Collies are not an aggressive breed, however if you’re a collie owner you may have noticed them nipping at your heels or at other dogs.
This seems like an unusual behavior for such a friendly breed, but nipping is actually fairly common in collies and other herding breeds.
Collies nip for a number of reasons, but mostly it’s a left over behavior from when they were working sheepdogs, where some collies gently nipped at their woolly ankles to get them to move.
In this article we’ll look at collie nipping in detail, find out what it means when your collie nips at your feet or ankles, and learn how to train your collie to stop nipping.
Why do collies nip?
1: Nipping due to herding instincts
The main reason that collies nip is due to their herding instincts.
In years gone by herding dogs ruled the fields with an iron paw. Overt aggression was the tactic of choice and herding dogs would occasionally bite the sheep.
Collies changed all that in the late 18th century with their characteristically stealthy herding methods. Instead of outright aggression, collies used their movements to gently guide the sheep to where they need to be.
Stubborn sheep occasionally needed a small nip at their heels to get them moving, and this nipping behavior became ingrained in the collie breed. It’s not aggressive, it’s just meant to get the sheep’s attention.
2: Nipping when playing
Playful biting and nipping is common among all dogs, especially younger dogs.
If your collie is prone to playful biting or nipping, you probably know that it can be quite painful, even if they don’t mean it.
It’s important to remember that your collie doesn’t mean to hurt you, and the best way to train it out of them is by showing them that it hurts you.
If you move your hand away quickly and ignore your collie when they nip, they will quickly learn what hurts you and what doesn’t and adjust their behavior.
3: Nipping to explore their environment
Collies don’t have opposable thumbs (thank goodness) so they don’t have a good way to explore new materials and environments without using their mouth.
Collies use their mouth to gently bite or nip at things they find new or interesting. This helps them work out if it’s alive, if it’s edible, if it’s soft or hard, what it tastes like, and if it’s something they can play with or something they aren’t allowed.
You might find your collie even nips at you if you wear new clothes or shoes they haven’t seen before. If it’s an exploratory nip like this, it’s perfectly normal and just how they learn about their environment.
4: Nipping while teething
Just like humans, collies have two sets of teeth and go through a teething process when their adult teeth grow in. This can be a painful process and collies often bite and nip at things to relieve their gums.
While your collie is teething, any nipping, chewing or biting is perfectly normal and you shouldn’t try to stop them.
One great way to help alleviate your collie’s teething pain is by freezing a damp washcloth for them. The frozen, crunchy cloth is soft enough not to damage their delicate teeth and the ice helps soothe their gums.
Check out my full article on collie chewing where I explain in detail how to stop unwanted chewing behaviors.
5: Nipping to share how they feel
Collies are very emotionally intelligent. They form strong social bonds with their humans and any collie owner knows they will tell you exactly how they feel in their own way.
If your collie is nipping gently they might be hungry, playful, or frustrated with something and are trying to get your attention so you can fix it for them.
Collies also may nip you very gently (more like a kiss with their teeth) to show you they love you. This behavior is common in all dogs and even in wolves.
6: Nipping due to lack of Socialization
As with all animals, very young collies may not yet understand that their nipping can be painful for other dogs or people.
The process of playing and biting with their siblings helps collie puppies to learn where the limits are when it comes to biting and nipping. This process is called socialization.
Most good collie breeders will leave the pups with their siblings and mother for a few months before they are ready to go to their forever home so this really isn’t something you should have to deal with unless you somehow got your pup very young before it had a chance to be socialized.
If you do end up with a pup who doesn’t know their nipping is hurting you, you can train them by quickly removing your hand and letting out a yelp so your collie understands when their nipping is painful.
Your pup doesn’t want to hurt you and they will quickly adjust their nipping once they learn it’s hurting you.
Nipping Vs Biting – Know the difference
Collies are not aggressive breeds by nature. Unlike Pit Bulls, German Shepherds, and Terrier breeds, collies were never bred for aggressive tasks and have been cooperating with humans for centuries.
In spite of collies’ friendly nature, play biting or nipping is normal and to be expected from any dog.
Nipping is differentiated from biting by the intent of the dog. Nipping is harmless and not intended to cause injury, whereas biting is aggressive and usually happens when a dog is scared or angry.
Nipping can be irritating, but it’s ultimately harmless. It’s not an aggressive behavior and can be easily trained out of them.
Collies nipping at face
If you get down to ground level to play with your collie, they may use their mouths to play with you like they would with another dog.
Since your skin is much more sensitive than dog skin, especially around your face, your collie won’t instinctively know that even a playful nip could actually hurt you.
If this does happen, it’s best to stop what you’re doing so that your collie knows they hurt you. Collies form very strong bonds with their humans and will quickly change their behavior if they know it’s hurting you.
Collies nipping at ankles
If you’re wearing big fluffy socks or slippers, your collie may think they are fun to play with and nip at them as you’re walking.
If your collie is nipping at your heels or ankles while you walk, it’s most likely due to some collies using this technique to control unruly sheep while herding.
This type of nipping isn’t aggressive, it’s just an instinctual behavior of the collie breed. You can sort it out with some training.
To stop your collies from nipping at your ankles, use a strong command like “no” or “down” and don’t engage in any tug-of-war or chasing with them, since they will think this is a game and it will reinforce the unwanted behavior.
