Teaching Life Skills to Pit Bulls

March 12, 2012  

If you have a foster pit bull or volunteer at the shelter, try these tips from an experienced trainer

By Lisa Gunter, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA

Valencia is an excellent teacher. She’s sweet, smart, utterly charming – and is a 5-month-old puppy I’m fostering for a rescue in San Francisco. Fostering Valencia has been a delightful experience, and she’s reminding me every day of the importance of teaching the dogs in our care the necessary skills to lead successful, happy lives.

During my career in shelter behavior and private training, a struggle for owners and concern of adoption organizations are dogs that are intolerant or selective when interacting with other dogs. It can happen with any breed, and pit bulls face this behavioral challenge too. Additionally, we’ve found that adolescent dogs and active breeds may need help learning how to keep their excitement in check and developing impulse control skills. Of course, we also know plenty of pit bulls that are wiggly social butterflies and lazy couch potatoes! But for those fosters and volunteers working one-on-one with dogs that don’t have forever homes yet, what can you be teaching your canine pupils to help them put their best paw forward?

Begin setting the stage for good behavior by meeting your dog’s physical and mental needs. It’s useful to think beyond dog-to-dog play and explore activities that involve your direct involvement like hiking, running, fetching, swimming, biking, scootering or even using a treadmill. A flirt pole and stuffed toy can provide an exciting high cardio workout.

Whether you’re a foster home or shelter volunteer, use appropriate walking equipment when you’re out and about with your dog to promote good leash skills and reduce pulling. With many reactive dogs, poor leash skills lead to increased arousal, creating a situation ripe for frustration and poor interactions with other dogs. Using the right tools prevents practicing unwanted behavior, so for dogs that strain mild to moderately on leash, check out SENSE-ation harnesses by Softouch Concepts. For dedicated pullers, the Holt head collar by Coastal is an excellent management choice.

Along with consistent exercise, provide regular outlets for your dog’s beautiful mind. Use food-dispensing toys like the Genius or Wobbler by Kong for a 15- to 20-minute mentally challenging feast. If your dog enjoys chewing, channel that skill into well-suited items like cow hooves, antlers and appropriate raw, meaty bones. With foster homes that have resident dogs, separate your pups into different rooms or crates so that they can enjoy their toys without the potential of a scuffle.

Don’t be afraid to play tug with your dog. It’s an excellent mental and physical outlet that can help your dog develop the necessary skills to turn on and off their excitement. Valencia and I play this game to teach arousal control but also help her learn how to eventually use this skill during play with other dogs – an important ability for young, boisterous dogs. But to experience the training benefits of tug, it’s important to be clear about its rules. Check out San Francisco SPCA’s handout for more information.

An emphasis on impulse control is crucial for instilling the type of manners we want to see on a daily basis. Implementing a “Say Please” approach where your dog sits politely for things he/she enjoys (getting the ball tossed, being petted or sharing the couch) is an easy way to bring a bit of order to the canine chaos. Teaching practical skills such as food bowl and door waits, stays and leave-its helps your dog learn that patience and calm get him/her the best things in life.

Lastly, a really reliable recall is so important if you want to build a connection with your dog where he/she is aware of your movements and responsive even when off leash in the presence of tough distractions. It’s particularly useful if your dog’s interacting or playing with other dogs, as your call can help your dog move out of rough-and-tumble play before the excitement spills over into aggression. I’ve had the most success teaching this skill by building excellent name recognition, rewarding eye contact and practicing recall skills on leash first before taking them on the road. Check out one of my favorite books on the subject, Monika Gutmann’s “Line Training for Dogs: How It’s Done,” for step-by-step instructions.

About the author: Lisa Gunter, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, has worked with dogs and cats at animal shelters and with their guardians for nine years. She received her training certification from the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers in 2007 and earned her behavior consulting certification in 2011. She is an American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen (CGC) and Association of Pet Dog Trainers Canine Life & Social Skills (CLASS) evaluator. During her career, Lisa has supervised the dog program at Pets Unlimited, managed the shelter behavior departments at the Dumb Friends League and Animal Humane New Mexico, and currently coordinates behavior and training services for Pawsitive Tails in San Francisco. She shares her home with her Border Collie Sonya, Lab/Poodle mix Sweets and three charming chickens.

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