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What Is a Pit Bull?
There’s a great deal of confusion associated with the label “pit bull.” This isn’t surprising because the term doesn’t describe a single breed of dog. Depending on whom you ask, it can refer to just a couple of breeds or to as many as five—and all mixes of these breeds. The most narrow and perhaps most accurate definition of the term “pit bull” refers to just two breeds: the American Pit Bull Terrier (APBT) and the American Staffordshire Terrier (AmStaff). Some people include the Bull Terrier, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier and the American Bulldog in this group because these breeds share similar head shapes and body types. However, they are distinct from the APBT and the AmStaff.
Because of the vagueness of the “pit bull” label, many people may have trouble recognizing a pit bull when they see one. Multiple breeds are commonly mistaken for pit bulls, including the Boxer, the Presa Canario, the Cane Corso, the Dogo Argentino, the Tosa Inu, the Bullmastiff, the Dogue de Bordeaux, the Alapaha Blue Blood Bulldog and the Olde English Bulldogge.
The Pit Bull’s History
The pit bull’s ancestors hail from England and were brought to North America by English immigrants. These descendants were bred from the bulldog, which some breed historians believe originally served as a “gripping dog” for hunters of large game. (The term “bulldog” does not refer to the American Kennel Club’s English Bulldog. This more recently developed breed serves as a loyal companion rather than a working dog.) Later, bulldogs were likely used as butcher’s dogs and helped control large livestock. Eventually, these dogs were bred to participate in an inhumane blood sport called “baiting.” Spectators found it highly entertaining to watch bulldogs pitted against bulls, bears and other large animals. During these violent events, one or more dogs were expected to attack another animal, biting it around the face and head. The dogs usually maintained their grip until the animal became exhausted from fighting and loss of blood. After animal baiting was banned in the early 1800s, people began pitting dogs against each other, and the cruel sport of dog fighting was born. As it grew in popularity, enthusiasts developed a lighter, more agile dog for the fighting ring. Some people bred their bulldogs with black and tan terriers, creating dogs who were only 25 to 30 pounds. Others may have simply selected smaller bulldogs for breeding purposes. These dogs were the forebears of the present-day pit bull.
The Pit Bull Today
Most experts agree that today’s pit bull is a short-coated dog characterized by a wide skull, powerful jaws and a muscular, stocky body. But there is great variation in the pit bull’s appearance. Typically 35 to 65 pounds, some weigh as little as 25 pounds, while others tip the scales at 80 pounds or more. Some have bulkier frames and colossal skulls; others have leaner, more muscular bodies. All are strong and athletic. With their impressive stamina and staunch work ethic, pit bulls enjoy a variety of activities, including agility, disc dog competitions, flyball, freestyle and competition obedience. They often excel in weight-pulling contests and schutzhund. Some pit bulls work cattle in herding trials, and some still function as hunting dogs.
The Pit Bull Temperament
Dog breeds are characterized by certain behavioral traits. Each breed was developed to perform a specific job, whether it be hunting rabbits, retrieving downed birds, herding livestock or sitting on people’s laps. When developing a breed, breeders select only those dogs who perform their job best to produce the next generation.
Physical abilities and behavior are both important facets of any breed. A well-bred dog should have both the physical attributes necessary to perform his job and the behavioral tendencies needed to learn it. It’s not surprising that individuals of a specific breed tend to look and behave somewhat similarly. However, it’s important to realize that even though a breed may be characterized by certain behaviors, individuals of the same breed can vary tremendously. Some dogs are courageous, while others are timid. Some dogs are tenacious, while others are easygoing. Some dogs are sociable, while others are aloof. Like people, all dogs have unique personalities.
The Influence of a Fighting History
When two dogs fight, the conflict is usually ritualized. The objective is for one dog to win the disagreement with little or no bloodshed. The participants try to intimidate each other by engaging in plenty of dramatic-looking behavior, which may include posturing, circling, growling, showing teeth and snarling. Bites delivered during a fight are typically inhibited because the point is to cause pain but not necessarily to inflict serious injuries. Pit bulls have been bred to behave differently during a fight. They may not give warning before becoming aggressive, and they’re less likely to back down when clashing with an opponent. When provoked, they may become aggressive more readily than another breed might. Sometimes they don’t inhibit their bites, so they may cause injury more often than other dogs.
Should You Keep a Pit Bull Away from Other Dogs?
Pit bulls were genetically selected for their fighting ability. What does this mean? It doesn’t mean that they can’t be around other dogs, that they’re unpredictably aggressive or that they will always fight to the death. These are all common myths about pit bulls. It does mean that they may be easily encouraged to fight with other dogs.
The best way to prevent the development of aggressive behavior toward other dogs is to focus on early socialization. To learn how to interact, play and communicate with members of their own species, dogs of all breeds need to be well socialized during puppyhood. If a puppy has many good experiences with other dogs, any future unpleasant experiences will have less of an impact on him. Suppose a puppy is playing with another dog and the play escalates into a fight. This is relatively normal, and most well-socialized puppies will still want to play with other dogs afterward. If, on the other hand, the puppy has had very few experiences with other dogs, a spat may make a bigger impression on him. He may decide that he doesn’t like other dogs, and that feeling may contribute to fearful or aggressive responses to them when he matures.
Pit bull puppies may need even more socialization than other breeds. Numerous positive social experiences can teach a pit bull puppy to enjoy the company of other dogs. Frequent social interaction may also help pit bull puppies modify their natural play style, which is often more rough-and-tumble than that of other breeds. However, because of pit bulls’ natural tendencies, a little squabble between friends can turn into a serious fight, even if a pit bull has been very well socialized. And, after experiencing a fight or two, a pit bull may become testy with unfamiliar dogs in general. Some pit bulls, like individuals of many breeds, only remain friendly with dogs they meet during puppyhood—which is another great reason to make sure your pit bull puppy makes plenty of friends.
Are Pit Bulls Dangerous to People?
