Puppies bite. It’s called playful biting. It’s what they do, but that doesn’t mean it’s Ok to bite us. Recognizing this fact is the beginning of the journey to teach your pup not to bite you, yet encouraging the puppy to bite on appropriate things.
The strongest drive a dog may have is the prey drive. If it moves, they go after it. Dogs are predators and their survival depended on seeing a bunny and chasing it down for their food. In the domestication of dogs, we must understand that domesticating them hasn’t taken away their instincts.
The instinct to fetch a ball, hunt down a bird, tree a raccoon, chase a frisbee, follow a falling leaf, herd sheep, track a scent, hunt varmints (love those little terrier breeds), chase each other, while biting each others legs then falling into a tumbling wrestling match and going after our pant legs as we walk or playfully bite us when we’re interacting with them is the instinctive prey drive in all it’s glory. Our job is to teach them what’s appropriate and what’s not.
While it’s so much fun to engage them in all these aspects, we don’t realize that our own body language and energy is actually perpetuating playful biting in our puppy’s. Dogs do what works and what’s reinforced. If we are on the floor engaging a pup in a wrestling match, we are encouraging playful biting. That means we are unintentionally reinforcing a behavior that we are trying to stop. Don’t wrestle with your dog and then expect him not to playfully bite you. It’s important to look at the big picture and not just deal with or try to fix this problem on its own. We must meet their needs with dog to dog play time, exercise, appropriate toys and puzzle games, and a training program. Doing so, every day until they hit their age of maturity which is somewhere between the ages of 1 1/2 – 3 yrs of age.
What not to do.
What most people do when their dog is nipping them is to get reactive by either pushing them away, yelling at them, holding their mouths closed, hitting them, flicking them under their chin and any number of other things I shudder to think about. Think about this for a moment. When a puppy is playful biting they are engaging you to interact with them. They are not being aggressive. They are playing. Puppy’s love a good game of chase, tug-o-war and wrestling so when you push and retract your hand, the puppy sees the movement of your hand as prey and they go after it for more fun. If you yell at or hit your dog, it’s quite confusing to them and you will create a fearful dog and a fearful dog is likely to become aggressive as an adult dog.
The key here is to RESPOND not REACT. Reacting is what your pup is after, so we need to learn to respond with appropriate body language and energy, while teaching them how we want them to behave. Remember, they don’t understand the difference between the movement of your legs/hands or a ball that you toss, just like they don’t understand the difference between the ball they bring to you to throw, and you gladly oblige them or the shoe they bring for fetch and you yell at them. It’s all the same in their world and it’s up to us to teach what’s OK in our world and what isn’t, by responding with appropriate body language and energy not reacting and redirecting the what it is that we do want.
What to do?
- Disengage, by shutting down your body language and energy completely and ignore the dog. This means no eye contact, no movement at all, be still. You may even say OUCH. Stay quiet for at least 15 seconds or more if need be. Make a fist if he’s biting your hand, don’t move it. Stop moving if he’s biting your pant leg, STOP everything. When the puppy stops, redirect him to something familiar like SIT, at which time you can quietly praise the puppy while offering a toy for a replacement. If he starts again, repeat until he stops. If he doesn’t you must look to what part of your communication was ineffective and try again. If you are unaware of what you’re doing and it escalates, give a time out in a crate or gated area, for a few minutes, not as punishment, (crates should never be used for punishment) and when the pup, settles, try again.
- Positive reward training sessions, kept short and often, about 5-10 minute sessions, 4-6 times a day. Training sessions can be anything from obedience cues, to tricks, tug-o-war and fetch, etc. Stimulating your dogs mental capacity is even more tiring than physical exercise.
- Always have a toy to trade up with when you are engaging a young puppy. Once you’ve shut your body language down and he stops biting, offering a toy to redirect his energy to the toy will begin the positive association of appropriate play. With the toy you can play fetch, tug-o-war all while you’re teaching cues like Ready, Fetch and Drop It. Playing is training, so have fun.
- Make sure you pup has supervised dog to dog play time with other friendly dogs. Don’t overwhelm the puppy with too many dogs. You can do this in your own back yard or a friends home. Don’t believe the myth that you can’t socialize your puppy until his vaccinations are complete. That’s old school thinking and most veterinarians are privy to early puppy socializing, just not at public places or dog parks, yet.
- Puzzle toys, that deliver treats is a great way to satisfy their foraging instincts and it’s so much fun to watch how they learn and progress using their best instinct, their nose.
- Exercise in the form of walking, swimming, hiking, fetch, etc. done in conjunction with training will make for a happy puppy and a stronger bond between you and your pup.
Learning to respond not react, means that you are becoming more aware of your own body language/energy and you are understanding what your puppy’s needs are so that you are able to teach him what behaviors you want and don’t want. This kind of communication is where real training starts.
About the author: Jill Breitner, is a professional dog trainer teaching virtually, online via Skype Facebook. She’s a dog body language expert loving and living her life on the west coast of the USA. She is the author of Dog Decoder, a smartphone app about dog body language recommended and used by veterinarians, shelters, trainers, educators and guardians worldwide. Jill has been teaching gentle handling/basic husbandry skills to clients and their dogs for 40 years, to be your pets advocate for a happier and stress free life. Join Jill on her Dog Decoder Facebook page