner, but he didn’t want the dog back because he couldn’t afford to comply with a new law requiring muzzles and special fences for Pit Bulls. The unwanted dog was scheduled to be put down.
But even on death row, he showed a playful spirit that tugged at the heart of a shelter worker. To give him a second chance, she called a rescue group, Bullies in Need. Volunteers bailed Neville out, then drove him across the border into the United States. But they had no idea how they would get him to his new foster home in Washington state—a family with an already full house, including seven kids, three other dogs and two cats. Just when the volunteers were losing hope, an anonymous donor gave $3,500 for Neville’s airfare and expenses. He was on his way.