Many dogs like to grab at arms, legs, shoes, scarves, or even hair when they’re excited. Dogs that nip when they’re excited can be pretty frustrating, embarrassing, painful, or even scary to work with.
Some puppies that play bite just grow out of it — but many more don’t. Unfortunately for us, most of our dogs will just stick with their habits as they mature if we don’t teach them a different way to act.
That being said – let’s teach them a different way to act! Today, we’re exploring how to stop a dog from nipping when he’s excited.
Dogs explore the world through their mouths, for better or for worse. Though I can’t tell you exactly why your dog nips when he’s excited (I’d have to ask, and I’m not Dr. DoLittle), I can tell you some common reasons for dog nipping.
Your dog might nip you when he’s excited because:
Generally, dogs that nip when they’re excited are high arousal. This is a shorthand way of saying that these dogs are easily over-excited by things. These dogs often react with barking, spinning, and — you guessed it — nipping.
We’re glad you asked! As a professional trainer and a former animal shelter worker, I’ve got quite a few tricks up my sleeve for stopping dogs from nipping.
First off, let’s address some common tips you might find elsewhere online, and why I don’t endorse them:
In short, if you try to enforce your house rules with confrontational or scary training methods, you might stop your dog from nipping at the moment, but at a price. You’re likely to scare your dog in the long run and may even make him act more aggressively down the line.
The reason the five methods listed above are so attractive – despite being deeply problematic – is that they stop the dog from nipping right now.
However, it’s kind of like giving your partner a swift kick under the table when he says something rude at dinner with your parents. It works — but it might make your partner a bit irritable towards you or even less likely to want to grab dinner again.
What if instead of kicking your partner for an off-color joke, you swiftly changed the subject to a different topic – maybe one that shows your partner would enjoy discussing? And then at the next meal, you headed off the bad joke ahead of time with something more parent-friendly?
Those two methods are what we’ll do for nipping dogs instead.
When you’ve got an amped-up Boxer (or Jack Russell or Cattle Dog) pulling at your sleeves and nipping at your heels, you’re not thinking about an in-depth training plan. You want this to stop — now.
Luckily, you don’t have to resort to alpha rolls or cans of pennies to make that happen. Save that loose change for Coinstar instead!
When a dog is nipping at you, jumping on you, barking at you, or otherwise being a bother, you have a few different options:
1. Toss food on the ground. This is my favorite go-to. Called a “treat scatter” in the shelter world, this is how I have escaped from most of my too-excited canine companions. Take a fistful of treats and scatter them on the ground. Sniffing and gathering the treats will help calm most dogs down.
Don’t worry too much about rewarding the dog for jumping up — the dog is probably so amped up right now that he’s pretty much incapable of learning. In science speak, he’s not using his prefrontal cortex right now!
Eating food helps calm him down, and then you can start teaching lessons. Dogs are generally less likely to “rebound” at you after this. If the dog won’t take the treats or goes right back to nipping, try another method.
2. Step into the dog’s space. If the dog is loose and waggy, you can try stepping into his space. Simply take a step forward into the dog with your body upright and features calm. No shouting, pushing, or intimidating — just take a step towards the dog. This will stop some dogs in their tracks after a few tries. Do not try this with dogs that may be scared of you or aggressive towards you.
3. Be calm and boring. Many dogs jump or nip at us because we wave our arms around, squeal like toys, and generally make ourselves into exciting play objects. Some dogs will stop jumping and nipping if you simply make yourself boring. This is best paired with a treat scatter.
4. Leave the room. If nothing else is working while a dog nips at you, just leave. Step over a baby gate or step behind a closed door for a few seconds. This “negative punishment” procedure simply removes what the dog wants (you and your arms to gnaw on) when he does something you don’t like. After a few moments, return and try to cue the dog to sit or tossing treats. Repeat as needed. This approach can truly remedy the problem!
For most dogs, a boring person who leaves when they nip becomes a pretty lame chew toy. You might be done after trying these approaches, but maybe not!
If you’d like to teach your dog an alternative behavior rather than just triaging the problem at the moment, read on.
Of course, sometimes it’s nice to prevent a problem before it starts.
We can always use environmental management to stop a dog from nipping. This might mean putting your dog on a leash before guests come over so you can pull him away before he nips. You might want to put him behind a dog gate or in a crate. In extreme cases, a muzzle can help keep fingers safe while you work on training.
If you go this route, be prepared to reward your dog with lots of treats for calm behavior behind the barrier. If you ignore him for too long when he’s behind a barrier, you can make him more excited because he’s so ready to join the action!
Beyond that, how can we actually teach the dog not to nip at all?
My favorite way to attack a problem behavior is using a method called “Differential Reinforcement of an Incompatible Behavior” (DRI). Basically, this means that we’ll reward your dog when he does something that he can’t do while simultaneously nipping you.
Most people simply teach their dog to sit when greeting people. To do this, teach your dog to sit in increasingly distracting situations.
You’re going to have to practice a lot — most dogs are good at sitting when you’re sitting alone in the kitchen in your PJs holding a bunch of treats. But can your dog sit at the dog park? At the door when you’re about to leave for a walk? When he sees a squirrel?
Keep practicing until he’s great at sitting in really, really hard situations. If you try to ask your dog to sit when he’s not ready for the situation, you’ll just be frustrated when he ignores you and keeps jumping on your guests.
Watch out for creating accidental behavior chains during this process. If your dog is still nipping at you between sitting, you might be rewarding a nip-sit combination. Make the situation less exciting, then try again so that you can reward him for sitting without nipping.
My personal favorite behavior to use instead of sitting is actually a hand target. This behavior teaches your dog to press his nose to your hand on cue. It’s a super easy and versatile trick that helps refocus your dog and move him around with ease.
Laure Luck shows an example of what hand targeting looks like in the video below:
I prefer hand targets for excited dogs (instead of sitting) for a few reasons:
Finally, an excellent way to control your dog’s mouth when he’s excited is to teach him to greet people with a toy in his mouth.
This is the method I use with my own dog, and it really helps him chomp on something squishy while keeping my sleeves un-bitten.
I taught my dog a “get your cow” cue first, then started to cue this whenever he got excited about someone coming near. Now, he does it on his own! This works best with dogs that already love, love, LOVE toys!
If you’re more of a video watcher, here’s a demo video that I put together a few weeks ago on puppy nipping and adult dogs that nip when excited.
What worked for you to stop your dog’s nipping? Let us know in the comments!
Kayla Fratt is an Associate Certified Dog Behavior Consultant through the IAABC and works as a professional dog trainer through the use of positive reinforcement methods. She also has experience working as a Behavior Technician at Denver Dumb Friends League rehabilitating fearful and reactive dogs.