Teaching a Dog to Respect Boundaries to Stop His Nipping

By: David Codr

Published Date: June 25, 2015

Imani 1

Imani is a seven-year-old Australian Shepherd who recently started to growl and nip a few people that he knows, including the preteen daughter of their neighbor.

When I arrived for the session, Imani showed a normal curiosity but zero signs of aggression. While he didn’t show as much respect for my personal space as I would like, he was pretty well behaved.  It was easy to tell that his guardian had put in a lot of work training their dog.

I sat down with his primary guardian to discuss the situation and how I could help. In the course of this discussion, a neighbor girl appeared at the back door. This 5 year old girl is a friend of the family and was one of the people that Imani had nipped at. As soon as he saw the child through the window he lowered his head and admitted a low growl.

While I generally like to get a dog to avoid growling at someone, I never disagree with the growl itself. Growling is a communication and while you can condition a dog to not growl at a person, often that can result in the dog skipping ahead to the next step which is actually biting.

His guardian asked me if she should let the child inside or if we needed to move the dog away from the area. I always prefer to keep the dog in the area so that we can provide a teaching moment, provided we can maintain safety of all involved.

Because the dog had remained in a prone position, was looking away from the window and no longer growling I told his guardian that it was okay to let the child inside. I stood up and walked over near the dog placing my back to the child. I kept a keen eye on him, looking for any signs of stress or agitation. Imani continued to look away from the child and maintained a calm and relaxed body posture as he laid on the floor.

Because he was not showing any signs of stress or aggression, I wanted to try to work with the child and the dog at the same time. I attached a leash to Imani’s neck and kept it short so I could invite the girl to come over.

Keeping myself between the dog and the child, I handed her several high-value meet treats with a strong scent. I asked her to walk around the serving counter in the kitchen and drop one of the high-value treats every two or three steps. After letting the child take a few steps, I followed behind her with the dog in a heel position. Imani clearly saw her dropping the treats as we followed them and he happily leaned down to lick them off up off of the floor.

My goal was to create some positive association with the child, while placing the child in a leadership position (literally in front of the dog). After circling the counter collecting a half dozen treats, Imani seemed very relaxed, so I suggested that we go outside for a short walk.

I handed the child another handful of treats and instructed her to walk about 10 paces ahead of us, dropping the treats on the sidewalk every five or six steps. Just as he did in the house, Imani walked next to me as we followed the child. He was clearing watching her and each time she dropped the treat, he immediately started to move towards it.

When we got to the end of the block I had the child stop, turn around and walk towards us. I placed Imani in a sit position on the edge of the sidewalk to allow the child plenty of room to pass.

I watched intently looking for any signs of stress, agitation or aggression but saw none of them. Immediately after the child passed us, we fell into step a few feet behind her. After a few steps, I caught up with the child and positioned myself to her left so that the dog was between us. After a few more paces, I stopped and asked the dog to sit down. With the dog in a seated position I offered him a treat so that I could observe his energy level and the dilation of his pupils. Because his pupils were fixed and he remained calm I had the child offer a treat much in the same way. Imani took the treat from her hand gently and without any incident.

We continued walking back towards Imani’s home, stopping every dozen paces or so he could practice being next to the girl and receiving a high value treat from her. A nice non threatening approach for a dog is to be beside them, facing the same direction and offering the treat out to your side. The walk made it east to keep both the dog and the neighbor in the best possible position.

After we got back to his home, the neighbor girl went to play with her friend in the family and I sat down to continue my conversation with the dog’s primary guardian. I made a few suggestions on similar things to do to help the dog build a stronger positive perspective of the girl. One of these was to have the child pull out handfuls of Imani’s food and rub it between her hands to rub her scent onto his food. Combined with offering him high value treats for good behavior, Imani’s positive associations with the girl can have a cumulatively positive impact.

I had noticed that Imani frequently invaded the personal space of anyone he was near, literally crawling underneath them or between their legs. Each time he did this, his guardian reached over to pet him which reinforced this behavior. Because a dog that lacks confidence will often hide behind or lean on the members of their pack for strength, I suggested that his guardian block him from doing so to help him develop the ability to stand on his own. I showed his guardian how to use nonverbal communication and body movement to disagree with Imani the next time he tried to sit right under her. While there’s nothing wrong with a dog interacting with humans, asking a dog to respect a 2-3 food bubble of personal space is a great exercise that will help the dog learn to develop more self esteem.

