Getting a Bullmastiff? Great decision, so let us consider what kind of companion you are really getting. Knowing how a Bullmastiff works will clarify the kinds of “control buttons” you will need to install so your life together is fun, peaceful and harmonious. Moreover, the earlier you install these control buttons, the easier it will be. Puppy training and puppy socialization are the keys to success – for any young Molosser.
Young, innocent .., and just waiting to be "programmed" by you!
The Bullmastiff’s foundation breeds make him physically a very strong and powerful dog, and he learns early on how to use his muscle power. When your 120-pound dumpling just lies down and braces himself, he turns into an Immovable Object, and it becomes a real challenge to move his butt.
It is also interesting to study how the Bullmastiff does in protection training: The Bullmastiff tends to bite the sleeve and hang on, pulling the trainer with the bite-sleeve downward and making him lose his balance. Controlling a Bullmastiff with physical force is not the best option. Instead, it takes mind control. Obviously, the best time to lay a foundation for this is in puppyhood, when the dog’s brain is wide open for input.
Most dogs have an “opposition reflex,” which is the counter pressure against applied pressure in touching. If I push on the dog’s side, he will usually not give way, but instead push against my pressure. Bull breeds in general have a strongly developed opposition reflex, and so does the Bullmastiff. Trying to move a Bullmastiff by applying pressure will have the opposite result from what you want. Using leverage and treats is a better option. Thus, if the Bullmastiff pulls on the leash, countering by pulling backward will just teach the dog to pull more. Instead, a better way to teach a Bullmastiff to walk nicely is to use a head halter or neck collar, and use leverage by doing surprise turns on a long leash with praise and treats.
The behavioral heritage of this breed contains primarily a strong guard instinct, as well as a strong affinity for family members and friends. The breed was developed to work closely with a small group of people, so the Bullmastiff tends to be a people dog, with a very real need to belong, and to live with people as a member of the family.
Bullmastiffs love their people -- and vice versa.
The combination of a strong guard instinct and an affinity for people makes for a superb protector of his home, turf and people. The Bullmastiff is a good judge of people and excels at identifying those who are up to no good. He is usually friendly to family members and friends, and a bit careful with strangers.
The Bullmastiff tends to guard with judgment; the typical guard behavior is to check a situation before going off in full guard mode, to bark and body-block as a first defense. Only when an intruder does not heed the warnings does he go off into more serious guard behaviors. The guard instinct is noticeable in daily life to a smaller extent. When your Bullmastiff plays with puppies, he will block a bullying puppy. When he is around “his” children and people, he will again body-block a potential threat. The Bullmastiff will often sit with his behind on your feet, so that he has you protected and he can watch the environment for potential threats. Or he may lie down, watching carefully.
The guard instinct is a manifestation of underlying features such as territoriality, possessiveness and aggression. These features also tend to make the breed aggressive toward strange dogs, and occasionally toward other animals. Not all Bullmastiffs are dog aggressive, but most have strong opinions about strange dogs, so this is not a breed for dog parks, or for “playing” with strange dogs.
Another aspect of the guard instinct is that the Bullmastiff sometimes has a streak of possessiveness, and certainly a strong sense of what is Mine and Yours. It is generally easy to teach a young Bullmastiff to chew on his own toys and not on my furniture, and to stay on his own bed, and not on mine.
Another major characteristic of the breed is a strong will and a one-track mind. Once the dog is set on an action, he is hard to stop. Typically, for example, if there is a fence in the way, the dog tends to go through the fence, not over, around or under it. The breed is also quite intelligent, and a fast learner. The Bullmastiff also thrives on living by rules, so it is important to teach good manners and correct behaviors early on, then insist on the dog following the rules. Sometimes the Bullmastiff can go through a challenging phase during adolescence and suddenly “forget” all the good behaviors he learned during puppyhood. It is important to have a stronger will than the dog and insist on good behaviors, no matter what.
One trait that is not usually mentioned is the breed’s emotionality. I think this is a feature of the bull breeds in general. They tend to be more emotional than most breeds. Every emotion is off the scale. A happy Bullmastiff is very happy. They love to cuddle. A display of affection is very affectionate, and the happy dog can actually laugh.
When a Bullmastiff is sad, the whole world has to know, and the pout is epic.
And when a Bullmastiff turns aggressive, that emotion is exaggerated as well. For example, in a dogfight involving Bullmastiffs, the damage tends to be extensive. Thus a major goal in educating your Bullmastiff is to prevent and control any potential aggression.
If your Bullmastiff is unhappy, he will let you know it in no uncertain terms.
