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How to stop Jack Russell biting?

Help! My Jack Russell is Out of Control

The plea below was sent into a recent Holly & Hugo Q&A webinar:

My dog lunges at people and tries to bite, when he’s on my lap. In addition he has to be muzzled for nail clips, baths, and trips to the vet because he bites – and means business, big time. Help!

It’s hard to imagine the stress and conflict this owner is under. She loves her dog and would never consider giving him up, but his behavior must discourage friends from calling, plus she has the worry that Jack could bite and cause serious harm. So let’s see if we can unravel this behavior, to get it straightened out.

What’s Going On?

This Jack (let’s call him Jack for arguments sake) has learnt aggressive behavior achieves what he wants, and biting becomes self-rewarding. If he growls at the groomer, she thinks twice about touching his nails. Result.

This escalates when he meets a more determined1 person who muzzles him. Jack ups the aggression to intimidate them. Hence you end up with a snarling, snapping, savage beast of a dog whenever the nail clippers appear.

An interesting twist is that Jack aggression to people when he’s resting on Mom’s lap. This suggests either he’s fearful of the approaching people (a possibility, if he’s a nervous chap) or he doesn’t want to share the high-status resource that is Mom (likely if he’s a bold, self-confident type – the message from his Mom didn’t say).

How Did Things Get So Bad?

Sometimes our good intentions are misplaced. Kindness and cuddles can accidentally reinforce bad behavior, when tough love is really what’s required.

Let’s take the scenario of Jack on Mom’s lap. She hears visitors and immediately tenses. Jack picks up on the anxiety and is instantly on high alert. In an attempt to avert this tension, she then soothes and pets Jack. He reads this as a reward for being protective and prepares to do battle: After all, Mom’s strokes tell him he’s doing well. You see where this is heading?

Likewise, when a dog decides he doesn’t want to do something (AKA the nail clip or bath) then no amount of brute force is going to overcome that aversion – although the muzzle is a good idea.

Setting Things Right

Enough analysis.  Let’s cut to the chase and how to put things right. Each point could be a blog post in its own right, so let’s keep things simple and clear.

  • Be Practical: Keep a longline leash on Jack in the house. When visitors call, tip Jack off your lap and without speaking lead him into a separate room and shut the door. The point being to avoid conflict.
  • Teach Jack to Listen to You: Reinstate twice daily (minimum) reward-based training sessions. Ensure nice things, such as meals, only happen when he works for them such as getting him to “Sit” before food goes down. Get Jack listening and obeying your commands.
  • Never Reward Bad Behavior: When Jack growls withdraw your attention, which is a strong punishment in dog language. Use the longline to put him in a separate room for “time out”. Avoid speaking to or shouting at him, as he may perceive this attention as a reward.
  • Exercise: Get rid of pent up energy with plenty of exercise
  • Decrease Dependence on the Owner: Have friends or other family members take part in Jack’s care, such as feeding and walking. This helps prevent over-dependence on one person, which is a trigger for guarding or possessive aggression.
  • Crate Train: Train Jack to use a crate so that he has a safe place to retreat to with a tastyKong when things get too much.
  • Desensitization: Last but not least, when Jack is behaving better, slowly desensitize him to having his paws touched and the feel of water on his fur. Take baby steps, rewarding as you go.

And finally, sorting problems like Jack’s taken endless time and patience, and success very much depends on time, effortScience Articles, and dedication.



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Pippa Elliott, BVMS MRCVS, is a veterinarian with 27-years' experience in companion animal practice. Pippa's first job was in a practice by the sea, where she acquired her first (of many) waif-and-stray, a Dockyard Cat Rescue kitten, called Skate. She then worked for the PDSA (People's Dispensary for Sick Animals) which is a national charity that provides veterinary care for the animals of owners with limited finance. Currently Pippa works in a Veterinary Clinic in UK.

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