How to Stop A Herding Dog From Nipping

How to stop a herding dog from nipping is the million-dollar question for new herding dog owners or, shamefully, some of us (like me) that have a herding dog older than a year whose nipping is no longer cute nor excusable. My one-year-old boy Sheltie Bernie is STUBBORN! If he wants you to go in another direction he will nip at your ankles, your pant leg, or shoelaces and I have to stand statue-still until he gets bored and moves on. 

So how to stop a herding dog from nipping? Firstly understand what triggers the nipping. For example, is it young children running? Secondly, once you know what triggers the nipping, then you can focus on training to correct the nipping behavior. This will let your dog know that nipping is not acceptable.

If you are the owner of a herding dog breed that nips, this is the article for you. You will find out the difference between mouthing, biting and nipping. This is especially relevant for first-time herding dog owners. Then we explore 10 techniques to address how to stop a herding dog from nipping.

The Backstory of Herding Breeds

As far back as men have been farming and keeping livestock, herding dogs have helped them with driving, protecting, and maintaining their herds. Loyal and keenly intelligent, for generations, these dogs have made excellent companions and devoted assistants. 

The breeds within the herding group were bred and favored by farmers and ranchers due to their ability to work independently, make decisions to protect the animals without the rancher present, and herd without harming the livestock. 

These traits developed in dogs of all shapes and sizes all over the globe with various characteristics depending on the terrain, climate, and type of livestock common to their particular region. 

Early training and basic instincts working in conjunction, over many years, provided these breeds with a strong desire to please, often at odds with a distinct independent streak. This stubborn aspect of their personalities may arise on occasion; a well-trained herding dog may go rogue and disobey if they feel it is best for all involved. For centuries, these dogs were trained to work alone and make decisions best for the flock.

One instinctual trait, common to all breeds in the herding class, is nipping. A highly desirable trait, if you happen to be a rancher and want your flock to be kept safe and under control without being harmed. Not so useful if you don’t have any sheep and are just trying to have a walk with the family. This is when you need to know how to stop a herding dog from nipping.

What are the herding breeds?

Since 1983, the American Kennel Club has distinguished herders into their own Herding Group separate from the Working Group.

While AKC recognizes 30 different breeds in the Herding Group, there are many more.

Generally considered easily trainable and great companion animals, they are often highly skilled in agility, quite loyal and protective. Of course, they were all developed to perform duties on the farm, primarily herding and protecting livestock. This is where our nipping issues stem from. What was once a desired trait in these breeds, is now something instinctual that can be, for some of us, difficult to reverse. But that’s what we need to do, reverse that instinctual urge to nip by knowing how to stop a herding dog from nipping.

AKC-recognized herding dog breeds

  • Australian Cattle Dog
  • Australian Shepherd
  • Bearded Collie
  • Beauceron
  • Belgian Malinois
  • Belgian Tervuren
  • Bergamasco
  • Berger Picard
  • Border Collie
  • Bouvier des Flandres
  • Briard
  • Canaan Dog
  • Cardigan Welsh Corgi
  • Collie
  • Entlebucher Mountain Dog
  • Finnish Lapphund
  • German Shepherd Dog
  • Icelandic Sheepdog
  • Miniature American Shepherd
  • Norwegian Buhund
  • Old English Sheepdog
  • Pembroke Welsh Corgi
  • Polish Lowland Sheepdog
  • Puli
  • Pyrenean Shepherd or Pyrenean Sheepdog 
  • Shetland Sheepdog
  • Spanish Water Dog
  • Swedish Vallhund.

Non-AKC-recognized herding dogs

  • Australian Kelpie
  • Belgian Groenendael
  • Berger de Beauce
  • Bouvier Des Ardennes
  • Cao Da Serra De Aires (Portuguese Sheepdog)
  • South Russian Shepherd Dog
  • Catalan Sheepdog
  • Croatian Shepherd Dog
  • Czechoslovakian Wolfdog
  • Dutch Schapendoes
  • Dutch Shepherd Dog
  • Majorca Shepherd Dog
  • Mudi
  • Pumi
  • Romanian Carpathian Shepherd Dog
  • Schipperke 
  • Slovakian Chuvach
  • Tatra Shepherd Dog
  • White Swiss Shepherd Dog.