Installing ‘Control Buttons’
Given this sketch of the Bullmastiff as powerful, strong-willed, protective, often dog-aggressive, sometimes possessive, intelligent and emotional, how do we control this type of dog? The optimal approach is via early socialization and early training for control.
Research from the 1950s and 1960s showed that puppies have a critical period, a window for learning about the world, that closes around 4 months of age. As the puppy is exposed to the world, this knowledge makes him confident, and the socialization process overcomes the instinctual fear of unknowns. In a guard breed, this is the time when the puppy’s brain acquires an inventory for “normal,” “good guy,” “friend,” as the puppy meets a lot of different kinds of people. Later, when the guard instinct kicks in at around 12 to 18 months of age, the dog will become suspicious and alert to anything that does not fit his inventory of “normal.” Because of the strong guard instinct in the Bullmastiff, it is especially important that Bullmastiff puppies acquire good definitions of “good guy.”
Early socialization involves taking your 2- to 4-month-old puppy out to meet different kinds of people and see different locations, and exposing the puppy to lots of different noises, smells and environments. My recommendation is that every week during this period, your young puppy should meet between 50 to 100 people and go to four or five different locations.
Obviously, this is also the period when the puppy has not received a full complement of vaccinations, so it will take some common sense to socialize the puppy. For example, do not take the puppy to parks or beaches or places where a lot of dogs can be found. I advocate taking the youngsters to places without a lot of dogs but with a lot of people: shopping malls, outside a cinema, around farmers’ markets, sidewalk cafes, grocery-store parking lots. Also visit friends’ houses with friendly, vaccinated dogs. Make sure the puppy is taken out at night as well as during daylight hours. Take a trip, stay at a motel. Go visit grandma’s house with the puppy. Be sure to bring the crate. Include lots of socialization with children.
Arrange for a little puppy play group once a week so that the Bullmastiff puppy learns the body language and signals of different breeds.
Make sure your young Bullmastiff is exposed to friendly, well-socialized dogs of other breeds. This play session is all in fun -- honest!
Start training for good behaviors as soon as you get the puppy. Young puppies do not have a long attention span, but their little brains are ready to soak up lots of knowledge very fast. The best teaching method for these strong-willed puppies is reward-based training with treats, play and praise. Teach all the basics, like “sit,” “down,” “come” and walking on a leash in short sessions with frequent breaks. Given the strong opposition reflex of Bullmastiff puppies, the best way to teach a solid “come when called” is to use restraint recalls. This is a two-person game: One person holds the puppy, the other person runs away, then kneels down and calls the puppy, and when the puppy comes, he gets a yummy. For more details on this, see my website: www.bestdogtrainer.net/Real_Life_Recalls.pdf
Bullmastiffs do well in a life full of rules and rituals. The best way to control the dog’s guard instinct is to establish rituals in situations where the dog tends to go into guard mode: at the front door, with visitors, and on the street.
Most dogs get excited when the doorbell rings
. The key is to get the dog away from the front door and focused on another location. I start a ritual with the young puppy. I open the door, say “cookie,” run to the cookie jar, which is placed on a shelf a little way from the front door, have the puppy sit and get a cookie, then we greet the visitor. It does not matter exactly what you do, as long as you establish some sort of ritual when the doorbell rings that gets the dog away from the front door and focused on something positive that is in your
I also teach the puppy to “place,” which is defined for the puppy as run to a bed in the living room, lie down, and stay there until released. This is one way of controlling the dog with visitors around. You sit down and chat with your friends/visitors, and the dog is on his bed and stays there. Teach it by throwing treats onto the bed, so that the puppy runs ahead to get them on the bed, then walk up to the puppy and gently tuck him into lying down, give him a toy or something to chew on, and stay close. Obviously, a young puppy cannot be expected to “stay” for a long time, but increase the “stay” gradually over time. Of course, given the Bullmastiff personality, the puppy often put his/her own variations on this theme. Below is one puppy who quickly learned “place,” but then made it halfway onto the bed. This “Yes, I will do what you say – my way” is a pretty typical way of Bullmastiff compliance.
This Bullmastiff's bed is his "place" ... this half-on, half-off posture is not accidental.
Any potential dog aggression is usually not going to appear until the dog is about a year old. But start the controls with the young puppy. Teach the puppy to look at you, move a treat from the dog’s nose to your face as you say, “Look.” Then gradually increase the time the puppy looks at you. Whenever you see a strange dog on the street, get your puppy’s attention on you and give him lots of treats. This accomplishes two things: First, it makes you more interesting than the other dog, and second, it associates other dogs with something pleasant for your Bullmastiff. This kind of training takes a long time to be effective, but it is easy to do. Stay consistent with this little exercise, and in a year’s time you will have your Bullmastiff look at you, telling you “give me a cookie!” at the sight of other dogs on the street – a lot better than any aggressive reaction.
