Dog Trainer

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Q: How Can I Get My Dog to Stop Nipping at Me?

I have a 5 1/2-month-old border collie mix who, in the evening, wants to play nip—playful biting that’s no fun for me. This can happen at other times of the day, but in the evening I have a great deal of difficulty redirecting him. It usually comes along with a period of hyperactivity, almost like a kid who is tired but won’t voluntarily lie down to nap. I don’t know what would be the best way to address this with him or what I need to do earlier in the day to prevent this from happening. We tend to either walk or play catch in the morning and then the reverse in the afternoon.

By: Question from: Donna, Santa Fe, NM
Photo: dogboxstudios via Shutterstock

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A:

Donna, I think there are a couple of things going on here. The first and most obvious is the breed and age of the dog. Border collies are highly athletic and somewhat needy—especially in their teenage years from about six months to a year and a half. Some of this behavior should be expected, but it can still be mitigated. Here are some ideas.

1. Collies are herders. You need to buy a flock of sheep.

2. If becoming a shepherd is not an option, make sure the dog is getting enough exercise. Catch is a great game because it requires the dog to sprint much farther and faster than the handler. If you haven’t already tried one, those Chuckit! tennis ball throwers can help increase the distance your dog gets to run.

3. Assuming your dog has plenty of exercise, make sure you’re not provoking or reinforcing his nipping: Keep your hands clear of his mouth at all times, don’t pull away or try to bat at him. In general this sort of “stop that” and push away response from you is a strong reinforcer to a dog that wants to play.

4. Try a convincing yelp of your own when he latches on to you. Puppies play bite each other all the time and know to release when they hear their littermates holler.

5. Redirect Conrad by place training him. He should have a mat, rug, or dog bed that he knows is his. You can teach this with a combination of positive reinforcement (at the beginning) and low-force positive punishment (once he knows it). When he steps onto his mat, click and give him praise and a treat. In your next training session, if he knows lie down, have him lie down on his mat. If he doesn’t know this one, just sitting on his mat is fine. By the second or third five-minute training session, he should get the idea that going onto his mat equals reinforcement and a reward. Once he understands the significance of the mat, add the cue: "go lie down" or "go to bed" or "go settle" are common cues used for this behavior. Keep this up with a few more sessions of positive reinforcement but lengthen the amount of time Conrad needs to sit on the mat before you treat him. Once you’re convinced he knows what’s expected of him, make treating rare. If he gets up, physically put him back on his mat and give your cue again. Sometimes putting a leash on him and stepping on it while you sit in a chair next to his mat can help.

6. Chew Toys can offer a frenetic puppy a place to direct his energy. If your dog likes treats or liver, try getting the kind of toy you can fill with something good. Give him his toy only when he’s on his mat. Just be sure you count any treats you give him as part of his total daily intake.

7. Confinement: Your dog should have a safe place where you can give him a timeout. A crate, kennel, a pen in the yard—some place you know you can leave him and know he’s not going to get into trouble. If you can’t get the nipping to stop, you need to give the dog a time out. I do this by putting the dogs in their respective kennels in the yard. Just a few minutes should do, but it could take longer. The key is that if your dog barks or otherwise carries on and you break down and respond to his cries, you’ve just reinforced tantrums as a way to get your attention. Put the dog in his pen, then wait for him to be quiet for at least 30 seconds before you let him back in. The idea is that if a dog can learn to manipulate you by carrying on, he can just as easily learn to be let back in by settling down.

MORE FUN GAMES TO FOCUS RAMBUNCTIOUS PUPS
1. Try clicker training your dog either for obedience or agility.

2. Puzzle-solving games with you (hide-and-seek, find the treats hidden around the house, various puzzle-toys).

3. Quiet time in a crate with a long-lasting game/toy like a Buster Cube, a stuffed Kong, or just a good ol’ marrow bone.

This article originally appeared on Outside K9, the former dog blog of Outside magazine, on May 5, 2009.

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