Adding Structure to Help a Dog Learn to Stop Nipping Members of the Family

By: David Codr

Published Date: June 6, 2015

Issy 1

Issy is a two-year-old Laso Apso / Shi Tzu mix who lives in Burbank. He is blind in one eye and aggressive to people and dogs he doesn’t know. When he sees something he doesn’t like or trust, he goes into a hunting mode or sits next to their legs and snaps when they move.

I was careful to keep him in front of me and not allow him to jump up and claim me when I arrived for the session. Often dogs who snap or nip to correct feel that they are in a position of authority or are in charge of security. This often happens when  dog has few rules or boundaries, are given attention and affection for no reason or don’t see the humans as authority figures.

Issy tried to go around behind me while i stood at the front door but I kept pivoting to keep the dog in front of me. After a minute of this dance, Issy moved into a play bow (arms stretched forward and down while her butt was in the air) and started to sniff me. After another moment he moved away calmly. Only after he had moved away did I come into the home and sit down with his family.

After sitting down with his guardians, I learned that Issy didn’t really have any rules or limits in place. I also witnessed his primary guardian petting him any time he came near her. When you combine that with a dog who thinks its in a position or authority, it can be a bad combination.

This is not always the case. Many dogs can live with no rules or boundaries and still be respectful and well mannered. But in this case, Issy interpreted the overflowing affection as agreeing with his behavior and the lack of rules as a sign that he must be the rule maker himself. When a dog thinks its in charge of humans, it can be really problematic. Dogs have specific rules and communication methods most humans don’t know about. So they don’t heed the warnings

As a result, Issy felt it was his place to correct those who did not follow the rules he had in mind. Case in point, Issy’s nipping to disagree or correct anyone from moving about the room without his permission. He was likely giving signs (such as a nostril flare, baring teeth, etc) that he disapproved when he was aware that someone was going to break one of his rules.

But because the humans were unaware of these rules or his perceived “security job” they were caught off guard when Oliver lashed out. I witnessed one of his attempts to correct and even I missed his warnings and had to react quickly along with his intended target to avoid a bite. Dog behavior can be very quick and subtle.

To stop Issy’s nipping, I needed to fundamentally change his perception of his authority amongst the members of the family. I suggested some simple rules and structure that the humans start to enforce. Simple things like petting the dog for following a command rather than being nearby can go a long ways towards redefining the leader follower relationship.

To address Issy’s habit of getting over excited and nipping people at the door, I had one of the members of the family leave and knock on the door a few minutes later to pretend to be a visitor. I answered the door the first time and demonstrated how to claim the area around the door to the apartment. This confused Issy at first, but after a few corrections, he started to move away from the door and bark less. By the third time we practiced, Issy only barked once.

Next I went over some non verbal communication methods, ways to disagree with unwanted behavior and a leadership exercise that helps the human practice leading the dog. It didn’t take long for Issy to start to process the changes we had introduced. In fact the family member who he tried to bite and usually didnt interact with the dog much as a result was able to pet and touch him without any negative reactions.

Once we wrapped up the leadership exercise, I suggested we head out for a walk. Because of his reactive behavior on previous walks, I fitted Issy up with a Martingale collar and added my special twist to the leash to ensure it stopped the pulling and gave the handler more control.

Issy lives in an apartment complex and so we needed to descend a flight of stairs to hit the street. Issy attempted to race ahead of us as he usually did, but I corrected him and kept the leash short so he stayed at my side. I paused a number of times as I walked down the steps and corrected the leash each time Issy tried to mov in front. It took longer, but by the time we hit the street, he was calm and easy to handle.

We encountered a few dogs on our walk. I was watching Issy when the first one approached. At first he didnt notice, but as the dog got closer, he started to lower his head and stare at the approaching dog. The second he took in a breath and started to open his mouth to bark at the other dog, I gave him a correction which snapped his attention from the dog. I used this pause in reactiveness to walk him right past the other dog without any further protests.

After going over the timing and correction with his guardian, she took his leash and we went in search of more dogs. Fortunately a neighbor who had a dog that Issy liked to bark at was outside. His handler walked Issy right past this dog and corrected him with almost perfect timing enabling her to walk around this other dog without any barks of protests from Issy.

We continued on and passed a few other dogs with his handler getting the same results. Encounter after encounter, Issy behaved himself and after a while didnt even need a correction. His guardian kept telling me that in the past he would have been barking like crazy at the person or dog. But because of the work we did before in the apartment, the dog now was taking a passive, follower role and letting the human take care of security.

As we turned to walk back to his home, I was pleased to see the little guy walking next to his guardian in a perfect heel with no tension on the leash or corrections needed.

Issy 2

As we were wrapping up the session, Issy’s guardian’s parents arrived. When he heard the knocking at the door, he started to charge the door as he used to do. His owner casually got up and walked over to the door and then claimed it exactly as we had practiced earlier in the session. Once she took over, Issy’s barking stopped and he moved away form the door area on his own.

By the end of the session, Iassy was calmer, less reactive and following the guidance and corrections of his guardian. It will take practice at the exercises and clear leadership from the humans before his nipping and other unwanted behaviors stop completely. As his humans assume the leadership position by how they interact and communicate with him, Issy can go back to being a carefree dog and leave all the stress of his perceived “security job” behind.

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