Teaching a Santa Monica Dog to Respect His Guardians to Stop His Nipping

By: David Codr

Published Date: October 30, 2015


Winston is a one-year-old Terrier mix in Santa Monica who mouthes when excited, nips when people reach to pet him, gets overexcited at the door and is reactive to dogs on walks.

When I arrived for the session Winston was barking in a territorial way. It wasn’t aggressive, but he was clearly letting me know he disagreed with my arrival. While alerting us to visitors is something most people want their dog to do, Winston keeping up his barking and circling behavior once guests are invited inside was evidence of a larger issue.

When dogs are in a group, the security of the pack is usually handled by the pack’s leader. Whenever I have a dog who is taking security too far (like nipping, aggressively barking or attempting to intimidate a guest), I look at the rules boundaries and structure the humans have in place for the dog.

In this case, Winston had no real rules and could tell his guardians to pet him or pay attention to him on demand. While it can sometimes be hard to resist a cute dog, giving it everything it wants and not incorporating any rules and structure can cause the dog to think it is the authority figure.

This perception of authority is related to most of Winston’s issues and is absolutely the reason he nips guests and people who reach over to pet him. His nips are a way of disagreeing and correcting people from doing something without his permission. Once Winston no longer considers himself top dog, he won’t feel its appropriate to disagree or correct humans that way.

A really easy way to help Winston stop thinking he is the top dog is to start petting him with a purpose. I consider petting a dog paying the dog. For this reason I advised his guardians to stop petting him for no reason and instead ask him to sit, lay down or come and then pet him while repeating the command word for the action. Over time, providing attention and affection this way will go a long ways towards rehabilitating Winston out of his unwanted nipping behavior.

The family told me that when on walks, Winston was aggressive to just about every large dog he met and some smaller dogs too if they were reacting to him. I wanted to identify what kind of aggression it was so I leashed him up and headed out on a walk without the family.

Seeing the other dog right next to Winston told me this was most likely a case of possessiveness and not actual aggression. When the Retriever’s tail kept smacking Winston in the mouth without any reaction from him, I knew we needed to change the leader follower dynamic in the home to solve this problem.

Once back at his home, I sat down to discuss some simple rules and boundaries to help start to change how Winston felt about his authority in conjunction to the members of the family.

I like to think of dogs as a part of the family, but having less authority than the youngest human. A great way to help the dog self identify as a follower is to place some limits on what it can do so it sees a distinction between human and dog.

One of these rules was to make the furniture off limits for one month. The video below shows how I taught the humans to reclaim the couch from the dog.

After the month is over, then Winston can get on the furniture, but only with permission from a human and only when it is behaving properly. This will help the dog see the humans as having more authority than he does as well as help them practice leading and correcting the dog.

As we were finishing up the couch exercise, Winston’s guardians mentioned that he didn’t always come when called so I had all the members of the family form a circle in the living room so we could go over a recall exercise.

By using positive reinforcement, we can help Winston learn that their is a reason to listen to the humans. This will be an important exercise to practice because this dog had the humans wrapped around his paw. As I explained how Winston saw his place amongst the family (That they were there to serve him), they started jokingly referring to him with the Roman title of “Cesar.”

A majhor contributor to Winston’s perception of authority was the family’s habit of giving him people food. A lot of people food, including scraps from the abel as they ate dinner. As a result Winston camped out under the table at dinner time.

When a dog is eating and another dog comes close, its actually considered quite rude in the dog community. Dogs don’t usually snatch things from another dog. They approach them and get right into their space to try to intimidate the other dog. For this reason, most dogs will emit a low growl if another dog comes near when they are eating.

I wanted the humans to use this same dog rule for when they ate themselves. Usually when I want to practice this exercise, its with the family pretending to eat. But in this case, the family had a nice Salmon dinner ready to go so I had them sit down at the table for dinner so I could show them how to tell Winston he needed to keep a respectable distance.

It took a family effort to move Winston away from the table, but once they did, he got the message and stayed away on his own without any additional corrections needed.

It will take a few days of correcting Winston and asking him to move 10 or more feet away when they are eating before he adopts this new behavior on his own. But if they are consistent, he should start to move behind the boundary on his own when food is added to the kitchen table.

Because dogs eat in the order of their rank, after the humans ate their dinner, I showed them how to feed Winston dog food (and STRONGLY advised them to stop giving him people food) in a structured way.

Winston only really ate the salmon because it was available. By only offering him dog food and removing it if he doesn’t take advantage, his guardians can help him see them as having dominion over his food. This is a small but important change as Winston will continue to hold out if he thinks there is a chance he can get some people food.

Now that we had added some rules, boundaries and limits, we were ready to tackle Winston’s behavior at the door. I always want the dog to be in a follower position at the door when its reactive. We had one of the family’s children head outside to play the past of an arriving guest so I could show them how to claim the area around the door and establish a boundary the dog needed to stay behind.

The first few times we practiced the door exercise, Winton did his best to try to get around the human answering the door, but as we progressed, he started staying back behind the boundary on his own.

By the end of the session Winston was listening and following all the members of the family right away. Its going to be difficult for them to stop over loving the dog and apply the rules and limits we set up in the session, but if they do so consistently, Winston will start identifying as a follower and stop nipping or thinking its appropriate or his place to correct the humans.

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