Such popular dogs! Next to chihuahuas and small dog mixes, dogs described as pit bulls are some of the most popular dog 'types' in all of CA. In the SF bay area, we can boast some of the best mannered 'block heads' you will find in the country, thanks to the dedication of multitudes of responsible dog owners and advocates who live here.
If you've adopted from us, or Berkeley Animal Services, or are a Good Samaritan or Nut Truck client who's been invited to class -- this primer (with homework!) is for you. Classes are designed to help you and your dog learn how to be a better team. Your pet will learn self control around intense distractions, and you'll learn safe, humane handling skills so he can be a the best behaved dog in your neighborhood. We cover current events that affect our dogs, understanding dog tolerance levels, basic obedience, socialization, responsible ownership must-knows, keeping your dogs safe from negative experiences, and basic problem solving. If you're not in the SF area, we hope some of the info here will be a help as you sort out your dog's leash manners at home.
WHAT? Street Skills - It's what you want.
Most dog owners want great 'street manners' ie, a dog that can walk down a busy street looking rock star cool and collected. This same dog will be well behaved when encountering bigger distractions (squirrels! skateboards! yappy dogs!) and will listen to your cues (leave it. sit. look. let's go!) when you need him to. Having good street manners means you can take your dog to a cafe and enjoy an uninterrupted conversation with your friend, or walk into the crowded lobby of your veterinarian and have the best behaved dog there.
Right: After six one hour classes and some homework, Tony & Daniel wowed us by showing off their dogs' great leash manners during an up-close greet. This came from practicing new skills and totally rearranging the way they communicate with their dog. The best part? Their dogs loved the training, especially the happy attention they got for each success.
"But my dog is too excitable to do that"
MOST of the dogs who first come to our classes are mildly to extremely excited by distractions, especially other dogs. How can we possibly help them get the kind of smooth manners you see in the photo?
HOW? It Starts with the 'Look'
The foundation skill for just about any dog who can be overly excited by the sight of other dogs is eye contact with their handlers. The more you reinforce this skill at home where it's easy to accomplish ('Look. Good boy!') and then practice it in new situations with new and bigger distractions, the easier it is to build great street manners into your dog when he needs them most. "Who cares about that silly barking dog behind the fence. Look at me instead. GOOD boy!"
Once your dog masters this skill, you're ready to start allowing him to look at the distraction briefly from a comfortable distance, and - important - praising for calm. Baby steps, baby steps!
HOMEWORK: Cementing a Solid 'Look' (Watch Me) Command
It's best to start reinforcing this skill at home without distractions and with a treat held up to the bridge of your nose. 'Look! Good girl!' ... and treat. Repeat.
Later, skip the treat and point to your nose when you want to get your dog's full attention. Remember to use her name and speak in a clear, upbeat tone 'Sally! Look! Good girl.' Most dogs love to hear their names ... Even better when it comes along with your happy, enthusiastic, purposeful tone. As your dog masters the 'Look' during a 'Sit,' you'll start to ask her to give you eye contact while she's moving. And then you're in business.
In our classes, the dogs that do the best usually have handlers who act like your favorite coach did in high school - Good direction in loud, happy voices with plenty of warm encouragement. Who doesn't love that?
MORE HOMEWORK: Most dogs come to class already knowing 'Sit' 'Stay' and 'Down.' We really want your dog to know a good 'Leave It' command, too. You'll use this command to call your dog's attention off of everything from a chicken bone on the street to a reactive dog that pushes her buttons. Here's a helpful VIDEO for your pre-class homework. You don't need to use a clicker btw to teach this skill. Just replace the 'click' with a verbal 'Good dog!' when she backs off from the treat, then make sure and offer her a reward from the opposite hand that you are using to hold the off-limits morsel.
Equally important: Handling Techniques You'll Practice in Class
Your dog doesn't understand (much) English, but he's a master at reading body language. So your success in class will come from learning to navigate him around obstacles and distractions as smoothly and skillfully as a lead dancer moves his partner around the dance floor.
