What can you do about an adult dog who’s nipping? The answer depends on why he’s doing it. Each situation should be addressed differently – and none should be addressed with verbal or physical punishment.
This is the most concerning of the nipping behaviors, most likely to escalate into significant aggression if not handled appropriately. This will likely involve a counter conditioning and desensitization protocol, and you might do best to utilize the services of a qualified, experienced force-free professional.
For fear-related nipping of visitors (or household members), management is your critically important first step. Keep your dog leashed or safely stashed in another room when human triggers are present, unless and until you implement a thorough behavior modification program to convince him that people don’t need to be feared.
Nipping in Excitement
Just because your dog is playing doesn’t make these nips any less painful. There are several things you can for this behavior:
Increase your dog’s mental and physical exercise so he doesn’t get so exuberant in play. Note that physical exercise should include impulse control games, like sit-and-wait-politely until you throw the ball or toy.
Teach an incompatible behavior such as “Go to Mat.”
Have toys always at hand to offer him as appropriate targets for his teeth.
Use “negative punishment” (dog’s behavior makes a good thing go away) by saying a cheerful “Oops!” and turning your back or stepping to the other side of a baby gate when he starts jumping and nipping, then marking calm behavior (with the click of a clicker, a hand signal such as a thumbs-up, or a verbal marker, such as the word “Yes!”) and giving him a treat when he is calm. You can practice this with your dog tethered to keep yourself safe as well.
Nipping in Annoyance
If your dog nips in an effort to make you stop doing something, just stop! If they are things that must be done, such as nail-trimming and grooming, use cooperative care procedures to help him get happier about them.
Herding Dogs Who Nip
These dogs have a very strong genetic propensity to nip at things that move because they’re supposed to!
You can manage this behavior with a “Search” behavior – tossing treats away from you to occupy your dog’s teeth with things other than your skin or use a “Go to Mat” behavior as described above. You can ask him to target to strategically placed target objects around your property. Perhaps the best solution is to engage him in herding activities where he has an outlet for his herding behavior and will learn additional control cues – either actual herding with sheep, ducks, or cows, or the sport of Treibball.
Yes, nipping is annoying, but you can teach your dog more appropriate behaviors. Figure out what his motivation is for nipping, implement appropriate management and modification measures, and your dog can learn to keep his teeth to himself.