We were able to test this theory to later in the session as the family’s daughter and father enjoyed a couple of hamburgers out on the deck. His guardian told me that normally Imani sits under the table next to her daughter’s feet. But when a dog sits this close to someone who is eating it’s very inappropriate.

As soon we got outside, Imani started walking over to assume his normal position at her feet under the table. But this time the family’s mother made a sound to disagree with his actions while he was still a few feet away. Imani immediately heeded her warning; turning around, walking a few feet away then laying down and turning his back to the table.

Imani 4

When a dog lays down and turns its back to a desired object or item, its a clear communication that it understands it has no claims to it. The fact that Imani did this so quickly was a really great sign.

Shortly after we went back inside, the mother of the little girl who helped me earlier arrived at the back door to collect her child. I asked her if she would be willing to help us test Imani’s reaction by playing the part of a guest of knocking at the front door.

As soon as the neighbor started to knock, Imani barked and raced to the front door.  I walked over to the door at a casual pace and then demonstrated to Imani’s guardian how to claim the area surrounding the door entry. I was communicating to the dog that he was to go no further than the edge of the carpet which was about 11 feet away from the doorway.

After I demonstrated the body position, corrections and movements to use, I opened the door and greeted the neighbor. Imani tried to approach the for way a few times, but it was easy to get him to move away. I asked the neighbor if she would be kind enough to repeat the process so that Imani’s guardian could practice opening the door in the same way.

This time Imani only barked once and quickly walked to the door rather than running as he did before. At first, his guardian started to rush so I reminded her to slow down. If a human is rushing in conjunction with an action or activity that can often provoke a stronger reaction from the dog.

As soon as his guardian got to the door, she turned around to face the dog. Keeping the door at her back and the dog to her front, she took a sudden and deliberate step directly at Imani. This caused Imani to move backwards a few steps as he looked up to his guardian surprised by her actions. She kept marching directly at the dog and when he attempted to go around her ,she matched his movement to block him.

Imani 3
Once the dog was sitting on the carpet 11 feet away from the door, his guardian walked backwards to the door – keeping her front facing the dog. This kept her power, or authority directed at Imani.

Once she was near the door I had her reach to the side with her arm and jiggle the door knob and deadbolt to the door. I wanted her to manipulate them while keeping her front and eyes on the dog. The doorknob and deadbolt sounds are triggers that often cause a dog to get up and rush the doorway as they associate them with someone arriving due to repetition. By breaking these sounds and activities up into individual steps, it’s easier for the guardian and dog to focus on the task at hand.

After a few corrections Imani was staying beyond the border so his guardian got ready to open the door. As soon as she started to do so, the dog got up and attempted to cross the boundary to reach the doorway. His guardian reacted immediately and rushed towards the dog to communicate that she disagreed with his movement. As soon as Imani saw her movement, he immediately retreated back to the carpet.

While her initial reaction was good, she started to walk back towards the door while the dog was still moving. I always want to wait for a dog to be stationary before I move away after correcting it through a movement. Because she didnt wait for him to stop, Imani attempted to go around her to reach the doorway. But his guardian saw it and stepped to the side each time that he attempted to get around her. After a few back-and-forth corrections, Imani sat down behind the border and looked up at his guardian in a respectful way. Only after he had assumed this seated position did she walk backwards to the front door to open it for her guest.

Imani 2
After we finished the door exercise, I made a few suggestions on how the family can incorporate some structure to mealtime as they already fed the dog after they ate themselves. To dogs who live in a group, the order in which members of the pack eat has a direct correlation to their status or rank amongst the other members. By feeding the dog after all the humans eat, the family is effectively communicating to the dog that it is in a follower position.

By the end of the session Imani was all tuckered out. Even dropping one of his favorite items on the floor next to him triggered zero response from the sleeping dog.

Imani 5

Imani is not an aggressive dog, not by a long stretch. Because young children often interact with dogs in ways that dogs aren’t used to, some dogs will attempt to disagree with their actions. While humans think of hugs and kisses as great signs of affection, dogs do not hug each other and don’t constantly stick their face into another’s. Its possible that Imani’s nipping reactions were his attempt to communicate he didn’t like it much the same way he would talk to a peer.

By having the girl provide him with high value treats from a non threatening position and his guardian incorporate some additional structure and discipline (petting for a reason, establishing and enforcing boundaries), we can change Imani’s perception of his status amongst the humans. This way he sees the child as a superior who also brings high vale rewards. A double positive!

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