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The Way Animals Learn is not Breed-Specific

*This is a repost of an article originally written for StubbyDog in August, 2013.*

Ever heard that a penny dropped from the Empire State Building will kill someone if it lands on his or her head? Or that Albert Einstein failed Math? Or that bats are blind? What about the claim that pit bull dogs (and other “strong” breeds) can’t be trained using positive reinforcement? That they require harsher methods to be “brought into line”?

These seemingly-unrelated contentions all have one thing in common: They’re myths. Baseless fallacies. Dreamed up by some person, for one reason or another, to describe a phenomenon that he or she didn’t fully understand. And, as it happens, these claims are not merely unfounded, but there is remarkable evidence to the contrary.

The truth is that pit bulls are, above anything else, dogs. The truth is that all dogs (and all animals, for that matter) learn the same way. The truth is that we can effectively train dogs, of all breeds, without hurting or scaring them. The truth is that all dogs learn via consequences and associations. And the truth is that (given the right motivation), these consequences and associations needn’t be painful or frightening. And if they needn’t be, they shouldn’t be.

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The foundation of animal learning is actually pretty simple: Animals learn via consequences and associations. But how do we apply these theories in real-world settings, when a squirrel or an enticing smell is far more interesting to our dogs than we are? The answer is just as simple: we find the right motivation, and adjust criteria accordingly. So, let’s break this down.

Learning via Consequences

The techie term for this type of learning is operant conditioning. Dogs learn by the immediate consequences of their actions. In their view, there are good consequences and bad consequences, and they’re constantly trying to start or keep the good stuff, and avoid or end the bad stuff.

Those of us who elect to train without force or fear leverage the good stuff, i.e. rewards. We reward the dog for performing behaviors that we’d like to see more of (aka positive reinforcement) and remove rewards for behaviors we’d like to see less of (aka negative punishment).

Dogs repeat behaviors that are reinforced; they learn, remarkably quickly, that’s how they get the good stuff. If the dog sits, he gets a cookie. If he walks on a loose leash, he gets to continue moving forward. If he comes when we call him out of play at the dog park, he gets to go back and romp around with his buddies. It’s important to remember that this law still applies regardless of our intent in changing the dog’s behavior. So for example, if the dog jumps to greet us when we come home at the end of the day, and we pet him and tell him how much we’ve missed him, we are rewarding jumping. Similarly, if we leave our dinner on the countertop, and the dog gets a hold of it, counter-surfing has been reinforced, and we’re likely to see more of it. Dogs do what works for them.

In the same way, dogs cease behaviors that are punished; they learn that those behaviors terminate the good stuff. If the dog jumps to greet, he is ignored. If he pulls on-leash, he can no longer move forward. If he mouths us when he’s over-excited during play, he gets a time-out. With repetition and consistency, the dog learns that unwanted behaviors don’t work for him, and he offers those behaviors less and less.

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Training that incorporates the reward and reward-removal methods discussed above yields behaviors that are more reliable than those achieved through traditional methods, which focus heavily on the “bad stuff.” Apart from simply not having the stomach to knowingly inflict pain on or instill fear in a dog, I choose reward-based methods because they don’t have the same negative side effects (exacerbating reactivity, aggression, learned helplessness, etc.) as traditional methods. When we incorporate bad stuff into our training repertoire, we run the risk of creating negative associations with any number of things. Actually, let’s talk more associations.

Learning via Associations

The techie term for this type of learning is classical conditioning. Remember Pavlov’s dog? He learned that the sound of a bell meant that food was coming, and eventually, the bell elicited the same response (salivating) as the food itself. The dog made an association: Bell predicts food. Pavlov is always on our shoulder, in all of our interactions with our dogs.

What does your dog do when you pull out his leash? Chances are, he perks up, or wags his tail, or does a little happy dance. He has learned that the leash predicts a walk. What about when you open the pantry and rattle his favorite bag of treats? He probably runs up to you and gazes into your eyes expectantly. He has learned that this action predict treats.

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But associations can be negative, too. How does your dog react when you break out the nail clippers? If you’ve taken the time to properly condition him to grooming, he may respond happily, but many dogs become fearful at the mere sight of nail clippers. They have learned that they predict restraint, or other scary stuff—like you accidently clipping past what doesn’t hurt.

It’s important to make a distinction between behaviors (like sitting, staying, jumping, or demand barking), which animals use to produce consequences; and displays of emotions (like wagging tails, twirling in delight when you come home at the end of the day, growling or baring teeth), which are responses to various stimuli. The key difference is the dog’s ability to influence outcomes. Most dogs will happily sit for a cookie; they use the behavior of sitting to produce desired consequences. But what about a dog that bolts to the front door every time the doorbell rings? He does so because he’s learned that the doorbell predicts visitors. He can’t influence the outcome of visitors arriving, but he anticipates their arrival when the doorbell tips him off.