Despite the fact that pit bulls were bred to fight with each other, early breeders took pride in producing dogs that were trustworthy and friendly to people. Handlers bathed their opponent’s dog before a match, stood in the pits with the battling dogs and often pulled them apart to end a fight. Any dog who behaved aggressively toward a person was culled, or killed, to avoid passing on such an undesirable trait. Pit bulls typically lived in their owner’s homes, where they earned the nickname “nursemaid’s dog” because they were so reliable with young children. In fact, “Pete the Pup,” the children’s friend from the old TV series “Our Gang,” was a pit bull.
Why the Bad Rap?
Sadly, the pit bull has acquired a reputation as an unpredictable and dangerous menace. His intimidating appearance has made him attractive to people looking for a macho status symbol, and this popularity has encouraged unscrupulous breeders to produce puppies without maintaining the pit bull’s typical good nature with people. To make matters worse, irresponsible owners interested in presenting a tough image often encourage their pit bulls to behave aggressively. If a pit bull does bite, he’s far more likely to inflict serious injuries than most other breeds, simply because of his size and strength. A pit bull bite is also far more likely to draw media attention. Many dogs of other breeds bite people, but these incidents almost always go unreported. They’re just not exciting enough fodder for television and print.
Despite this bad rap, a well-bred, well-socialized and well-trained pit bull is one of the most delightful, intelligent and gentle dogs imaginable. It is truly a shame that the media continues to portray such a warped image of this beautiful, loyal and affectionate breed. Pit bulls once enjoyed a wonderful reputation. Some of the most famous dogs in American history were pit bulls. A pit bull named Stubby, a decorated hero during World War One, earned several medals and was even honored at the White House. During duty, he warned soldiers of gas attacks, found wounded men in need of help and listened for oncoming artillery rounds. Pit bulls have been featured in well-known advertising campaigns for companies such as Levis, Buster Brown Shoes and Wells Fargo. The image of a pit bull, which was considered a symbol of unflagging bravery and reliability, represented the United States on recruiting and propaganda posters during World War One. Many famous figures, including Helen Keller, President Theodore Roosevelt, General George Patton, President Woodrow Wilson, Fred Astaire and Humphrey Bogart, shared their lives and homes with pit bulls.
Modern pit bulls can still be ambassadors for their breed. Some are registered therapy dogs and spend time visiting hospitals and nursing homes. Some work in search-and-rescue. Tahoe, Cheyenne and Dakota, three search-and-rescue pit bulls from Sacramento, California, worked tirelessly at the World Trade Center during the aftermath of 9/11. Others, like Popsicle, an accomplished U.S. customs dog, work in narcotics and explosives detection. Still others serve as protection or sentry dogs for the police. The majority are cherished family members. Pit bulls become very attached to their people, and most love nothing better than cuddling on the couch or sleeping in bed with their pet parents (preferably under the covers)!
Pit Bull Myths
There are numerous myths circulating about pit bulls, some invented by people who are afraid of the breed and others disseminated by well-meaning pit bull advocates. A few of the most common myths follow:
“Pit bulls have locking jaws!” This is patently false. There is nothing unique about the anatomy of pit bull jaws. They do not “lock.” The pit bull’s fighting style, like that of other terriers, usually involves grabbing and shaking. Perhaps because of their hunting and bull-baiting history, some pit bulls also have a tendency to grab and hold on with determination. This does not mean that they can’t or won’t let go of another dog once they bite. However, because they’re powerful dogs, pit bulls do have strong jaw muscles. Like all dog parents, pit bull parents should know how to break up a dog fight.
“If a pit bull bites another dog, he’s going to start biting people next.” Research confirms that dog-aggressive dogs are no more likely to direct aggression toward people than dogs who aren’t aggressive to other dogs. In fact, some of the best fighting dogs are the most trustworthy with people.
“All pit bulls are gentle angels who can be left unsupervised with dogs of any size, cats and other animals.” Pit bulls aren’t vicious monsters—but they are dogs who have been bred to fight with other dogs. While some pit bulls are indeed very easygoing, others should not be left alone with other dogs, cats or other pets. Pit bulls are strong, determined dogs. It might not be a pit bull who starts a disagreement, but he may be the one to finish it.
“The dog park is a great place to socialize pit bulls.” This statement is sometimes true. Some pit bulls visit dog parks on a daily basis to frolic happily with many dog friends. For others, however, the dog park isn’t an appropriate place to play. This raises quite a dilemma for some urban pit bull parents. Pit bulls are high-energy dogs and need lots of exercise, but some just aren’t good candidates for the dog park. Because they’re very muscular and easily excited, friendly pit bulls can sometimes overwhelm and even injure their playmates during rough games. And pit bulls may become aggressive more quickly when exposed to the hectic, high-octane energy of a dog park environment. If there’s a squabble, a pit bull may be one of the first dogs to jump into the fray. For these reasons, many responsible pit bull parents find other ways to exercise their dogs. (See Pit Bull Needs, below, for tips on exercising your pit bull.)
Is a Pit Bull Right for You?
Although many are self-appointed lap dogs, pit bulls, like most terriers, can be extremely tenacious and energetic, too. They’re easily excited and, when in an agitated state, they may have little control over their behavior if they haven’t been taught to inhibit their impulses. This trait has given pit bulls a reputation for being “mouthy”—they tend to bite harder in play than other breeds. They are also quite stoic and can be insensitive to pain. These characteristics make the pit bull a sturdy, enthusiastic working dog and a fun-loving companion, but they can also make this breed a handful for some pet parents. Pit bulls aren’t for everyone.
Pit Bull Needs
All pets need parents who are dedicated to meeting their behavioral and medical needs. But pit bulls require a degree of special treatment. They’re simply a lot of dog. Always ready to go, they work hard and they play hard. They’re powerful chewers, they’re energetic athletes, and their active minds need plenty of exercise, too. If you think a pit bull might be the right dog for you, read on to learn about what he’ll need in life. Consider the following needs carefully before committing to pit bull ownership.
Thorough socialization. A young pit bull needs plenty of early socialization to people, dogs and other animals, beginning as young as seven weeks of age and continuing throughout adulthood. Providing daily socialization opportunities with new people and animals is most important during the sensitive developmental period that takes place between 7 and 16 weeks of age.
