Staffordshire Bull Terrier Behavioral Issues and Training

Staffordshire Bull Terrier Behavioral Issues and Training

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 is full of energy and can be headstrong, but they are a very intelligent and trainable breed of dog, and in most instances, firm and consistent application of reward-based training, otherwise known as positive reinforcement, will ensure that your Staffie grows up to be an obedient and loyal part of the family, and a worthy ambassador for a breed that is so often misunderstood.

If you are starting with a puppy, and your pup has been bred from parents with good temperaments, then you are off to a flying start. However, if your dog has not had such a good start in life, he may not have learned how to behave amongst his new human pack, and certain negative behaviors may have become engrained. This chapter gives a few tips about training your dog to fit into home life. It is usually perfectly possible to train your dog yourself, though puppy classes are a great help with socialization, expert guidance, and moral support. If your dog is more challenging, you should never feel you have failed if you call in a professional behaviorist. Quite often their experience will soon help you set your dog onto the correct path. Every caring owner wants to do the best for their Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and helping him learn acceptable behavior is the greatest favor you can do for your dog, ensuring he will never become another statistic in animal rescue.

Housebreaking

Housebreaking is the first thing you will need to teach your dog if you have just brought home a ten-week-old puppy. However, if you have adopted an older dog, there is a chance you may also have to teach him to toilet outside, especially if he has been kenneled previously and never lived in a family home. Retraining an older dog can be more of a challenge as you are having to overcome engrained behavior, but an adult dog does at least have physical control over his bladder and bowels, which a young puppy is still in the process of developing.

Staffordshire Bull Terrier black
Photo Courtesy – Helen Nolan

Whichever of these situations you find yourself in, you need to capitalize on the fact that all dogs have an innate instinct to keep their sleeping area clean. If a dog regularly soils his bed, he should see a vet, as he may have a physical problem. Even confined in a kennel or crate, a dog will do his business at the other end. This is one reason why, if you are crate-training your puppy, you should not get too large a crate, as he needs to see all of it as his bed, and hold his bladder and bowels until you let him out in the yard. Needless to say, this should be at frequent intervals while he is young and his control is not fully developed. Otherwise he will accidentally soil his bed, which will cause him distress and set back his training.

If you are not crate training, you still need to let your puppy out into the yard very frequently, to preempt any accidents indoors. Setting a regular routine will help, and always let your puppy out on waking, after eating, and before bed. When your dog is outside, you should simply observe him and recognize when he is about to do his business. Not every male puppy will cock a leg in the early months, so as with a female, look for an intention to squat, and then use your command word, “busy” or “pee-pees” or whatever word you wish to use. You then have every excuse to praise your dog profusely for doing the right thing, and he will soon learn to associate the word with the action, and relieve himself on command, which is extremely useful when you wish your dog to be comfortable before you go out, or last thing in the evening.

If your dog has an accident in the house, which is inevitable, you should never make a fuss, unless you catch your dog in the act, in which case you should whisk him outdoors to make the point that the yard is the place to toilet. Reprimanding your dog when you find a wet patch on the carpet will just confuse him, as he will not make the association if he did this a while ago. You may even make him stress-incontinent if you punish him for accidentally toileting indoors, which is counterproductive. You should just clean the area thoroughly with an ammonia-neutralizing product or a carpet shampooer if you have one, to ensure the dog is not drawn back by the smell to soil the same area.

If you have a male dog, you may find you have to contend with scent marking in the home, which is extremely unpleasant and unhygienic. Castrating your dog will usually eliminate or reduce this behavior.

If you have an adult dog that has been previously housebroken, but suddenly starts to soil the house, you should consider two possibilities. Has there been something unsettling for the dog that is causing a stress reaction? Or does the dog have a physical problem, such as a bladder infection, or in the case of a spayed female, a slackening of the urinary sphincter, as discussed in Chapter 12? Both of these conditions require veterinary attention but are usually easily treated.

