Introducing Rules and Structure to Stop Dog Nipping

By: David Codr

Published Date: October 20, 2016


Steve is a three-year-old Shih Tzu who lives with a family in West Omaha. His guardian set up a dog behavior training session to put a stop to his habit of nipping unknown kids and adults who don’t pet him as soon as they meet him.

Steve was clearly excited when we arrive to the session, however he also showed some insecurities. I passed in front of him in a couple of different directions to see if he would demonstrate his nipping behavior but for this greeting, he decided to stick with barking.

I sat down with Steve’s guardian to discuss what she wanted to accomplish in the session. It was a difficult conversation due to Steve’s insistence on machine gun barking the whole time. I knew I needed to come up with a way to teach Steve to stop barking.

After a couple of minutes, it became obvious that Steve was not going to stop barking unless he got his way or something prompted him to be quiet.

Because petting a dog in an unbalanced state is actually reinforcing or nurturing that unbalanced nature, I pulled out a leash and used it to prevent Steve from running around the house. As soon as the leash was attached, Steve calmed down dramatically. He also stopped barking. If you have a dog that likes to bark at guests and then move away, placing them in on a leash this way can help stop the dog’s barking.

After evaluating Steve and his guardian, it sounded like a lack of rules was causing Steve to think that he was in a position of authority, perhaps even having more authority than the humans in his eyes.

When you are in a position of authority, you also have responsibility and this responsibility often results in pressure and stress. This is amplified if the people or things that we are responsible for do not cooperate with us and that is exactly what happens when a dog thinks that it has authority over humans.

To help Steve stop feeling so anxious, I suggested a number of rules that the guardian can incorporate to help him start to identify as being in a follower position. Followers do not have the responsibility and pressure that leaders do. So helping Steve transition into a follower’s mindset will be an important part of his rehabilitation.

The guardian had found that if visitors to the house petted Steve when they arrived, he would calm down and stop barking at them. While I am always a fan of using positive reinforcement like petting, it’s important we consider what the dog is doing when we pet them. In a dog’s mind, anything they are doing at the time we pet them is the reason for the pet.

I spent the next few minutes going over a strategy that I have developed called petting with a purpose that will help the members start petting Steve at the right times.

Because Steve lives with a family that has two young children, this may be a bit of a challenge at first. It will be important that the parents closely monitor the children’s interactions with the dog and remind their charges that they need to ask Steve to do something for them before they pet him to say thanks.

There is a good chance that once Steve adopts a follower’s mindset he will stop trying to control the situation by nipping at children or people that he disagrees with. However, if that is not the case, I wanted to give his guardians a tool that they could use to help Steve learn to stop nipping to disagree with things.

I have found one of the best ways to help a dog change it’s perception of something is a technique called counter conditioning. I spent the next few minutes showing Steve’s guardian how she can use this technique to help the dog see unknown people as a positive rather than a negative.

Counterconditioning takes some time and practice, but when done properly it eliminates the dog’s fear or reactivity for good.

Once we wrapped up the counterconditioning exercise, I spent a couple of minutes going over some nonverbal communication cues that his guardians can use to disagree with Steve the instant that he starts to display or engage in any unwanted behaviors.

Timing is very important when communicating with dogs because they learn through association. I always recommend that my clients reward or correct their dogs within three seconds of them engaging in whatever the activity is in order for the dog to understand exactly what they are rewarding or disagreeing with.

To help the guardian use these new communication cues in a real-world application, I had one of the families children head outside to play the part of the guest. One of Steve’s strongest reactive activities was people at the door.

The family’s son started knocking a little bit quicker than we anticipated which is why the above video starts so abruptly. Despite the footage starting a little bit late, it was great to see how well Steve picked up on the new nonverbal communication cues. But the real test is if the guardian herself can get the same response from her dog.

Because the family normally leaves the inside front door open, I had my apprentice Brian head outside to play the part of a guest when we ran through the exercise a second time. But this time we left the inside door open and the guardian was the one who answered the door.

It was clearly a little bit awkward for Steve’s guardian at first. This is to be expected and not at all uncommon. But once she got the swing of it, Steve clearly saw her as having the situation under control and left the area to her.

Because security for the pack is something that is is usually handled by an authority figure, practicing this exercise a dozen or so times over the next week will go a long ways towards helping Steve adopt the followers mindset that we talked about earlier.

Another great way to demonstrate our position of authority is to lead a dog while out on a walk. Because Steve had a tendency to pull on the leash, I asked Brian in he would mind teaching the dog to heel. Ana activity I wish was more dog trainer would teach.

It was great to see how quickly Steve responded to this heel training. Brian only had to turn around a couple of times before Steve understood that as soon as he pulled on the leash or moved ahead, they had to start over.

Once Steve seemed to understand the basics of the exercise, Brian gave the leash to his guardian so that she could practice asking the dog to heel herself.

It will be important that the guardian practice this exercise a couple of times a day every day until Steve is able to walk in a heel position next to her five times in a row without rushing towards the treats on the floor.

By the end of the session, Steve was much calmer. He had stopped barking, was allowing Brian and myself to approach and pet him without disagreeing and seemed much more at ease.

If the guardian can consistently enforce the new rules and boundaries using the new nonverbal communication cues, get into a habit of petting with a purpose and practice the different techniques that we introduced, Steve should start adopting the behaviors that they want and refraining from those they dislike. After enough practice, this new calm, non-nipping behavior should become Steve’s new normal way of behaving.

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This post was written by: David Codr

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