Gentle, consistent training. All pit bull puppies and adults need good training. Their pet parents should use methods based on positive reinforcement and consistent, fair rules. Although pit bulls are tough on the outside, they’re often extremely sensitive dogs, and harsh training techniques are neither appropriate nor necessary. Puppy Kindergarten is crucial for young pit bulls. After puppyhood, your pit bull will need continued gentle guidance throughout his life. Mature pit bulls should master basic obedience skills at the very least. If possible, pit bull parents should progress through intermediate and advanced obedience as well. Earning an AKC Canine Good Citizen (CGC) certificate is an excellent way to ensure that your pit bull is a polite ambassador for his breed.
Training and Games for Dogs.
Lots of exercise for the body. Because they’re athletic, high-energy dogs, pit bulls need daily aerobic exercise. If you’re a runner, an avid hiker, a Frisbee® enthusiast or a cyclist, a pit bull might be the ideal companion for you! Some pit bull parents arrange play dates with dogs who get along with theirs. Others run, cycle or use inline skates with their dogs. A rousing game of fetch or tug can also go a long way in tiring out a pit bull.
Lots of exercise for the brain. Mental workouts are also a must. They can be almost as tiring as physical exercise! You can stimulate your pit bull’s mind by providing food-puzzle toys, things to chew and other types of enrichment. Giving your pit bull entertaining “jobs” to do can help keep him out of trouble when he’s home alone, too.
Neutering or spaying. Pit bulls should be neutered or spayed. In addition to the health and behavioral benefits for your dog, neutering or spaying will help reduce the number of unwanted pit bulls who end up in shelters all over the country.
Making Your Pit Bull an Ambassador
If you bring a pit bull into your life, you’re taking on a big responsibility. Many people have never met a pit bull. Realize that these people, especially those who have heard media reports proclaiming the pit bull a dangerous animal, might be afraid of your dog. Your dog can either fuel pit bull myths or become an ambassador for his breed. It’s all up to you and the way you handle him.
As a responsible pit bull parent, you have the power to educate the public and change people’s minds about this much maligned breed. The best way to accomplish this is to have a well-controlled, well-socialized, well-behaved dog at your side. It’s hard for people to make the argument that your dog is vicious when they’re faced with a peaceful, gentle pet in an obedient heel or down-stay at your feet. Teaching your pit bull a few entertaining tricks, such as high five and roll over, can make him seem less intimidating, too. It’s also a good idea to thoroughly educate yourself about pit bull history and common breed characteristics. If you’re knowledgeable about the breed, you can help people understand what great dogs pit bulls can be. Please see the recommended resources below to learn where to find accurate information.
Breed-Specific Legislation (BSL) and Other Limitations.
BSL: Outdated but Still Around
Pit bulls and pit bull mixes are banned in certain American cities and in some foreign countries. The ASPCA, other non-profit organizations and pit bull advocates work hard to educate lawmakers about the futility of breed-specific legislation. Although the effectiveness of this type of legislation continues to be hotly debated, recent scientific studies comparing bites to humans before and after BSL have shown that the rates remained the same after legislation was enacted.
There are several reasons why banning certain breeds is not likely to be effective. First, the breeds most often involved in bite injuries and fatalities change from year to year and from one area of the country to another, depending on the popularity of different breeds. Although genetics do play a role in determining whether a dog will bite, other factors—such as whether the animal is well socialized, supervised, humanely trained and safely confined—play much greater roles. Second, correct breed identification by bystanders, pet owners, police, medical workers and animal control personnel is notoriously unreliable. It becomes virtually impossible with mixed breeds. Third, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which conducted a 20-year study that listed the breeds involved in fatal attacks, there’s currently no accurate way to identify the total number of dogs of a particular breed and, consequently, there’s no measure to determine which breeds are more likely to bite or kill. In fact, the CDC says its own 20-year study is not an appropriate tool for making breed-specific policies or legislative decisions. Instead, the organization advocates “dangerous dog” laws that focus on individual dogs of any breed who show aggressive behavior.
If you’re thinking about adopting a pit bull, consider the potential downside of BSL before making a commitment. What if you want to move to a city or county that doesn’t allow the breed? (If you’re already a pit bull parent and you’re moving to a different location, it’s wise to make sure that you’ll be able to keep your dog. Contact local authorities well in advance so that you can make informed decisions and necessary arrangements.)
Other Challenges to Consider
Other cons to pit bull parenthood include housing and insurance limitations. Some landlords won’t allow pit bulls, and some insurance agencies refuse to offer pit bull parents coverage. If you have a pit bull and you’re trying to find a place to live, it helps to make your dog his own “resume.” Include a charming photo, as well as a list of any obedience classes he has taken. Many landlords are impressed by a Canine Good Citizen certificate (mentioned above). If you can show a worried landlord that you’re a responsible pet parent and your pit bull is a friendly, well-behaved dog, the landlord may alter his or her rules.
Summing It All Up
Pit bulls aren’t all bad. They’re not ferocious beasts to be feared and reviled. Pit bulls aren’t all good either. They have teeth and the potential to use them, just like any other dog. Their powerful bodies and persistent nature make them formidable animals. As such, they should be treated with care and respect. They require a great deal of exercise, proper training and responsible management. But if you’re willing to devote the time and effort necessary, befriending a pit bull can be immensely rewarding. Along with their strength and spirit comes an inspiring zest for life and an ardent affinity for people. As any committed pit bull parent will tell you, beneath the brawn, most are faithful, fun-loving, affectionate companions. So before you make up your mind about them, get to know a few pit bulls. You may be surprised.