Chewing and Destructive Behavior

If your Staffordshire Bull Terrier is a puppy, chewing is a completely natural behavior for him. It is a part of exploring his new world, and it also relieves the discomfort of teething. Between the age of three and six months, your puppy will gradually lose all his 28 baby teeth, and these will be replaced by 42 adult teeth. This is when there are extra teeth pushing through the gums, as well as larger teeth replacing those in the baby sockets. It is hardly surprising your Staffie pup is constantly aware of his mouth over this period, and will chew indiscriminately. As his owner, the trick to staying one step ahead of the game is to take away as many objects as possible that you do not wish him to chew, and replace them with objects he can chew safely. Some suggestions are given in chapter 10 about dental health, but popular choices are deer’s antlers (which will not splinter like bones), a Nylabone® (tough nylon chew), and a rubber Kong®, which can also occupy your dog by being filled with a tasty treat like pâté, xylitol-free peanut butter, or some of his daily kibble ration.

Staffordshire Bull Terrier brown
Photo Courtesy – Jashvir Singh

Older dogs that still like to chew can be given a commercial dental chew, a dried pig’s ear, various dried offal products, or a fresh bone (never cooked). However, do supervise your dog with chews that break down, in case a part of any of these should splinter or lodge in the gullet.

If you catch your dog chewing something he shouldn’t, such as your shoe, you should remove it with a firm “no,” but always replace it with an approved chew. This is because chewing is not a bad behavior, it is natural. However, your dog needs to learn what is appropriate to chew, and what he must leave alone.

Unfortunately, Staffordshire Bull Terriers can be prone to destructive behavior as they are high energy and easily bored. If you are very house proud, the Staffie may not be the breed for you, or you may consider a “trash room” for your dog, where you do not keep any valued things. However, if your dog is only destructive in your absence, despite being left with safe chews and toys, this may be a sign of separation anxiety, which is discussed next.

Separation Anxiety

Your Staffie was not born to be alone. He was raised by his mom in a pack with his siblings, and when you came along, you filled that newly made void in his life, and became his world. It is natural that he doesn’t want you to leave his side. However, life doesn’t work like that, and sometimes your dog will need to be left alone in the home. Whether or not your dog copes easily with this has much to do with his temperament. However, you can teach him to feel calm and settled when you are not there, by giving him the confidence that you will always come back.

If you are crate training your puppy, you are at an advantage, because when you are out of the home, you know your dog is not destroying the house; the most damage he can do is to his bed. But you don’t want him to even feel stressed enough to tear up his bed, so you must begin teaching him to be left alone by just leaving him for a very short time, initially just a few minutes.

Always make sure your dog is comfortable before you leave him and has been outside to do his business. You can leave him with a safe, indestructible chew to distract him, and some owners like to leave the radio or television on to mask outside noises.

Do not make a fuss when you leave your dog. You should ignore him on your exit, and on your return. Otherwise he thinks being left is a big deal, but by downplaying it, you tell him it’s nothing to worry about. If you hear your dog whining, don’t come back through the door until he is quiet. Then return quietly through the door and let your dog out into the yard. Once he is calm, you can give him a pat and tell him he is a good boy.

Staffordshire Bull Terrier puppy look
Photo Courtesy – Jason Lee

Build up the time you leave your dog in gradual increments. You should not leave a young puppy for more than a couple of hours as he will need to toilet, and soiling indoors will set back his training. An adult dog should not be left for more than four hours. If you need to be out for longer than that, you should employ someone to come in and let your dog out for a comfort break.

If you live somewhere where the weather is favorable enough for your dog to live in the yard while you are out, and your yard is secure, you may eventually be able to leave your dog for longer as he is free to toilet as he needs. However, your bond is not helped by leaving him for long periods; he still needs company.

If you have adopted a dog with severe separation anxiety, this should have been flagged up by the rescue, as severely affected dogs may need someone around all the time and cannot be homed where the owner is out at work during the day. The Staffie is a breed that much prefers human company to that of other dogs, but if your Staffie is sociable and 100% non-aggressive with other dogs, you might consider getting him another non-dominant companion, but ideally not two males. If problems persist, it is worth consulting a professional behaviorist to look at your individual situation and use their experience to advise how you can best help your dog.

