Raising A Working Mastiff

Raising a working mastiff to their fullest potential is a special job that requires more than raising the average dog.  If your working mastiff has the typical mentality, you should see the following traits:

1. High defense drive
2. High pack drive
3. Moderate prey drive
4. High handler sensitivity
5. Low rank drive

1. You will know defense drive in a pup because you you will see threat recognition followed by defensive behavior.  This can include anything from barking, growling, biting, and raised fur, to running and hiding. What behaviors you see depend on the dog’s perception of its ability to handle the threat. The goal of defense drive is to get out of a threatening situation, which triggers a “fight or flight” response. If a dog feels like it can handle a threat it is more likely to engage in ‘fight’, and if a threat seems overwhelming a dog is likely to flee. A dog engaging in the ‘flight’ aspect is trying to remove itself from the threat’s awareness.  The goal of ‘fight’ mode is to produce avoidance behavior in the threat, causing it to run away. That’s why dogs in aggressive defense tighten their chest muscles, raise the fur on the back of their necks, bark big loud deep barks, bare their teeth, or anything to look bigger or more powerful. The more confident a dog is the more powerful a threat has to be to make the dog flee rather than fight. It should also be noted that the way a dog is trained and its early experiences can have a tremendous impact on a dog’s confidence and you can’t make an accurate judgment on a dog’s confidence as a pup.  Some pups are more confident than others but their confidence as pup doesn’t necessarily reflect their confidence as an adult.

2. High pack drive is easy to recognize because you will not be able to get away from the dog. They will have a strong desire to be close to their pack and to keep their pack in a single group. This is useful because they will not wander like some dogs and will be happiest with their family, right where a guard dog can do the most good with the people he’s guarding.

3. Prey drive is the drive to chase and kill prey. Prey drive is easy to test.  A dog with high prey drive will chase anything that looks like it’s running from them. Prey drive may also include barking and biting, but you won’t see signs of stress like raised fur. A dog with low prey drive is apt to ignore even a rabbit running by where a high prey drive dog never could. Most mastiffs don’t have a lot of prey drive, but Bandog Mastiffs are crossed with bulldogs to add prey drive.  High natural prey drive in a typical mastiff breed is unusual but not unheard of. Prey drive can be built through training and is best started with a very young pup. My dogs have more prey drive than most mastiffs, because I breed for high prey drive as it makes bitework training easier.

4. Handler sensitivity is a point of contention among breeders and trainers. Basically a handler sensitive dog really cares what his master thinks. There are some ups and downs to this. A handler sensitive dog is easier to train, easier to control, and most importantly safer, because his master can call him down even without training and without having to correct the dog hard. However if his handler is overly harsh the dog can lose confidence against humans and become suppressed into an overly submissive state. Personally I like handler sensitivity because I know when I say something to my dogs they listen and I don’t have to yell.  Other breeds, like the herding breeds used as police dogs, have very low handler sensitivity. I recall one k9 officer training with his dog and the only way he could correct the dog where the dog responded was with a loud yell and a hard pull on a pinch collar. The most common correction I use is to snap my fingers and my dogs know that means no.  Handler sensitive dogs are safer and easier to live with in a home with a family, which is where my dogs are designed to be.

5. Rank drive is the drive to attain higher social status, and in an aggressive dog this can also mean rank aggression. Rank driven dogs will look to own/dominate everyone and everything they can. Rottweilers are an example of a breed with high rank drive.  You will know rank driven dogs because they will show dominance every chance they get. This includes taking things from others, leaning on others, making others move, protectiveness of objects/ownership, humping, standing over others, refusal to follow commands. A non-rank driven dog will mostly not do these things because they’re happy with their social status.  Between dogs of near equal rank these behaviors will show up even in non-rank driven dogs, but won’t be directed at their master. There are major problems with a rank driven working dog. Rank drive is a social drive, meaning it’s mostly directed at their own pack – that’s who they have to contend with to attain higher pack status. The obvious problem with an agressive rank drive dog is if they feel they out rank you and their rank has been challenged, they will want to correct you aggressively. If they feel you out rank them they will be looking for an opportunity to gain rank, waiting for you to show weakness. That can be anything from laying down on the floor, to catching a cold, or to being sad. A rank driven dog is obviously not a good dog to be around the elderly, children, or people who sometimes show weakness. Also, if you are attacked by someone the dog may see that as an opportunity to attack you as well and gain rank while you’re down.  That’s not a very good guard dog. Lastly, if the dog isn’t aggressive enough to do those things but is still primarily rank driven, then any aggression you see, even against intruders is most likely a bluff. Even if the dog is not bluffing and is willing to bite, a dog may ‘cur’ (just stop trying) if it thinks it cannot dominate a target.  Again, not what you want in a guard dog.

