Ask the Trainer: Bite Inhibition
The Problem: How can I teach our puppy not to be so snappy? He has lots of chew toys with which we distract him from nipping at us, but he has moved beyond the "getting his teeth in mouthyness" to a habit of biting us. Most of the time he doesnt bite hard, but I see this becoming an out of control habit if not stopped soon. - Leah Bell Crosby
Puppies are just being their exploratory selves when they use their mouths to explore, play and test their surroundings. While bite inhibition training begins when a puppy is with its litter, training during puppyhood is vital. Puppies should not be taken from their littermates and their dam before 8 weeks as valuable lessons can be learned. If the puppy did not get the training with littermates and its mom, you will have more work to do. But with positive, consistent training, you should be successful. Although nipping and mouthing are normal behaviors for puppies, it is a common complaint of puppy owners.
Behavior problems can begin when the nipping is treated like a hand-mouth game (especially with children not properly supervised) or with forceful methods such as alpha rolls, electric collars, pinch collars, choke chains, holding the mouth closed, or slapping the puppy’s muzzle to “correct” the situation. Some people think the nipping is cute and laugh and encourage it. All of these are wrong! These methods are not approved by animal behaviorists and trainers who use positive reinforcement. Scientific studies have proven these methods can promote aggression and other unwanted behaviors.
Make sure the dog has had a complete veterinary exam to ensure nothing physical is causing discomfort that could lead to biting. Check with your veterinarian to schedule the appropriate exams needed for your dog’s condition and age.
Now that the veterinarian has ruled out any health issues, you can proceed to eliminate this unwanted behavior with the following methods:
- Teach mouth manners
- Control the environment
- Provide lots of mental and physical exercise
It’s natural for teething puppies to bite. They have no idea that biting can hurt and won’t control their bite strength unless taught. Schedule play dates with appropriate puppies and patient, well-socialized adult dogs who can help teach your dog mouth manners.
You’ll want to have plenty of chew toys available, especially if the dog is in the puppy teething stage. You could wet a chew toy rope, fill Kongs with peanut butter, or soak an old washcloth in low-sodium chicken broth and freeze for a treat. These, along with ice cubes, can help during the teething process. Pressed rawhide, bully sticks, Nylabones, Boomer Balls, Buster Cubes, Bob-a-lots, Squirrel Dudes, Floppy Frisbees, Chuck-its and squeaky hedgehogs (but don’t let pup get the squeaker out) are some other suggestions. Good inside games include playing hide and seek or playing with boxes. Make sure you supervise your puppy’s playtime and take the toys away when they begin to fray.
You can use the frozen toys or any other appropriate play toy, such as a ball, to distract the dog’s attention. You can pet with one hand and offer the chew toy with the other. Alternate which hand offers the toy and which one does the petting. The dog will associate slow, gentle petting or scratching behind the ear as pleasurable. Do this as long as he is calm.
I find using a clicker to mark the desired behavior is good. Clickers are cheap and, when used properly, very effective. First “charge the clicker.” Get some yummy treats (like roasted chicken) cut into the size of Tic Tacs. Click and give your puppy a treat. Do this several times until your puppy associates the click with a treat. Then put your hand (palm side close toward his nose) and click when he touches. Do this with your hand in different positions, but not too far from his nose until he starts walking towards your hand. Switch hands. Click and treat when he touches, but don’t treat if he doesn’t touch. When you know he understands his nose is to touch your hand when you put it out, you can add a cue word, such as “touch.” Once he knows the cue, you can use it to have him touch balls, boxes, and other objects. This is the touch game.
If your dog nips you, you can say “ouch!” in a loud, high pitched voice and remove yourself from the play and ignore the dog. You could also place him in “time-out” in another room (possibly separated with baby gate), tether him (in a puppy-proofed area) or crate him for a few minutes close by. Placing a chew toy in the crate helps re-direct his teething instincts to an appropriate outlet. Time with you can continue when he is calm. He will learn he gets to spend more time with you as he learns to control his mouth.
Putting something like butter on your hand can encourage licks instead of nips. Use slow, gentle motions when petting. Hand feeding your dog is another way to improve your bond and gives you an opportunity to reward him for using his mouth politely. If you have an elderly person in the home, they should wear light gardening gloves when starting to train a puppy and feeding by hand. Small children should not hand feed as they have not developed the appropriate motor skills.
Control the environment so the puppy only chews what and where you allow. You may need to have some baby gates or an exercise pen to prevent the puppy from having full access to the house. When you take him out of his controlled area, put a leash on him so he won’t be able to go after others and nip. Depending on his level of obedience, you may need to keep hold of the leash, or if he is learning to stay close, drop the leash but keep him close.
Children, even elementary-aged, should not be left alone with dogs, even with you in the kitchen while you are looking at them in the living room. You need to be beside them to supervise, especially puppies and children. Using quick hand motions in front of a dog’s face can be scary for the dog and encourage nipping and biting. Running around, screaming, squealing, and pushing a dog away can excite a pup to nip – as will grabbing something from the dog’s mouth.
Provide positive training and socialization. Basic training should include sit, stay, come and politely walk by your side. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior is in favor of enrolling your puppy in a quality puppy class as young as 8 weeks. The association also endorses trainers who use clicker training. Trainers, such as myself, can come to your home if you prefer not to attend a class. Your puppy will be in training the rest of his life. He will be training you or you will be training him throughout his life as he ages and you encounter different situations. It’s okay if your dog needs more than one training session. Dogs, like people, learn at different paces. If a dog has had a bad start in life, he may need several puppy classes to help him progress.
Your puppy needs plenty of exercise. Just putting them in the back yard is not enough. Besides, they can pick up some nasty behaviors that can be a challenge to change. Other than playing inside and out, take him for short, frequent walks. If this isn’t possible, have a neighbor or qualified dog walker help, or let him spend a few hours at a doggy daycare.
In addition to exercise, dogs need plenty of mental stimulation to keep them from becoming bored and doing things they shouldn’t. We are blessed to have some trainers, dog facilities and clubs that provide opportunities to work the brain. Working, hound and terrier breed dogs, especially, need the mental and physical activities. For less than $40 you can register your mixed breed dog with the American Kennel Club and have access to rally, obedience and agility venues.
Coastal Canine Academy LLC
2940 Sugarbush Way
Charleston, SC 29414-6718