Building your dog’s trust is all a part of making him a settled and happy dog, and this is a gradual process. Remain consistent, and your dog will learn what is expected of him, and that you will never let him down.

Recall

One of the strongest attributes of the Staffordshire Bull Terrier working in your favor when recall training is the fact that your Staffie just loves humans, so being with you is his best thing, and unlike many other breeds, escape just isn’t on his radar!

Having said that, being outside is exciting for your dog. There are lots of new sights and smells, and if you are in a park there may be other dogs and people. Staffies are full of energy and readily stimulated, so in view of these challenges, you need to ensure that you are even more exciting to be around than the other things competing for your dog’s attention. An upbeat and excitable voice is a must, and some tasty treats in your pocket will help too. However, you are outside so that your dog can enjoy himself and explore his surroundings too, so you need to be able to give your dog permission to leave your side, and to be able to call him back reliably as well.

Giving your dog the “free” command as you send him away puts you in control of his free movement, so that you do not fully lose his attention and can call your dog back more readily. In the training stages, you should recall your dog frequently, and reward him when he returns to your side with a treat or praise. Also, don’t walk in a straight line, but keep changing direction, to make your dog keep his focus on you. Taking a ball out with you can help keep your dog’s attention on you, as Staffies love to play. However, you shouldn’t play ball or overexert a young puppy, as his joints and bones are still soft.

If your dog runs off, never chastise him on his return, or he will associate coming back with being told off. Early recall training should take place in a safe, enclosed environment like a securely fenced yard, field, or park, and away from traffic and other dogs. If your dog proves more challenging, you can consider a long training line attached to a harness (never a collar), to help your dog learn to respect his range. These long lines are best used away from other people as they can cause entanglement.

Teaching your dog good recall is a high priority with the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, especially if you plan to walk him in public areas, as many people, especially children and some parents, are wary of the breed, however unfairly. Also, Staffies can be reactive with other dogs, which is discussed in Chapter 7. Being able to control your dog is the best way to show the world that Staffies do not deserve their reputation, as well as ensuring everybody can enjoy their time outside.

Car Chasing

Not every breed of dog will chase cars, but this dangerous behavior is often seen in Staffies, as they are so energetic and drawn to moving objects. It goes without saying that no dog should be off leash near traffic unless he is completely bomb proof. But some dogs may be loose in their own front yard when a car comes by, and they will be drawn to chase it. The obvious answer is always to keep your dog behind a secure fence. However, as we are all fallible, and your dog may sometimes find himself off leash when a car passes by, if he is prone to this behavior, he needs to learn the “leave” command.

You can prepare for this by putting your dog on a leash and throwing a toy for him. His instinct is to go for the toy, but immediately after you have thrown it, you say firmly “leave,” and keep the leash tight. Treat and praise your dog for staying by your side. You are thus teaching your dog to override his chase instinct.

Build this up to having a friend run past or ride by on a bike, as car chasers are usually drawn to chase joggers and cyclists too. Tell your dog to “leave,” and restrain him with the leash, although giving him some slack allows him to make the choice of his own volition at this stage. Reward him for good behavior, and keep practicing until he is reliable 100% of the time.

Digging

Digging is part of any dog’s DNA, but unfortunately, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier can be a very determined digger, owing to his high energy levels and low boredom threshold. The Staffie is also a strong and muscular dog, so in a short space of time, he can make a large hole, and if he chooses to make this under your yard fence, he will soon have an escape route if he is outside unsupervised.

There are four approaches to controlling digging behavior in your Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and these are supervision, redirection, distraction, and prevention.

Staffordshire Bull Terrier ressting
Photo Courtesy – Brooke Downey

As you cannot deprogram your dog’s instinct to dig, you need to outsmart him by diverting his digging behavior to an acceptable area and not under your fence or in your flower border. Choose a spot and either dig it over to break the surface, or add sand to make a sand pit, or bury some things he will enjoy finding. Now supervise your dog, and when you catch him digging elsewhere, whisk him to his designated digging area. Hopefully he will find digging in this spot far more rewarding, and in time will understand the difference between acceptable and unacceptable places to exercise his urge to dig.