Recommended Reading and Web Sites
The Working Pit Bull by Diane Jessup (TFH Publisher)
The Ultimate American Pit Bull Terrier by Jacqueline O’Neil (IDG Books Worldwide)
The Pit Bull Placebo by Karen Delise (Anubis Publishing)
Useful Web Sites
www.workingpitbull.com: This Web site was created by Diane Jessup, author of The Working Pit Bull, Colby’s Book of the American Pit Bull Terrier and The Dog Who Spoke with Gods. It includes information about pit bull history, physical attributes, care, rescue and sporting activities.
www.pbrc.net: Pit Bull Rescue Central is a virtual shelter and educational resource for pit bull parents, foster parents and breed enthusiasts.
www.wallacethepitbull.ning.com: This site is dedicated to a Pit Bull named Wallace, once an unwanted shelter dog, who has won a number of national disc dog championships.
www.badrap.org/rescue/: This site was created by a group called BAD RAP (Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pit Bulls). It offers breed-related information, lists pros and cons of Pit Bull parenting and provides links for those interested in adopting Pit Bulls.
Why Should You Do It?
Many people can’t imagine life without dogs. We admire and adore them for their loyalty, unconditional affection, playful exuberance and zest for life. Nevertheless, dogs and people are very different animals. Although officially “man’s best friend,” dogs have some innocent but irksome tendencies—like jumping up to greet, barking, digging and chewing—that can make it downright difficult to live with them! To make the most of your relationship with your dog, you need to teach her some important skills that will help her live harmoniously in a human household.
Learning how to train your dog will improve your life and hers, enhance the bond between you, and ensure her safety—and it can be a lot of fun. Dogs are usually eager to learn, and the key to success is good communication. Your dog needs to understand how you’d like her to behave and why it’s in her best interest to comply with your wishes.
How Should You Do It?
If you ask around, you’ll get all kinds of advice about training your dog. Some people will tell you that the key is to use a “firm hand”—to make sure your dog doesn’t think she can get away with naughty behavior. Some people argue that you should only use rewards in dog training and avoid punishing your dog in any way. Some people insist that all you have to do is “be the alpha dog,” assert your status as the dominant leader of your “pack.” It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the glut of differing opinions out there.
Regardless of which method and techniques you use, effective dog training boils down to one thing—controlling the consequences of your dog’s behavior. If you want to influence the way your dog behaves, you need to:
Your dog might decide that people are scary since she gets hurt whenever she tries to greet them—and she might try to drive them away by growling or barking the next time they approach.
Your dog might decide that YOU are scary since you hurt her whenever she tries to greet people.
If you can teach your dog polite manners without hurting or frightening her, why not do it? Rather than punishing her for all the things you don’t want her to do, concentrate on teaching your dog what you do want her to do. When your dog does something you like, convince her to do it again by rewarding her with something she loves. You’ll get the job done without damaging the relationship between you and your best friend.
If You Don’t Like the Behavior, Take Rewards Away
The most important part of training your dog is teaching her that it pays to do things you like. But your dog also needs to learn that it doesn’t pay to do things you don’t like. Fortunately, discouraging unwanted behavior doesn’t have to involve pain or intimidation. You just need to make sure that behavior you dislike doesn’t get rewarded. Most of the time, dog motivations aren’t mysterious. They simply do what works! Dogs jump up on people, for example, because people pay attention to them as a result. They can learn not to jump up if we ignore them when they jump up instead. It can be as simple as turning away or staring at the sky when your dog jumps up to greet or play with you. As soon as she sits, you can give her the attention she craves. If you stick to this plan, your dog will learn two things at once. Doing something you like (sitting) reliably works to earn what she wants (attention), and doing things you don’t like (jumping up) always results in the loss of what she wants.
Control Consequences Effectively
As you teach your dog what you do and don’t want her to do, keep the following guidelines in mind:
Consequences must be immediate Dogs live in the present. Unlike us, they can’t make connections between events and experiences that are separated in time. For your dog to connect something she does with the consequences of that behavior, the consequences must be immediate. If you want to discourage your dog from doing something, you have to catch her with her paw in the proverbial cookie jar. For example, if your dog gets too rough during play and mouths your arm, try saying “OUCH!” right at the moment you feel her teeth touch your skin. Then abruptly end playtime. The message is immediate and clear: Mouthing on people results in no more fun. Rewards for good behavior must come right after that behavior has happened, too. Say a child in a classroom answers a teacher’s question correctly, gets up from his desk, sharpens his pencil and then punches another kid in the arm on the way back to his seat. Then the teacher says, “Good job, Billy!” and offers him a piece of candy. What did Billy get the candy for? Timing is crucial. So be prepared to reward your dog with treats, praise, petting and play the instant she does something you like.
Consequences must be consistent When training your dog, you—and everyone else who interacts with her—should respond the same way to things she does every time she does them. For example, if you sometimes pet your dog when she jumps up to greet you but sometimes yell at her instead, she’s bound to get confused. How can she know when it’s okay to jump up and when it’s not?
Be a Good Leader
Some people believe that the only way to transform a disobedient dog into a well-behaved one is to dominate her and show her who’s boss. However, the “alpha dog” concept in dog training is based more on myth than on animal science. More importantly, it leads misguided pet parents to use training techniques that aren’t safe, like the “alpha roll.” Dogs who are forcibly rolled onto their backs and held down can become frightened and confused, and they’re sometimes driven to bite in self defense.
Keep in mind that ditching the “alpha dog” concept doesn’t mean you have to let your dog do anything she likes. It’s fine to be the boss and make the rules—but you can do that without unnecessary conflict. Be a benevolent boss, not a bully. Good leadership isn’t about dominance and power struggles. It’s about controlling your dog’s behavior by controlling her access to things she wants. YOU have the opposable thumbs that open cans of dog food, turn doorknobs and throw tennis balls! Use them to your best advantage. If your dog wants to go out, ask her to sit before you open the door. When she wants dinner, ask her to lie down to earn it. Does she want to go for a walk? If she’s jumping up on you with excitement, wait calmly until she sits. Then clip on the leash and take your walk. Your dog will happily work for everything she loves in life. She can learn to do what you want in order to earn what she wants.