This distinction may seem trivial, but in reality, it’s gargantuan. Have you ever heard that you shouldn’t pat your dog when he’s fearful? That it will “reinforce” his fear? Or that you should never feed your dog when he’s barking and lunging at other dogs, as you’d be rewarding “bad” behaviors? Actually, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

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Imagine that you have a deathly fear of spiders. And while you’re out on a leisurely stroll, a giant, hairy spider lands right in front you. You scream in fear, run in circles, and cause a huge scene. But what if someone handed you a hundred dollar bill in the midst of your panic? And what if this happened ten times throughout the course of your walk? Do you think that, by eleventh time, you might be a wee bit less fearful the next time you see a spider? You absolutely would. In fact, you might even learn to enjoy seeing them, since they predict hundreds.

But what if each time you saw a spider, someone strangled you, forced you to sit on the ground, and yelled at you? By the eleventh encounter, do you think you’d feel any better about spiders? Absolutely not. In fact, you’d probably become more fearful of them, since they predict abuse. This sounds barbaric, but it’s precisely what we do to our dogs every time we “correct” them for reacting towards other dogs, or skateboards, or old ladies with canes. In our attempts to teach them that barking and lunging is unacceptable, we’re proving them right. We’re telling them that there is a reason to be upset.

Emotional responses cannot be “reinforced.” They can be modified, however, for better or for worse. In the world of dog training, we’re (hopefully) trying to replace negative associations with positive associations, so that our dogs are no longer motivated to react. We do this by teaching them that fear-evoking stimuli predict good things.

Motivation

But learning cannot happen without motivation. As noted above, there are four ways to motivate dogs. They will work to avoid and/or terminate bad stuff (leash jerks, electric shock, squirts from a water bottle, etc.) or to continue and/or initiate good stuff (food, play, access to comfortable resting places, etc.). Luckily, we don’t need to exploit the bad stuff to motivate dogs. They, like all properly functioning animals, are motivated by food. They wouldn’t be alive otherwise.

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“But my dog has no interest in food when there are distractions!” To be 100% honest, I cringe every time I hear this from one of my students (even though I used to say the same exact thing). The reality is that something else in the environment is more motivating than our food rewards. This is where value comes into play.

Let’s revisit our spider example. What if every time you saw a spider, someone offered you a dollar bill? Would that be potent enough to change your deep-seated fear of spiders? Probably not. That doesn’t mean that you’re not motivated by money; it means that a dollar isn’t valuable enough to trump your fear.

The doggie equivalent of a dollar bill might be a piece of kibble or a dried food treat. That might be valuable enough to get some sits or down-stays in your living room, but in a high-distraction environment, it probably won’t cut it. So that’s when we break out the good stuff—the doggie equivalent of a hundred dollar bill. This might be tiny bits of boiled chicken, steak, or tripe. For dogs with strong prey drive, it might be a game of tug. It might also mean that we need to create distance, or lessen the intensity of the distraction. Going back to the spider example, a twenty dollar bill might get the job done if the spider were twenty feet away. When training, always consider what competing motivators you’re up against, and make adjustments accordingly.

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But What about Pit Bulls?

So we’ve managed to boil down the basic principles behind animal learning without once using the word “pit bull.” And that’s kind of the point. Pit bulls are just dogs. They, like all other breeds, are motivated by rewards. In fact, they’re a pleasure to train with the “good stuff.” Generally speaking, positive reinforcement trainers love them. Of course there are exceptions, but the overwhelming majority of the hundreds of pit bulls I’ve worked with are highly food-motivated, driven, clever and delighted to work for rewards. And when it comes time to do demonstrations in the all-breed classes I teach, I invariably scan the room for pit bulls to use. They make me look good.

6 Reasons Why Pit Bulls Make Great Pets

You are considering adopting or buying a dog, and one breed you are considering is a Pit Bull Terrier, or one of several breeds that are closely related to this breed. It is important that before you take any steps towards becoming an owner that you thoroughly research the breed so that you understand the challenges of owning this loyal, yet controversial breed.

99% of issues that arise with pit bulls have to do with owners who are idiots. The truth is that this breed has many good traits. A super-dog, if you will. And although the media focuses on the negative aspects, in reality they can be awesome pets for the smart owner. Here are six reasons why:

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1. Pit Bulls are Affectionate Companions

Pitbulls are wiggly, cuddly, affectionate dogs. If you don’t like dog kisses then consider another breed, because most pitbulls love licking. The same goes if you have children and you don’t want them to be a regular target for face washes.

