When Kevin and Kelly Lawson adopted their pit bull Kandie in 2009, the White City residents received a voucher for free training from Salt Lake County Animal Services.
"That gave us a way to get her out and about and socialize her because [the training] was something we might not have been able to afford at the time," Kelly Lawson said.
Today, Kandie is a therapy dog, comforting residents of a long-term care facility and a center for troubled youth.
The training voucher was provided by the Pit Crew program, which was established four years ago in an effort to reduce the euthanasia rate for pit bulls and similar breeds at the county shelter. Officials say the program has had great success, helping increase the survival rate for the shelter's bully-breed dogs from 58.9 percent in 2008 to 79.4 percent in 2012. The shelter boasts an 85.6 percent survival rate for pit bulls so far this year.
Along with discounted training, the Pit Crew a joint effort of the Best Friends Animal Society and the county provides free spaying and neutering services, arranges foster care and participates in adoption events.
The "crew" has only one paid worker coordinator Randee Lueker, who left a full-time job in the radio business for a 30-hour job with the county. Lueker and her predecessor, Kiera Packer, believe pit bulls are victims of negative press.
"It's harder to get them adopted out because of the misconceptions about them and the media hype," Lueker said.
Packer rattles off positive aspects of the pit bull pointing out the breed's role as Pete in the "Our Gang" film shorts, and touting the breed's loyalty and historic popularity. She says there are nine pit bulls, including two from the Pit Crew program, working as therapy dogs in Salt Lake County.
The dog's strength and loyalty, however, can be misused by bad owners.
"We don't have breed problems, we have irresponsible-owner problems," said Packer, now the shelter's volunteer coordinator.
The shelter workers are disgusted by reports of pit bulls being used as fighters.
"They've taken their loyalty and their strength and misused them," Packer said.
Melissa Lipani, new media coordinator for Best Friends Animal Society, rails against pit-bull stereotypes.
"The program is important because all dogs are individuals and, just like people, deserve to be treated as such," Lipani wrote in an email to The Tribune. "If we are to strive to be a no-kill community, all dogs need to have the opportunity to find loving and permanent homes. If we have one group of dogs that are not making it out of the shelter alive, we need to come up with a community approach to help those dogs."
The Lawsons are among those who provide loving and permanent homes for pit bulls. They have five: Kandie, Kismet, Kylie, Kanab and Kibbull, all adopted from the county shelter.
The third dog they adopted, Kismet, had health problems when they got her, and the Pit Crew program provided help with veterinary costs.
"They were there for us 100 percent," Kelly Lawson said.
The Pit Crew relies heavily on donations and volunteers to continue providing services.
In August, comedian Rebecca Corry brought her Stand Up For Pits program to Wise Guys Comedy Club in West Valley City as a fundraiser for the crew. Before the show, the Pit Crew held an adoption event outside the club.
When county residents adopt a bully-breed dog, the Pit Crew offers a support network to deal with potential problems such as aggressiveness with other dogs.
"We build a relationship with the adopters," Packer said.