Yeeooowwch! My puppy just bit me!
Well you got a lemon better return it to the breeder ha! Of course I'm kidding all puppies bite to some degree. Puppy biting is a normal, natural and necessary part of their development. Puppies nip and bite to explore their environment and in order to socialize with other puppies. Often they will do this to get the attention of another dog or if they are with their new owners it can also be done to get the attention of their new people friends. Imagine a home where everyone is busy doing their own thing, the newness of the puppy has worn off and your little fur ball wants some attention. What does puppy do? Well he doesn't come up and tap you on the shoulder and say excuse me ma'am. He nips! You yelp! Yaaayyy! ! Finally some attention.
Look mom no hands! Puppies play bite with their littermates to learn their bite strength from their mother and siblings. If a puppy bites a sibling too hard they'll yelp to tell the puppy biter to back off. If a puppy bites mama too hard while feeding mama could push the puppy away resulting in a delayed feeding or even a missed feeding. Puppies learn similar to young humans and that is through play. Jumping, tugging on toys, racing or biting faces ears or tails is all how they begin to learn their skills of survival. This puppy play teaches lessons of survival because their body language is how they will communicate to other adult dogs. Properly socialized puppies and ultimately adult dogs will growl, their hair will stand up on their backs, their teeth, tail and rigidness all send messages. If they have become good communicators they will understand each other and avoid a fight. All necessary skills learned by the puppy via biting their littermates and the reason they need to stay with their litter until 8 weeks old.
So what can you do to teach biting manners around humans? Well the good news is that puppy nipping only lasts until your puppy is between about 6 to 9 months old. But there are ways you can show your puppy what puppy biting is acceptable and what is not.
First have lots of puppy chew toys available so that you can keep them interested in only chewing on what is acceptable. When your puppy starts to bite, simply redirect them to the chew toy and let them bite it out. Have everyone in the home hand feed the puppies in order to strengthen the bond with them along with teaching proper puppy bite pressure. The key is teaching them to develop a soft mouth for now as puppies and when they are larger dogs.
If you can, one way to provide opportunities to learn is to set up puppy play time with other appropriate aged puppies so they can practice soft puppy biting and release. If they are nipping a lot be sure they have adequate physical and mental stimulation. A bored puppy or a puppy with extra energy will expend this energy via digging, chewing or destructive biting. Puzzle toys are great on the mental side and on the physical be sure their intensity of exercise is high enough. This may mean a long slow walk isn't doing the trick. Some ball fetching will increase their exercise intensity and will help to tire them out ultimately reducing your puppy's urge to play bite. As for you it's your job to provide adequate feedback so your puppy understands they are biting too hard. Usually a good yelp will do the trick but you may need to remove all of your attention for a few seconds or even walk away if your puppy is out of control.
There is a Dr. Dunbar who has developed a system to classify a dog biting. For the purpose of this puppy biting article I will use a modified version of it here:
- Sniff/licks you
- Places mouth on you without pressure
- Mouths you with slight pressure
- Bites you with some pain but doesn't break skin
- Bites you with pain and breaks skin
So here is how you use this system to aid you in developing a soft mouth for your puppy. You offer a normal quality of treat, some kibble will do, with the expectation of giving the puppy the reward for a level 3 response or less. Observe a 3 or less then open your hand flat and let them eat the treat from the palm of your hand. If you get a level 4 response then remove your hand and treat placing it behind your back for a few seconds. Out of the puppy's sight and smell zone. If your puppy gives you a level 5 response then you need to make the punishment more severe. Now by punishment I simply mean to remove your presence for 10 or 15 seconds so that your puppy is missing all attention. Don't say anything, don't touch them and don't look at them. It's important to note here that we never physically punish our dogs. If we want them to listen and follow our commands they have to like us. Physical pain is not necessary and not effective for training them and will only lead to them withdrawing from you. If when you present your kibble to your puppy and you get a level 6 response. Training is over, that's a wrap! But seriously any dog who is at the level 5 or 6 requires professional help immediately and is dangerous to everyone around.
So over time as you practice this soft mouth technique with your puppy you come to gradually expect a lower and lower number on the classification scale. You may also change holding the treat from the open palm which is harder to nip to the tips of your fingers so your puppy has to be more careful with how he grabs the reward. Another increasing level of complexity is to move your hands so she has to move to get the treat.
The final few suggestions are to also work on impulse control with your puppy which I will address in depth in an upcoming blog. Bite control is one aspect but this is combined with the puppy's desire to take what they want. Curb their impulse control and you remove the excited grab for the treat.These ideas will work if you are patient and apply them to almost any issue where your puppy is biting. For example, if your puppy likes to bite at your ankles or pant legs, maybe your shoe laces or something else down low. Take some time to play with a toy by your feet while you are standing. Let the toy hang and have your puppy play with it by your side. Then carry that toy with you and when your puppy makes a go at your shoelaces, simply hang the toy down and let them chew on it. Redirecting like this is a very effective tool in your toolbox.
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Train, Don' t Complain
Trainer Dan :)