My very first Pit Bull came unexpectedly into my life. His name was Felix, like the cat. His previous owners couldn't harness his energy, so my Dad figured he would make the perfect family dog. Felix was 12 months old. I was 9 years old and knew just about everything on Pit Bulls. My parents on the other hand were at loss when it came to dogs. They didn't even know what a Pit Bull was. I'm not even sure if at the time they knew breeds of dogs all had unique histories. My parents are very smart and have accomplished a lot in their life, but it adds to my argument that dogs remain mysterious to the general public.
I tried my hardest with Felix. I tried to control him. I tried training him. And though I broke some ground, the scratches on my arms and face said otherwise. He was a ball of fire, and I was unequipped to put him out. We survived 6 months of semi-aggressive gnawing, scratching and pouncing before my parents gave him away. Being the defiant little boy that I was, I probably would have died trying to break Felix.
Training basic commands with Felix, 1997
I've had long discussions with my parents about Felix and how lucky we were to make it out with just a few scratches. Adopting older dogs with behavioral issues like Felix's can lead to the accidents we've all grown accustom to hearing.
Adopting any breed of dog with energy levels like Felix's into an inexperienced home is the main reason why dogs are never given the chance to be the perfect family dog. It is never a dog's fault for developing bad behavior. It's ours.
Who is the dog for?
Pit Bulls should never be a kid's want. Pit Bulls require competent individuals who can mold a Pit Bull's personality. Prior to owning Felix, I had successfully trained plenty of high-drive dogs like Huskies and Labradors, but they did not possess the athleticism and strength... or determined effort of trying to gnaw your face off. The adults in a household need to be all in if it's a family decision to adopt a Pit Bull for the kids. Owning a Pit Bull needs to be a collaborative effort in households with more than one person.
Training your Pit Bull
Training your Pit Bull is a part of everyday life. A Pit Bull not only needs daily physical exertion, they also need to be challenged mentally. Neglecting a Pit Bull will cause them to hoard their energy—this pent up energy can turn Pit Bulls into menaces. That's why embedding basic commands (sit, stay, come) into a Pit Bull from a very young age is critical. There is no better feeling in the world than having total control over a dog with what I like to call:
The Big 3
You want to master these commands with your Pit Bull to a point where no treats are needed. These commands are the foundation for owning any dog. It's important to understand that while Pit Bulls can be bundles of energies, some have very soft temperaments and owners need to determine this before implementing any kind of training and socializing. Not understanding your dog's body language can weaken the bond with your Pit Bull during training.
The word "sit" means so much more than sitting. People think it's cute to train a dog to sit and give them a treat just because. But I like to consider the sit command mastered when you can break your dog out of an excited state and have them focus on your eyes.
A stay command can control your dog from running off in an excited state. The "stay" command speaks volumes when it comes to a dog's safety. Consider the "stay" command mastered when your dog can refrain themselves from breaking out of a stand-still. Practice this command by tempting them with toys and treats placed feet in front of them; eventually, practice by walking away from your dog in an open-field using a 30-50 ft leash. The more chaotic the environment you practice in, the better.
The "come" command implies you want a space between you and your dog to reduce. This command can be used in avoiding situations you don't want your dog running into as you see them happening. Consider this command mastered when your dog ceases any activity and comes to your side immediately. Use a 30-50 ft leash and let your dog play (with a toy or other dogs) at the end of the slack and give quick tugs on the leash if they don't react on command.
Exercising your Pit Bull
Exercising a Pit Bull can seem like a horrifying thing to accomplish—they are brilliant athletes with so much in the tank. However, Pit Bulls are individuals; I've met a few when reading them a book will do. But for the Olympians, providing both mental enrichment during physical activity can help with meeting their needs.
1. Make them work for every fetch
Before every toss, ask your dog to sit. Challenge them even more by commanding a sit and stay; toss the fetch toy into tall grass, brush, or objects that will cause them to be lost in sight. Only allow your dog to retrieve when you say so. These games of fetch are very challenging for dogs because their minds are being forced to listen instead of reacting for themselves. Some dogs will use their nose in search of their toy, others won't; regardless, it's mentally challenging when a dog tries to frantically pin-point their fetch toy.
2. Make walks interesting
Pit Bulls are some of the smartest dogs I've had the pleasure of owning, but all this means is they easily get bored. That's why I like breaking patterns in everyday life for them. Exercising dogs in new environments allows them to hit all cylinders mentally and physically.
3. Give them a job
It's a known fact that people with hobbies live long and happier lives. This is no different for dogs. Pit Bulls take great pride in having a job to do. They do everything with the biggest smile too. Instead of going out for a normal walk or hike, equip your Pit Bull with a dog pack. Or try to master a new dog trick every week. Plays games of hide-and-seek, or simply train them to find "things" by calling the objects name until they successfully know what they are and find them. Pit Bulls are ridiculously smart and loyal, so don't think for a second your Pit Bull won't pick up on these things if you ask them to.
Socializing your Pit Bull
I've been bitten by dogs small and large, and the one thing they all had in common was they weren't socialized properly. These dogs turned a particular social setting out of context; a very harmless posture can cause an unsocialized dog to react in defense.
Training and socializing go hand-in-hand. We must train our dogs out of behaviors we don't want them displaying. Exposing them to the world is the only way we can find quirks in our dogs. Granted, socializing a puppy and adult dogs are on different parallels. Puppies are accepting of new faces and environments all on their own. They can handle themselves well in an unstructured manner like dog parks or simply off-leash settings. Older dogs with poor socialization, however, will require a good grasp of a few commands I call the Chill commands.
Chill commands are basically sub-levels of a no. No is the absolute last command I like to give when a dog has overreacted. Learn to develop friendly-no's, like chill, relax, it's OK and easy—you can train these commands easily while engaging in horseplay. When it's time to turn it down a notch, you don't want to shut them down with a "no" because you still want them to engage in play, but not at that level. These kind of commands translate in different environments.
There are no days off when it comes to living with a Pit Bull. They need to be family members.
You need to be loyal, strong-willed and courageous like the Pit Bull if you want to own one.