Then we can add “Leave it.” For the puppy this is defined as get attention away from whatever you focus on, like old food on the street, other dogs, skateboarders, etc., and look at me, and get a treat.
Another good exercise to teach a puppy is “give,” meaning that the puppy gives up whatever is in his mouth in exchange for something valuable. Teach it by exchanging the treasure in the puppy’s mouth for a treat or other toy, then give the “treasure” back to the puppy most of the time. This defuses any tendency towards possessiveness, as most of the time the puppy does not lose his “treasure,” and he also gets a reward. This is also a great little exercise for teaching the puppy to distinguish between your children’s toys and his own.
Bullmastiff intelligence can sometimes pose a challenge, because they tend to learn an exercise fast – and then put their own spin on it. Reward-based training works best. The Bullmastiff will comply particularly well if he thinks the whole exercise is his own idea, looking at you as something he can manipulate into giving cookies or play. Fine, by sitting on command, his butt will still be on the ground, even if he considers it his own idea. And this means he will not jump on people or knock them over.
Like most intelligent dogs, the Bullmastiff may get into trouble when he is bored. To prevent this, provide daily walks and daily little teaching sessions for your puppy. I also do little games of mental activation, particularly games involving scent, like “find it” and scavenging games.
Throw a treat on the floor and tell puppy to “find it.” Repeat a lot of times so the puppy understands “find it.” Then hide several treats in different places within a small area. Then expand the area, and finally hide lots of treats all over the house – behind furniture, on a shelf, underneath a pillow. Then send puppy on a scavenging hunt. Another version of this is to throw a handful of kibble on the grass in the yard and have the puppy find his breakfast bit by bit, mimicking scavenging for breakfast.
Is there something in this towel?
Hide a treat in an old plastic jar, put the lid on and teach the puppy the concept of a lid and how to open it. Hide a treat inside an old towel, and let the dog figure out how to unfold the towel to get the treat.
Scent is the major sense of the dog, and by using scent, the dog is using a large part of the brain, and gets tired fast. Thus, these types of games give you a tired puppy relatively fast. A tired puppy is a good puppy.
Tricks aren't just cute -- they're mental exercise!
Teaching tricks is another fun way to entertain your Bullmastiff. Teach your puppy to “shake,” and then develop this into a “wave"!
Teach your Bullmastiff to tear up large cardboard boxes. This turns my Bullmastiff into mother’s little helper and helps me fit a large carton into a small trashcan for trash collection. Of course, the Bullmastiff can help clean up as well by grabbing the pieces and depositing them into the trashcan.
The last Bullmastiff feature I will address is the emotionality of the breed. It is actually important to teach your Bullmastiff to control his emotions, to help teach him self-control, so just in case he feels aggressive at some point, he can calm himself down – with some help from you. Teaching self-control involves teaching a long, calm sit. Then get the dog excited by running around, inviting him to play, and as the dog gets excited, tell him “Sit.” Wait half a minute or so, then go “Ready, steady – GO!” – get excited and play with him again. Then we raise the level of excitement and introduce a bit of aggression by playing tug. Get a nice soft tug, play tug with the dog until he growls a little, then drop the tug, tell the dog “Sit!” Stand still, wait for the dog to release the tug, grab it, and continue standing still for at least 30 seconds. Then start up the tug again, get excited, then suddenly “Sit!” calm down, stay calm for 30 seconds or so. This little exercise gets the dog excited, maybe even a little aggressive, and then he has to sit and calm down. When you repeat this a couple of hundred times, you have control of the emotions, and the dog will learn to calm himself down, and to better control his emotions.
When your Bullmastiff is happy, go with the flow and be happy with him; when he pouts, ignore it.
The Bullmastiff is a true people dog and needs to feel that he belongs in a family. He does best when he feels like a member of a family, co-operating with everybody. Tell your Bullmastiff what to do in different situations; do not wait for the dog to make decisions. The Bullmastiff loves to be close to people, and enjoys cuddling – in fact his favorite hangout is right on top of your feet, or cuddling close to you on the couch. And isn’t that why you got a dog in the first place?
Photographs by Scott Peterson
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Mona Lindau-Webb has been in Bullmastiffs since 1980, when she went to “just look” at some Bullmastiff puppies. She has trained and put lots of Obedience titles on her Bullmastiffs, as well as some champion titles. She had the first Agility-titled Bullmastiff (“Tiki”) as well as the first-ever Schutzhund-titled Bullmastiffs (“Tara” and “Albert”). In 1985 she turned from UCLA academics to become a professional trainer, now specializing in preventing and treating more serious behavior problems. Her website is www.bestdogtrainer.net.