Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and author of the online dog training course “Brain Training for Dogs.”
Many dog owners look for tips on how to stop a dog from nipping when excited. If you are dealing with a dog as such, you have my sympathy as living with these dogs can certainly feel like a great challenge. There never seems to be a dull moment!
If you are dealing with a dog who gets mouthy when excited, it’s important to make some important distinctions. Not all dogs bite because of excitement. Some dogs may be anxious and some may be fearful too. If you are not sure why your dog is biting or have any doubts, your best bet is to consult with a dog behavior professional for an accurate assessment.
It goes without saying that you should also consult with a pro in the case that your dog is nipping hard and breaking skin, especially if you have children in the home.
Even if the behavior stems from excitement, it’s important tackling the issue sooner than later before the behavior becomes more ingrained and more difficult to overcome.
Excitement and How it Impacts Dogs
Often, dogs that bite when excited are young, energetic dogs who jump a lot and are eager to play. Such dogs will display distinctive body language such as panting, jumping and running around and sometimes whining. The eyes of an excited dog are wide with the pupils dilated.
When the excitement increases, some dogs become hyperactive and they may start jumping on people, barking loudly, and some dogs even get mouthy, which leads to biting.
This can stem from a dog’s instinctive need to keep their mouths busy and self-sooth as their arousal levels increase, sort of like a pacifier does with babies. This can explain why many dogs go grab a toy when they are excited to see you or guests.
While some excitement is expected when dogs greet owners coming home or when they get to meet guests, too much excitement leads to dogs who become too overstimulated, exhausted or even stressed.
It’s important to help dogs learn how to relax and cope with their emotions. Most dogs as they mature become more adept at mastering these skills, but it’s important providing them with guidance. If we allow them to rehearse overly excited behaviors for too long and in too many contexts, it risks becoming a dog’s default, programmed response to such situations.
Perhaps though you own a dog who acts nuts in certain specific situations where he seems to lose his brain. His cognitive functioning seems to be gone in these contexts and your requests to calm down seem to go to deaf ears as if his brain shuts off. This description may seem like an over-exaggeration, but there is some truth to it overall.
When the Brain Shuts Down
An overstimulated dog can get so caught up in his emotions that his brain shuts down and he cannot rationally think clearly enough to respond to your cues leading to what seems like a total loss of control. In training terms, we like to call this a dog who is “over threshold.”
When in this reactive state mind, your dog cannot control his instinctive reactions such as jumping and biting and is unable to respond to known cues, such as your requests to sit or lie down. This is often something that frustrates owners very much as they cannot grasp how their dogs cannot listen when in this state of mind.
“But he knows what ‘sit’ means very well! He always does it at home and responds most of the time!” True, but he struggles in applying his learning and generalizing it in distracting environments because he’s too overstimulated.
You may therefore notice this scenario happening in face of overly simulating situations such as when guests present at the front door or when your dog sees a person approaching on a walk and he gets to greet him.
Your pleads to sit or lie down just go to deaf ears, in one ear and out the other as the brain is missing in action and its answering machine tells you to “please leave a message.”
Putting Ourselves in Their Shoes
As much as dealing with an overly excited dog who bites sounds frustrating, in many cases, us humans aren’t much different after all.
Many of us fall apart when dealing with too much stress or excitement. Soldiers hold extensive training for emergencies to learn how to keep cool and react in a way that is needed to survive. This is something that is mastered with high training.
Public speaking may induce nothing but terror in some people causing their minds to “go blank.”
Excitement of any kind is a form of arousal after all. Arousal leads to the heart rate increasing, the sympathetic nervous system revving up, and the body releasing a variety of of hormones.
Marketers knows this too well. They passionately speak to make people excited about their products. When a person is excited, their emotions are amplified and this impacts their decision-making abilities, leading to what’s known as impulsive buying.
Rational thinking doesn’t make people act enough to make good sales. Buyers need to be impacted at an emotional level.
Tackling the Problem
Dealing with a dog who bites when excited will require a multi-pronged approach. In simple terms, the dog needs to be brought into a thinking state. This needs to be done gradually and systematically.
The good news is that the more we allow a dog to enter a thinking state, the more the thinking state establishes, paving the path towards a dog who learns how to cope better with his emotions and remain under threshold.
It goes without saying that the change doesn’t occur overnight, but the more you are consistent and persist, the more quickly you’ll start noticing improvements.
How Do You Stop a Dog From Biting When Excited?
As mentioned, to stop a dog from biting when excited, you’ll need to take a multi-faceted approach. The reason for this is that excitement is an emotion and dogs can’t learn emotional self-regulation without having several behavior intervention plans in place. Following are several methods to help you succeed.