Training New Skills
It’s easy to reward good behavior if you focus on teaching your dog to do specific things you like. Dogs can learn an impressive array of obedience skills and entertaining tricks. Deciding what you’d like your dog to learn will depend on your interests and lifestyle. If you want your dog to behave politely, you can focus on skills like sit, down, wait at doors, leave it, come when called and stay. If you want to enhance your enjoyment of outings with your dog, you can train her to walk politely on leash, without pulling. If you have a high-energy dog and would like outlets for her exuberance, you can teach her how to play fetch, play tug-of-war or participate in dog sports, such as agility, rally obedience, freestyle and flyball. If you’d like to impress your friends or just spend some quality time with your dog, you can take her to clicker training or trick-training classes. The possibilities are endless! Please see the following articles to find out more about what you and your dog can learn to do together: Clicker Training Your Pet, Teaching Your Dog to Sit, Teaching Your Dog to Lie Down, Teaching Your Dog to Stay, Teaching Your Dog to “Leave It", Teaching Your Dog Not to Jump Up on People, Teaching Your Dog to Come When Called, Teaching Your Dog Not to Pull on Leash, Teaching Your Dog to Settle, Teaching Your Dog to Wait at Doors, Teaching Your Dog to Hand Target, Teaching Your Dog to Play Tug-of-War, Teaching Your Dog to Play Fetch, Impulse Control Training and Games for Dogs and Teaching Your Dog to Play Hide-and-Seek.
After you decide on some new skills you’d like to teach your dog, you’ll be ready to start training. To maximize her learning potential and make sure you both enjoy the training experience, keep the following basic tips in mind:
An Ounce of Prevention
If your toddler was repeatedly sticking her fingers into open electrical outlets, what would you do? Would you sit her down and try to explain why that’s not a good idea? Would you smack her every time she did it? Nope, you’d probably buy some outlet covers. Voilà! Problem solved. Prevention is sometimes the best solution. When training a dog, the easiest way to deal with a behavior problem might be to simply prevent the undesired behavior from happening. If your dog raids the kitchen trash can, you could spend weeks training a perfect down-stay in another room—or you could move the trash can to a place where your dog can’t get to it. Prevention is also important if you’re trying to train your dog to do one thing instead of another. For example, if you want to house train your dog, she’ll learn fastest if you use a crate to prevent her from making mistakes inside while you focus on training her to eliminate outside.
Let Your Dog Be a Dog
Many behavior problems can be prevented by providing “legal,” acceptable ways for your dog to express her natural impulses. There are some things that dogs just need to do. So rather than trying to get your dog to stop doing things like chewing, mouthing and roughhousing altogether, channel these urges in the right direction. Increased physical activity and mental enrichment are excellent complements to training. Please see our articles, Enriching Your Dog’s Life, Exercise for Dogs and How to Stuff a KONG® Toy, to learn more.
Finding Help and More Information
If you’d like to learn how to train your dog or if your dog has a behavior problem you’d like to resolve, don’t hesitate get help from a qualified professional trainer or behaviorist. To learn more about locating the right expert for you and your dog, please see our article, Finding Professional Help. Many Certified Professional Dog Trainers (CPDTs) and Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (CAABs or ACAABs) offer telephone consultations, in-home private consultations and training sessions, and group classes.
There are also a number of excellent books and DVDs to explore. Here are some of our favorites:
The Power of Positive Training by Pat Miller (and other books by her)
Maran Illustrated Dog Training
Dog-Friendly Dog Training by Andrea Arden
The Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson
How to Teach a New Dog Old Tricks by Ian Dunbar, PhD
Take a Bow-Wow! video series by Virginia Broitman and Sherri Lippman
New Puppy, Now What? DVD by Victoria Schade
Clicker Magic DVD by Karen Pryor
Dogs are born to work for a living. They’ve worked alongside us for thousands of years, and most are bred for a particular purpose, like hunting, herding livestock or providing protection. Dogs’ wild relatives spend most of their waking hours scavenging and hunting for food, caring for offspring, defending territory and playing with each other. They lead busy, complex lives, interacting socially and solving simple problems necessary for their survival.
The most common job for our companion dogs today, however, is Couch Potato! They no longer have to earn their keep and instead have to adjust to our more sedentary lifestyles. They get their food for free in a bowl and are often confined, alone and inactive, for most of the day. This lack of purpose leaves dogs no outlet for their naturally active tendencies—physical and mental—and it contributes to the development of behavior problems.
Another problem modern dogs face because they rarely work anymore is a lack of opportunities to exercise. Some pet parents make the mistake of assuming that if a dog has access to a yard, she’s getting exercise. But your dog doesn’t run laps by herself in your yard—or do much of anything besides waiting for you to come outside or let her back inside. It’s the interaction with you that counts!
Problems That Result from Lack of Exercise and Play
Dogs can be like young children. If you don’t give them something constructive to do with their energy, they’ll find something to do on their own—and you may not like it! Some of the most common behavior problems seen in dogs who don’t get enough exercise and play are:
Benefits of Exercise and Play
The good news is that keeping your dog healthy, happy and out of trouble with daily exercise is a lot of fun and provides many benefits, including:
Before You Start Your Dog’s Exercise Program
Check with your dog’s veterinarian before starting an exercise program. He or she can check your dog for any health issues that may be aggravated by exercise and suggest safe activities. Some size, breed and age considerations are:
Breeds with short or flat noses (brachycephalic breeds) can have trouble breathing when exercised vigorously, especially in warmer climates.
Exercise is great for energetic young dogs, but sustained jogging or running is not recommended for young dogs (under 18 months) whose bones haven’t finished growing.
Because large dogs are more prone to cruciate ligament injuries, arthritis and hip dysplasia, sustained jogging can be hard on their joints and bones, too. If you’ve got a large dog, make sure she’s well conditioned before you start jogging together.
Once a dog reaches her golden years, osteoarthritis can cause pain and lameness after strenuous exercise. It’s much better to discover that your once-sprightly dog’s joints can no longer handle long hikes, for example, before you hit the trail.
Exercising Your Dog
With today’s more sedentary lifestyles, dog parents are often challenged to find enough outlets for their pets’ considerable natural energy. Dogs are more athletic than us. But take heart—there are a variety of ways to exercise your dog, from activities that don’t demand much energy on your part to activities that exercise both you and your dog. Dogs’ need for exercise varies depending on their age, size, breed and individual traits. Most dogs benefit enormously from daily aerobic exercise (exercise that makes them pant, like fetch, tug, running and swimming), as well as at least one half-hour walk. Choose activities that suit your dog’s individual personality and natural interests. Experiment with the ideas below to see what’s most practical and enjoyable for her and for you.