Pitbulls are not aloof – they like to remind you regularly of how they feel about you, and in general this means a lot of tail wagging and kissing.

2. Generally Healthy and Easy to Care For

Yes, pit bulls require a reasonable amount of attention. They do not, however, need a lot of care. They have short coats and are normal shedders, and only need to be brushed semi-regularly.

They don’t tend toward genetic disorders like some other breeds, although they should be inspected at puppyhood for signs of hip dysplasia, but this is a good idea for most medium to large breeds anyway. Most pit bulls do not get larger than 50 to 60 pounds, although there are some larger sub-breeds.

And as long as you exercise the dog regularly, a pitbull can be very comfortable in a small dwelling.

3. People-Orientated, When Socialized Properly

Pitbulls love people. Although this breed frequently gets a bad rap in the media, if you have ever met a pitbull that was raised by a loving, conscientious family then you will understand how much they like to be with people.

The downside of this personality trait is that they can get overexcited when they meet new people, which is something that needs to be addressed through training and positive reinforcement.

4. Pit Bulls are Loyal to their Owners

Your pit bull will be you and your family’s best friend from the day you take them home to the day they pass away. While they will be naturally protective of their family and their property, because pitbulls are so people-orientated they do not make good guard dogs.

Unless you just want them to smother intruders with hugs and kisses.

5. Eager to Please

A pitbull will always do it’s best to make you happy, as long as you are clear about what you expect from them. Many people will mention the fact that this breed is notoriously stubborn, but once they realize that you are the boss, they will work hard to ensure that you were happy with them.

This breed can be challenging, and is not recommended for first time dog owners as you need to be comfortable and confident that you can handle the breed, otherwise they will pick upon the fact that you are less than sure of yourself.

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6. High Tolerance for Pain

Sometimes presented as a negative trait, the fact that pitbulls have a high pain tolerance makes them exceptional family dogs. They easily (and happily) put up with the rough play of children without reacting. At the same time, pitbull owners may have to invest in prong collars, as the shoulder and neck strength of the pitbull means that sometimes an average collar will not do.

It is important that when considering a pitbull as a pet that you carefully screen all puppies and adult dogs to ensure that they respond positively. Dogs of any breed that show fearfulness or aggression towards people or other dogs should be avoided, particularly as a family pet, unless you are willing to put in a lot of extra time and money into behavioural training.

To be a successful and responsible pitbull owner you need to at all times have your pet under control. Dogs should never be left unsupervised with other dogs or children, and should never be allowed to roam off leash except in controlled dog-friendly spaces. Remember that as a pitbull owner you are charged with showing the positive side of this breed, so make sure that you always have a friendly and well behaved pet.

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Dog Aggression in Pit Bulls | PitBulls

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Dog aggression is a common issue in pit bulls. In fact, the UKC’s official breed standard for the American Pit Bull Terrier states that “most APBTs exhibit some level of dog aggression.” But while dog aggression may be normal in pit bulls, that doesn’t mean it can’t become a problem.

Dog Aggression vs. Human Aggression

When we talk about aggression in pit bulls, it’s very important to distinguish between aggression toward other dogs and aggression toward humans. PETA propaganda notwithstanding, the two are in no way related. The former is common in many breeds, including pit bulls, while the latter is extremely unusual in our breed. A pit bull who displays any aggression toward humans, no matter how slight, is not temperamentally sound and should be spayed or neutered immediately to make sure they don’t reproduce. The owner should also seek out professional help from an experienced canine behaviorist.

Levels of Dog Aggression in Pit Bulls

Instead of defining dogs as “dog aggressive” or “not dog aggressive,” it helps to think of dog aggression in pit bulls as a continuum. On one end of the spectrum, we have the social butterfly. This dog gets along with everyone and is always eager to make new canine friends. He/she is very forgiving of “bad behavior” and seems to tolerate even obnoxious dogs with a relaxed, easygoing demeanor.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the highly dog aggressive pit bull. This dog must be kept separate from all dogs, all the time. He neither likes, nor accepts other dogs, and taking this dog for a walk is highly stressful because he lunges toward anyone on four legs.

Most adult pit bulls fall somewhere between these two extremes. They may be generally friendly, but quick to put a dog who annoys them in his place. Or they might be fine around all dogs of the other sex, while attacking dogs of their own. Still others accept the dogs they know or live with, but aren’t trustworthy around strange dogs. Or they may be okay with other dogs as long as the other dogs clearly accept them as the boss. There are countless variations.

Raising Your Pit Bull Puppy to Be Dog-Friendly

Many pit bull puppies are social butterflies, but this frequently begins to change–often to the great surprise of novice owners who prided themselves on their dog-friendly pit bull–as the dog reaches social maturity around age two, though it can happen as early as eight months or as late as three years. Knowing this, you may wonder if there’s anything you can do to increase the chances that your pit bull puppy will remain dog-friendly as an adult.