The Difference Between Mouthing, Nipping, and Biting?

Mouthing

If you want to stop a particular behavior in any dog, it is important that you be aware of exactly what you are dealing with your pup. For instance, puppies under the age of six months use their mouths as they experience the world around them. This is mouthing and it is a part of a puppies learning process. 

Think about how much you use your hands for, it is similar to dogs and their mouths. They use their mouths to acquaint themselves with many things. This mouthing behavior, while kind of cute while they are puppies, should be dissuaded early on. Although you may be ok with your pup nibbling on your fingers and toes, not everyone will be. 

Nipping

Nipping occurs, from instinct, when your herding breed is trying to corral a member of the pack, often children. For non-dog lovers, seeing or experiencing this can be quite scary. Often, the natural instinct to herd will kick in with younger dogs, even when a stranger runs (or in our case cycles) by. Aside from being intimidating, and socially unacceptable, it will wreak havoc on your shoes and pant legs! 

Generally, mouthing and nipping, are harmless, but unacceptable behaviors that need to be curbed.

Biting

Biting, on the other hand, is a different story. If your dog is biting, forcefully, using his canines and molars, with aggression, it should be addressed with a canine behavior specialist.

We had a bit of a biting issue with Bernie our boy dog when he was between four and six months old. Primarily after feeding he would get aggressive with our older female, and I would get bitten when I intervened.

how long do shetland sheepdogs live

Bernie as a puppy on his camp bed

We sought the help of a trainer. He explained to us that the lines of the hierarchy between dogs and humans were blurry for Bernie, and how to clear that up. In our case it was simply a matter of establishing clearly defined roles, but, every pup and situation is different, and you should

How to Stop Herding Dog From Nipping? 

Not all herding dogs will be stimulated or triggered to herd by the same things. And when they herd, herding dogs can instinctively nip.

I know you are keen to find out how to stop a herding dog from nipping. But before you can train your herding dog to dial back on the herding, you should understand what triggers him or her.

Step 1 Observe

You can start the process by observing your dog carefully and monitoring his interactions with other dogs as well as humans, especially children.

  • What sets off the herding? Others running (this is a big one and should be especially paid attention to around children)? The presence of a particular person? Other dogs or wild animals? Bicycles or cars?
  • What signs does your dog give that the herding is about to begin? Intense stare? Crouching? Dropped head? 
Stalking is a sign that herding is about to begin

The more you know about what triggers your dog’s instinct and his behavior immediately before, the easier it will be for you to correct the behavior.

Step 2 Intervene and correct the behavior

What follows are a series of techniques to help address how to stop a herding dog from nipping. I will also give you my personal view on which techniques work and which don’t, based on my experience with Bernie.

1. Bite inhibition

If you spend some time watching puppies and dogs at play, you will notice that it appears that nothing is off-limits. They have ears, and paws, and tails in each other’s mouths. However, there are limits.

Young pups learn from each other what is too much and how far is too far. Puppies will let out a yelp to let their siblings know when they have crossed a line, and mama dogs will walk away from a young one that is getting too rough, or just being annoying. This is how a pup learns about bite inhibition.

You can use the same techniques as the sibling and Mama dogs to teach your dog how to dial back on the biting. Let out a little yelp when he gets a finger or toe in the mouth lets him know that you don’t like that. This technique is especially effective with pups in the first few months. Otherwise, when your dog gets mouthy, you can end the play, and withdraw your attention for twenty seconds or so. Learning this bite inhibition, and how to control the force of his mouthing is an important first step. 

2. Toys/Chewies as substitutes

On the long road to curbing your herding dog’s natural instinct for nipping, it helps to have something to redirect his or her attention. When your pup goes for a nibble of the hand, withdraw the appealing body part and offer a toy or a chewy in its place. As with all effective dog training, this takes repetition and time

I think we purchased every chew toy available on the earth during Bernie’s first six months of life. He wanted no part of anything that was specifically created and purchased to be chewed on by a dog.  Instead, hats, gloves, carpet, sofas, flip flops, paper, plastic, other dogs, and any human body parts were all on his list of favorites!

