A Friend In Need

Training Your APBT Rescue to Become a Member of the Family



Training a rescued American Pit Bull Terrier means becoming its life coach and reaffirming good manners and basic commands through positive enforcement. This will ensure your dog is always on its best behavior both at home and out and about.


Understanding Why So Many APBT Dogs Land Up in Shelters

“The APBT wasn’t always synonymous with bad dog,” explains celebrity dog trainer Harrison Forbes of Franklin, TN himself a family man with a lovable pit bull named Ruger curled up on the living room couch. “Back in the Seventies, the Doberman was the tough guy’s dog of choice and then it was the Rottweiler in the Eighties. The American Pit Bull Terrier is just the latest trend. It’s just sustained this image a lot longer in the cycle of the tough dog breed because they have what’s behaviorists call “a soft temperament” which means that they are easy to handle and look a lot tougher than they are.


The reason why so many pit bulls are still landing up in shelters around the country is because the wrong people are still getting this type of dog for the wrong reasons.


“There will always be people who will want a bad dog and train it to be a vicious and aggressive guard dog,” says explains animal trainer Candy Clemente, a member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers in Los Angeles Calif. who trains pit bulls to be loving pets as well as for a career in Hollywood.


“But even to train a dog to be nasty and vicious takes a certain type of training. Often when people with the wrong intentions get a pit bull, they don’t know what they are really getting into and can’t be bothered with any training. That’s when bad situations arise. So rather than learning to handle the dog, they simply throw it away by relinquishing it to a shelter.”


On the other side of the coin, many people have no idea when they bring a little pit bull puppy home that their adult dog will be discriminated against by neighbors, family members, landlords, insurance companies and sometimes even dog trainers.  Consequently as a result of this ignorant influence from the public at large, the dog is given to a shelter and replaced by another breed that has “neighborhood approval”.


Ironically, the turning point for the APBT being labeled America’s bad dog of choice came with the exposé of the Michael Vick dog-fighting ring in April 2007. The media, used to exposing the bad dog image, was suddenly gripped by the inhumanity and suffering that these dogs had sustained at the hands of their abusers. The APBT was no longer seen as the vicious instigator and aggressor, but as a victim.


“The sympathy and understanding that grew out of watching these dogs find their place in the world has helped people open their minds to the breed in ways they never did before,” says Donna Reynolds co-founder and executive director of Bad Rap, the Oakland Calif, based pit bull rescue organization whose mission is to secure the future of the American Pit Bull Terrier as a cherished family companion.


Suddenly Hollywood was on board giving the APBT an image makeover and making this challenge their cause célèbre with shows such as Pit Boss on Animal Planet where pit bull devotee Shorty Rossi, pet parent to six pit bulls takes on the gargantuan task of rescuing, rehabbing and training pit bulls.  TV celebrity chef Rachael Ray has made her pit bull named Isaboo an unofficial poster dog to promote the breed as a great family dog. She even launched a rescue group and produces a line of dog food, the total financial proceeds of which go to rescuing and re-homing pit bulls.


A Good Training Start – Adopt from an APBT Rescue Group

Consequently people who work closely with the breed advise that the best way to adopt a rescue a pit bull is from a specialized pit bull rescue organization.


“If you are adopting a dog from a typical city shelter, the chances are you will have absolutely no history of its past,” explains Forbes. “And sometimes in a kennel environment it’s difficult to get a really true lead on how a dog is doing to cope in a family environment.


“However, by adopting from a specialized rescue group that has worked with the dog and had it in foster care, even if you don’t know its past history, you have the confidence of knowing its been put to the test in ‘real time’ so to speak because the foster parents have done certain training and socializing in a home setting. This way, you are letting the professionals do some pre-screening and basic training on your behalf.


“People involved in pit bull rescued as very dedicated. They are not trying to get rid of a dog — ever. So you know they intentions are strictly about what’s best for the dog.”


Forbes also pointed out that when a dog is adopted from a specific pit bull rescue, the first thing the organization will do is go to a city shelter and rescue another one to takes it place. This  ‘revolving door’ situation means that more pit bulls are given the chance of being socialized and adopted into loving forever homes.