Staffies like to dig as it relieves boredom, but also because his primal instincts tell him buried food keeps longer and is safe from other predators. For this reason, a dog that digs should not be given bones unsupervised as he will instinctively want to bury them. However, if you bury a bone in his designated digging area it can be very rewarding for him, as long as you supervise to ensure he does not go off to re-bury it elsewhere.

You can distract your dog from digging out of boredom by providing alternative entertainment, such as activity toys like a Kong® stuffed with something tasty, or a safe chew. Don’t leave him with a ball, as he will obviously want to bury it!

To prevent your dog from digging in unacceptable places, you may need to consider burying your fence panels one or two feet into the ground, but another approach is to lay chicken wire or half-buried rocks along the base of your fence as this will act as a deterrent. There are products on the market aimed to deter dogs from digging in a favored spot, but other low-tech deterrents include chili sauce or even buried dog poo. However, there is no accounting for the dog that actually likes the taste of these things!

As with all training, the key is to keep it positive and consistent. Do not punish your dog for a natural dog behavior, and try to anticipate how his mind works to stay one step ahead of him!

Biting

Like chewing, biting is a natural behavior for a puppy, but it is vitally important that your puppy learns bite inhibition during his early training, as a dog that has missed out on this lesson may go on to use biting as a defensive action. Not only can this cause injury, but it does nothing to rehabilitate the reputation of the Staffordshire Bull Terrier.

If you are fortunate enough to be starting from scratch with a puppy, you will find he wants to mouth your hands the whole time, and sometimes he may nip. When playing with his littermates, puppies will squeal loudly when nipped by another, and this signifies they have overstepped the mark. You need to do the same. Also, you should reinforce the point by depriving your pup of what he wants, your attention. Turn your back on your puppy when he nips you, then return to play when he settles down.

Also, to train a dog out of mouthing behavior, you can hold a treat in your clenched hand without releasing it while he mouths your hand, then only open your hand when your dog takes his nose away. He will learn that he does not get what he wants by mouthing your hand.

This behavior should not be apparent in an adult dog, but some dogs who have not learned bite inhibition as puppies may demonstrate aggressive biting, which is a serious behavioral issue. It may even lead to destruction of the dog, so it needs to be addressed.

Dogs that bite out of fear or aggression usually show warning signs, such as rigidity or a drawing back of the lips, but children might not recognize these signs to back off. A behaviorist should be sought if your dog demonstrates aggressive biting, and he should always be muzzled in public.

Coprophagy

Coprophagy, also known as coprophagia, is a particularly gross habit common among Staffies, as well as some other breeds. It means they will eat their own feces, or that of other dogs, cats, or wildlife. Unfortunately, no scientific study has yet found the definitive answer for this revolting behavior, though theories range from dietary deficiencies, to a primal instinct to clean up, to rebalancing their microbiome, to simple greed and the acquisition of a gross appetite. And since we do not understand the reason for coprophagy, we cannot prevent it, therefore we have to manage it.

The answer, if your dog likes to eat poop, is to ensure as far as possible that he does not have access to it. This means keeping the yard clean and being vigilant when out on a walk, especially if your dog is allowed off leash.

If your dog enjoys poop on a regular basis, then he is likely to have a greater intestinal parasite burden than the average Staffordshire Bull Terrier. He should therefore be wormed with a tapeworming tablet every three months as well as receiving a monthly treatment for roundworms and other ascarids.

The types of behavioral issues you will encounter in your journey with your Staffie may range from managing his natural instincts, to unacceptable issues that may only be addressed with professional help. You will also find a wide range of advice strategies offered to you by friends, books, TV, and online, so if one method fails, there will always be other approaches to try. Positive reinforcement is the key, as well as consistent and firm application, with a strong-minded Staffie. There is nothing more rewarding than the pride you can feel in a well-behaved Staffordshire Bull Terrier.

To read more from "The Complete Guide to Staffordshire Bull Terriers" by Dr. Joanna de Klerk, DVM, or purchase on Amazon, visit the link below:

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