The following is an excerpt from "The Complete Guide to Staffordshire Bull Terriers" by Dr. Joanna de Klerk, DVM. For more information visit the books Amazon Page.
Author Credit: Dr. Joanna de Klerk, DVM
The Staffordshire Bull Terrier can be an obstinate breed; however, Staffies are very intelligent and they think they are human, so with firm and consistent training they can become highly obedient. There is something very satisfying in owning an obedient Staffie, as you know that your dog is helping to dismantle the breed’s unfair reputation every time he meets a new person. An obedient dog is also less of a danger to others or to himself, and better able to live harmoniously in the family home. So, putting in the training at an early stage is the best favor you can do for your new Staffie puppy, as the vital training window is in the first six months before adolescence. Enrolling your pup for socialization classes as soon as he has completed his first course of vaccinations will lead on to obedience classes, and whether or not you have had dogs before, it can help to have the moral support of other owners and expert advice on hand in training your Staffie puppy. It’s also more fun and sets a routine that is easier to stick to.
If you have adopted an older dog that has not been fortunate enough to receive early obedience training, you may find the job more challenging. However, obedience classes are not only for puppies. As long as your dog is vaccinated and not aggressive, he will be welcome to join a class. Alternatively, if you are struggling with his training, you may consider individual sessions with a behaviorist. However disobedient your dog may be when you first adopt him, there will be techniques you can use to improve his obedience, and a behaviorist will be able to identify what motivates your individual dog.
The harsh and sometimes cruel methods of obedience training used in the past have fallen out of favor in recent times, because they do not create a bond of trust between owner and dog. Today, dogs are taught using positive reinforcement methods, which rewards a dog for a correct response.
Positive reinforcement generally uses a treat to reward correct behavior, and this may be a tiny piece of something irresistible such as sausage, or a small training treat from your pet store, or homemade dried liver chips. Just make sure you adjust your dog’s daily food ration accordingly. Some dogs that are not motivated by food may actually respond better to a favorite toy. Some classes also use a clicker to reinforce correct behavior, which can eventually be used without the treat. Just like “Pavlov’s Dog,” positive reinforcement uses “associative conditioning,” so with constant repetition, the dog knows exactly what to do on command by associating word and action.
There are many different approaches to obedience training, and the following sections just give one example for teaching the basic commands. If you have been taught a different way in classes, then as long as this is working, and it follows the positive reinforcement method, you should stick to it, as your dog appreciates consistency to avoid confusion.
How to Teach Sit
As a preliminary to teaching “Sit,” you should first teach your dog the “Look at me” command, because without your dog’s full attention you are fighting a losing battle, and Staffies are easily distracted.
Most Staffies are motivated by tasty treats, especially if you have something particularly delicious in your closed hand. Do not reward your dog for pawing at your hand, but when he is making eye contact alone, you should promptly say “Look at me,” and give your dog the treat. Initially, you should not use any new command to prompt an action, but only when the dog is actively doing the action you require. This is because he needs to associate the word with the correct action. As you repeat the exercise and your dog gets better at it, you can separate the command from the action by saying “Look at me” as a prompt to your dog to be still and make eye contact.
So, once you have your dog’s attention, and he now knows he can earn treats by doing what you are requiring him to do, show him the treat in your hand by bringing it to his nose, and then raise your hand. Your dog’s nose will follow the treat, and his hind quarters will instinctively lower.
You have created the “Sit” position in your dog without him being consciously aware of it, so you now need to associate the word “Sit” with the action. So only as your dog’s hind quarters begin to lower should you use the word “Sit.” Treat your dog, allow him to stand, and repeat the process many times.
As long as your dog remains focused, you can then separate the word from the action to make it a conscious prompt by telling your dog to “Sit” while he is still in the stand position.
It is very important to end the session on a positive note with a correct response, and to keep training sessions short, because once your dog loses focus, it will set the learning process back. Little and often is key to success.
How to Teach Stay
Once your Staffie knows how to sit on command, he needs to learn that he is still under your control, and not allowed to get up unless you allow him. This can be a challenge for a boisterous Staffordshire Bull Terrier. So do not expect too much from him too soon, as the length of time you can expect him to stay will need to be built up incrementally.
Alongside the word “Stay,” you need to teach the command “Free” to release your dog from the stay. When you first get your dog to sit, you still have his full attention, as he is expecting a treat. Therefore, you need to delay the treat for just a few seconds, and as he is quiet and expectant, use the command word “Stay,” because he is actively staying.
As you give your dog the treat, he is likely to get up, so you need to associate this release with the word “Free,” and as you give the treat and say “Free,” you should lead the dog away from the spot with a semi-circular sweep of your hand, then allow him the treat. This way, you are taking any decisions away from your dog and remaining the controller of his actions, which is important in your dog’s mind as he needs to learn to always defer to your commands to be an obedient dog.