While the APBT are known to be very people friendly, bad breeding has been known to develop an animal aggression streak. Trainers refer to this trait as being “gamey”.



This is an issue that often worries a new owner.

Forbes cited the case of actress Denise Richards who recently rescued a pit bull but had reached the legal limit in the number of dogs allowed on her premises, so she paid for the dog to be in doggie daycare until a family adopted it.


“I helped find it a home,” said Forbes. “The couple wanting to adopt it already had a dog and was initially apprehensive as to how it would get on with their incumbent pet.  This dog turned out to be the perfect fit because he’d been running around in a cage free environment with up to 60 or 70 dogs at a time for a month meeting new dogs every day in all kinds of situations. This was a great way to observe it interact with other dogs and allowed the new owners to check animal aggression off their list of concerns.”


Fortunately more and more rescue shelters are starting to develop enrichment programs that offer some of the same opportunities that dogs get in foster homes such as basic obedience training, play groups and even off-site field trips with volunteers.


“Adopters should always ask their shelter or rescue a lot of questions about their programs so they can learn what kinds of paces the dogs have gone through while waiting to be re-homed so that they can continue this methodology at home,” said Reynolds.


Become your dog’s life coach

“As a responsible APBT owner, you have to think of yourself not only as your dog’s owner but as his life coach,” stresses Forbes. “And if your dog shows any signs of misbehavior or aggression at any time, you have to teach him loud and clear that it  will not be tolerated.


“Anyone who has had experience with children will know that you can’t teach a child a concept in a few weeks and consider it done. It’s a matter of constantly re-enforcing things. The same applies to your dog.”


Training Tips for Success

The first command I teach any dog is to focus on me,” says Clemente.  “I do this by having the dog sit in front of me. I take a treat from his nose to mine and say ‘eyes’.  As soon as he makes eye contact with me, I say ‘yes’ to mark the correct behavior and then reward him.  I work with this by expanding the time between the eye contact and the reward so that after a while he maintains the eye contact for up to a minute with distractions.


“I use this technique as a reset button.  This way you can be proactive with your dog as opposed to being reactive to his behavior.  For example, if you are out for a walk with a prey-driven strong dog and you see a squirrel frolicking ahead, I will say ‘eyes’ and my dog will immediately respond by turning towards me and making eye contact while the squirrel disappears.  This can be used to de-stress a dog and settle it down.”


Clemente says the second most important command to teach a pit bull is “come”.


“It’s wrong to assume that your dog will automatically behave the way it does at home when you are out and about in public places,” says Clemente. “That’s why its so important to have basic commands in place and equally important to ensure that your dog is well socialized – so that it feels comfortable around people both at home and in the dog park.”


Training Secrets from America’s Pit Boss


“Before you adopt, get a book and read up for yourself, “ advises Shorty Rossi star of the Animal Planet hit show Pit Boss.


“We tend to misdiagnose dogs a lot of the time and until we can read a dog’s mind, a book about the dog will give you great insight into the breed temperament and personality and will help teach you how to get your dog to react to positive reinforcement training. Rescue groups also have a lot of useful hints and tips on their websites.


“Also once you have adopted, continue to have a relationship with the rescue group. The trainers at my rescue group Shorty’s Rescue in Los Angeles are available at any time to hand out advice. It’s important for the average dog owner to have someone to talk to so. It’s like having tech support for your computer.


“It’s also important to ensure that your dog is kept well-stimulated. Pit Bulls are very smart. And when they get bored they tend to look for trouble and get destructive. Be sure they have strong non-destructive toys to keep them busy when they are alone and also make sure they understand the word “no”. This applies to any dog – and children too!”


Helpful Training Hints for Around the Home

Treat your pit bull as you would any other dog around the home advise trainers. However it’s important to be cognizant of the fact that it is a strong and powerful breed.


“Like many of the larger breeds, these dogs are unaware of their own strength and a small child can easily be unintentionally knocked over during exuberant play. At the same time, these dogs are tough and have a very high pain tolerance if a child accidently stands on its foot,” says Forbes. “Consequently you won’t get a negative reaction whereas you might out of a smaller softer dog. At the same time, its important to teach children from a young age to respect the dog too and not intentionally pull its ears and tail. Consider this part of the overall training.”


