Helping a Rat Terrier Get Over His Foot (Biting) Fetish

By: David Codr

Published Date: February 7, 2016


Domino is a 10-year-old Rat Terrier who suffers from separation anxiety and has a bad habit of biting and nipping the legs and feet of guests and people he doesn’t know.

His guardians had worked with a woman who they identified as a behaviorist for quite a while prior to calling me for help. I have to say I was surprised at some of the things the behaviorist did, and didnt do for the guardians. She had said that the dog’s problem was he was fearful.

It didn’t take long for me see that Domino had some real territorial and control issues related to the arrival of guests to the family home. He also suffered from lower confidence / self esteem which Im guessing the previous behaviorist classified as fear.

Many dogs with behavioral issues have multiple problems going on at once. While humans prefer a black and white explanation, in real life its not so cut and dried. Shortly after stepping into the front door to the family’s home, I got a first hand experience of Domino’s issues.

I’ve dealt with a number of dogs who get excited or display aggressive behaviors at the door; little Domino’s intensity was close to the top of that list.

While Domino’s guardian did a good job of attempting to move him away from the door before she opened it, she made a few minor technique errors that resulted in the dog rushing past her and biting me in the legs multiple times.

I had the guardian hand me Domino’s leash so that I could sit down on the couch and keep him close to me. I do not classify this as aggressive behavior; I interpreted it as more of a territorial warning.

After sitting down on the couch with the dog on the floor next to me, I could tell that he was slightly insecure by his movements, body language and actions.

I wanted to block Domino from engaging his flight response so that he would have to develop a new way of being near the stranger that came into his house without his permission. When I saw Domino lay down at my feet, I knew he was calming down and getting more comfortable with my presence.

Usually dogs that display these sort of behaviors do so because they think they are in a position of authority. I suggested some rules and structural changes for the guardians to adopt to help change the dog’s perception of authority.

After working with him for quite a while, I could see that he was growing more relaxed and comfortable with me so I showed his guardians how they can use some counterconditioning to modify Domino’s behavior around new people who are moving around near the dog.

When you have a dog who has spent as many years as Domino has being territorially aggressive, it’s going to take time and a lot of repetition of counterconditioning before he learns to adopt a new behavior.

The counter conditioning process is effective if the guardians practice it with the dog multiple times a day while gradually increasing the intensity of the exercise. There will be ups and downs, good days and bad days but the most important thing for the guardians to do will be to remain consistent and dispassionate when the dog does have outbursts.

The real key here is to make sure that they don’t push too far, too fast. You want the dog to practice being around the stimulus, in this case a stranger’s moving feet, without reacting while he receives a positive reinforcer. As I mentioned in the video, once the dog starts reacting, you have pushed it too far

The goal is to practice the desired behavior over and over while providing positive reinforcement at the right time until a new calm behavior becomes a new habit for the dog. In this case, Domino being near a stranger who’s feet are moving but without reacting or biting them.

After spending a few hours going through various techniques and exercises, I wanted to re-create the guest arrival scenario so that the guardian could practice utilizing the new techniques.

A few notes on the above video. Initially the guardian was hissing more often than I would like. Generally I only like to hiss one time per incident when I disagree with a dog. If the dog continues acting up, then I take things to the next level by using escalating consequences. The consequence in this situation would be to suddenly move forward directly at the dog to make it move back or away.

Anytime the dog takes a seat, or lays down behind the boundary that the human has established, this is a good signal and opportunity to move faster. There were a couple of occurrences in the above video where the dog sat down and the guardian remained in place. Whenever possible, stepping directly backwards as soon as the dog sits or lies down is a great way to communicate that the dogs action was something you wanted. The dog sitting down is its way of saying its not challenging you. You stepping back right after is your way of saying you agree with the dog sitting down.

When the guardian moved forward suddenly and with a deliberate movement, Domino responded immediately. However on multiple occasions the guardian moved forward slowly which can give the dog the impression that the human is uncertain as to what it is doing. Dogs usually don’t respect and respond to indecisive humans.

There were a couple other occasions where the guardian stopped short of the dog while it was challenging her by moving forward. It’s important that the guardian move briskly towards the dog and continue to do so until the dog defers and communicates this by turning away or sitting down.

One last critique of the above video, there were a couple of occasions where the dog was moving forward while the guardian moved away or backwards. It’s important that we never move backwards from a dog that is challenging us in this sort of scenario (Note: a dog who is showing outright aggressive behavior should not be challenged this way).

Because of the level of intensity that Domino showed when I arrived for the session, this may be one of the rare cases where I need to come back for a follow-up session.

But based on the progress that we made in the session, I’m confident the Domino can learn to adopt a different behavior when guests arrive. It will take practice, enforcement of rules and structure from the guardians, but with careful observation and the proper timing for their corrective techniques, Domino can learn to actually look forward to the arrival of guests.

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This post was written by: David Codr