Welcome to “Ask Crystal,” where you can ask your pet behavior questions! You can submit your question for Crystal at the bottom of the page!
My dog goes insane when we go outside to take a walk. He starts grabbing at the leash and tugging. Then he will nip at my pants or shoes. He will get so worked up he starts to nip my arms and hands. I tell him to get off and try to push him off, but he just gets more worked up. He also can get worked up in the yard when I go out there with him. I am not sure what to do with him. It gets a little scary sometimes. It doesn’t seem like he is being aggressive, but he doesn’t seem in control either. Is there any hope?
Frustrated dog mom
I hear this a lot from owners of adolescent dogs. They say he is so sweet when he is sleepy, why can’t he always be like that? Their sweet little dog seems to be a Jekyll and Hyde. One minute the dog is snuggling and the next minute nipping them hard.
Let’s look at the possible underlying reasons for this behavior. Dogs that are removed from the litter too early (prior to the age of 8 weeks) often become dogs that mouth too hard. They lack that experience from siblings that teaches them how hard is too hard when they bite. Another reason dogs can be hard mouthers is inappropriate play with humans. I highly encourage people to avoid rough housing with young dogs, especially play that revolves around playing with the dog’s mouth. This type of play encourages inappropriate contact with skin and clothing. In my opinion, the biggest factor in this type of behavior is inadequate exercise. Often owners will see this type of behavior ramp up after a period of inactivity. We see it a lot in the shelter environment due to inactivity and is often exacerbated by stress. Inadequate mental activity goes along with inadequate physical activity. Burning mental energy really helps alleviate boredom and burns energy.
First, as always, we need to address the management aspect of the problem. There are a few tricks you can use to address the leash biting. The only way I ever use a choke chain is as a leash extension. Clip a carabineer on one end and clip it to the collar and clip the leash on the other end. The majority of dogs don’t enjoy biting on metal so it can curb that aspect of the behavior. You can also cut a length of PVC pipe to fit over the leash. Although it is a bit more awkward, the dog probably won’t want to bite on it, and it can give you a way to hold the dog away from you while it calms down. There is also the two-leash method where when the dog starts biting one leash so you drop that one and hold the other one. I usually clip a strong carabineer to the leash loop so I can clip the dog to a fence and move out of the way when it is having a meltdown.
Addressing the physical activity can be difficult when it’s partly the activity that gets the dog worked up. If he gets worked up on walks, try giving him some play time in the yard before walk time. There are some great activities that really can tire a dog out more than a walk. If he likes to fetch, try two toy fetch with some rules incorporated. Toss one toy and when he comes back with it, ask him to drop it and sit before you throw the toy. Repeat many times. Despite what many people think it is actually ok to play tug with your dog if you teach them the rules and they are willing to follow them. Teach the dog to take the toy on cue and drop it. Play for 30 seconds or so. Stop and make your arm limp so you aren’t pulling. Ask the dog to drop it and then ask for a sit and then ask for a take it. Games like this teach self-control surrounding games that the dog really enjoys. It teaches them to calm themselves down after a very short period of excitement. You can slowly start increasing the time you are playing and the intensity as long as the dog is able to comply. The flirt pole is basically a cat teaser made for dogs and is a great way to burn energy and build self-control by asking the dog to drop it, sit and wait in between letting them chase it. Find the activity that your dog really enjoys and do it a few times a day in between walks. Even if you do take your dog on walks, that is almost assuredly not going to be enough exercise to tire him out. Most people take 15-20-minute walks and that is nothing to a dog, so you really need to have other physical activities to incorporate.
Also, you can’t discount the importance of mental stimulation for burning energy. Kibble hunting is a great way to get a dog moving. Toss the dog’s meal in the grass for them to search for. I like to use the daily meals as a training tool as often as possible. My favorite game with young dogs is just tossing a kibble for them to chase and then calling them back for another kibble, repeat until the meal is gone. That is a lot of running back and forth and it works on recalls. If you aren’t using the kibble as a training treat, put in an enrichment feeder so that your dog has to work to get the food out and it takes a good 30 minutes for them to finish their meal.
Many times, the motivation behind the behavior is attention based. Be sure that you are not giving the dog attention by pushing him off, yelling at him or looking at him. We need to avoid the dog rehearsing the behavior so when it occurs the dog should be unable to reach us. You may need to hold the dog out from you with a stiff arm to keep them from being able to reach you or if you can leave the area until they can calm down. Then try to redirect into a sit or a down and get them back into their thinking brain. Avoid touching the dog in any way when they are in this state of mind. Touching can either make the dog more aroused or reinforce the behavior. First, try standing very still and not moving until the dog stops. If that doesn’t work, try tossing treats away from you to get the dog to move away from you.
When the dog is calm, we can work on teaching them behaviors like sit and down. I would heavily reinforce any offered behavior that is calm and not jumping and mouthing. We want to get the dog to a point where they are offering the behavior without being asked. They can learn that sitting can get them the attention they are looking for instead. Use the Say Please Protocol by asking the dog to sit or down before the get anything they want. This program creates the expectation of certain behaviors before anything good happens for the dog. This is how we teach a dog to behave in a way that we feel is polite and they will be more motivated to work for us if we are giving them things they like in exchange.
Hopefully, you will start to see some small improvements with just adding additional exercise and mental stimulation so you can get the dog to a place where he can be in a calmer state of mind and be able to learn. It is a difficult problem to deal with and it won’t go away overnight, but it can get better with the work. Good luck!
Until next time,