When Philadelphia's Throw Away Dogs Project first got requests to work with a hyperactive pit bull named Wildflower who was wearing out adopted owners and foster parents, they were skeptical.
"They said to me that they had a pit bull that they feel would be wonderful for our program. I quickly dismissed it, to be honest with you," said Throw Away Dogs co-founder Carol Skaziak. "In comes this energetic pit bull that was so loveable but completely off the charts with the energy. … I knew the moment that we started testing her that this was not going to work out, because she evaluated horrible. … She was just not understanding the games of our training program."
But months later, the seemingly impossible has happened. On Sunday, Skaziak handed Wildflower's leash over to Chief Joe Chitwood of the Wetumka, Oklahoma, Police Department, where Wildflower is headed to get certified and hit the streets as a K-9 narcotics detection dog, during a graduation ceremony at the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5.
Wildflower's journey began at the Humane Society of North Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, where she was sheltered after being discovered running the streets with no microchip or collar.
Tina Hunter, executive director of the Humane Society, said Wildflower was first adopted out to a family who returned her just two months later.
"We recognized at the shelter that she just cannot be a normal family pet," Hunter said "She was super smart, and we felt like she wanted to be a working dog."
Hunter referred her to foster mom Katharine Keaton, who has experience helping to domesticate pit bulls. But Keaton couldn't tame Wildflower either, despite every trick she knew, including exercising her for 6-plus miles a day.
"That was definitely the toughest foster I've ever had," she said. "Not even I could tame her energy. … But I fell in love with her, and I had to find placement for her if it was the last thing I did."
When Keaton learned about Throw Away Dogs from a co-worker, she reached out and refused to take no for an answer.
When Wildflower got to Philadelphia, as Skaziak said, it didn't look good. But Throw Away Dogs head trainer Bruce "Will" Meyers brought Wildflower home, where she continued to struggle with training. But after a few weeks, he had an "a-ha" moment after Wildflower accidentally knocked over a bag full of toys sent from South Carolina, including some lacrosse balls.
"The bag fell over, the balls hit the ground and that was it. She was insane over these blue balls," he said. "We then had our training system, and that was all it took. Wildflower, from that day forward, excelled almost like no dog I've ever trained. Two months later, Wildflower is imprinted on all core narcotics."
Chief Chitwood said Wildflower, who will be stepping in to replace a retiring K-9, can help stop and deter the illegal drug trafficking through Oklahoma that has been a problem in his hometown.
"It's absolutely essential to have a narcotics K-9 with the drug trafficking we have running through our area. They're absolutely the best tools we have," Chitwood said. "This dog was going to be euthanized. All of that good was this close to being put down. But she has a lot more to give, a lot more. Hopefully, you can get some of the negativity away from the breed and show folks that it's not that way."
For Throw Away Dogs, which has previously rescued and trained 23 dogs as various working dogs, Wildflower's graduation is another step forward in their mission.
"No dog is a throw away dog," Skaziak said. "A K-9 officer should be treated with the same respect as a human officer, whether they are working, not working or retired, whether they are alive or they are deceased. No dog should be a throw away dog."
Strays Become K-9s
The Throw Away Dogs project was started in 2014 to train stray dogs into K-9s by co-founders Carol Skaziak and SEPTA K-9 cop Jason Walters, inspired by Walter's K-9, the late Winchester, a German Shepherd who was brought to K-9 training from a shelter.
Over the years, Throw Away Dogs' team and reputation has grown as they have trained some 23 strays into working dogs and service dogs, with most donated to police departments around the nation that can't afford a K-9.
To learn more, visit throwawaydogsproject.com.