Collies nipping at Strangers
If your collie is nipping at strangers, they are probably in herding mode and trying to steer the stranger away from them.
Even if your collie doesn’t nip at your heels, they may see a stranger as a potential threat and try to herd them away. When they don’t respond to your collie’s movements, they may use nipping like they would with a stubborn sheep.
Another reason your collie might use nipping with strangers is that they are trying to make friends with them.
Collies are very social and may use nipping or play-biting to judge whether someone is a friend or foe. Based on the reaction to their friendly nibbling, your collie can form an opinion about the stranger.
While it may seem funny, charming, or endearing that your collie is herding or saying hello to a stranger with nipping, it’s important to remember that not everyone loves dogs and unwanted nipping, nibbling, or otherwise interacting with a stranger may cause them undue panic or distress.
You’re responsible for your dog at all times and it’s a good idea to teach them boundaries early on so that they don’t become a nuisance to your neighbors or strangers.
Collies nipping at Other Dogs
It’s normal for collies to use nipping or friendly mouth-play to greet and play with other dogs. This is kind of similar to how you might slap a friend on the back or give them a tight hug when you see them.
Though this behavior is normal and not aggressive, it may be unwanted, especially in public places.
If you take your dog to the dog park, unwanted nibbles can look worse than they actually are and even if the dogs are fine, you might upset the other dog walkers.
You’re unlikely to be able to fully stop friendly nips between your collie and dogs they know well, but with some training you can teach your collie not to go near them with strong recall and stay commands.
How to stop your collie from nipping
1: Yelp and move away from them
Ouch! Let your collie know that nipping is unacceptable by calling out and moving away from them. This will help socialize your collie and teach them that their nipping is unwanted behavior.
This is how puppies learn what type of play is appropriate and where the limits are.
2: Schedule plenty of play time with them
If your collie knows that nipping gets a reaction from you, they may be nipping at you to try to get you to play with them.
Collies are extremely smart and need lots of play time and exercise to keep them happy.
Schedule plenty of play time with them throughout the day to stop them getting bored, but don’t overstimulate them with wild play since they have a tendency to get overexcited.
3: Have frequent time out periods
It sometimes feels like collies don’t have an off switch. If your collie is getting overexcited, try to calm your collie down with a time out period.
I’ve written a whole guide on how to calm your collie down, but a few easy suggestions are to practice a new trick with them, teach them to sit still to get their picture taken, or get them a long-lasting cognitive enrichment treat to play with.
4: Avoid touching their face or waving fingers in their face
Collies generally don’t like people being too near their face or head. If you’re waving your fingers in their face or if you get too close to them it can be unsettling for them and you shouldn’t be surprised if they give you a friendly nibble.
Collies nibble at other dogs to test the waters and differentiate friend from foe, this is just their way of checking you’re still friends with them.
5: Avoid jerky movements
Your collie is a herding dog and seeing a sharp or jerky movement triggers the herding instinct in them.
If you move suddenly, your collie might be startled and think you’re playing a game with them. If you are, that’s great! Collies love games.
Your collie might start to get a bit mouthy with you as they try to work out what fun game you’re playing with them.
6: Use cognitive enrichment treats
Collies love puzzles and treats. If you can combine the two with a cognitive enrichment toy, your collie will be entertained for hours.
Treats like the Kong Wobbler can be frozen to last even longer and will give your collie a mental workout as they try to get the treats out.
Providing your collie with a long-lasting cognitive enrichment toy can really settle them down and put an end to any unwanted nipping caused by boredom.
7: Tricks and mental stimulation
Collies may nip, nibble or play-bite to get your attention when they are bored. Collies need so much exercise and attention to keep them happy and it can be tiring to try to keep up with their insatiable appetite for games.
I’ve written a full article on mental stimulation ideas for your collie, but some of the best ways to tire out your collie are to practice new or existing commands and tricks, and playing games with your collie.
Collies love games where they have to engage their senses and use their brains. Hiding a toy or a treat in a certain room and getting your collie to search for them is a great option that doesn’t take much set up.
8: Make them a teething toy
Teething can be an uncomfortable process for collie pups. Their adult teeth push through their gums just like human teeth.
If your collie is nipping, chewing, or biting while they are teething, give them something to chew on to soothe their discomfort.
The best option for any teething collie pup is simple and free to make. Simply freeze a damp towel or washcloth until it’s almost solid and give it to your pup to chew on. The towel is soft enough not to damage their delicate teeth, and the ice helps soothe their gums.
There are loads of teething toys on the market, but none of them are as effective as this. For additional treats you can even wrap some of your puppy’s kibbles in the cloth before freezing so they can work to get them out.
9: Ignore them if they start to nip
Whatever the reason for your collie nipping, if it’s unwanted behavior the best way to stop it is by completely ignoring them, coupled with a strong “no” command.
This will help your collie understand that nipping of any kind is unwanted behavior and ignoring them for a short time will ensure you don’t accidentally reinforce the behavior by chasing them or engaging in a tug-of-war.
Try not to get angry at your collie if they nip. It’s not their fault, nipping has been bred in to them for centuries and it takes some training to get it out of them. Instead of punishing them, just ignore them.
Ignoring your collie is a neutral response and is the best way to get them to stop nipping. Once they realize they don’t get any reaction out of you they will stop.