The answer is “yes,” but the operative phrase is “increase the chances.” Because the genetic predisposition for dog aggression is strong in some dogs, nothing you do will ensure that your puppy grows up to be a dog-friendly adult. You can, however, increase the likelihood.

The key is to provide your puppy with frequent socialization opportunities with well-behaved, well-socialized, friendly dogs. It is critical that all the dogs your puppy meets are friendly and non-aggressive. The #1 reason (other than genetics) that previously friendly dogs become dog aggressive is that they were attacked or threatened by another dog. That’s why places like dog parks, where you have no control over the type of dogs your puppy will run into, are such a bad idea.

That’s also why it’s up to you to protect your puppy in the event that another dog tries to attack him. You are the pack leader, and your puppy looks to you for protection. Don’t make the common mistake of encouraging your puppy to “stand up for himself,” no matter how small or non-threatening the attacking dog may seem to you. That type of encouragement has created countless dog aggressive dogs.

In order to be effective, socializing your puppy with other dogs must be an ongoing process. Many people spend a few months actively socializing their puppy and then consider her “socialized,” but that’s not how it works. You must continue to provide your puppy with regular opportunities to socialize with friendly dogs as she grows up, including new dogs she hasn’t met before. Joining a training club or dog group in your area is usually the easiest way to accomplish this.

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Can Dog Aggressive Adults Become Friendlier?

But what if you have an adult pit bull who is already displaying signs of dog aggression? If you’re committed to putting in the necessary effort, dog aggressive adults can become friendlier or at least more tolerant of other dogs. Your pit bull’s strong desire to please you works to your advantage here, but it will still take a lot of work to see significant improvements in your pit bull’s interactions with other dogs.

Begin by clicking here . People often say that pit bulls attack without warning, but that’s not entirely correct. What is correct is that pit bulls may not display the classic warning signs everyone associates with an impending dog fight. The warning signs they display are more subtle, so the first thing you need to do is become a master of reading your dog’s body language.

For pit bulls who get along with dogs they know and like, but not with strange dogs, you will want to provide increased socialization opportunities with other dogs. These meetings should be on lead and take place on neutral territory (somewhere neither dog has been before). The first time you and the owner of the other dog get together, you may just want to take the dogs for a walk (try to alternate who’s in front) without letting them sniff each other. The next time, you can briefly let them check each other out.

If there’s any sign of aggression (this is where knowing how to read canine body language is crucial), pull the dogs away from each other before a fight ensues. After several more on-lead walks together, you can try again. If all goes well this time, start increasing the amount of time you let the dogs sniff each other. If the two slowly begin to hit it off, you will eventually progress to an off-lead encounter in a fenced area.

For pit bulls who act aggressively if they so much as catch a glimpse of another dog, a desensitization program is in order. A pit bull this dog aggressive may never like other dogs, but that doesn’t mean she can’t become desensitized to their presence.

If you decide to turn to a professional trainer for help, make sure you select someone who doesn’t employ positive punishment and negative reinforcement methods (see this article on clicker training for an explanation of the terminology). Punishing dogs for acting aggressively toward other dogs is entirely counterproductive, as your pit bull will begin to associate the punishment with the other dog, giving him even more reason for dislike and hostility.

This is not to say that you should reward your dog for displaying aggressive behavior. The key is to begin rewarding before your pit bull’s body language indicates aggression, while teaching him to keep his attention focused entirely on you. Practice getting and keeping your dog’s focus under increasingly distracting conditions until you are confident in your ability to do so.

Eventually you will attempt walking past a dog he would normally try to attack (on lead, of course), but you’ll get his attention (using praise, body language, treats, toys, or whatever else works for you) before the other dog is in sight and keep him focused on you until the two of you have walked passed the other dog. Over time, this will require less and less effort and become almost automatic, as your pit bull learns to focus on you and ignore other dogs.

Even the most dog aggressive pit bull can learn to at least tolerate the presence of other dogs (if only by ignoring them), provided you are prepared to put in the necessary time and effort.

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How to Socialize Your Pit Bull | PitBulls




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All dogs should be properly socialized. Having a well socialized dog in your home means your friends and family will enjoy coming over and look forward to seeing your dog as well as you, while your furry friend can enjoy the company of other canines and go out into the world with a relaxed attitude. On the other hand, a poorly socialized dog can intimidate visitors and make going places a hassle. If you don’t socialize your dog, both of you will endure a more stressful existence.

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Source: How to Socialize Your Pit Bull | PitBulls

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