Exercise That’s Easy on You
Giving your dog enough exercise doesn’t mean you have to be athletic yourself. If you’d rather not run around or take long, brisk walks, consider two approaches to exercising your dog:
Focus on brain, not brawn. Exercise your dog’s brain with food puzzle toys, hunting for dinner, obedience and trick training, and chew toys instead of excessive physical exercise. Please see our articles, Enriching Your Dog’s Life and How to Stuff a KONG® Toy, to learn more about providing mental exercise for your dog.
Focus on games that make your dog run around while you mostly stand or sit still. Games that fit the bill include fetch with balls, Frisbees or sticks, Find It, Hide-and-Seek, catching bubbles (using a special bubble-blower toy made for dogs, such as the Bubble Buddy™), chase (a toy on a rope or stick), and round-robin recalls for the whole family. If your dog enjoys the company of other dogs, other easy options include taking her to the dog park, organizing play groups with friends or neighbors who have dogs or signing her up for dog daycare a few days a week. These options give your dog a chance to experience invigorating social play with other dogs.
Exercise for Extra Playful or Active Guardians
On-leash walks Did you know that dog owners walk an average of 300 minutes per week, whereas people without dogs walk only about 168 minutes? Apparently, our dogs motivate us to stay active! On-leash walks give dogs lots of interesting sights and smells to investigate. They may provide enough exercise for some toy breeds, senior dogs and other inveterate couch potatoes. Use an extendable leash, like the Flexi retractable leash or the WalkAbout™, to give your dog more freedom to explore, and walk briskly for 30 minutes. To spice up your walks, vary your route once in a while to give your dog new smells and sights to enjoy. If your dog is old, not accustomed to exercise, overweight or has a health problems, start with a 10-minute walk each day and gradually increase the duration. For healthy young or middle-aged dogs, leashed walks alone probably won’t provide enough exercise. Keep reading for more suggestions for adding vigorous activities to your dog’s routine.
On-leash running, inline skating or bicycling These are great ways to exercise a healthy dog and keep yourself fit, too. Teaching your dog how to walk without pulling on her leash is the first essential step to creating a safe and enjoyable on-leash jogging, inline skating or bicycling companion. If your dog forges ahead, pulls to the side or lags behind you when you walk, imagine the problems that could result when you're moving faster! Constantly pulling on the leash can damage your dog’s throat, and it’s no fun for you either. (Please see our article on Teaching Your Dog Not to Pull on Leash for more information.) Here are some tips and things to consider when you and your dog try life in the fast lane:
Additional tips for on-leash inline skating and bicycling Being on wheels when attached to a galloping dog can be a bit dangerous. Squirrels, bouncing balls, the neighbor’s cat and other things that might distract your dog aren’t just slight diversions. They could have you suddenly traveling at light-speed and spilling onto your face—or worse, spinning into the path of a passing car. So, just like with running on-leash, the first step to rollerblading or bicycling with your dog is teaching her how to run beside you without pulling. Dogs often get more excited when running than they do when walking, so it will take extra training to teach your dog to stay in position at a run. If possible, first teach her this skill while running yourself, as described above, instead of skating or cycling. If you plan to cycle with your dog, it can be helpful to attach a Springer to your bike, a device that lets you attach your dog’s leash to the bike. The Springer has a coil spring designed to absorb and reduce the force of your dog’s sudden tugs if she lunges to the side, which will help you keep your balance and prevent your dog from pulling the bike over.
It’s important that you monitor your dog’s physical exertion while you’re on a bike or inline skates. It’s easy to over-exert your dog when you’re on wheels while she’s running. To avoid this, start with short distances at first and gradually increase them as your dog’s endurance increases. If your dog starts to lag behind a lot, you may be pushing her too hard or she might not be enjoying your outings. Slow down or consider taking your dog with you only when you plan to skate or cycle for short distances.
Off-leash exercise Off-leash walking, running, hiking or bicycling in a large, safe fenced property or park or in a forest are ideal activities. Your dog can set her own pace, sniff and investigate to her heart’s content, stop when she’s tired and burst into running whenever she likes. Be sure to have your dog well-trained to reliably come when called before you give her off-leash privileges. Please see our article on Teaching Your Dog to Come When Called for training information. Dogs should be allowed off leash only in safe areas where regulations permit. As you would during on-leash activities, be careful not to overestimate your dog’s abilities. If she seems stiff, sore and exhausted for hours after exercising, you’ll want to scale back next time.
Some breeds are natural water dogs and require no training or acclimation to water, but even dogs who aren’t bred for water activities can learn to enjoy a swim now and then. Here are some tips for fun and safe swimming with your dog:
Most dogs love to jump. You can make your own jumps from materials you have around the house, like cardboard boxes or a broomstick laid across two low pieces of furniture. At first, try using treats to lure your dog over jumps that are just a few inches high. As your dog catches on, you can gradually raise the jumps a little higher. However, keep jump heights at or below the level of your dog's elbows to avoid stressing her bones and joints. Also, avoid encouraging your dog to keep jumping if she hesitates or seems tired after a few minutes. She might be a little sore, especially if she’s over six years of age, and continued exertion could cause injury.
Dog exercise balls Dog exercise balls, such as the Boomer Ball® and the Best Ball, are made for soccer-style play. They come in different sizes and are made of hard plastic. Many dogs love to play with these, using their paws and nose to play soccer—with you, of course! You can also play soccer with your dog using KONG toys, which bounce in unpredictable directions because of their shape, or soccer balls made for dogs or humans.
Sports like agility, flyball, obedience, rally obedience, musical freestyle and tracking can give you and your dog a whole new world of fun exercise and competition to explore. Activities for specific breed groups include herding, lure coursing, hunt tests and go-to-ground trials.
