Lessons I’ve Learned From Training Pit Bulls

It’s a Tuesday morning and I’m on my way to Oakland Animal Services City Shelter (OAS). I’m driving my Prius in the pouring rain, soy mocha in hand, and I realize I forgot Ollie’s favorite training treats at home.

I guess we’ll have to make due. Easy enough, since Ollie is just as motivated by a good game of tug-o-war or a belly rub as he is by his training snacks. He is everything I love about a Pit Bull – optimistic, confident, people soft, and eager to work. 

Ollie is one of the dogs chosen for the Ambassadog Project, an adoption and education effort between OAS and BAD RAP, Bay Area Dog Lovers Responsible About Pit Bulls. As the dog trainer for this project, I spend four mornings a week training, exercising, and socializing a small group of homeless Pit Bulls, handpicked to serve as ambassadors for their breed. Ollie will receive focused training every morning, in which he and his kennel mates will polish up their manners and obedience skills as they wait for their new families to find them. 

Working with Pit Bulls has taught me many valuable lessons as a dog trainer, ones I apply when working with all breeds of dogs. Here are some of those lessons:

Make training a part of every day. Dogs are happier and healthier when provided with structure and rules. Often, a dog will come into the Ambassadog project with little or no training history. After a few weeks of consistent daily training, the dog’s personality begins to blossom. Training boosts self-esteem and helps the dog gain focused control and confidence.

Make training fun. When the dog enjoys training with you, results improve. Ambassadog Frida loves her training sessions. Frida came into the shelter as an older, over-bred female with a large burn scar down her side. Ever optimistic, training is her all time favorite thing to do with me. (And if she’s not challenged with training games and exercises, she is off to find her own, often mischievous, ways to stay busy.)

Don’t get stuck in a training rut. Many long-term shelter residents end up having perfected their basic manners long before being adopted. Neuman Marcus the Pit Mix whizzed through all his basic commands in a matter of weeks. In order to keep this smart boy entertained, we worked on new skills and tricks to challenge him, including the ever famous doggie hand stand. The sky is the limit. My own Pit Bull, Leroy, is in love with the doggie dancing classes we’ve been attending. 

Provide regular socialization. Dogs are naturally social animals and enjoy the company of well-matched canine pals and loving people. Many close doggie friendships have been formed among Ambassadogs during their shelter stays, and hanging out together is something the dogs love and look forward to. Remember: it’s the quality of doggie friends that counts, not the quantity. When I walk Ambassadog Lolo through the lobby at Oakland Animal Services, she truly believes that everyone is there to see her and she shamelessly flirts with them all. Sometimes the hardest thing to teach a dog is that not all people are into Pittie French kissing! 

Lighten up! It’s important to take breaks and be silly once in a while. Training is hard work and taking time to rest and laugh with your canine pal is invaluable. Pit Bulls are silly, affectionate jokesters that know how to have a good time. Playing with yours on a regular basis will further that special bond that you can’t find anywhere else. 


As a dog trainer, I’m always learning new things, continually educating myself and keeping up to date with the modern science of animal learning and dog training. To this day, some of my best teachers have been those short-coated, muscle-bound hounds known as Pit Bulls. 

Sara Scott, CPDT is the owner of What’s Up Dog?, a training service that offers group classes and private training throughout the East Bay Area. Visit her online at www.whatsupdogtraining.com.

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