Training the Bull Breeds by Ross McCarthy

When asked to write about training specifically the bull-breeds, one cannot help but to think of the sad state of affairs resulting in the decline in the reputations of many of the breeds that sit within this group of dogs. Even in my relatively short lifetime, the shift in the views of these breeds is shocking. I suggest that if you mention a Staffordshire Bull Terrier, American Bulldog, Dogue de Bordeaux or worse still a Pit Bull Terrier to the majority of people, you will be met with a face filled with horror.

Staffordshire Bull Terrier Puppy

Once thought of as superb family companions, whose temperament was second to none with Children, most now cross the road on sight of anything resembling a Staffie, a Bullie or a molosser type dog. This of course has very little to do with the dogs themselves, but rather a frightening culture of young lads obtaining these dogs either to fight other dogs or to scare the rest of the population.

With this seemingly long lasting trend of status dogs comes so many problems not just for responsible owners of the breeds, but for the dogs themselves. Irresponsible, uneducated breeding has always caused problems for breeds temperament – for example, the Old English Sheepdog, of Dulux fame and the Dalmatian of Disney fame have all attracted people to put a dog and a bitch together and sell the puppies to make a quick buck to meet the demand at the expense of the appearance, health and temperament of the breed, but the Bull breed destruction is far beyond that. With rescue homes euthanasing huge numbers of these dogs daily due to immense over-population, it does not look as though things will improve for these poor dogs any time soon.

Staffordshire Bull Terrier

There are however still decent, honest and caring owners of these breeds and due to the breeds current reputation – they need to be better trained and managed than ever before!

So what are the main differences with the bull breeds compared to other types of dog. Well, there are a few – one thing that all of the bull breeds have in common is a gregarious and social predisposition with people – they want to be with you, be cuddled and adored…all they need is a smile and a touch – so that makes motivation for training easy to achieve if you use it well (that does not mean the breeds within this group are easy to train per-se). That said, nurture always plays the greatest part and these dogs need a caring and knowledgeable environment to get the best from them.

Another common behavioural trait within many of the bull-breeds is their sensitivity – a stark contrast to their physical appearance – this predisposition can be viewed as a positive and a negative – negative in the way that they are predisposed to over-reacting and phobic responses, but positive in the fact that they need very little verbal correction when they choose to ignore you if reared correctly – particularly the females.

French Bulldog Puppy

That said, according to Bull Breed Rehabilitation specialist Ruth Owen of Devon Dog Behaviour, owning and training bull breeds is all about convincing them that you are up to the job. They are not first time ownership dogs – whilst requiring advanced leadership skills, they offer unrivalled loyalty in return  Unlike some other breeds, they are not particularly biddable or motivated by chase or retrieve. They are however, all about by the relationship with the right owner, or most importantly, the owner creating the right relationship.

Whilst many breeds are designed to work with man – like the Collie, German Shepherd Dog and Golden Retriever – the Bull breeds are not and so this makes communication and training that much harder – there is no intrinsic drive to serve us!

As with many breeds, there often appears a contradiction, they are sensitive, yet tenacious, responsive and affectionate, yet determined and self-reliant. In common with most breeds, it is the upbringing and onward relationship that dictates temperament. What you must always bear in mind whenever reading about or researching breeds are that all dogs are different and although many of the breed books describe traits and characteristics, these do need to be nurtured and developed – they are simply not present regardless of how the dog is treated.

English Bulldog

Although these breeds are not recommended as first time dogs, many people are so attracted to the unusual physical features and purchase a dog without the necessary breed research, sold on the cute factor. The bull breeds can be a little overzealous and boisterous with people if not taught some canine etiquette of how to meet people and so socialisation should be a thoroughly thought out process of meeting plenty, but with the manners training from the outset ensuring that they are not allowed to jump up and bully people. These are very powerful dogs and physically tough and so it is critical that they are raised with the correct psychological leadership to prevent problems occurring.

Sadly it often goes wrong in early puppy-hood, the exuberance and ‘cute factor’ of these dogs can lead to the implementation of too few rules and too much affection, unwittingly making a rod for your own back or adding to the number of dogs in rescue homes. I see a large number of these breeds for control problems – just mad, over excited and untrained. I see probably in equal numbers aggression towards family members again caused by lack of training, leadership and knowledge throughout the early development stages.

American Bulldog

One area in which all of the bull breeds need a very skilled hand is in relation to other dogs. When reflecting back on the antecedents of the Staffordshire Bull Terrier for example, originally bred for Bull baiting after the cessation of dog fighting – the predisposition to aggression to their own kind still remains in the blue print. This is not to say that all of the bull breeds are aggressive to dogs, but it does mean that they need careful training and socialisation from the outset.

Socialisation should always be breed and individual specific and so depending on the breed that you choose, be prepared to put in the groundwork – not with excessive play, but gentle engagement and plenty of training so that your dog learns to listen to you and respond in the presence of other dogs and animals.

As a friend of mine always says; one should choose a dog for practicality – like a car – that suits your lifestyle. Many of the bull-breeds are active and require a good deal of exercise, like the Bull Terrier, Boxer and American Bulldog, but the Bulldog and the Dogue de Bordeaux may make do with less – again depending on the individual. Do your homework thoroughly!

English Bull Terrier
English Bull Terrier

Whilst the Bullbreeds, can make the most wonderful family pets and companions in the right hands working with you; they can also be a formidable force if working against you. I have personally owned two Staffordshire Bull Terriers and a Pit Bull Terrier – all of which were gentle and well-mannered with people and other dogs, but they were all very hard work during puppyhood, much harder than most other breeds to raise to be obedient and social with all dogs.

Most of the breeds within this group have a really tough time already thanks to the actions of a subculture of our society – if you own or plan to own a bull breed type – do them a favour and ensure that they are the very best behaved dog for a twenty-mile radius…at least!