Friday, November 18, 2011


I haven't written a post in a while due to lack of free time (that is what happens when you have a toddler!) and lack of inspiration. However, I have been inspired by the numerous questions from my puppy clients about nipping/mouthing behavior.

To start off, know that this behavior is a completely normal part of puppy development just as it is with baby humans that like to stick everything in their mouth! Problem is puppy teeth hurt and puppies can ingest a lot more dangerous things than human babies due to us not supervising them as well and due to their much faster growth rate.

Dogs don't have thumbs, they use their mouths for that function so to assume your puppy will just outgrow using his mouth on things he shouldn't have, is silly. We have to teach puppies/dogs what is appropriate and what is not. The behavior can't be "done away" with altogether as it is hardwired into the dog. The goal is to teach a puppy good bite inhibition and good impulse control.

Reasons why puppies mouth/nip
- Teething
- Hard wired behavior
- Exploring tastes and textures
- Playing
- Being aggressive

What NOT to do
- Grab pup's muzzle and hold shut: this will most likely cause the pup to be more aggressive with biting due to frustration or cause a shy pup to shut down and view hands as something scary.
- Yell "No biting!" (not very effective).
- Stick your hand down pup's throat: many vets have recommended this to clients of mine. I find this method cruel and unnecessary as well as teaching a dog to fear it's owner and hands.
- Hold the pup down: this is an "alpha roll" and is has been widely disproved by the positive training community to be an inappropriate method to teach a dog anything but to fear it's owner.
- Spray bitter spray in the pup's mouth: due to the fact that no one can possible grab the spray and use it fast enough makes this method not effective as the pup then has no clue why it is being punished.
- Push puppy away: this is seen as play and usually instigates more biting.

What TO do
If your pup/dog mouths or nips you in a playful way that is painful or too much in your opinion, go through the following steps in order;
1. Say "ouch!" in a high pitched voice as this is supposed to remind the dog of his litter mates and how it hurt when they bit too hard. You are trying to sound like a wounded puppy!
2. If the puppy comes right back at you, grab an appropriate toy or item and literally put it in the dogs mouth or line of vision to re-direct.
3. Coming at you again? Now it is time for a time-out. Time-outs should be no longer than 5 minutes and be in a place that is boring for the dog or puppy. A laundry room, bathroom, crate (only if there is already a positive association and crate training is well established), safe garage or patio area.
4. After time-out if puppy goes right back at it, straight back to time-out. Only go through all steps again if a significant amount of time has passed.

You only want to employee these steps when the puppy goes too far with biting. A little mouthing here and there from a 8-12 week old puppy if done gently, may be allowed as you do want to teach your dog good bite inhibition should the dog ever bite someone aggressively in the future. You can move your hand, just don't punish soft, soft mouthing. A puppy will grow out of that phase of exploring the taste of your hand.

Special Circumstances
There are times when a pup or adult dog is mouthing for a specific reason that needs to be met with a different solution. Examples may include a dog that bites at grooming devices or hands holding grooming devices, a dog that grabs pant legs of running children or a dog that bites when resources are being taken away.

If a young pup or dog is biting and mouthing when being handled for grooming, the owner has probably not counter conditioned the dog to like grooming procedures. As long as this isn't an aggression case, the best solution is to put some peanut butter on the bathtub, outside wall, fridge etc. and let the dog lick away while doing some very very light grooming and handling. You can also deliver small treats after each brush stroke or after initially presenting the brush or nail trimmers to help build a positive association with grooming.

Grabbing pant legs is usually a form of prey drive or herding. My older border collie did a lot of this as a puppy and adolescent. Best solution for me was to recognize she needed an outlet and provide her with one via re-direction to a tug toy. Of course, we practiced freeze games as well (I would freeze when she tried to herd me, then present the toy if she stopped). Getting her into dog sports curbed the behavior quite a bit as well.

A dog being mouthy at having things taken away (note: I am not talking about true resource guarding, just a bit of puppy frustration), needs to practice playing the trade-game with the owner of trading a treat or toy for the object the pup has in his mouth and eventually teaching a good drop-it cue.

Any questions about specifics? Please comment! Check out if you need a session or group class to help with your puppy or dog related issues.