Avoid Intimidation and Physical Methods
It can be very tempting to correct a dog who bites when excited by scolding the dog, pushing him away or maybe even delivering an alpha roll, muzzle grab or a scruff shake. These methods though are very likely to backfire, exacerbating the arousal or even turning a dog from biting from play or excitement into a more serious, more difficult to treat form of biting: biting for defense.
While there are still many so-called “experts” recommending physically correcting dogs as part of a rank-reduction program based on the assumption that, dogs who misbehave or bite are doing so because “dominant”, these methods are not recommended by most reputable behavior organizations.
With the dominance theory debunked, studies have also proven that such methods provoke aggressive responses in dogs.
Prevent Rehearsal of the Overly Excited Behavior
Just as actors rehearsing a play get better and better in performing, dogs get particularly good at acting overly excited the more they get to practice the behavior. “Practice makes perfect” goes the saying.
Therefore, try your best to prevent your dog from rehearsing the overly excited biting behavior as much as you can. Management goes a long way in these cases.
The purpose of management is to prevent rehearsals and can be used for those times when you do not have time to train or when you are in the early stages of training, but your ultimate goal should be training your puppy to engage in an alternate behavior and reinforce that heavily so that your puppy chooses to engage in this behavior more and more.
This means, when you have guests over, don’t let Rover rush to the door and greet them jumping and nipping them as they walk inside. If your dog gets overly excited and nipping when meeting people on walks, don’t let him greet them.
In other words, avoid putting your dog into overwhelming situations that evoke undesirable behavior. This sets your dog for failure and allows the behavior to put roots, become ingrained and more and more difficult to eradicate.
Create Systematic Set-Ups
Dogs who get overly excited to the point of biting benefit from a plan that involves systematic desensitization. Desensitization is a behavior intervention strategy that entails presenting stimuli or situations to the dog in such a way that they don’t evoke the problem behavior.
In other words, the dog is not exposed to overwhelming situations known for triggering excessive excitement, but rather he is exposed to less intense forms so that the dog is under threshold and in a better “learning state.”
It’s sort of like inviting people with a phobia of speaking to the public to a Toastmaster’s Club where they are instilled confidence by a supportive environment and train how to speak to the public gradually.
It’s all about baby steps, breaking down tasks into smaller, easier to assimilate components and then practicing in more manageable chunks as things get better. “Be a splitter, not a lumper,” is a common saying among dog trainers.
So back to dogs, this would mean exposing the dog to triggers or situations at a distance that don’t evoke the overly excited behavior so that the dog learns how to better cope with his emotions.
This could mean keeping the dog confined behind a pet gate when guests come over with something desirable to chew to keep busy during the visit or walking the dog at a distance from people that doesn’t trigger the excited whining, jumping and mouthing.
This is very important because here’s the thing: just as rehearsing hyper behaviors makes them stronger, it’s equally true that rehearsing calmer, less hyper behavior makes these stronger too, which in this case, is exactly what we want!
Train an Alternate Behavior to Focus On
Once you have found that sweet spot where your dog is calmer, it’s time to put that brain to use. Arm yourself with the tastiest high-value treats and offer these—contingent upon the dog practicing a desirable behavior that your dog was previously trained to a fluent level.
For example, when you have your guests over and your dog is at a distance behind the pet gate, ask your dog to sit and maybe do even a trick such as high-five and feed him treats for complying. With the guests farther away, his brain should no longer be stalled, so he should be in a better thinking state.
If your dog jumps and bites when meeting people on walks, practice several steps of attention heeling (dog walking by as he looks up at you) as you walk by them at a distance, and lavishly praise and reward him every few steps. You can even toss the treats to the ground to make it fun for your dog to catch or gather in a treasure-hunt fashion.
This training at subthreshold levels is very rewarding for both you and your dog. Your dog in a better thinking state and therefore learns to stay calm, while you are rewarded with finally some results. See? Your dog is still able to sit, heel or give paw! It’s just a matter of taking small, baby steps.
Gradually Raise Criteria
“Slow and steady wins the race” goes the saying. This applies as well in behavior modification. We want to start with baby steps and progress very gradually, always working at the dog’s comfort level. Going too fast in the process may cause the behavior to break apart and lead to setbacks (dog reverting to the overly excited behavior).
While a setback can be frustrating, it won’t harm too much if you quickly remedy the situation by taking a few steps back and presenting the challenge into smaller subs-steps. It also helps to make a mental note of what may have triggered the reaction so as to avoid presenting an increased level of challenge that the dog isn’t yet ready to face.
