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It is an unfortunate truth that Pit Bulls have a bad press. While in reality, any dog has the potential to be aggressive if poorly socialized, fearful, or mistreated, the Pit Bull starts on the backfoot with a bad reputation, no matter how sweet that individual is in reality. Therefore, a Pit Bull has to work twice as hard as any other dog in order to be reliable and friendly, and break through the barriers of those preconceptions.
Responsible dog owners embrace this with open arms, because they know the effort will be worth it at the end of the day. A friendly Pit Bull is a joy and a blessing, and something to which the owner can make a material contribution in the way they raise their pup.
Training a Pit Bull to be friendly is based on building their confidence with positive experiences, so that the pup generalizes that men are OK, kids are OK, umbrellas are OK... and isn't fearful of them. This is so important because the opposite of friendliness is being withdrawn, anxious, or even aggressive (out of fear.) Since the Pit Bull already has a bad reputation, even a hint of aggression that might be overlooked in a Chihuahua or Labrador will immediately get a Pit Bull labeled as dangerous.
Teaching the dog to be friendly means that people can approach without the dog feeling threatened and therefore greet them in an appropriate way.
Teaching any puppy to be friendly is a vital skill as it establishes his character going forward as an adult dog. With a strong breed such as the Pitbull, this is not an option but essential to having a good canine citizen.
To do this you will need:
- The help of friends and family (visiting the puppy and rewarding him)
- A collar and leash
- A treat bag or pouch to keep rewards handy
- Some lateral thinking about the places you can visit with the pup
- Favorite toys to distract him.
The Socialization Method
What is socialization?
Up until the age of around 18 weeks, a puppy's brain is plastic and open to accepting new experiences. When the latter is teamed up with positivity and rewards, this is a powerful way of teaching the dog to accept lots of different scenarios with confidence. This is crucially important, given that many dogs bite out of fear. Therefore, socialization is absolutely essential since people will readily point an accusing finger at a Pit Bull and claim they are aggressive, even though the dog is actually anxious.
Make the experiences positive
Most new puppy owners are aware their newbie should meet a wide range of people, and be exposed to lots of different sights and sounds. However, this can badly backfire if the puppy finds the meeting scary. For example, if a nervous puppy is exposed to a young child who pulls his ears and tail, then the pup is liable to become entrenched in being fearful of kids, rather than comfortable. This means the owner should always supervise the interaction and make sure it remains a positive one for the pup with gentle handling and rewarding the pup when he relaxes or is calm.
Start with the breeder
In an ideal world, source the puppy from a breeder who actively socializes the litters in their care. When choosing a breeder, ask questions about where the puppies are kept (inside with a family, which is good, or outside in a kennel, which is bad), who has handled the pups, and what socialization experiences the pup has had. Avoid a breeder who keeps her pups outdoors with little or no contact with other people, pets, and sounds of the home.
The 100 people target
Experts advise that you should introduce the pup to at least 100 different people before the pup reaches 18 weeks of age. This means taking the pup out and about (tucked under your arm if the pup is not yet vaccinated) and standing outside a pet store, superstore, or a school at home time. Take along a bag of treats and have the dog-friendly people that come to say hello to the pup give him a treat, which creates a positive impression on the pup.
Invite visitors into the home
It's also important the pup accepts visitors in his home territory. To do this, invite friends around (one at a time at first) and give them a bag of dog treats. If the puppy is nervous, have the visitor drop the odd treat on the floor but otherwise ignore the puppy. If the pup gains enough courage to venture out for the treat, quietly praise him and offer another treat. If the puppy is already confident, then have the guest use a treat to lure the pup into a sitting position, so that the pup learns to be calm and respect people.
The Build Confidence Method
Understand the idea
Building the pup's confidence is subtly different to socializing the puppy. Whereas socializing depends on exposing the dog to lots of different positive experiences, building the dog's confidence is about having them know who to turn to for direction (you!) and having the confidence that they can deal with the situation. In turn, this avoids anxiety, which could turn to fear biting.
The role of basic training
From as young as 8 weeks of age you can start basic training using reward-based methods. At this age, it's not so much about having a perfectly behaved dog, but about the pup understanding he looks to you for instruction and teaching him to learn.
Understand reward-based training
This method of training uses reward, in the form of praise or treats, when the pup does as asked. The pup learns that obeying a command is an easy way to getting a reward, and as a result he listens for your instructions and obeys. With a young pup, aim for short but regular training sessions. For example, train the pup during the ad breaks in a TV show or while you make a coffee, is a great habit to get into.
Teach basic commands
The basic commands to start with are 'sit', 'down', 'stay', 'look' and 'come'..When the puppy has mastered these you will be able to control him in a variety of situations and build his confidence. For example, if the pup is fearful of cyclists, you can use "Look" when you see a cyclist in the distance. The pup is then focused on you and pays little heed to the bike, which helps to diffuse any anxiety he may feel in that situation. It also sends the pup a powerful message that you are in control of the situation, which again reduces his background level of fear.
Use basic training to overcome anxiety
Let's look at using basic training to make a pup more friendly. Once he has learned "Sit", you can have a visitor lure the pup into a sitting position using the treat. The pup gets the treat when he obeys. This has the pup concentrating on what he's expected to do, rather than distracted by thoughts of how scary that visitor is.
The Avoiding Pitfalls Method
Avoid accidentally reinforcing fear
It's all too easy to think you are helping the pup, when in reality you reinforce his fear. The classic example is feeding treats to a fearful pup in order to reassure him. In truth, the opposite happens because the pup perceives he's being rewarded for being fearful and is therefore right to be frightened. Timing is everything, so, by all means, give a reward but only when the pup is relaxed or momentarily calm.
Don't overwhelm the pup
Things can backfire badly if a meet-and-greet gets out of control. For example, don't invite a whole class of kids round to meet the pup. The sheer number of children and the noise will overwhelm the pup, who then feels anxious and picks up the message that children are best avoided. Instead, introduce one (dog-friendly) child at a time and gauge the pup's reaction.
Be careful with rough-housing
Some pups find rough-housing overwhelming and threatening, which makes them reserved and defensive around people. Be sure to watch the pup's reaction to play. When you stop the game, if the pup comes running to you tail wagging and head high, this is a sign he is enjoying the game and wants to continue. If however he slinks with his belly close to the ground, averts his eyes or head, or licks his lips, these are all signs of stress and that he is outside his comfort zone.
Learn to read dog body language
Some pups are bold while others are not. The experiences your pup can cope with will depend on his character. It's therefore important to read his body language, so that he doesn't become overwhelmed. Behaviors such as raising a paw, licking the lips, showing the whites of the eyes, lowered ears, and tail tucked between the legs are all signs of stress. If you notice these, back off a little and wait for the pup to re-find his feet. Conversely, be alert for positive body language and be sure to praise the pup and reward him.
Don't overtire the pup
Even the friendliest pup can go back a step or two if he is forced to be sociable when he's tired. Be mindful of the pup's needs and make introductions when he's had a rest and is fresh, to avoid the grumps because he's plum tuckered out.
By Pippa Elliott
Published: 03/01/2018, edited: 01/08/2021