Introducing Rules and Structure to Help a Pair of Pit Bulls Behave Better

By: David Codr

Published Date: November 5, 2016


Bones and Elsa are a pair of four-year-old Pit Bulls who live in Papillion, Nebraska. Their guardian booked a dog obedience training session to put a stop to their unruly behavior; overexcited play, ignoring or not responding to their guardian, destroying things, stop dog barking, fence running and some accidents.

I always enjoy working with Pit Bulls. I find them to be an extraordinary dog breed that is unfortunately very misunderstood by most people. In fact, back in the day, Pit Bulls were one of the most trusted dog breeds there were. People used to leave young children alone with their Pit Bulls so often the breed picked up the nickname of the Nanny Dog. They are extraordinarily loyal and this trait has unfortunately been misused by some really bad human beings.

People who fight, or abuse Pit Bulls take advantage of the breed’s deep-seated desire to please their humans. Even when the human is abusing the dog, the dog frequently acts as if it is the one that did the wrong thing. This amazingly resilient loyalty is one of the things I admire most about Pit Bulls.

The dog’s guardians were out running some errands before the session. When they got back, they waited outside so that I could see how the dogs behaved when they first arrived home.

The dogs were obviously extremely excited to see their humans and be released from the kennels. But knowing that a big part of these dog’s problems was a lack of control, I knew that we needed to set the tone early. Time for some basic kennel training.

I asked the guardian to let me release the dogs from their crates so that I could show her a structured way to do this and help the dogs practice some self-control.

When the dogs are in their crates, its the crate that is controlling the situation. By opening the door and then stepping away from the entrance in a measured way, we can help the dogs develop some self control as there is nothing but air between them and freedom. Repeating this exercise helps them develop control while simultaneously teaching them the only way to move forward is by being calm.

Keeping the dogs calm or helping them understand that is what is expected was going to be a recurring theme for this session.

When we sat down in the dog’s living room I got a clear example of how out of control the dogs had been. The carpet had been soiled so many times that the guardian had ripped it out. That didn’t stop the dogs from chewing on the padding or anything else that looked fun to chew that they found inside the home.

I often tell my clients that their dogs are going to chew. Either we can provide them with appropriate chew items, or the dogs will decide what to chew on their own. Dogs almost always have more expensive taste.

The guardian had recently picked up a pair (2) of antlers, but as far as I saw that was the only appropriate chew toys they had access to. I asked the guardian what else was available and she scoffed when talking about Kongs and other so-called indestructible toys. Her dogs had made short work of virtually anything that she had gotten for them.

Because these dogs obviously had a hearty desire to chew, I spent the next few minutes going over some chew toys options.

By providing the dogs with toys that satisfy their chewing needs, the guardians can help the dogs stop chewing things up.

But providing appropriate chew toys is just the start. It was clear that these dogs did not understand what it was the guardians wanted from them. I find a big part of my job is to act almost as if I am a translator. I find people miscommunicating what it is they want from their dogs is one of the most common problems that I have to fix.

A perfect example of this occurred while I was suggesting some rules for the guardian to incorporate. Both dogs kept on invading her personal space or nudging her for attention. It was easy to see why they did this, The guardian was inadvertently telling the dogs she likes it.

It’s so important to remember that anything a dog is doing while we pet it is what the dog thinks it is being petted for. If the guardian can get into a habit of not petting the dogs for invading her personal space, they will be less inclined to do so.

But stopping the rewards is only going to accomplish part of this. It will be necessary for the guardian to actually disagree with the dogs in a way that they understand for this change to take place. I spent the next few minutes going over some nonverbal ways to communicate or disagree with the dogs.

Usually I have to look for exercises or opportunities to practice what I teach my clients, not in this case. The guardian was able to immediately put these new nonverbal communication cues to use by starting to claim her personal space.

It took a couple of minutes and quite a few corrections or disagreements, but eventually both dogs got it. It was great to see them starting to leave a 12 inch buffer between them and their human on their own. In many situations, distance equals respect to dogs.

I recommended that the guardian continue to utilize these nonverbal communication methods and to try to be proactive about using them. Many people wait for a dog to break the rules or get way over the line before they disagree. But waiting this long can sometimes confuse a dog, or at the very least make it difficult for the dog to stop.

Just like humans who get into an argument about politics, religion or anything else – the longer the argument goes typically the more intense and heated the exchange is. By simply recognizing that the dogs are about to break a rule, and then putting a stop to it before it actually happens is one of the most effective ways to get dogs to listen.

Because the dogs were easily distracted when the guardian was interacting with them, I spent the next few minutes going over a Focus exercise. This will be an exercise that the guardian will need to practice with each dog individually every day for a week or two.

This simple exercise can go a long ways towards distracting a dog from breaking a rule, barking or engaging in any other unwanted behavior. However in order for it to work properly, the guardian will need to establish it by short 1 to 2 minute practice sessions multiple times a day over the next few weeks.

As I was going through the focus exercise with Elsa, Bones was barking while standing on the back deck outside. Halfway through the exercise, the family’s daughter decided to let Bones into the room. This is usually how they respond when the dog is barking excitedly outside.

Because Bones was barking at people passing by the backyard in a territorially-alerting fashion, I wanted to show the guardian a technique that she could use to help the dog develop a positive association with people passing by.

I pulled out some high-value treats and showed the guardian a simple counterconditioning exercise that she can practice with Bones and the other dogs.

By the end of the session, both dogs were starting to show respect for the guardian’s personal space, they had calmed down considerably and were listening to the new nonverbal communication methods.

Elsa and Bones are some really great dogs. As we went throughout the session and you could tell that they were playful and loving and simply lacked guidance from their humans. The guardian showered them with lots of love and affection which is always a good thing. But a lack of rules and structure had given the dogs the impression that they had the same authority as their humans.

Now that the humans know how to communicate what they do and do not want from their dogs, and have some exercises that they can practice to help the dogs develop self-control and respect for them, it shouldn’t be long before Elsa and Bones adopt new more desirable behaviors as the new normal.

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This post was written by: David Codr

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