However, in the last six months, his nipping of humans and chewing of everything else has slowly waned. As you repeatedly withdraw your fingers, toes, ankles… and replace it with something that they are allowed to chew they will begin to understand what an appropriate chew toy is and what is not.

You must have patience

3. Impulse control

Work on your dog’s impulse control should happen early and often.

Once he or she understands the sit command, you may notice that the sit doesn’t last very long. Once the sit has been engaged, the pup may even jump right up to get rewarded. This is when impulse control comes into play.

Commands like, wait, stay, and leave it naturally piggyback off of your dog learning how to sit or come. Learning impulse control is an integral part of a puppy’s development factoring into everything from mouthing, nipping, and biting to jumping on people and chasing cars, bunnies, birds, deer, bicycles, runners, scooters, and our latest and my personal favorite, airplanes in the sky. 

The thing that makes the training of herding breeds easy, their keen intelligence, can also be your downfall. We spend a lot of time outdoors with our dogs, road-tripping, hiking and tent camping. It is even more important when we are visiting new areas to control impulses. We found that treat rewards made training to stay and leave it ultra quick and easy.

Unfortunately, Bernie, whom we lovingly refer to as our problem child, caught on to the reward system and decided to rig it in his favor. After a few days of training leave it, he began to poke at things that he had learned were off-limits, and then hover over with the item with his mouth while side-eyeing us, waiting for the command, angling for a treat. We were outsmarted! Ugh!

4. Play statue

If you are walking and your pup starts nipping at your ankles, if it is safe to do so, obviously not while crossing the street, stop immediately and stand perfectly still. Continuing to walk while he is grabbing at your shoe or pant leg will only encourage the wrong behavior. By stopping your forward progress and not responding to the behavior the dog will understand, after some reinforcement, that continuing the behavior will not result in what he wants. 

Just remember, this particular behavior is something intentionally bred into the herding breeds. Our Bernie is one year old and we walk for many miles every day together. Not very long ago I would get the nipping regularly throughout our walks. he eas trying to herd me! Now, it might happen once a week or once every two weeks, because we have been adamant about redirecting his behavior and employing the statue when he tries to herd us with nipping. This instinct is not something that you can completely erase from your dog’s mind, but you can teach him when it is appropriate, for instance when he is with other dogs. 

5. Socializing with other dogs

One of the most important aspects of a dog’s development is socialization with both other dogs and humans.

Once your pup has had all of his or her required shots, somewhere around 16 weeks or four months old, you can start to engage with other dogs at playdates, parks, beaches, and even friend’s homes.

This socialization is important on many levels, but one of the biggest reasons is that your herder will begin to learn from other dogs about pecking order and that not all dogs are herders, and more importantly, that some alphas will not at all appreciate nipping and being herded.  Your pup will learn quickly when the alpha dog in the pack retaliates.

6. Mix up the game

When your herding dog is nipping at your ankles, he may be trying to get your attention, redirect you to where he wants to go, or simply practicing that which his instinct tells him to do. He isn’t trying to be difficult or disobedient, and that can be hard to remember when you are in the moment. 

Tug of war is a fantastic redirect game for pups in the throes of a nip herding moment. If you can keep a tug toy in your pocket, or handy while you are out walking, as soon as your little one goes for the shoes or ankles, whip out the tug toy. I always feel a little bit like an NFL referee with a penalty flag. Nipping starts, tug comes out, attention diverted, pup makes the connection between what is okay to nip and tug on, and what isn’t. Eventually. 

7. Devoted Training Time

Whether you are trying to encourage a particular behavior or discourage a particular behavior, the best route to take with a puppy will always be devoted training time.

For nipping and herding, once you have determined what will trigger your pup or the signs that he gives when he is about to engage in the herding behavior, you can actively train against the herding instincts. 

For this exercise to work you must already have your dog trained with the basic voice control commands, come, sit, and stay, or the variations of your choosing.

Now, if your pup is triggered to nip and herd by bicycles, have him sit next to you, on a leash that has plenty of length. We used a 25-foot leash for this. Have another adult ride a bicycle nearby. Before your dog has the opportunity to initiate, give him the stay command. He won’t. But, follow it up with come, and if that is successful, sit, and then stay again. This will take time.

