Ask The Vet: Dog's nipping problem

Dr Christine Lee, veterinarian at the Animal & Veterinary Service.
Dr Christine Lee, veterinarian at the Animal & Veterinary Service.PHOTO: NATIONAL PARKS BOARD

SINGAPORE - In this fortnightly column, veterinarians from the National Parks Board answer questions about pet health and behaviour.

Nippy nub of the problem

My dog will appear to be sitting contentedly when our guests are at the dining table. But any sudden movement near her, such as a guest getting up from his or her seat, will cause her to nip that person who walks past her. She has also nipped the hand of a guest who tried to reach out to her. While she looks contrite after the "attack", she has repeated this behaviour several times, despite the fact that it is unprovoked. Is it because she is fearful or does it have to do with being territorial? How can I help her?

L.A. Koh

Dogs nip or bite for various reasons. Some degree of nipping and "mouthing" is part of normal behaviour during play time. But it can also indicate stress, fear or frustration. In some cases, it could be a sign of pain or illness.

It is important to identify the underlying reasons for this behaviour to minimise your dog's stress and protect the health and safety of those around her.

Your dog's behaviour could be a sign of anxiety arising from having unfamiliar guests in the home. It might cause her to perceive seemingly normal activities or movements as threats.

This could be due to a lack of socialisation when she was a puppy. Socialisation is usually helpful in making dogs feel at ease when they meet different people.

For a start, make sure your dog has a comfortable and quiet area to rest in. Having an option to get away from others when she needs to will help her feel safe. Remind people in your home, including guests, not to disturb her when she is resting.

It is also a good idea to keep your dog away from the dining table when guests are present while offering her something, like a chew toy, to keep her occupied.

When introducing people to your dog, look out for warning signs of stress that she feels uncomfortable and needs to get away. This may include licking her lips, yawning, flattening her ears, showing the "whites" of her eyes and growling or avoiding people by turning or moving away.

Remind people to approach your dog carefully and slowly to avoid startling her.

While the nipping may not cause serious injury now, such behaviour tends to get more severe over time.

Early intervention can help modify this and minimise potential risks to your guests and family members.

Speak to your vet or a qualified animal behaviourist for guidance on scientifically sound methods.

Answers by Dr Christine Lee, a veterinarian at the Animal & Veterinary Service who graduated from the Royal Veterinary College in the United Kingdom.

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