But first, let's talk about Training Equipment. Our beginner classes accept up to 20 dogs at a time, and many will be bouncy and reactive to other dogs the first class or two. That's fine! You're welcome to use whichever collar or shoulder or head harness has been successful for you so far, with the exception of a choke or electric collar.
By far, the most successful and popular training equipment for new handlers has been the micro-prong or the 'plastic prong' (the Starmark collar). We do not - repeat - we do not allow popping, yanking, pulling or otherwise punishing dogs who wear these collars in class. They're simply going to allow you enough power steering to finally get down to the business of practicing basic skills with your dog and helping him learn to be comfortable in a very exciting setting. This is especially true for people whose dogs are strong enough to pull them off their feet.
Right: Party Girl Cricket started her first three training classes on a prong collar, but graduated to a martingale as she learned that focusing on her person brought more reward than bouncing towards other dogs. Supported handler, smart pup!
Below Left: Badda Bing was too rowdy on his harness to learn new skills during his first class, but arrived in his Starmark collar the following week (right) and got right to work. We love and welcome harnesses on dogs who respond well to them, but some dogs like Bing need a little more control initially to get them started. Bing's life was in danger when volunteers were unable to walk him at the local shelter where he was surrendered, so we took him into our program to get him on track. With the right equipment, he gave up the bounce and found quick success and then, a brand new home.
Proper fit and technique is key. If you decide to try a prong collar on your dog, we want you to watch this VIDEO to help you get a proper fit. And remember, because we want you to reward your dog for good behavior - no popping the leash allowed.
Handling - It's everything! If you aren't handling your dog correctly, he may pull in front of you or trip you up, especially if he wants to bounce towards other dogs. Please review this video to learn how you will hold the leash and incorporate your 'Look' and other commands during class drills.
Once you're comfortable with the style of handling shown in the video above, you and your dog will start practicing close contact drills around other dogs, bikes, skateboards, feral cats (yikes!), you name it. Everyone improves. And our favorite part: some of the most challenging - ie, naughty! - dogs tend to turn into the biggest rock stars.
Q: But what if I do all of the above and my dog still reacts? Dogs are individuals and react for a variety reasons that can change as their circumstances change. Together, we can learn enough about your dog and your communication style with her to customize an approach that works for you both. Because practice makes (nearly!) perfect, you're welcome to continue classes long after you've 'graduated' from Beginner's Class so you can sharpen new skills that can be used out in the real world where it really counts.
Q: Is there anything I can be doing before class starts?
Class provides an excellent opportunity to bond with and improve your relationship with your dog. This work doesn't stop after you leave class. If you're struggling with behavior issues at home, give this hand-out a read to see if it might be time to tighten up on some of your management techniques throughout the day: A NEW DOG
Q: My dog is afraid of people. Will this class help?
Pit Ed can be stressful for dogs with extreme fear issues because it can be loud, busy, full of dog noise and it butts up against a public park full of cars, visitors and other animals. If you think your dog will have a hard time in this setting, you may want to look into working with a trainer for one-on-one sessions.
Q: My dog misbehaves at the dog park. Will this class help?
Pit Ed is an on-leash only class. We'll discuss the pros & cons of dog park use in class, along with some fun ways to exercise your dog safely, but our focus is helping you develop solid on-leash street manners so you can navigate our busy city streets with ease.
Q: My reactive dog is not a pit bull. Can I still come to class?
Occasionally we allow other breeds, but because pit bulls are the dogs most likely to be judged in public and euthanized in animal shelters for bad leash manners, we've dedicated our efforts to helping them. For your non-pit, please look at some of the 'Growly Dog' classes held at local SPCAs and Humane Societies.
Please be aware that, due to the high demand for classes, we've had to limit the number of people we can accept each week. Currently these dog owners are eligible to attend: Adopters from BADRAP or Berkeley Animal Care Services, Good Samaritans who've taken in lost dogs, clients from our Nut Truck events and others on a case-by-case basis. We hope this post helps you gain enough info to get started before we meet you - or maybe, it can help you avoid the need for class altogether!