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Your Chihuahua is a much-loved companion. You've been through a lot together; he helped you through some really dark times and was always there, licking away tears to make you smile.
However, you're painfully aware that he's no furry angel. Your heart sinks a little when friends call round. There's the inevitable barking and growling. But worse still, those visitors determined to make friends with him, risk a snap or bite at their hands.
This situation was far from ideal, but you coped. The friends now know to keep their distance and you tend to slip the dog into another room if he barks too much. But times change. Your first grandchild has arrived and instead of being an unmitigated joy, it's a source of worry. How can you have the child around if there's even the slightest risk the dog may bite?
You owe your Chihuahua a debt of gratitude and deep-down you know he's not a bad dog but he's fearful. So the idea occurs to you: What if there is a way to train your small dog not to bite?
Well done! You are about to make a positive change in how your small dog perceives other people. When done properly, this helps to address their underlying anxiety by building the dog's confidence and removing the need to bite out of fear.
However, do be responsible and take steps to ensure whoever helps you stays safe and doesn't get bitten. An important part of this training is not accidentally rewarding any aggressive behavior. While this sounds obvious, it's all too easy to do if the helper tries to reassure a dog that is growling and aroused. Instead, instruct your friend to ignore the dog and remain silent. Coincidentally this also makes the assistant less of a threat to the dog, which will help training.
The major requirements of teaching a small dog not to bite, are time and patience. You are trying to reshape deeply ingrained feelings and instincts, and this isn't going to happen quickly.
In order to get going you'll need:
- An understanding friend who can visit on numerous occasions
- A muzzle
- A collar and leash
- A large space or room
- A treat pouch or bag so they are readily accessible.
The Meet and Greet Method
Understand the idea
Small dogs often feel vulnerable because of their small size. They become wary of visitors, who they perceive as a threat, and default to growling and aggression as a means of protecting themselves. The method aims to teach the dog two things. Firstly, that guests are nothing to be fearful of, and secondly, to learn a new way of behaving when they see a visitor. This involves meeting the guest outside the home, having the guest ignore the dog and then enter the home but give the dog a favorite chew as a distraction.
Anticipating a guest
During training, arrange for a friend to stop by. On the doorstep, place a carrier bag which contains a toy or chew that the dog really likes. When the guest is due to arrive, have the dog ready on a collar and leash. When the doorbell rings, instead of having the visitor come inside, step outside with the dog.
The guest ignores the dog
Have the guest ignore the dog and not attempt to befriend him in any way. The visitor now picks up the carrier bag containing an object prized by the dog, and you all set off on a short walk up the road together.
A managed return home
Return home. Enter first with the dog, and immediately start basic obedience commands such as 'sit' or 'look' while the visitor comes into the home. This helps the dog focus more on you than the guest. Now the guest (still ignoring the dog) places the chew or toy carried in the bag, onto the floor at a distance from the dog. Let the dog go to his toy or treat and chew it.
Now chat to the visitor in a relaxed manner while the dog is distracted with his chew. At no stage should the visitor attempt to interact with the dog, as the object is to teach the dog that they don't represent a threat.
Practice the above routine. Enlist the help of friends who are prepared to enact this slightly strange ritual. With time, the dog will learn that visitors are no threat and there is no need for him to become aggressive.
The Do's and Don'ts Method
Do: Anticipate flashpoints
If you know your dog is liable to bark and challenge visitors, then anticipate this and put the dog in a safe, separate room before they arrive. It can also help to work on strategies such as crate training a small dog, so he has his own safe place to go to (or be shut in) at times when he might feel insecure and so pose a risk to other people.
Don't: Have guests feed a fearful dog treats
Unfortunately, one common mistake is to try to win the confidence of a small fearful dog by offering treats. In reality, this has the opposite effect, which is to reward the dog's display of aggression with a tasty treat, hence reinforcing the behavior.
Don't: Smack a dog for growling
It is human nature to tell the dog off for growling. However, in the dog's mind, he thinks the punishment is for making a noise rather than the aggressive display. He's likely to experience the same feelings of anxiety and distress, but now not have an outlet (growling) with which to express himself. This removes a valuable warning sign that the dog is feeling conflicted, and can result in a dog that seems to bite without warning.
Do: Know how best to respond
If your dog is fearful, and yet you talk to him in a soothing voice and pet him, you are accidentally rewarding his fear. A better option is to act matter-of-fact around the dog, and consider giving the dog commands such as 'sit' or 'look', so that he gets the reassurance of you being in control.
Do: Seek professional help
Regardless of the reason for the bite, the result is painful. Retraining a fear biter can be especially demanding as you are dealing with a dog that may have deep-seated issues. With this in mind, it's always a good idea to seek the help of a certified dog behavior specialist, who can put a treatment plan in place that keeps you safe.
The Build Confidence Method
Understand the idea
It is a rare dog (whatever their size) that is truly aggressive. There is usually an underlying explanation such as fear or anxiety because of lack of socialization. It's always best to work with a certified behaviorist, to find the root cause. But if your dog is nervous or anxious, then gradual exposure to what they fear, while rewarding calm behavior, can start to build their confidence and reduce the risk of biting. This method involves exposing the dog to a visitor at a distance, and praising the dog for remaining calm. Over multiple sessions, the guest moves closer, so that the dog no longer feels threatened.
Instruct the stooge
Ask a friend who understands and loves dogs to assist you. They are going to act as a stooge for the dog to get used to. The friends needs to visit on multiple occasions, so choose someone who can do this without inconvenience. Ask the friend to ignore the dog and blank out any growling or barking. Also, don't allow the guest to give the dog treats, as this could mistakenly reward his growly behavior. You also have a duty to keep the friend safe. This means keeping the dog on a leash, if there is a real possibility of the dog biting. You may also wish to muzzle the dog, as belt and braces security.
The stooge at a distance
Have the friend stand sufficiently far away that the dog doesn't react. Watch the dog's body language as the stooge move closer, one step at a time. When the dog tenses, raises his hackles, bares his teeth of show other more subtle signs of aggression make a note of this distance. Have the friend retreat one step , so they are just outside this arousal distance.
Praise the dog
With the stooge just outside the dog's 'no go' zone, praise the dog and give him a treat as long as he remains calm. Very slowly, have the stooge step closer, while you reward and praise the dog the entire time the dog remains well-behaved. Immediately as the dog shows tell-tale signs of protectiveness or anxiety, stop praising and stop the treats.
Work on decreasing the distance
At the next session, you may find the stooge's starting position is slightly closer than before. This indicates good progress. If it isn't, don't worry, it's only early days. Repeat the exercise of praising the dog when he doesn't react to the stooge, and stopping any interaction if he becomes anxious or growly. If the dog becomes aroused, one option is to use the "Look" command to get the dog's attention on you. This gives the dog something positive that you can reward and distracts him from the stooge, who quietly backs off a little. Now start over.
Practice and patience
This method slowly acclimates the dog to a presence that he once found threatening. By linking the stooge to praise and treats, the anxiety should diminish and his confidence grow. Ultimately, you want the guest to be around the close vicinity of the dog, but without the latter reacting.
By Pippa Elliott
Published: 01/15/2018, edited: 01/08/2021