What I Know About Staffies

Staffordshire Bull Terriers are a wonderful breed, but as I learned the hard way, they are definitely not for everyone.

It’s hard to overstate just how big a dog geek I am. I will literally bore non-doggy people to death talking to you about dogs. They’re definitely my thing, as a cursory glance of my social media feeds or phone gallery will attest to.

Yet this piece is not just an exercise in talking about Staffies. It is intended as background to my article about Fudge, the puppy which I sold to a person who still makes a living as a dog trainer, advertising the fact that whatever beharioural issues you might be having with your dog. She can help. Let the irony of that sink in…

In her own blog post justifying her decision to put puppy Fudge down at five months of age, she questioned my knowledge and expertise, so this post clarifies some of the misconceptions she put forward there.

I always loved dogs and had them all my life, apart from the years where I lived in a small flat, which I felt would have been unfair to it. Eventually, however, my husband and I moved city just so we could get a house with a garden and finally remedy that situation.

By then we had our hearts set on a Staffordshire Bull Terrier. My in-laws always had Staffies so we’d had plenty of interaction with this loving and lovable breed. But true to my geek side, I also spend countless hours researching everything I could about the breed’s history, traits, health issues, potential behavioural problems, training techniques, etc. etc. ad infinitum

And eight years ago, we found our Watson (the name had been chosen long before, and we kept with the Sherlock Holmes theme since) and I can say hand on heart he is the best dog I’ve ever had.

Watson is a bundle of friendly personality and pure goodness wrapped in a cuddly teddy bear skin. Gentle with children and the elderly, sociable with other dogs and random strangers, and overall in possession of the most lovely and steady temperament you could ever wish for.

Missy (Mrs. Hudson) joined our family five years later, a clever and highly energetic female Staffy who is equally loving but much more stubborn than Watson ever was.

The two of them certainly keep us busy enough, but when Watson’s muzzle started getting grey and we noticed him slowing down a bit, the awful, inevitable realisation that he would not live forever asserted itself.

While we firmly hope that we have many happy years together left, we wanted, when the time eventually came, to have Watson’s son around, who would hopefully inherit all those lovely traits and perhaps make losing him slightly less unbearable.

So breeding our pets Watson and Missy was never about money. We set a high price in order to stop “impulse buyers” but considering the months of full-time work and all the expenses associated with bringing up a very pampered litter, we barely broke even. This was always going to be a one-off, and Missy has since been spayed. Which is why each of her five puppies was so special to us, not just Holmes, the one we decided to keep.

These were pedigree puppies, which means that you are able to trace their lineage back five generations through their Kennel Club records. This is only an important point in this context because breeding is an important factor influencing the development of any dog’s temperament.

I can say with certainty that Fudge and his litter-mates all came from an excellent line of beautiful, sociable dogs. I stayed in touch with Missy’s breeder, who is extremely experienced and owned both Missy’s mother and grandmother as pets. In fact we messaged each other and she gave me advice and reassurance as I helped my girl deliver the best Easter presents I’ve ever had (they were all born on Easter Sunday 2017). Between them over many years, they had several litters in accordance to strict Kennel Club guidelines, and all of those puppies (over 60 in total) turned out to be loving, well-socialized, happy family dogs.

Fudge was the firstborn, followed by Holmes and their 3 sisters. We might very well have kept Fudge, which means that right now Holmes would be dead — the thought makes me start crying. Yet Holmes had the same distinctive neck marking as Watson, a white patch that I always called his “Orca spot,” and that seemed like a sign that this was the pup meant for us.

The three girls — Poppy, Millie and Missy — are all settled into their loving forever homes, and we exchange regular Facebook updates on their progress. All are thriving in households with children, and two of them also share the house with another dog, with whom they get along beautifully. Little princess Poppy is an only dog, but that doesn’t stop her from being extremely sociable, and I recently received a wonderful video from her owner showing how she happily played off-lead in the park with a group of 10 other dogs.

Then there is Holmes, who, like Fudge, was always testing his boundaries growing up, learning to manage his fear when encountering new experiences, and pushing to see where his place in our pack was. With three Staffies there is always some rough play (my three always jump on top of each other and play-bite for fun when they get excited) but if it ever got anywhere near “aggressive” levels then either one of the parents would let him know it went too far, or we would. So he learned, and there have never been any issues.