Raising a working mastiff is a special challenge, but the reward is one of the most powerful guard dogs in the world. There are some important things to remember while raising your dog.  The way you reward and correct a handler sensitive dog can have a huge impact on the dog’s perception of itself and its environment.  Heavy domination over a low rank driven dog will suppress the dog’s ability by damaging its confidence against humans.  Putting low rank drive and handler sensitivity together means you can ruin the dog easily by over dominating or over correcting. Everything in the dog’s life should be about building the dog’s confidence. Use motivational obedience only.  If you don’t know how to teach a dog without correction, learn how. Compulsive obedience will ruin a mastiff pup.  Snapping your fingers should be the closest thing to correction you should need. If you teach a dog that they can be easily overpowered by humans as a pup, you can’t expect him to have an easy time fighting a man once he’s grown.  It takes a long time to teach an adult dog it’s strong, and no time to teach a pup.

You can build up a pup more and more by doing early bite development games. Make sure they are games.  They should be fun no stress exercises for the dog, like tug of war. Every dog is different and will be stressed by different things, so you have to watch your dog and make sure he is always enjoying himself. You should never try to push your own pup into defense – you will only ruin the dogs trust in you.  Once your dog is conflicted by not wanting to challenge you it may begin showing avoidance and then you have damaged your dog’s working ability in a serious way. Doing only prey driven exercise accomplishes two good tings: it teaches the dog to enjoy working in prey dive, making his drives stronger; and teaches him to be comfortable biting, tugging, and wrestling with a human. You reward deep biting, pulling back, persistence, fast biting, and willingness to work with petting/praise and by letting them win the tug. Start easy, and over months of work slowly increase the amount of fight until they are going through the motions of PP work without the stress.  Keep it light, keep it excited, keep it fun, and keep each session short. Let him win when he works so he learns the way to win is to work, and stop and put the tugs away before he loses interest.  That way you build interest and he’ll want it even more next time. Eventually he’ll get to where you can’t pick up the tug before he’s after it.  That’s when you need two tugs because you don’t want to let him win only to go over and take it from him for round two. Instead start working the other tug so he gets used to dropping the tug and going back for more – this will be important when he starts doing civil training. Teach him to trust his teeth and his strength. I recommend starting prey development as early as possible by teaching them to chase rags and flirt poles.  Just play with him the way you would play with a cat Introduce the puppy sleeve once he’s lost all his puppy teeth and can play tug without hurting himself. Early exposure to everything he will see in his training will help him tremendously.  When you expose him to people, equipment, the sound of a whip, fast movement, or muzzles, make sure everything is introduced as a new fun thing he should look forward to.  Never teach a working pup not to mouth things or bite or he will be in conflict – wanting to bite but knowing he’s not supposed to. Teach your pup that excitement is good by playing excitedly.  If you teach your mastiff to always be calm then he will be conflicted about being high energy in a conflict.

A lot of people think a dog has to be unsocialized to work.  This is wrong – socializing a dog will help them work. An unsocialized dog is a dog that has never been out to meet people or see other dogs or cars or the world in general. These dogs are under a lot of stress when they see an outside person for the first time and that person starts acting like a bad guy. An unsocialized dog may make a good biter but will not make a good PP dog. A PP dog is your bodyguard.  They must be able to be with you.  you should be able to walk them down the street and turn their aggression on and off by command.  You should be able to release the dog on a target and know it will not maul any bystanders.  A PP dog is a weapon, an extension of your will, and should confidently do anything you ask of him without fear or stress. An unsocialized dog may be territorial enough to guard his area, but a dog who’s aggressive toward or afraid of cars and noises and lights and people on the street isn’t a PP dog. A well bred working dog won’t have to be forced to bite – that should be a part of the dog’s nature.  He should be willing to fight to protect his family and his home without training.  Training will just make him better at what he was born to do. Socializing him won’t take that part of his nature away – he will still know a threat when he sees one and will still know what to do with it. Socializing him will make him more confident around everything and everyone, it will make him easier to live with, and is necessary if you ever plan on taking him anywhere, including the vet.You really have to think ahead about what you plan for your dog to do, and build his early training around getting him ready for that. Remember, PP training is like martial arts for dogs; you’re teaching a dog when, why, and how to best use his natural weapons, and teaching him that he is strong, capable, and has nothing to fear.

The last, most important, and hardest thing is find a good decoy.  Too many people offer “aggression training” and all they do is put the dog on a 2 foot chain and terrify it into biting. After that the dog will be an unstable non-trustworthy fear biter. There is a huge difference between a fear biter and a PP dog.  A PP trained dog is taught and bred to be a hero, a fear biter is a scared cornered animal. It’s very important that you find a decoy with years of experience.  Look at other dogs they have trained (a good trainer will be able to show you something), then ask yourself if that’s the kind of dog you want living in your house. Another mark of a good trainer is that they will listen to you and they are interested in training the dog to be what you want and need. You should be able to ask them about any aspect of training that concerns you, and remember it’s your dog and you have to live with the results of their training for years to come.