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If ever a dog breed was stereotyped as being dangerous, it is the Pit Bull. This is a sad state of affairs, because any dog can become aggressive when mishandled, it's just that the power and fearsome presence of the Pit Bull make them especially intimidating.
However, this definitely places an extra responsibility on the shoulders of a Pit Bull puppy owner, to make sure they do everything they can to create a well-adjusted, friendly, and well-behaved dog. This is done through a combination of socialization and training, and you start right away with a puppy.
You should always use reward-based methods to train a Pit Bull. Reward-based methods teach the dog that good behavior is rewarded. But this doesn't mean that there's no plan for dealing with bad behavior. If the offense is minor, then it's best to ignore it so that you don't accidentally reward the dog with attention. It's also appropriate to say a stern "No" or "Uh-oh" to let the dog know where he went wrong.
Other effective strategies for dealing with bad behavior are to distract the dog and then have him do something that you can reward. This is where teaching "Look" is a great strategy for distracting him. You must also dedicate time to regular daily training sessions, so the pup gets into the habit of listening to you and watching for instructions.
To train a Pit Bull puppy takes knowledge, patience, consistency, and dedication. While there's no guarantee of having a furry angel at the end of all your efforts (no matter what breed the pup is, there are never guarantees), good training from an early age makes a huge difference.
The basics you need include:
- Time and patience
- Small bite-sized treats to use as rewards
- A rope tug toy
- Dog-friendly children
- Friends and neighbors (with whom to socialize the pup)
- A collar and leash
The Reward-Based Training Method
Why reward-based training?
Pit Bulls have a reputation for being tough characters, so surely they need to be shown who's boss and dominated? Actually, no. While firm leadership is essential, it should not degenerate into bullying or punishment (physical or verbal) Old-fashioned training methods relied on dominating the dog and making him fearful of the consequences if he didn't behave. However, newer reward-based methods rely on getting the dog to think through what he's being asked to do and develop a degree of self-control. Rewards, in the form of praise, play, or treats, help to motivate him. This makes for a happy, well-adjusted pup who looks to people for guidance and wants to please them.
How does reward training work?
This method rewards the pup when he behaves well. A simple example would be to stroke and praise the puppy when he sits quietly in his bed. This teaches him that being quiet is good and gets him treats.
Mark the behavior you're rewarding
It's helpful that the puppy understands what he's being rewarded for. For example, when teaching 'sit', as soon as his rear meets the ground, say "Sit" in a happy voice, so the action is labeled. Then give him a reward. As training progresses you can say "Sit" ahead of the action, in order to prompt him to sit.
Let's look at a couple of simple but vital commands and how to teach them. First, 'sit'. Hold a treat in front of the pup's nose so he knows it's there. Then slowly move the treat up and over the dog's head. To follow the treat, his bottom will sink to the ground. At this point say "Sit" and give him the treat.
This is a useful command that helps you distract the pup away from situations that may be problematic. Start with the pup sitting. Hold a treat near his nose, and then slowly travel the treat in a straight line from his nose to the bridge of your nose. Hold the treat there and say "Look". As the puppy stares up at the treat, his attention is removed from potential distractions. Get the hold to hold his gaze for a few seconds, then praise him and give the treat. Gradually, extend the amount of time he's expected to 'look' before he gets the reward.
The Do's Method
Do: Socialize the puppy with dogs
Pit Bulls in particular need to learn how to behave properly around other dogs. Be sure to take puppy to puppy class and take as many opportunities as possible to meet other dogs. However, make sure those interactions are positive. If your pup is too boisterous, then this habit may become worse unless managed early on. To do this, find good-natured adult dogs for him to play with. Choose an adult dog that will tolerate a certain amount of rough play but then firmly put pup in his place so he learns better manners.
Do: Socialize, socialize, socialize!
Every day take time to have the pup meet a variety of different people of all ages, and to experience difference sights and sounds. Again, make these experiences positive and enjoyable, so that he accepts the situations without fear. This means enlisting the help of children who are confident around dogs and know how to behave around them, and always praise calm behavior shown by the puppy.
Do: Handle all parts of the puppy
From a young age, get the puppy used to having all parts of his body touched. Gently stroke every area and give the puppy praise and treats when he accepts it calmly.
Do: Play 'exchange' games
It's fine to play tug with your Pit Bull pup, as long as he's taught to relinquish the tug at the end of it. Play tug regularly but stop before the dog gets over-excited. Exchange the toy for a treat and say "Give", so that he learns to give up toys and not hang onto them for dear life.
Do: Make the puppy work for rewards
At an early age, have the pup work for basic things like his food or walks. For example, insist he sits before putting his food bowl down or attaching his leash, so that he learns to be attentive and obey.
The Don'ts Method
Don't: Punish the puppy for growling
Growling is bad but it's also a warning that the dog is aroused or unhappy. Never punish growling, as the dog will remain in the same emotional state (and close to biting) except he learns to hide the warning sign.
Don't: Allow the pup to be a bully
Don't allow the puppy to bully others. Tell him "No" in a sharp voice, and distract him away from the other pup with a squeaky toy. Then have the pup sit and you can reward this good behavior. Alternatively, enlist the help of a good-natured adult dog who will put the upstart in his place when he gets too rough.
Don't: Let training lapse
It's essential to keep going with obedience training, even when the pup is intelligent and gets the hang of things quickly. If you relax and assume the pup knows what to do, he will quickly stop listening to you and lapse into bad habits.
Don't: Accept bad behavior
When the pup misbehaves, it's fine to tell him so. A firm "No" or "Uh-oh" should be used to mark when he does wrong, such as breaking a "Stay". This verbal marker helps him understand where he went wrong.
Don't: Ignore aggression
Training is crucial but it's not the whole story. When you're doing everything right and yet the pup is still aggressive, it may be he has inherited the trait from parents. In this case, contact a certified animal behaviorist so that you can work together to put a strategy in place to improve his behavior.
By Pippa Elliott
Published: 03/09/2018, edited: 01/08/2021