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, DVMDespite the Staffordshire Bull Terrier’s reputation as an intimidating dog, most Staffies are non-aggressive and very affectionate toward their family. Although it is impossible to make generalizations with the breed, on the whole, Staffies prefer humans to other dogs. For this reason, socializing a Staffie with people is usually very straightforward, but problems can sometimes arise when socializing a Staffordshire Bull Terrier with his own species.
Importance of Socialization
The other problem with the public perception of the Staffordshire Bull Terrier is that the breed will be given considerably less slack than other breeds if he shows any sign of aggression at all, especially if he should attack a person or another dog. Because of the association with the Pit Bull Terrier, people will immediately label the dog as “to type.” At best, this further tarnishes the unfair reputation of the breed, and at worse, your Staffie may be taken for assessment for an offense that a Yorkshire Terrier would have gotten away with. In the ongoing battle to redress the Staffie’s reputation, every owner should strive to create a breed ambassador in their dog. Not only will this help to overcome public prejudice, but a well-socialized dog will never find himself in a situation where he might be destroyed for an act of aggression, not to mention the damage he could do to another person or dog.
When to Socialize Your New Dog
It is never too early to socialize your Staffie. Your dog has in fact been socialized from birth by interaction with his littermates, and a good breeder will also ensure he has got well used to being handled too. So, when you pick up your three-month-old puppy, he is off to a flying start. Your job is to continue his socialization training after he has been removed from his mother and his littermates, because at this point, he is suddenly on his own. His new family are human, and in bonding with you he forgets he is a dog!
Introducing Your New Staffordshire Bull Terrier to Other Dogs
As soon as your puppy has completed his first course of vaccinations, he is ready to make new friends of his own kind. You can find out about puppy socialization classes in your area by asking at your veterinary surgery. Classes, or puppy play groups, create an ideal, safe environment for your new Staffie puppy to interact with other dogs, as all will be at the same life stage, with the same puppy body language. It is a non-threatening way for your dog to learn to feel comfortable around dogs of other breeds, before any have developed fear or aggression through bad life experiences.
Your puppy will also need to learn how to socialize with adult dogs, as up to now, he may never have encountered another adult dog apart from his mother. Adult dogs use a totally different language, and may have low tolerance for a bad-mannered, exuberant puppy. So do pick his playmates carefully as it is very important that your puppy doesn’t have any bad experiences at this formative stage. Meeting a friend with a docile, friendly dog in neutral territory such as a quiet park is a good choice. Otherwise, it is better to invite your friend and their dog to your yard rather than theirs, as your puppy is not yet territorial, whereas the other dog may be more defensive in his own home until they get to know each other.
If you already have a dog, and are bringing your new Staffie home for the first time, it is advisable not to bring the new dog through the front door straight into a confined space for the first meeting, as this creates a confrontational dynamic. There are two schools of thought with first greetings. One is that you take both dogs straight out into the yard where they have plenty of space to get acquainted, and the dogs can back off when things get heated. The other approach is to take the resident dog into the yard or out for a walk, while the new dog makes himself at home indoors. Then the resident dog can go into the house and find the new dog, which is a gentler introduction than throwing the pair together at the front door.
When you introduce another dog into a home where there is already a dog in residence, it is perfectly normal for there to be a period of adjustment, and scraps may occur while the dogs are sorting out the pecking order. It is useful to have a crate for the puppy, especially if the resident dog is elderly, as sometimes time-out is needed. The dogs will gradually learn to bond, especially when taken out for walks together in neutral territory. If problems persist, you may consider consulting a behaviorist, or if you have adopted a rescue dog, the rescue organization should be able to offer expert advice, as they will be very familiar with integration issues. They are also invested in making the adoption work out.
Introducing Your New Staffordshire Bull Terrier to Children
The Staffordshire Bull Terrier is commonly known as the “Nanny Dog” because of his devotion to the children in the family, and this reflects his true instinct to protect and befriend children, far from his negative reputation.
Having said that, children often unwittingly provoke a reaction in a dog, however tolerant, by being disrespectful of his space, teasing, or hurting the dog. So rather than training the dog, the right way to socialize your Staffordshire Bull Terrier with children is to train the children!
If your child is a very young toddler, you should expect to supervise your child at all times with your Staffie, but it is never too early to start teaching your child to be gentle and to treat their four-legged friend with respect. Your child should learn never to pull your dog’s ears, poke his eyes, pull his tail or ride him like a pony. Show your child how to approach your dog quietly from the side so that your dog can see them, then gently stroke the dog at the back of his head and neck, and talk quietly to the dog.
An older child may be ready to learn about body language, which is important if they are to be left unsupervised with the dog. You should teach your child that when a dog stiffens its body, backs away, or draws back his lips, he should immediately be left alone. And make sure your child understands they shouldn’t touch the dog while he is eating or sleeping.
Some dogs may feel they belong higher up in the family hierarchy than the children, and this can sometimes make them challenge the children. This is unusual for a Staffie because they love children so much; however, to prevent it from happening, households with children should ensure the dog sleeps in his own bed, not on the parents’ bed, and the children should help look after the dog, giving him his food and being involved with his walks.
If you have adopted a dog from a rescue center, it is the highest duty of the rescue to ensure that the dog is not reactive with children before placing it in a family home. Sometimes a rescue dog will have had a prior bad experience with children who have treated him with disrespect, and that may have led to the dog becoming reactive. It is highly irresponsible to place a dog that is reactive with children into a family home, as safety is far more important than rehabilitation, and no child should be put in a position of danger. Therefore, a dog that is reactive with children should be returned to the rescue for placement in a more suitable home.
