Building Up The Confidence of a Little Dog to Stop His Ankle Biting

By: David Codr

Published Date: July 9, 2016


Banjo is a two-year-old Mini Australian Shepherd / Chinese Crested mix who is nervous and anxious. His guardian called me in to help stop his fear of new people, ankle biting and separation anxiety.

I could tell that Banjo was a nervous dog as soon as I arrived for the session. He stayed away from the door, was moving slowly, had his head low and stayed behind a barrier.

When I sat down with his guardian, Banjo kept his distance and did a small amount of under his breath growling. Many people mistake growling for aggression. But growling is a form of communication and most often delivered as a warning; the opposite of aggression.

If you have a dog that growls when confronted or unhappy, one of the worst things you can do is punish it. If this happens often, then the dog simply skips the warning and goes straight to a warning bite or nip. A much better reaction is to redirect the dog or train it to move away on its own instead.

After chatting with Banjo’s guardian, I learned he didn’t really have many rules. Dogs probe to test and see where boundaries and limits are. If we don’t have any rules for our dog then it can quickly get the impression that it has the same authority that we do. If you have an insecure dog, telling it that it has the same authority as you can often increase its stress as it feels a burden of responsibility that comes with that level of authority.

I suggested that Banjo’s guardian starts incorporating some simple rules and then went over a few ways that she can enforce them using body language. Because dogs learn through association, it’s important that we either agree or disagree with the dog within a maximum of three seconds for them to understand what it is we are rewarding or disagreeing with.

Banjo settled down a little bit during the course of our discussion but he still was growling on occasion and keeping his distance. I had his guardian place him on a leash then bring him close to me so that I could step on the leash about a foot away from his head. My goal was to block him from engaging his flight response and practice being near a new human, while nothing bad happened to him.

It took a couple of minutes, but eventually Banjo realized that he was not going to be able to run away and I meant no harm. Once he made this realization, he started to relax a little bit. It helped greatly that I did not try to engage with the dog. By avoiding talking to him, making eye contact or touching, I was able to help him feel slightly more comfortable next to me.

Once Banjo had calmed himself down enough, I was ready to start using positive reinforcement to help him change his perception of me. By proving Banjo with something pleasant during the activity, we can help him start to feel good about the new person.

A dog generally will not take a treat when they are in a unbalanced state of mind. So if you’re dealing with the dog who will not take a treat, it’s a safe bet that he is still uncomfortable.

Now that Banjo was comfortable enough to take treats while sitting on the floor next to me, we were ready for the next step. I had Banjo’s guardian pick him up and place him on my lap so that he could experience me a little bit more.

One thing I failed to mention in the above video was that it is important that you do not keep tension on the leash when holding a dog this way. It’s OK to occasionally use the leash to block the dog from jumping off, but you want to immediately release the tension and make sure that you don’t have tension online unless necessary.

I also recommended that the guardian go to YouTube and search for dog tricks or dog commands. Just like humans, dogs feel a sense of pride and accomplishment when they master a new skill. Teaching Banjo another 6 – 8 commands or tricks will dramatically increase his confidence and self-esteem.

By the end of the session, Banjo was laying on the floor near me without me needing to use the leash. I wouldn’t call him calm and balanced at this point, but he was considerably more relaxed than when we started the session.

If Banjo’s guardian can arrange for friends to stop by and practice the techniques that we introduced during the session in concert with teaching him new skills, his reactivity should decrease as he feels more self-assured and confident in his own skin.

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This post was written by: David Codr

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