We take our dogs out daily for exercise at our local park, where they run off lead and meet many other dogs — some regular acquaintances, some unfamiliar — of all shapes, sizes and temperaments. Sometimes they will get growled at, and walk away. A few times Holmes snapped at bigger dogs that came sniffing at him as he got scared. We both disciplined him to let him know that this behaviour was not acceptable, and encouraged him with praise to play nicely. The result is a confident, friendly pup that roams off the lead and socializes beautifully with all humans and dogs we meet. It’s quite a joy to see.

Yet this friendliness towards four-legged creatures is not something Staffy owners can ever afford to take for granted. When we set out about finding great homes for the rest of the pups, advertising on a site called Champdogs which had strict guidelines to avoid selling puppies from puppy farms. We were flooded with dozens of enquiries on the first day, all offering to put a deposit down for a puppy.

We had a lot of homes to choose from, so I spent hours doing background checks on all of them, asking them questions over email, and compiling a 5-page questionnaire that we then used in phone interviews. Those that passed the phone interview phase were then invited to put a deposit down to secure the puppies and arrange a visit to meet us, the litter and Watson and Missy.

Many of the questions were specifically designed to make these prospective owners aware of some of the more challenging characteristics of the breed, and paint worst-case scenarios to gauge how committed to the work ahead they were. And there are very specific characteristics that any potential Staffy Owners does need to take into consideration.

To own a fighting dog

Staffordshire Bull Terriers are a fighting breed. This is a crucial fact that I made sure to tell all prospective owners we vetted, specially Fudge’s, since he was a male. They are also excellent family dogs, which can be confusing for a lot of people. Yet if you look at the historical context of how the breed evolved, it makes perfect sense.

Dog fighting is (rightly) considered barbaric now, but for many years was as acceptable a form of entertainment as horse racing or show jumping is today, and people made money from those activities. If you had a fighting champion dog, it would likely have been your most prized and valuable possession, so they were well looked after and loved. So even thought dogs would get hurt or killed in fights, their owners still keep them as pets around the house, where they’d often sleep in the same bed with the children. Over many decades, breeds like the Staffordshire Bull Terrier evolved a “four legs bad, two legs good” disposition which made them extremely friendly to humans while easily being made to turn on other dogs if encouraged (or allowed) to do so.

What this means for a modern-day staffy owner is that there is usually very little need to concern yourself about their interactions with humans, apart from teaching them to tone down the enthusiasm a notch or two. They naturally adore children and are perfect companions for the family in every way. This is particularly true of pedigree staffies like the ones in our litter (sometimes if the breed is crossed with others it can lead to unpredictable behaviour, specially if the other breed is a guard dog one which has been programed to be more territorial) that has been well socialized from the start and raised in a loving home, watching parents who themselves are well-adjusted and friendly.

Where you do need to put in the hard work, however, is in curbing their natural breed instinct to fight other four-legged creatures. Socializing them early on is crucial, which we did with Fudge same as with all our other dogs, but you can guarantee that at some point or another that instinct will kick in and they will try to dominate or attack other dogs they meet in some way. It is absolutely normal behaviour in all breeds, as it’s the way a developing puppy tests its boundaries and figures out where they fit into the pack structure. With Staffies this behaviour is likely to be more pronounced for the reasons above, so — and this is something we told all our prospective owners — it requires consistent work early on to override that programming, and make sure that they understand that 1) you are the pack leader and 2) as pack leader, you are telling it that this sort of behaviour will not be tolerated.

When I first got Watson, I was prepared for the long-haul. I had done my homework, and realistically knew that he would be a handful, specially as his hormones started kicking in at various points. But as it turned out, once I made it clear how displeased I was with him when he wasn’t “playing nice”, and figured out that I liked seeing him play with other dogs in a friendly way, he embraced his soft side to the point where it’s hard to stop him running hallway across a field just to say hello to another dog. It really isn’t rocket science. It takes consistency, discipline, and firmness, because staffies are an incredibly stubborn breed. You just need to be more stubborn than they are at first.

Yet you must never become complacent; Owning any dog is a big responsibility, but owning a powerful dog like a Staffie is a huge one. All dogs can be triggered by things that might not seem immediately obvious to a human, such as a smell, and strange little things can cause two dogs not to “click” so there might be some growling and snapping. Our dogs are trained to come back to us when called, and to leave dogs who aren’t friendly alone once it is clear they’re not up to playing, but if Watson or Missy ever make any move towards aggression of any kind, we tell them in no uncertain terms that this is not acceptable.

