Teaching a Black Lab Mix its Not Nice to Bite

Rummer, Kahlua and Sophie

Rummer and Kahlua live in Omaha with Sophie (from left), a nine-year-old Black Lab mix. Their guardian called me to set up a dog behavior training session to address Sophie’s barking and habit of biting guests who visit her home

Knowing that Sophie had a bite history, I suggested that her guardian introduce a muzzle a few days before our session. When we booked the session I spent a couple of minutes explaining how he can introduce the muzzle in a way that does not result in her hating having it on.

When I arrived for the session, all the dogs were excited but I could tell that there was a little bit of bite to Sophie’s bark. It’s a good thing that we had introduce the muzzle prior to the session.

While we certainly don’t want our dogs to nip or bite our guests, pulling a dog away from the door by the collar can actually intensify their reaction. In the next video you will see how her guardian was able to move her away and keep her from getting near the door on her own.

But before we went over the new door answering techniques, I sat down with their guardian to discuss the situation and evaluate the dogs. While I observed them, I noticed that Rummer and Kahlua showed zero respect for anyone’s personal space; they jumped up on me and their guardian with abandon and nudged him anytime they wanted attention.

To help the guardian understand why this was bad (aside from the obvious) I spent a few minutes going over how dogs learn as well as how important it is for a dog to see and respect us as an authority figure. If a dog does not respect you as a leader, they often get the impression that they have the same authority that you do. If a dog thinks that it is your equal, been listening to you becomes optional. It can also cause some dogs to get possessive or protective and I think that is what happened to Sophie.

I made a number of suggestions that the dog’s guardian can use to help the dogs start to identify as being in a follower position while simultaneously looking up to the humans as authority figures.

I also went over some nonverbal communication cues to help the guardians more effectively speak with their dogs. One of the biggest points of emphasis I made for this was how important it is that they correct or reward the dog within a maximum of three seconds of them engaging in the behavior.

Next I stepped outside for a few minutes so that I could play the part of an arriving guest and give the dog’s guardian an opportunity to use what we have just learned to control the dogs at the door.

By communicating exactly what he wanted and disagreeing with the dogs with good timing, the guardian was able to control the situation and allow me to enter the door while the dogs remained several feet away without any leashes or barriers. I always want the dogs to do the work.

I suggested that the guardians call or text one another when they are coming home so they can practice this door answering ritual amongst themselves.

To make sure that Sophie’s guardians knew what to look for, I went over the warning signals she will give so that they can head off any potential aggression or bites before they happen in the future.

Many people are clueless when it comes to dog communication. As a result they often think that the dog’s reaction came out of nowhere. In fact, dog communication is very subtle and it is something many people miss entirely. Now that the guardians know what to look for, they will be able to disagree with Sophie the instant she starts (much more effective) rather than reacting to her once she is in a full-blown attack.

I have found a great way to shift the leader follower dynamic in a home is for the humans to start adding a little bit of structure to how they pet their dogs. I like to call this technique Petting with a purpose and I spent the next few minutes going over it with the dog’s guardian.

This type of positive dog training goes a long way with dogs. I have found that rewarding desired behaviors is much more effective in rehabilitating dogs than trying to correct or punish a dog after it shows an aggressive behavior.

Once Sophia sees and identifies the humans as being in the leadership position and they are communicating with her in a way that she understands and respects, it will be much easier for them to disagree with her when she starts to show any signs of possession or aggression.

For about three quarter of my clients, once the humans assume the leadership position,  the dog’s stop engaging in the problem behaviors. But because the dogs and their guardian are moving to another city, I wanted to give them a roadmap to success in case that was not the situation with Sophie.

I suggested that the guardians do not practice having a guest arrive until they have spent a few weeks mastering the various techniques and exercises that we introduced in the session. Just like humans, dogs need practice before they become proficient at any new exercise.

Because Sophie’s behavior was so calm and her interaction with me so respectful, I removed the muzzle at the end of the session. I could sense that this made the dog’s guardian uncomfortable at first due to her bite history. While it is a good idea to be cautious with the dog who has shown a proclivity for biting, I also wanted to show the dog’s guardian that she had the ability to interact with humans without any aggression before I left.

By the end of the session, all three dogs were much more relaxed and calm. They were already following the new rules and responding right away to the new communication methods used by their guardian.

It’s going to take some time and practice, but Sophie should learn to stop her aggressive behaviors when guests arrive once she sees and respects her guardians as being her leader.

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