A more common situation with the breed is for a Staffordshire Bull Terrier to be reactive with other dogs. Unless a Staffie has been brought up around other dogs through purposeful socialization, or in a multi-dog household, he will be inclined to see himself as human, and be unwilling to share his owner’s attentions with any other presumptuous dog encroaching on his space. He may also feel he has to protect his owner from attack.
Many Staffies find themselves in rescue because of such behavioral issues that have arisen through lack of early training. So, if you have bought a puppy from well-researched bloodlines, and you are socializing him daily with other dogs, you are very unlikely to end up with a reactive dog. However, if you have taken on a rescue Staffie who has had a poor start, you may find you are dealing with aggression toward other dogs. It is worth noting that male dogs generally are more reactive with other male dogs than with female dogs.
Rather than avoid all interaction with other dogs, which is not only restrictive, but will never address your dog’s issues, the key to rehabilitating a reactive dog is through gradual habituation. This means controlled exposure to the trigger until the dog no longer sees it as a threat.
As with all training, this should begin in a controlled environment with the help of another friend with a non-reactive dog. However, although you need control over your dog, you should not restrain him on a short leash as the tension will cause him discomfort. Rather you need to create an atmosphere of calm so he feels relaxed, so you need a harness and long line (about 15 feet in length, looped around your arm). Take your dog into the open on a loose line, but keep his attention by being fun, while encouraging him to sniff and explore. As your friend approaches with their dog, do not guide your dog toward the other dog, but keep his movement natural and allow him to go where he wishes.
There will come a point when your dog notices the other dog, and may become rigid or take up the slack on the line. At this point you can use positive distraction by hand-feeding lots of small, tasty treats, or scattering them on the ground for your dog to snuffle up rather than being stressed about the other dog. Or if your dog prefers a toy to treats, you can use this to distract him. Make sure you have switched your dog’s attention onto you rather than the “threat.” If necessary, you can stand between your dog and the other dog and use the “Look at me” command, treating for a correct response.
You should only treat your dog in the presence of the trigger, so that he begins to associate what he perceived as something negative into something that is actually positive, as it produces treats or a toy. Clicker training is very useful to reinforce correct choices in your dog’s mind.
It is important to understand that results will not happen overnight, and only through regular repetition will you reprogram your dog’s mind. As you progress, you can increase the level of challenge by going into more public places with more unknown dogs. But if your dog is at all unpredictable, he should always be muzzled in public places to ensure no other dog gets hurt.
When Socialization Goes Bad
Unfortunately, sometimes during the socialization process, things may go wrong. This commonly occurs when an unknown dog gets too close, provoking a reaction. It is normal for dogs to be off-leash, enjoying free exercise in public spaces, and it is also normal for dogs to run up to other dogs to greet them. Usually a bit of dog language occurs at this point, with sniffing at both ends, tail wagging, and maybe a game of chase. But sometimes one of the dogs feels threatened. They will usually stiffen their body and draw back their lips. They may snarl, and the other dog instinctively knows to back off. A confrontation has been averted. Bear in mind, though, that a puppy does not yet know how to read the signs, and can be intensely annoying to an adult dog, so always supervise introductions carefully with a puppy. Also, sometimes a dog may snap without prior warning, even launching a full attack. If your Staffie is on the receiving end, then this may significantly set back his socialization.
There are some things you can do to prevent this situation from occurring in the first place. When walking your dog, you should always remain vigilant for the presence of other dogs, so that they do not seem to appear from nowhere, startling your dog. You should also note their body language as you see them approach, and calmly change direction with your dog if you see any reactive warning signs in either dog. Keep a toy or ball on hand, or some training treats, to divert your dog’s attention.
If your dog is on the leash, be aware he may feel more threatened by the approach of an unknown dog because he cannot get away. The same applies for the other dog if it is yours that is free and the other is on the leash. Uncontrolled introductions should not take place in this unequal situation.
If both your dog and the other dog are on the leash, it is worth remembering the three-second rule. If the two dogs come face-to-face, go rigid, and stare each other out for three seconds, it is time to walk your dog promptly away before the situation turns bad.
If your dog has been attacked, you will probably need to go back to basics with socialization. Invite some calm playmates over for a positive experience, then arrange some quiet walks with dogs that your dog knows. Build his confidence up again slowly, but don’t avoid other dogs, as that will create a lasting problem.
If your dog has been the aggressor, this is a wake-up call that you are moving too quickly with his training. Also, that he must be muzzled. Muzzling a dog alone will help ensure other dog owners do not allow a free approach from their dog, so it may not only prevent confrontation, but will ensure no injury occurs if it does. Dogs that continue to be reactive may wear a yellow vest, harness, or bandana with the message “I need space” or “Reactive Dog” to encourage the cooperation of other dog owners.
Most Staffies will grow up to interact very positively, both with people and other dogs, and there is nothing more life-affirming than the sight of a huge Staffie smile as your dog enjoys playing in the park. However, social confidence needs to be built up from an early age so should never be left to chance. But if you have adopted a fearful older dog, there will usually be strategies you can put in place to help him build his trust and overcome reactive issues. Helping a damaged dog to enjoy life again is one of the greatest gifts you can give a 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: