How do we deal with our new(ish) nipping, tantrum-throwing dog?
March 28, 2020 3:03 PM   Subscribe

About a month and a half ago, we adopted a dog (what appears to be a pitbull/heeler mix) from a local rescue. And now we’re having some big problems with biting and other tantrum behaviors. I'm at the end of my rope, and I don’t know what to do.

I’m not a first-time dog owner by any means. I’ve had other rescues, so I’ve got some experience with basic training and with handling issues like separation anxiety. But I’ve never dealt with a dog who just throws tantrums and nips when he doesn’t get his way. Which seems to be all the time.

For example, the couch. Dog has never been allowed on our couch. No exceptions. (Not the case with his previous owner.) He has a very comfy bed right next to the couch (and therefore us). Sometimes, dog decides he wants to get on the couch. We give him the off command, which he usually complies with. But then he stares at us and barks and growls. Best case, he just keeps doing that. Sometimes, he starts biting the couch or other furniture. Worst case, he nips one of us.

The same thing happens when we eat at the table. When we’re working in the office and he decides he wants something (though what, we usually have no idea). When he wakes up in the morning and wants to immediately go on a walk.

And it seems to be escalating. Now he just sometimes goes straight to nipping one of us when he’s in a bad mood. And the nipping is getting harder. He tore some of my clothes when he nipped at me yesterday. Note that he has never actually drawn blood, and I’m convinced he’s regulating quite a bit, but his bites are hard enough that they hurt.

We’ve tried to deal with his tantrums and nipping in a variety of ways.

We’ve tried simple distractions. If we’re eating, we make sure he’s got his dinner at the same time. That helps, but obviously we can only feed him so much a day, so that doesn’t help at other times.

We’ve tried ignoring him, but again, then his barking escalates to actual biting and destruction. When he’s nipped, we’ve tried yelping and turning our backs on him, as advised by a trainer. Nothing worked.

A different trainer told us to put him a time out, so now we’ve been taking him to the laundry room for a 30-second timeout. Except after one day of that, he’s just started flopping on the ground after he nips. Annoying, but both my spouse and I are strong enough to gently pick him up and take him to the laundry room. So now he flops and then nips at us when we start to pick him up.

We’re at a loss. His biting hasn’t drawn blood (yet), but it’s obviously unacceptable. He’s an obnoxious bully, not at all the sweet dog we thought we were getting (who we in part chose because he was the only dog at the shelter who didn’t start mouthing during our meet and greet). We’re tired and frustrated, and I honestly resent this dog a lot. I thought he was going to be my new BFF, and instead he’s been a nightmare.

We’ve been pretty committed to positive reinforcement training so far, but it’s not helping with his tantrums and nipping. He’s great with clicker training, but that hasn’t translated to better behavior at other times. Because when we’re not actively training, if we tell him to do something he doesn’t want, it’s straight to one of his barking tantrums. Spouse is increasingly convinced that we need to give up on positive reinforcement and go with Cesar Milan type methods, which I’m adamantly against. But what’s the alternative when our dog is a menace?

And times being what they are, we can’t go to a trainer or have them come here (both spouse and I, though untested, are showing COVID-19 symptoms). The trainer we communicated with electronically just told us to do things we were already doing. And we can’t surrender him, which I never thought I’d even consider doing, but this dog is driving me crazy. I’m miserable, and so is my spouse.

So what are we supposed to do?

Please note:
-Dog gets plenty of mental and physical exercise (long walks, outside play, meals via treat ball, puzzle toys, etc.)
-We are very consistent with training and rules. Neither of us is making exceptions or anything
-Dog is supposedly 2 years old, but our vet suspects he’s closer to 1

posted by Bambiraptor to Pets & Animals (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I bet a lot of people are going to read this and wonder whether the dog is really getting enough exercise, so maybe you could head that off by going into a little more detail about the amount of exercise. Are those long walks on leash or off leash? What kind of outside play?

We had a dog that showed a bit of this type of behavior when he was young. One thing that helped a lot was making sure he got enough exercise. I also used clicker training to teach him a "stop mouthing" command ("stop it") that we could eventually use proactively before he actually made contact. With that dog, being tougher and angrier was really counterproductive. It made him anxious and that tended to push him into out of control jumping, mouthing and zooming around.

You say, "when we’re not actively training, if we tell him to do something he doesn’t want, it’s straight to one of his barking tantrums." So how about trying to make those occasions active training sessions? Set up a situation that's likely to make him frustrated, or be ready with treats and a clicker when you expect one is coming (like when you sit down to eat or when he's going to want a morning walk) and then click for the behavior you want (not barking, not nipping.) You can teach "quiet" and "stop mouthing" commands to help clarify what it is you want from him.

Our current dog also looks like a pitbull/heeler mix (her DNA test says she's half pitbull, 1/4 Australian shepherd and 1/8 lab.) Just for comparison, she gets a daily off-leash walk in the woods that normally lasts at least an hour and a quarter. She spends a good bit of that time running and she covers at least 3 or 4 times as much ground as I do. If your dog is not getting the equivalent of that amount of exercise, he might need more. Is he running hard enough to make him pant every day? Hopefully you have some way to exercise him off leash. Walking a couple of miles on leash is way less exercise than running around near you off leash while you walk a couple of miles.
posted by Redstart at 4:26 PM on March 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

So, from what I've learned recently, this situation:

"For example, the couch. Dog has never been allowed on our couch. No exceptions. (Not the case with his previous owner.) He has a very comfy bed right next to the couch (and therefore us). Sometimes, dog decides he wants to get on the couch. We give him the off command, which he usually complies with. But then he stares at us and barks and growls. Best case, he just keeps doing that. Sometimes, he starts biting the couch or other furniture. Worst case, he nips one of us."

Would call for this: Once he is off the couch, he gets an immediate reward. Keep tossing the high value reward every few seconds for a while. Toss them more often and closer to his bed until he is on it. (somewhere around 20-30 tasty, tiny treats)

I found it really helpful to watch videos. Kikopup is on Youtube. Also, a lot of dog trainers are switching to video right now, so finding a trainer might become pretty easy.
posted by MountainDaisy at 4:26 PM on March 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

You are hitting that lovely stage where the dog feels settled in & secure enough to test it's boundaries. Blue heelers nip (the heel in blue heeler is because they nip at the heels of cattle to move them) it is what they are bred to do & are a super high maintenance working dog, think border collie levels. It also doesn't sound like you have given the training much time if you have only had him six weeks, it doesn't happen that fast and also a lot depends on what behaviors you are reinforcing, it is super easy to accidentally be reinforcing behaviors you don't want. This is where I would say go to a professional trainer, but as you have said this is totally not a time that you can do that.

OK for the couch example you want him off the couch, right now you are making being on the couch a big old game that he wins. You want him off the couch, you give the off command. If he gets off the couch reward him there & then that second with lots of pats & praise & a super duper high value treat you keep in your pocket for those times. If he doesn't get off straight away, show him the treat & offer the command again. If he doesn't then put the treat back in your pocket & walk away. Animals need to learn to fail & not get the treats too to learn. Do not make it a contest of wills you aren't 100% sure you can't win you will reinforce the wrong behaviour.

Go into another room for a few minutes, then try calling him to you, or doing something you know he will want to come to do to investigate. When dog comes to see what you're doing, ask him to sit or do another command you know he will do then give him the treat. You have ended the with the dog doing something you asked of it & it got a treat, no contest of wills, dog is slowly learning I do what is asked of me I get a treat. Also make sure during the day/evening when you are in the room on the couch, if the dog is sitting quietly on the floor or in it's bed give him some treats randomly and lots of praise, not just when he get's off the couch.

If you are teaching your dog touch training then the whole thing is even easier & touch should be the first thing that anyone doing clicker training should teach as you can use it to shape any other behaviour. With a dog that bites I recommend a stick with a ball on the end not your hand as the object to touch. It would be the easiest & most effective way to get the dog off the couch as you can literally ask it to touch the stick with it's nose at further & further distances from the couch & nearer it's bed, until the dog is getting off the couch without even realising. There are a tonne of great videos on YouTube about how to teach this.

Six weeks is not enough time to train a dog that has been allowed on a couch that couches are now out of bounds, dogs are not that abstract a thinkers, it is something that is easy to train but will take time & constant consistent reinforcement, heelers are very stubborn independent dogs. Do not grab the dog, do not try to pull the dog off the couch, never ever try to do any of those things while using an angry tone of voice. Your hands should not be anywhere near a dog that bites in a situation it might bite or you going to teach it biting is a way for it to get what it wants.
I say all this as someone that owns a dog that was initially a reactive biter. It took me a year to train the dog not to bite & like the blue heeler this was a dog that biting/nipping was an instinctive reaction it had to learn to overcome.

You've got this, it takes time & consistency & making sure that what you are teaching the dog, is what you think you are are teaching the dog. If you keep having problems record what you are doing & then find a local traininer with a good reputation for positive reinforcement to send it to to get their advice. It could be as simple as not marking the behaviour you think you are with a the click or too low a value treats.
posted by wwax at 4:55 PM on March 28, 2020 [12 favorites]

One more bit of advice - try “place” (go to bed) rather than get off. You can also put the dog in “place” while you eat. It might help.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:58 PM on March 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

Have you had a telehealth vet take a look at the dog's behavior? I used Telepet but there are many others out there that will get on a video chat to observe your dog.

I did all the right training things with my rescue dog and she still ended up needing medication to get her to the point that she would follow any training. I started with hemp oil and then my vet prescribed Trazodone PRN, which wasn't helpful, and she is now taking Prozac routinely each morning. I know it's not for everyone, and it was a tough choice for me, but it's been a game changer for us. She's a chihuaha/staffy/cattle dog (plus some other stuff) and nothing could get her alertness down enough for training until the Prozac.
posted by assenav at 6:27 PM on March 28, 2020

It's a dog. There is a limit to the grief to be borne in training an uncooperative dog. You have this internet stranger's permission to send it back.
posted by GeeEmm at 7:52 PM on March 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

Hi all,

I appreciate the advice thus far. I also feel like I didn't do a good job articulating the actual problem well (sorry--as I said, pretty sick).

Dog obeys commands just fine. In fact, we've done pretty much all of the stuff that wwax described above, including using touch to lure him off the couch. We've rewarded him enough for being on his bed and not the couch that most of the time he'll default to laying on his bed.

The problem is that after he has obeyed, he starts with the barking and biting. As best as I can tell, he feels like he should be continually rewarded. So if he lays on his bed and we don't happen to immediately give him a treat, he freaks out and starts with a tantrum. Or if we do give him a treat for being on the bed, and then continue to periodically treat him to reinforce that staying on the bed is such a great idea, he starts up the second he's decided our treating interval was too long. We've tried upping the frequency and then dialing it back slowly, but that's not really getting us anywhere.

It's been the same issue with other things, such as rewarding calmness as the Kikopup videos suggested above advise. It's great, he's happy and calm--but then if the interval between treating is too long, he gets upset.

The issue is that first, we obviously have lives outside of the dog. So while I'm happy to reward good behavior and understand the importance of doing so, if I'm in the middle of a task that has my hands full, I cannot always reward him promptly. I can't have the nipping start just because I'm washing knives. Plus, you know, eventually we'd like to the dog to be good without bribery (though I understand this kind of habit-building takes time).

A second, more practical issue is that with the current Coronavirus situation, our treat supply is very finite. On our previous grocery runs, the stores didn't have almost any dog treats (or his food, for that matter), or his favorite high-value treats of hot dogs or chicken. We still have some treats, but we don't have enough to treat him constantly. And it looks like we won't be able to restock in the near future, since we haven't been able to secure a delivery slot yet.

So while I understand the importance of preventing the behavior in the first place, I'm really interested in management techniques in this weird time--especially since spouse and I are both getting sicker. Like is the answer to just put him in the yard for most of the day so he can't misbehave, even though he won't like it? Do we try to get a hold of some antlers and let him knock himself out with chewing to stay out of trouble, even though there are dental concerns with that? And if he's already at the nipping stage, what should our immediate reaction be?

And re: exercise, he gets at least an hour walk each morning, usually intermixed with some running. We've also get a big backyard that he races around in when we play fetch and other games. We play until he's panting and flopped on the ground with no desire to keep going multiple times per day. (Though again, our illnesses are about to make this a whole lot harder. We'll try and find a dog walker, of course.)
posted by Bambiraptor at 8:04 AM on March 29, 2020

What I was told by a trainer once, is that working dogs need something to do. Tasks to solve. Regular and focused training. Walks and running are not enough for what sounds like a highly intelligent dog. I understand that this may be not what you bargained for, but if I were you I would look into this problem from that angle.

And whatever you do, don't put him in the yard all day. That will just make it much worse and he'll (she?) will bark his head off. No good.
posted by Crystal Fox at 8:43 AM on March 29, 2020

That just sounds like boredom then, he's finally got you doing something he understands, yes this is my job I am doing it , why are you stopping, I am being good & doing my job I want to do more of my job don't stop & them getting frustrated. I'd suggest using a kong. During your training sessions, you can let them lick the end a little to get their reward for clicker training (this will also keep fingers way from nipping teeth) then when you want to stop give them the whole kong to work the rest of the treats/filling out of. That can be a clear signal that hey we're done & also a distraction in one. Or if they are being good & laying quietly, just giving them a kong to chew in their bed.

Things that work as kong treats if dog treats are hard to find, freeze broth in a kong, peanut butter (hard to find I know) cheese, dried dog food, ground people meat (low fat), ice cream (plain) yogurt, carrots. Lots of Youtube videos filled with suggestions for different things to pack a kong with.

Also hit up for dog food/treats at local store prices they are still delivering though delivery times can be slow as they are being inundated with orders, what used to be overnight can take a week or more but they are still up & running & have a lot of stuff in stock. They have treats of all sorts and a nice range of puzzle balls & even more complicated toys for dogs which might help keep him feeling useful while you are feeling like crap. You have my sympathy, high energy dogs while feeling ill can be frustrating & exhausting.
posted by wwax at 9:04 AM on March 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

I think I would try to set up situations where he's likely to start nipping or barking so you can teach commands to stop those behaviors. Wait for a moment when he lets up (or distract him in some way that makes him let up) and then click. It didn't take long at all, probably a day, to teach our mouthy dog that "stop it" meant to get his mouth off whatever body part or object he was mouthing. Start setting up situations that will make him want to nip or bark and giving him the command not to do it before he even starts, letting him see that you have treats and the clicker so he realizes this is a situation where he wants to try to get it right. For me and my dog, it helped to make those deliberate training sessions, with my voice and body language saying, "Okay, we're gonna work on a new trick, let's see how fast you can earn some treats!" and not, "Goddamn it, you're messing up my life again, you brat!" Even if it was a situation I hadn't set up deliberately, if I could think of it as a chance to practice the new trick, I could be more relaxed and less angry and that helped the dog be more relaxed. You can gradually increase how challenging the situations are where you're asking him to restrain himself. And gradually he will get used to restraining himself when he feels frustrated.

He'll also begin to realize that barking or nipping never gets him what he wants. (Hopefully this is true.) A month and a half isn't very long. Especially if barking and nipping worked for him with his previous owner, it will take him a while longer to give them up, but I expect you can get him to do it.

As far as what to do when he starts acting up and you're in the middle of washing knives or whatever, there probably isn't any great solution that will work in every situation. Don't reward him, obviously. If you walk to the door and open it, will he go outside? If so, you can let him out, or you can go out with him and then go back in without him. Or maybe you can have a leash ready with a loop that will go over his head and you can catch him and lead him outside or into the laundry room. Picking him up and taking him somewhere he doesn't want to go will just make him want to nip you, as you've seen, and if you keep doing it he may try biting harder.

Giving him a Kong to keep him occupied is a great idea. (As long as it isn't a reward for being obnoxious.) While you're sick, putting him out in the yard for large parts of the day might be what you need to do if he won't let you alone and he's damaging things. Or if you can't find a Kong, but you can get hold of an antler or a big bone, I would prioritize keeping him from going nuts while you're sick over protecting his teeth. If you're running low on treats, you could start giving him his daily food a piece at a time as rewards throughout the day.

It sounds like he's getting a reasonable amount of exercise, but I still wonder if getting more would help. Obviously right now isn't the time to think about increasing it, but once you're not sick anymore I'd give that some serious thought.
posted by Redstart at 10:00 AM on March 29, 2020

Seconding what Crystal Fox and wwax said. We've had Australian Shepherds for years, and they need something to do. Even running 10 miles in the forest is just automatic forward motion, even if they get to stop and smell everything.

It might be hard right now, but start looking into agility and more advanced tricks so they have to figure out what to do. It's mental stimulation and interaction. We built jumps and rings and a teeter totter out of PVC stuff, and when River is bored we go outside and run them in different orders and mix it up, so even if it isn't making him pant a lot, it's making him think and pay attention to what you want and what he's doing. Doing things like this, or learning new tricks can wear them out in 30 minutes as much as an hour's romp outside.

I would also second what wwax said earlier, that this takes time. We definitely had similar problems, he gets bored and wants interaction, and at 2 years old he is still doing some of this--not nipping or barking, but asking for play and attention. You say getting treats is hard right now, which of course, Corona. But we've found the yak's milk Himalaya bone things to be great. When we want him to leave us along we give him one and he diverts his energy into destroying that and we don't have to engage (because we work, eat, and do human things he can't fathom). They sometimes last for days. If we run out we will freeze a mix of banana and peanut butter in a Kong. That takes HOURS to finish! I think this follows from the advice of rewarding for good behavior, and then distracting and recentering your dog on something they like, that will keep them occupied.
posted by Snowishberlin at 12:34 PM on March 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

have you tried dedicated calm/stationing/crate training? for example, going through the karen overall's relaxation protocol, which is a behavioral modification program that rewards calmness -

i did calm mat training with my prone to overarousal acd and now she plops down instantly in her full calm pose anytime i put it out (like, uncannily quickly even when she's over aroused). calmness becomes really self rewarding, and the natural state to the be for the dog. when you say the dog gets upset when you're doing calm training, what does that look like? can you tether the dog to a spot (say a couch leg), set out the mat, and just wait until he's calm again to reward? you might have to wait a long time...but if you completely ignore the pup until he's calm (maybe put on headphones, read a book) he *will* tucker out and chill out. the important thing is to remove any opportunity for him to find self reinforcing behaviors and also completely ignore when he does anything other than calm - so if he chews on his leash, get a metal leash. if you need to put on headphones for the barking, do it. if it takes 30 minutes, an hour, wait him out. make sure you're sitting faraway enough from him where he can't bit you, etc.

crate training is kind of similar...there are lots of good videos out there - i tried susan garrett's crate games and that seemed to work very well. susan garrett also released a free homeschool online training course for dogs right now that might help to run through, too! at this point, i have a calming ritual i give to the dog when crated, especially when she's crated for what we call the Bad Dog Energy - she gets some kibble, the crate gets covered, i put on a recording of someone reading a children's book, and after a while she's usually asleep.

also also, have you had a vet check up since your adoption? it's possible the pup's has undiagnosed pain or discomfort that can contribute to the bad behavior...the vet might also be able to recommend medication to help manage the problem. amazon has some calming pet supplements you might want to try, too. another thing that could help: giving the pup lots of dedicated alone enrichment/chewing activity: freezing a kong and licking it for an hour, big marrow bones that can take them a long time. also, nosework! hiding treats around the house and making them search for it -- 10 - 15 minutes of that can exhaust my dog. you can also hide things inside toilet paper tubes, inside cardboard boxes, in paper bags they can rip apart. they love it!

okay, one last thing, it's really stressful to be around a dog with behavioral problems! i get it! i almost gave back my rescue acd (and i still sometimes wonder if keeping her was the right decision) because her behavioral problems were driving me nuts. please make sure to take care of yourself and not focus so much on training and getting things right, too.

take a break from the dog, maybe go on a nice long walk together. i think there's a point when my dog felt more comfortable with us and her behavior started to fall apart, too. she was testing the boundaries -- it was infuriating, and took a lot, a lot of management (of both the dog's behavior and my mental state), and we still have some bad days but made it through it. remember: your stress/anxiety can affect the dog!

also also, one last thing, maybe! blue heelers are SUPER smart (i imagine a pit mix would be no less so) - mine learned all the basic tricks within like a week of getting her, so i really really stepped up the training/enrichment to fulfill her needs. like, i turned myself into a diy dog trainer/behavioralist...maybe consider starting an indoor dog sport/activity with your dog? fenzi has amazing online classes and generous scholarships - finding a fun activity to do together really help gets through the tough times. you can learn a lot about yourself and patience and kindness and creativity if you keep at it. (but still, keep breaks when you need to)! best of luck!
posted by lightgray at 10:23 PM on March 29, 2020

oops, a few more things i thought of! have you tried switching out all your kibble for the day into calm/training treats? that way, you can generously reward your dog for good behavior (like calming training). and i mean, REALLY generously. like one treat every 1-3 seconds, until he understands the behavior, and then spacing it out a bit more - and doing super short calm training sessions in the beginning. especially when you're teaching (classical conditioning) response to an emotional state, you can't really overtreat. if the food motivation isn't quite enough, you can turn earning food into a game (i super upped my acd's food drive when i did that). chasing kibble, go find, kongs only, etc.

i would also consider easing up on some of the dog rules in your house, if you'd feel comfortable trying something new. it's possible the dog's getting frustrated with being asked to do so much - especially things like sitting on the couch, if he's used to it. it sounds like he doesn't have a healthy way to cope with frustration, but also that maybe the frustration comes from somewhere. again, acds are stubborn and sensitive - if they feel like something's unfair, they will make it clear. if he's new to the house, he's still settling in to the environment! maybe it's valuable to build that relationship right now. i find how i feel about my dog really affects how well our interactions/training goes.
posted by lightgray at 10:31 PM on March 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

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