Repeat the process several times to reinforce it, gradually extending the length of time you can keep your dog’s attention in “Stay.” As previously, do not extend the session beyond your dog’s concentration span, and always end on a positive note.
How to Teach Lie Down
Teaching “Lie down” adopts the same principle as teaching “Sit.” That is to say, you encourage your dog into the correct body position by the way you use the treat to guide his action.
Now that your dog also understands “Stay” and does not simply get up as soon as he has sat for you, he is ready to learn to lie down, which always impresses your visitors and shows them a Staffie on his best behavior.
With your dog in the “Sit,” tell your dog to “Stay” so that his attention is still fully on you in anticipation of the reward. You should then bring your hand containing the treat to the floor between your dog’s front legs. His head and neck will follow your hand, whereby you bring the treat along the floor toward yourself. As you do this, your dog’s forelegs will creep along the floor following the treat and instinctively he will lower his shoulders to the floor, creating the “Lie down” position. As his elbows reach the floor, use the command “Lie down” and treat your dog. You can now release him with the “Free” command.
Another technique, if you find that your dog’s hind quarters go up as his front legs go down, is to use your free arm like a limbo pole across his back, and continue to draw the treat toward you. As his body creeps toward the treat, he will be forced to lower his hind quarters under your arm.
Continue with as many repetitions as your dog’s concentration span will allow, and practice every day to drive the message home.
How to Teach Walk on the Leash
Staffordshire Bull Terriers are only medium size, but they are very energetic, strong, and muscular. Therefore, if they are not taught to walk nicely on a loose leash, they are very capable of pulling their handler over, or dragging them down the road. This is unsafe and unacceptable, so training your dog to walk on the leash is a high priority.
If you have a young puppy, you may find yourself with a ball of uncontrolled energy at the end of a leash, and your mission will be to tame your dog and get him to focus on you.
If you have adopted an older dog that has not been taught to walk on the leash, you may feel you are having to restrain him and it can be a real physical battle. An adult dog is a lot stronger than a puppy. You may find practicing in an indoor environment, such as training classes, helps your dog to focus as he has less to pull for without a horizon in his sights. Dogs can behave very differently indoors to out and it is helpful to start off where you are more likely to succeed. But you shouldn’t be discouraged once you move into an outdoor environment if your dog is immediately a hooligan again. Just continue patiently with the same techniques, as Staffies are very capable learners.
When training a dog to walk on the leash, the leash is usually attached to the collar, as the dog is more sensitive to contact. The exception would be if your dog pulls to the extent that he could damage the bones of his neck, in which case a harness is preferable. Control harnesses are a last resort if your basic training fails, but it is worth consulting a professional for help before resorting to a gadget to enforce leash-training. Choke chains should never be used as they can cause injury.
Once again, getting your dog’s attention is the first step to teaching him to walk on a loose leash. With your leash in your right hand, position your dog to your left, then take a few steps forward. If he rushes ahead, you should stop. When the leash is loose again, take a few more steps. If your dog walks nicely, even momentarily, slip him a treat from your left hand (it helps to keep these handy in a pocket or fanny pack). Always stop when your dog pulls on the leash. He needs to learn he will not get to where he thinks he is going by pulling. You are unlikely to make any progress that could count as a walk, but it is important to accept this is training and not recreation.
Once your dog has improved at paying attention and can walk more than a few paces on a loose leash, step it up by changing your direction frequently, keeping your dog focused and interested by being upbeat about how well he is doing! Staffies are excitable, so don’t overexcite your dog so much that he starts jumping up, and only slip him his treats when he is walking very nicely by your side.
If you have been practicing indoors or in your back yard and your dog has progressed well, you can now repeat the exercises in a wider outdoor environment. It is worth choosing an area without too many distractions, so go for somewhere without other people and dogs to start off with. Eventually you can graduate to the park and to busy urban environments, and wean your dog off the treat reward. Every new step may set your dog back as he deals with more space and distractions, but overall, he will be consolidating his progress.
This chapter has given a few suggestions for starting basic obedience training, but just as there are many different approaches, so are there many different Staffordshire Bull Terriers out there with a diversity of temperaments. It is important to stick with a training approach for long enough to give your dog a chance, but if it really isn’t working, another technique may be more successful with your dog.
If you are struggling, it is worth consulting a professional for advice. And if you have adopted your dog from a rescue center, they may have a behaviorist of their own who can help you for no extra cost.
It is worth bearing in mind that a previously well-trained dog may regress during adolescence from 6-12 months of age, and you should not lose heart, but simply keep up the training, taking a step back and returning to basics if necessary.
In general, though, consistent and patient reward-based training, along with a healthy dose of firmness, will earn your Staffie’s respect without compromising his affection. And while he may never join the circus, he will make you proud by learning basic obedience skills to make both your lives that much easier and safer.
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