Boredom and excess energy are two common reasons for behavior problems in dogs. This makes sense because they’re meant to lead active lives. Wild dogs spend about 80% of their waking hours hunting and scavenging for food. Domestic dogs have been helping and working alongside us for thousands of years, and most are bred for a specific purpose, such as hunting, farming or protection. For example, retrievers and pointers were bred to locate and fetch game and water birds. Scent hounds, like coonhounds and beagles, were bred to find rabbits, foxes and other small prey. Dogs like German shepherds, collies, cattle dogs and sheepdogs were bred to herd livestock.
Whether dogs were working for us or scavenging on their own, their survival once depended on lots of exercise and problem solving. But what about now?
Today’s Job Description: Couch Potato
Today that’s all changed. Now the most common job description for dogs is Couch Potato! While we’re away at work all day, they sleep. And when we come home, we serve them free food in a bowl—no effort required from them. They eat more calories than they can use. The result is dogs who are bored silly, often overweight and have too much energy. It’s a perfect recipe for behavior problems.
What Does Your Dog Need?
It’s not necessary to quit your job, take up duck hunting or get yourself a bunch of sheep to keep your dog out of trouble.
However, we encourage you to find ways to exercise her brain and body. Read on for some fun, practical ways to enrich your dog’s life, both when you’re around and when you’re not. You’ll find that these ideas go a long way toward keeping your dog happy and easier to live with. Try out a few and see what you and your dog enjoy most.
Tips for Alone Time
Because we all lead busy lives, our dogs often end up spending a good portion of their day home alone. If you give your dog “jobs” to do when she’s by herself, she’ll be less likely to come up with her own ways to occupy her time, like unstuffing your couch, raiding the trash or chewing on your favorite pair of shoes. Plus, she’ll be less likely to enthusiastically tackle you when you come home, after she’s spent a day doing nothing but recharging her batteries!
K-9 to 5: Will Work for Food
Food puzzle toys Food puzzle toys are sturdy containers, usually made of hard rubber or plastic, that hold food or treats inside but don’t give dogs easy access to the food. They usually have holes on each end or on the sides, and dogs must work by shaking, pawing, rolling, nibbling or licking the toy to get the food to come out. Food puzzle toys require time, patience and problem-solving—all skills that are good for your dog and will help her enjoy quiet time alone. Since our dogs’ wild counterparts spend much of their time scavenging for food, food puzzle toys offer a natural solution to pet-dog boredom. Puzzle toys also encourage chewing and licking, which can have a calming effect on dogs. Examples of food puzzle toys include KONG® Toy, the Buster® Cube, the Tricky Treat™ Ball, the Tug-a-Jug™, the Twist ‘n Treat™, the Atomic Treat Ball™ and the TreatStik®. You can find these toys online or at most major pet stores. Feed your dog at least one meal a day in a food puzzle toy to give her brain and jaws a great workout. You can also stuff these toys with your dog’s favorite treats or a little peanut butter, cottage cheese, cooked oatmeal or yogurt.
When you first introduce your dog to a food puzzle toy, make it really easy for her to empty it. She’s probably accustomed to getting her food served in a bowl, so she has some learning to do! Choose a toy with a large dispensing hole and make sure the goodies you put inside the toy are small enough to come out easily. As your dog becomes an expert, you can make it harder and harder for her to get food out of her toys. Use bigger pieces or food or, to provide an extra challenge, freeze the toys after stuffing them. You can also place the frozen toys inside a cardboard box or oatmeal tub so that your dog has to rip through the cardboard container to get to her meal. For recipes and detailed pointers on how to stuff a KONG® food puzzle toy, please see our article, How to Stuff a KONG® Toy. Hunting for dinner You can make your dog hunt for her meals by hiding stuffed food puzzle toys or small piles of her kibble around your house. Hide one of your dog’s meals right before you leave her home alone, and she’ll have great fun hunting her chow while you’re away. To try a variation on this activity, scatter a couple handfuls of kibble around your yard so your dog can search for the pieces in the grass. Most dogs love this game!
Dogs of all ages need to chew. Both wild and domestic dogs spend hours chewing to keep their jaws strong and their teeth clean. They also chew for fun, for stimulation and to relieve anxiety. Whether you have a puppy or an adult dog, it’s important to provide a variety of appropriate and attractive chew toys, like Nylabones® and hard rubber toys, natural marrow bones, rawhide and pig ears. Although chewing behavior is normal, dogs sometimes chew on things we don’t want them to. Giving your dog plenty of her own toys and chewies will help prevent her from gnawing on your things.
Just like people, dogs are social animals, and many enjoy spending time with members of their own species. Off-leash play with other dogs serves multiple purposes. It can give your dog opportunities to practice her social skills with other dogs, wear her out mentally and tire her physically. If your dog enjoys romping with dog buddies, give her regular opportunities to do so. Try taking her to a local dog park or doggie daycare. If you have friends or family with dogs, you can also arrange “play dates” at your respective houses. For more information about these activities, please see our articles, Dog Parks, Daycare for Dogs and Choosing Playmates for Your Dog.
Things to Do Together
In addition to fun activities when you’re not around, your dog also benefits from spending plenty of quality time with you. There are many fun and exciting things you and your dog can do together. Read on for some suggestions.
Don’t underestimate the value of a good walk or jog with your dog. Taking at least one outing per day will help keep your dog physically fit and give her opportunities to explore the world. Follow different routes and visit new places whenever you can so that your dog can experience novel smells and sights.
Games to Play
Learning how to play with your dog in ways that are enjoyable and safe for you both will greatly enhance your relationship. The games listed below will exercise your dog’s body and satisfy her deeply rooted instincts to search, chase, grab and tug. Tug-of-war Playing tug with your dog can provide a wonderful outlet for her natural canine urges to grab and pull on things with her mouth. You can also use this game to exercise your dog and teach her important lessons, such as how to listen to you when she’s excited.
Teaching your dog to play fetch is great for a number of reasons. It requires your dog to exert a lot of physical effort—but you don’t have to! You can also use the game of fetch to teach your dog useful skills, like how to drop things when you ask her to. Show your dog a toy and then toss it a short distance. (If she doesn’t follow the toy, try a different one.)