If your dog did fine walking past people at 5 feet, but he’s reverting to whining and jumping at 3 feet, you know you need to go back to 5 feet for a while and practice more from there until your dog is perfectly calm.
If your dog did well at 3 feet with women walking by, but a child triggered excited behavior at that same distance, you know that you’ll need to work more on keeping your dog calm when children walk by.
If your dog gets overly excited and nippy when guests come over but has been more responsive when kept at a distance behind a pet gate, you can move the pet gate closer and work on asking him some cues from there.
Afterward, you can practice with your dog on leash with you sitting at a distance from the guests who are also calmly sitting, and then finally you can practice off-leash having the guests take turns asking your dog to sit for treats and maybe even do some fun hand targets (which work great to teach the dog an alternate way to interact with hands rather than biting).
There are also fun games you can play with your dog to keep his mind busy and away from acting overly excited. For instance, when guests are over, you can toss treats around the room in a treasure-hunt fashion to keep him busy searching for them or you can offer him a bottle filled with kibble to work on getting out.
Keep it Brief and Fun
As always, make sure to not put your dog into situations that may trigger once again the excited behavior. He may not be ready yet to face them. Think strategically and preventively- sort of like defensive driving, scanning for problems before they even have a chance to occur.
For example, when guests come over, you may have better results if you don’t have your dog greet them when they come through the door. Keep him behind the pet gate for the first few minutes until your guests are seated and he is in a calmer state.
Then let him out, ask him to perform a few behaviors, reward them and let him scavenge for a few treats/kibbles tossed around the room to allow him to rehearse a thinking state and then place him back behind the pet gate with something to keep him busy and happy for some time.
If you are walking your dog and you want to stop to talk to a friend, ask your dog to sit, reinforce that and then ask him to do a couple of tricks and then drop a few treats every now as you chit-chat or let him tug with a toy, for a bit and then leave telling your friend that your dog is in training and you need to resume your walk.
Keeping the encounters brief and rewarding will help your dog succeed and lower the chances that your dog may revert to his old antics. Don’t give a chance for a setback to cloud nice progress!
I know some dog owners who are eager to get their fearful dogs to meet other dogs. These dogs do well the first few seconds of the encounter, and then either they get stressed, or the other dog does something that they do not like and this causes them to growl. If only the encounter was kept brief, both dogs and owners would have come home to a pleasant experience, rather than a negative one!
Encourage Calm Activities
Dogs who get overly excited benefit from learning how great it feels to feel calm. These dogs benefit from learning the perks of lying calmly on a mat.
It also helps a lot to train dogs how to better cope with their frustration and learn to control their impulses. Here are some great games.
Brain games, clicker training, foraging opportunities, nose work are all great activities that help dogs stay practice calm behaviors.
Think About it as Re-Wiring Your Dog’s Brain
Think about the whole project as a way to “rewire your dog’s brain.” His brain is on automatic mode “gotta start biting when excited/in need of attention.” You will need to therefore find ways to re-wire his brain to seek other forms of engagement that compete against the reward he is getting from biting.
You can start with some easy games and activities that provide food without much thinking involved (tossing treats, playing a treasure hunt game, bottle game—that is a bottle without lid filled up with kibble to get out—most pups can’t resist this game), and then gradually move to games that require more thinking (hand targeting, going to the mat, grabbing a toy on cue).
Something to Consider With Nippy Puppies
Puppies are easily overexcited, but things tend to get better as they mature. If you are dealing with a puppy who bites when excited, consider that your puppy may be getting too overstimulated and cranky. Puppies need a lot of sleep and they also need to learn how to regulate their emotions.
The Importance of Working With a Pro
It goes without saying that working alongside a professional is fundamental especially if your dog is so excited that he is biting. Dogs who bite when excited tend to not be able to inhibit their bites as well as when they are in a calmer state.
Working directly with a professional has many advantages. The professional can assess your dog and create a behavior intervention plan that is custom-tailored to your specific situation. He or she can carefully read your dog’s body language and gauge whether he is getting too close to being over threshold.
They can also recommend when it’s best to progress and when instead it may be savvy to take a few steps back. And of course, safety. Working with a professional can help reduce the chances of putting your dog into situations that can be unsafe for you and others, especially if your dog is biting hard and risks breaking the skin.
For best results and no fallouts, look for a professional using force-free training and behavior modification methods. The Pet Professional Guild is an excellent resource for reputable force-free dog trainers and behavior consultants.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2021 Adrienne Farricelli