Nipping Makes People Back Away

Jack RussellThis is Finley. Finley has quite obviously discovered, wherever he lived before and he has no history, that nipping makes people back off.

The lady has had the six-year-old Jack Russell for one month now. Alone with her, Finley is the model dog. He is biddable and affectionate. He is absolutely adorable – most of the time!

When someone comes to the house – particularly if it’s a man – Finley is liable to jump up and nip them on the hand with no barking or growling first. I expect this is because they put their a hand out to him. Out on a walk he has now bitten a woman on the leg when his new owner stopped to chat with her and Finley sat quietly beside her. All the woman had done was to raise her hand to her hair. Possible Finley had misinterpreted the action and he immediately flew at her leg, breaking the skin.

I was showing the lady how to have Finley walking on loose lead in the front garden when a friend came to the fence – someone who Finley knows. He looked happy and friendly as she said ‘Hello Finley’ and ran over to her, trailing the lead. As soon as she put her hand out over the fence however he leapt up and bit the sleeve of her coat. She narrowly missed a damaged hand and it took me by surprise also. It was like a quick ‘”Back Off – No Hands in My Territory”.

He was lovely with me from the moment I entered the door – but, then, I would never dream of putting my hand out to a dog at that stage. I would stand still and let him sniff me – which he did – probably learning all about my own four dogs!  I also know not to walk towards the owner. Before I move I always say “I’ll follow you” so that the person turns around and leads me into the room, the dog following.

From chatting to the lady and watching him, I’m sure the nipping behaviour is because the dog is becoming increasingly protective of her and his new territory.

What can she do about this?

Firstly, if she behaves like his slave, jumping to his every demand, topping up his food bowl and fussing him constantly, he may well feel she’s some sort of resource belonging to him that he will want to guard. In every way possible she should be showing Finley that she is there to protect him and not the other way around.

She should show him, too, who is the protector when he barks at sounds and passing people and dogs by how she reacts. If he’s at the window barking at passing people and particularly dogs whenever they pass, he is surely just getting better at barking at people and dogs. He’s firing himself up to drive people away. To him the barking always works because whoever it is does go away if he keeps barking until they do.

If Finley spends much of the day on guard duty, waiting for a dog to pass, it’s hardly surprising that he’s a handful on walks when they sees a dog.

Where food is concerned, she should, instead of allowing him to graze all day, leave the best stuff for him to earn – for work around barking, people approaching – and other dogs on walks.

At home the groundwork should be in place and then, out on walks, everything done to associate other dogs with nice stuff and not with discomfort or panic. Currently he’s on a retractable lead on a thin collar. If he lunges, on reaching the end of the lead the jerk will hurt his neck. So now the other dog causes him pain to his neck as well. I would prefer a longish normal lead, long enough so he feels some freedom – and a harness (not the sort of ‘no pull’ harness that causes pain by tightening under the arms when the dog pulls).

Already she is taking Finley for three short walks a day as any more she herself finds it too stressful. She is a retired lady and is happy to give him even more even shorter outings. They can come straight home as soon as he has been stressed by something. Each subsequent thing he encounters will add to his build-up of stress as he becomes increasingly out of control.

The day’s barking in the garden or at the window will mean he starts the walk a stressed dog. Unlike humans who can warn you when they are reaching their breaking point, dogs are silent; they talk more with their bodies but often we simply can’t read them.

This case is a good example of how much of what a person does at home with her dog can influence what happens out on walks. She can work at getting and keeping his attention, at getting him to come to her straight away whenever she calls him and at motivating him with food and fun. Boundary and window barking at people and dogs should be controlled and he can be desensitised instead.

NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Finley. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good particularly in cases involving potential aggression. One size does not fit all. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Get Help page).