Training Tips for the Dog Park

It’s a good idea to scout out the dog park before entering with your pit bull, especially if there are a lot of smaller dogs romping about.


Walk around with your dog outside of the park first so that anyone watching you will see that you are in control of your dog. This will instantly put your dog  (and its owner) in a good light and be invited to play along with other dogs. When people see a dog that has a very negative public image responding well to hand signals and various recall commands, it helps to create a positive perception once you step inside the dog park.


Helpful Hints When You’re Out and About

For an APBT to be well accepted in public whether it’s on a neighborhood street or in the dog park, it’s essential that the owner ensure that his dog is going to be a positive ambassador for the breed.


“Sometimes pit bulls owners are over-zealous to show strangers that they have a pit bull that’s okay. This can make people feel uncomfortable and only reinforces a negative reaction,” says Forbes.  “You have to be fair. Give them time to warm up to your dog. Don’t press or push your dog onto strangers.  And if you see people are apprehensive. Don’t get affronted by their reaction. Instead be up front and say. ‘I know you may have preconceived ideas, but why don’t you hang around and get to know my dog.’”


It’s a great idea to teach your dog some cute tricks such as shaking hands or a high five, or to roll over to have its tummy tickled. Even dressing them up in a comical way such as in a T-shirt that reads ‘I am a couch potato’ or putting a little bow on their collars is great breed ambassadorship and will make your dog loved by one and all.


Pit Bulls love to be included in family activities. And these basic training tips will go a long way to make your dog loved by one and all




Side Bar Exclusive


Rachael Ray Dishes About Her Favorite Pit Bull


Apart from starting a rescue organization called Rachael’s Rescue to find pit bulls forever homes and funding it with the proceeds of her pet food line called Nutrish, Rachael Ray uses her celebrity to promote her favorite pooch Isaboo as a poster child to highlight that pit bulls have an endearing what she calls “coach-potato” charm just like any other a family pet.


Although her pooch has been well schooled in good manners around the house, Ray admits that just like any other dog, Isaboo knows how to take advantage of her “mom”. To show her pooch’s soft lovable personality, she shared Isaboo’s favorite things in this exclusive interview.


Favorite Food:

“It’s my lamb with orzo. She loves that. We make Izzie a dog version of whatever we’re eating as a family every night.”


Favorite Color:

“It’s orange. It’s the color of hunger awareness and she happens to look so darn good in it. I love dress her up.”


Isaboo’s Pet Hate:

“Dogs with a Napoleon complex — she just doesn’t get it. She especially loves little dogs and wants to play. And she doesn’t understand cats; she thinks they are cute dogs. My mother has 15 cats and she sits down on the floor crying and begging them to play with her.”


Favorite Past Time

“A good nap in the middle of my pillows with her favorite cashmere blanket covering her.”


Favorite thing to do with Rachael:

” We love to watch movies together especially teary ones. She helps me calm down after a good drama or a tragic love story. I really need her. I know it sounds ridiculous but I loved the movie District 9. I cried so hard when the main character made a little metal robe out of a garbage can for his girlfriend. Izzie came over and stared kissing me and trying to clean me up with an expression on her face that said ‘Snap out of it!'”


Rachael’s favorite pet name for Isaboo:



Isaboo’s pet name for Rachael (if she could talk):

“It would be ‘Ma’ of course! And she would say something like ‘Ma! Really Ma! Get a hobby, Ma and stop staring at me!’ ”




Copy Break


Shelters that don’t have the resources to build enrichment programs can still be a great place to get a dog, but it helps to bring a dog trainer or dog savvy friend along for a seasoned second opinion.

Donna Reynolds of Bad Rap



List of Breed Rescue Groups

Bad Rap – www.badrap.org

Linda Blair’s Worldheart Foundation – www.Lindablairworldheart.org

Rachael’s Rescue – www.rachaelsrescue.org

Shorty’s Rescue – www.shortysrescue.org


*Dedicated pit bull rescue groups are a great source of information about other groups around the country.


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