Praise her as she follows the toy. When she picks it up and starts to return to you, praise her. (If she doesn’t return to you, don’t chase her. Just encourage her or play with another toy yourself.) When your dog reaches you, position your left hand under her mouth to catch the toy. Say “Give” or “Drop it” and then put a delicious treat very close to her nose with your right hand. When she drops the toy into your left hand, give her your treat and praise her! When she’s good at fetching in the hallway, you can practice outdoors. After many repetitions your dog will learn the “Drop it” cue. Then you can stop using the treat. When you give the cue and she drops the toy, reward her by throwing the toy again.
Giving your dog a chance to use her powerful nose can really wear her out! It’s easy to teach your dog to find hidden treats. Just put her in another room, out of sight, while you hide a few treats. When you introduce the Find It game, start out by choosing hiding spots that allow your dog to find the “hidden” treats easily. Try placing treats behind the legs of furniture, partially in view. After you’ve hidden the treats, go get your dog and say “Find it!” right before letting her into the room. Encourage her to look around for the treats. (You might have to point them out the first few times you play the Find It game.) As your dog becomes better and better at finding the treats, you can hide them in more difficult places, like behind pillows or underneath objects. You can also play Find It with your dog’s favorite toy. Follow the directions above, but hide the toy instead of treats. When your dog finds it, you can play a game of tug or fetch as a reward. Hide-and-Seek This game is similar to Find It—but instead of teaching your dog to hunt her favorite treats or toys, you’ll train her to search for you! Like Find It, Hide-and-Seek will exercise your dog’s mind and give her an opportunity to use her amazing sense of smell. It can also help her learn to love coming when called.
Dogs were born to chase! Try tying one of your dog’s favorite toys to the end of a sturdy rope. You can attach the other end of the rope to a stick or plastic PVC pipe. Then use the stick or pipe to drag the toy around on the ground or twirl it in the air around you so that your dog can chase it. Many dogs find this game exciting and will chase the fast-moving toy until they’re exhausted. Of course, you want to let your dog catch it at times! If you’d rather not make a toy on your own, you can purchase one, such as the DogFisher™ made by Bamboo or the Chase It® Pet Toy. You can also buy an inexpensive lunge whip from a horse tack or feed store and tie a ball or other toy to the end of the whip. Tennis balls you can buy on a rope are good for this—or put a squeaky toy in a sock and tie the sock to the end of the whip. Then twirl the whip in a big circle and let your dog chase it. Your dog can get a good workout in a relatively small space. When playing outdoors with you, your dog may enjoy chasing a stream of water from a hose. Use a sprayer attachment for maximum enjoyment. Try spraying the ground a few feet away from your dog and then rapidly moving the stream of water away from her, along the ground. Many dogs can’t resist chasing and trying to bite the water. Another unique way to satisfy your dog’s desire to chase is to purchase a bubble-blowing toy made for dogs, such as the Fetch a Bubble Big Bubble Blaster or the Bubble Buddy™. These toys produce bubbles that taste like bacon, chicken, peanut butter or barbeque!
This is a fun obedience game you can play with the whole family. Have everyone spread out around your living room. Take turns calling your dog to you, and treating and happily praising her when she reaches you. Make her earn her entire dinner in a game of Round-Robin.
With family members at least 20 feet apart, have one person happily say your dog’s name and then give the cue “Come!”
If your dog hesitates, don’t say “Come” again (nagging just teaches dogs to ignore you) but encourage her with clapping, slapping your thighs or making high-pitched noises. When your dog gets to you, gently grab her collar, say “Good girl!” and treat her. So that she’s ready to focus on the next person when she’s done eating, look away from your dog, and put your hands and treats behind your back. Then it’s the next person’s turn to call. Whenever one person is calling your dog, the other(s) should remain quiet and boring (treats behind back and looking away) so your dog isn’t confused about whom to go to. When your dog’s good at recalls in your living room, spread out further around the house, even where you can’t see each other. When she’s a champ at that, take the game outside into your yard or a fenced area.
Enroll in a reward-based training class to increase your dog’s mental activity, enhance the bond between you and your dog, and help her understand your expectations of her. Contact a CPDT (Certified Professional Dog Trainer) for group or private classes that can give you and your dog lots of great skills to learn and games to play together. Please see our Finding Professional Help article to locate a CPDT in your area. There are many kinds of training to investigate, such as basic obedience training, clicker training and trick training. To learn more, please see our articles, Training Your Dog and Clicker Training Your Pet.
If you’ve got a competitive streak, you and your dog can participate in competition obedience or Rally Obedience (Rally-O), an exciting new sport in which dogs navigate a numbered course with their handlers and perform a series of heeling patterns and obedience exercises. If you have a mixed breed dog, please see www.apdt.com/po/rally, http://www.ukcdogs.com/WebSite.nsf/WebPages/Home or http://www.ambor.us/ for more information. If you have a purebred dog, please see www.akc.org/events/obedience or www.akc.org/events/rally.
No Free Lunch
When you and your dog have learned some new training skills, you can start a No Free Lunch program. Here’s how it works. You control all the valuable resources in your dog’s life, such as food, water, affection, toys, walks, petting and playtime. Instead of giving these things for free, ask your dog to work for them! The work will exercise her brain and help her become more obedient. Just give your dog what she needs and wants after she does something you ask her to do. For example, if your dog wants to go on a walk, ask her to sit before you clip on her leash and open the door. If your dog wants dinner, ask her to sit-stay while you put down her bowl. If your dog wants to play a game of tug, ask her to lie down before you start the game. Your dog will happily learn to work for everything she loves in life.
Short on Time?
It’s often difficult to work time with your dog into your hectic daily routine. But if you’ve got a busy schedule, you can find help.
Consider the following time-saving ways to add some excitement to your dog’s life:
Look into the possibility of taking your dog to a dog daycare at least once or twice a week.
If you live close enough to work, consider going home to spend your lunch break with your dog.
If you can’t make it home during the day, hire a dog walker to take your dog out for a stroll instead.
If you have friends or family members who don’t work during the day, ask if they’d be willing to let your dog visit them while you’re at work.