Having raised both parents, the puppies and continuing to raise Holmes, we have acquired in-depth practical understanding of the breed as well as insight into their personalities, which is why the claims about Fudge don’t ring true at all. Every other puppy in that litter is friendly, sociable and well-adjusted, exhibiting none of the so-called “red flags” beyond normal puppy behaviour that we all understand has to be managed carefully, lovingly, and consistently.

As is usually the case in such stories, the problem doesn’t lie with the dog, but the owner. The “red flags” she speaks of came only two weeks after she had taken Fudge home, when she started calling his behaviour aggressive and already talking about giving him up.

This clear lack of commitment, and the way she seemed so totally flustered and unable to cope with an 11-week old puppy was certainly worrying, but there wasn’t much we could do at that stage besides support and reassure her, clearly reinforcing the need for a firm hand to curb that behaviour and nip it in the bud, lest it escalate if unchecked.

But she deliberately ignored our advice in spite of the fact that we had a proven track record of raising happy, healthy, well-adjusted and sociable staffies. She chose to rely on her own methods which — by her own admission — proved woefully inadequate. Fudge responded excellently to his training, as the video below — she herself posted on her Facebook page - demonstrate (there were several others which she has since deleted).

Yet by refusing to communicate clearly when she was displeased with his behaviour, poor Fudge didn’t understand that what he was doing was wrong. After all, Fudge was following his natural instincts, and doing what his breeding told him was the right thing to do — dominate or attack other dogs. To override that with Staffies, you have to get your message across.

One of the techniques for doing so is what so horrified this dog “trainer” in that we suggested that the dog needs to be made to submit to you, so that you roll them on their back and hold them still by the neck so that their belly is exposed. It’s never a problem to do this if they’re being playful (our dogs spend most of their time at home with bellies up asking to be tickled) but if they’re excited in any way it can be a struggle, which is why you establish very early on with the puppy that you are top of hierarchy, so that they willingly submit.

There is no way I could physically dominate the solid 25 kilos of muscle that is Watson, but he will let me do this to him any time, no matter how excited he is, and never once has there been even the most fleeting fear of a bite. That is the result of his training, that I can control this strong unneutered dog in any situation, because it was always made clear to him, in a firm, consistent and loving way, that he is not e dominant one in the pack - we are. So he trusts us and takes his behaviour lead from us at all times.

Let me be clear: I’m in no way advocating physical violence as a training mechanism. Not only don’t I approve of it (which I don’t, for the record) but from a practical standpoint, it’s ineffective, specially for dogs like staffies which have a tenacious temperament and high ridiculously high pain threshold — again, due to their fighting dog breeding heritage.

I remember once accidentally poking Watson in the eye (he basically drove his face into my hand looking for attention and I felt my finger slide into his eye socket) and as I tried to console him, he only smiled and wondered why in the world I was distressed. Things like shock collars or even chokers tend to just be ignored, as they’ll soon get used to discomfort, so are highly inadvisable even if you don’t morally object to them (which I do). Staffies aren’t afraid of pain; the only thing that scares them is losing their human’s love and approval.

Yet this woman says it is “against her ethics” to dominate the puppy, whereas killing him without giving any other alternative a proper chance, I presume, was in line with those same “ethics”. She told me that the whole idea of the “pack hierarchy” was out-dated, as dogs know that you are not a dog. Which spectacularly misses the point. Of course dogs understand the difference between a human and other dogs, but they still rank them in a pack structure, deferring to some and dominating others depending on where they think they fit in, and testing the boundaries in order to find out.

What is particular to Staffies (and makes such methods as I described above effective) again comes down to the breed history. They are naturally prone to defer to humans even if it overrides their own safety or judgement. They will fight if they’re told to fight by their master, and that same master would also be able to walk into the pit and grab their dog, or to treat and carry an injured animal in pain without fear that they would turn on them. Even when Watson is scared (fireworks night, or during a thunderstorm for example) he will look to me and if I reassure him he’ll soon settle. He trusts my judgement, and that’s why he takes my lead in his behaviour to other dogs. That comes from him having had training that is consistent with his breeding, not with my idea of what a dog should be, nor an unrealistic expectation that all dog breeds will behave in the same way.

You can read more about Fudge’s story here

Technology writer for FastCo, Quartz, The Next Web, Ars Technica, Wired + more. Consultant specializing in VR #MixedReality and Strategic Communications

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