Twenty minutes per day, every day for a few weeks, and then reinforcement every now and again.

Remember, your patience is extremely important. Herding instincts were ingrained into the breeds for centuries, you won’t rid your dog of them in an afternoon or two. 

You can repeat this exercise with other things that trigger your dog to herd and nip.

8. Consequences v. Punishment

Dogs understand consequences and cause and effect.

The reward system works most of the time and a system of punishment will fail most of the time.

When your dog is nipping and herding, the consequence should be you retreating from the original activity, if it was a game or a walk.

If he is nipping you as you are passing by him on your way to the laundry room, you may be compelled to interrupt what you are doing to give him the attention that he seeks. That will only reinforce undesirable behavior. Stop. Play the statue until he gets tired of waiting or replace your pant leg with an appropriate chew or tug toy. 

The number one thing to remember when training your dog? Hitting, slapping, screaming, harsh words, alpha-rolling, scruffing, muzzling, and jerking of leashes are absolutely not any ways of getting the results that you are hoping for from your pup.

Aggression from you, especially when your dog is already overstimulated or excited, will only result in confusion and potentially reactive aggression from your dog. 

9. Ignoring the Problem

I can tell you from personal experience with Bernie, this technique will not work.

Nipping and herding is not behavior that will be grown out of or forgotten.  I brought home this gorgeous bi-black baby boy Sheltie. I loved him with every fiber of my being, and I knew that he was absolutely perfect in every way. 

Neither of the female Shelties that we owned were strong herders. Every once in awhile, when we were running on the beach or playing bocce in the yard, we would glimpse the behavior, but it was never a thing for them. Some dogs have a lot of the instinct, some not so much. Our Bernie? He has what the girls didn’t have and then some. 

My approach with him was so backward and full of denial that I am almost too ashamed to admit it. It seemed that from the moment we brought him home, he was swinging from my pant leg. Nine or so pounds of fluffy constantly connected to my foot! I hadn’t experienced this with our other dogs, but I had read plenty about it and how to curb the behavior, but for some reason, I let it go on for a few weeks. Bad move!

Do the math. If a puppy is 16 weeks old and you let a bad behavior continue for two weeks that is 1/8 of that puppy’s life. Not good. Luckily, I got it together and we have it sorted out, for the most part. Occasionally there are nips, but he corrects quickly. 

10. Love, Time, Patience

Deciding to share your life with a herding dog is a commitment.

These are animals that were bred for very specific purposes, with very specific traits that were desirable. The combination of high energy and extraordinary intellect allows these breeds to perform jobs, problem-solve, and make independent decisions. These and other amazing traits mean that the herding dogs are easily trained, but they will not be easily fooled, and if your messages and desires are not consistent, then training will be challenging. Undoubtedly, with the employment of love and patience, propped up with repetition and time, you will understand how to stop herding dog from nipping.

Related Questions

How to stop a dog from nipping when excited?

The best technique I can recommend to stop a dog from nipping when excited is technique # 4 playing statue or technique #6 playing tug of war.

Why is my dog nipping at visitors?

The short answer is your dog views your visitors as livestock they need to herd. How do you stop a herding dog from nipping in this situation? I would use technique #7 and devote some training time and let your dog know that nipping visitors in your home is unacceptable.

How to stop a herding puppy from nipping?

All the techniques I’ve listed in this article to address how to stop a herding dog from nipping applies as much to a puppy as 6-month-old Bernie or an adult dog.

Is a herding dog for me?

We dive into this subject in great detail in this article. You can read more about the instinctive traits of herding dogs here.

Author - Eileen

Eileen is dog mom to 2 Shetland Sheepdogs - Shellie and her pup Bernie. They enjoy a couple of walks each day plus 2-3 sessions with the frisbee or Chuck-it! She enjoys many road trips with her dogs. She has tent camped all over the U.S. The dogs love exploring new hiking trails. Regardless of the season, Eileen has plenty to share with you about outdoor dog life whether it's in the Rockies in winter, Massachusetts in the summer or Oregon and Minnesota in between. She loves to find new off-leash parks while traveling.

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