Not long ago, I got a call from a dear friend of mine asking if I would be willing to dog-sit her 4-month old puppy for five days while she traveled out of town. Having already met “Puppy” (whose name has been changed to protect the innocent), a beautiful yellow lab/husky mix with adorable ears and a sweet disposition, of course I said yes!
Little did I know that accepting this mission would lead me into a combat zone that would have had even the most seasoned participants on “Naked and Afraid” running for the helicopter and crying for their mothers. Only I, unlike those survivalists, would not be able to “tap out.”
First, let me say upfront that, although I’m no expert, I’ve had a decent amount of experience with puppies. I’ve worked in the veterinary field and received a fair amount of education in dog training and behavior. I’ve also raised my own puppy while assisting friends and family with their puppy-raising. Going in, I knew (or thought I knew) exactly what to expect.
Second, I had already met Puppy when he was about 10 weeks old. He was gentle, playful, goofy, and good-natured. This little guy was not aggressive, exhibited no behavior problems, genuinely wanted to please, and was extremely affectionate. He was as sweet a dog as they come.
What I failed to prepare for was the fact that, at 4 months old, he was smack dab in the middle of his puppy mouthing and nipping stage. In hindsight, I should have also remembered that he’d been found alone and wandering on the outskirts of the desert at about 5-6 weeks of age, where he was rescued by a good samaritan who placed an ad on an adoption website – which was ultimately answered by my friend. No one knew where he had come from, or what had happened to his family. And because he had been separated from his mother and siblings at such a young age, he’d missed out on the critical socialization lessons he would have gotten from being with his family – and that included bite inhibition (how to control his bite strength).
A Rosy Beginning, But Then…
I arrived at Puppy’s home on the afternoon of Day One, looking forward to 5 days of blissful puppy love. Since my friend had already left for the airport, I let myself in with the key I’d picked up the week before. Being the sweet little guy that he was, Puppy was ecstatic to see me, wagging his back end so hard he was literally twisting himself sideways.
We went outside to play in the backyard, where he fetched tennis balls and ran off his energy with the “zoomies.” I fed him dinner (noting that he was quite polite and had no resource guarding issues), and he fell asleep at my feet while I watched TV.
On Day 2, I soon realized that Puppy had a penchant for putting everything – and I mean everything – into his mouth. Unfortunately, this included my hands, forearms, feet, ankles, and anything else that moved. Or was stationary. Or didn’t possess the ability to run faster than The Flash.
Puppy had access to plenty of chew toys, but for some unknown reason he seemed to prefer my skin. After a morning that left me looking like I had recently engaged in thumb wars with Edward Scissorhands, I decided it was time to employ some training measures. Calling upon my formal dog training experience (and a little help from Google), I started down the checklist:
- “When the puppy bites you, yelp loudly like one of his littermates. He will soon realize he’s biting down too hard and stop.”
Yeah. Except that he didn’t. In fact, my attempts at yelping only made Puppy more excited (hey, this game is fun!) and made him come at me twice as hard.
- “Fight the urge to pull your hand back. Instead, let it go limp. Quickly jerking away may be misinterpreted as playing and could inadvertently encourage the puppy to continue the behavior.”
Sorry, but letting my hand go limp only allowed Puppy all the more time to gnaw on it, like a giant chew toy. A chew toy that bleeds.
- “Make sure all play stops when the puppy mouthing and nipping starts. Turn your body away, cross your arms for a few seconds, then resume play when the puppy stops mouthing.”
A fail on this one, too. Turning my back only exposed the backs of my legs, which resulted in both a hole in my brand new jeans and blood running down the backs of my ankles. At least my hands were shoved under my armpits while my arms were crossed, so they were protected – for the moment, anyway.
- “Use the word ‘Ouch!’ if he begins to bite. When he stops, praise and give him lots of love.”
That night after dinner, knowing I’d been beaten, I retreated to what I thought was the safety of the couch, which I naively thought might offer me some sort of protection. But the puppy soon figured out how to launch himself at me from the floor through the air, teeth-first, like something out of Sharknado. My pride (and my body) battered by this tiny, adorable little canine, I called it a day and went to bed.
Desperate Times Call For Desperate Measures
By Day 3, I was started to question my own perception of reality.
Here’s what was actually coming at me:
Here’s what I saw coming at me:
I knew I had to figure this out, and fast. By trial and error, I finally hit upon a combination of things that seemed to work:
- Redirection. I started carrying a stuffed, elongated tug toy with me everywhere I went. Whenever Puppy came at me teeth first, I used the toy as a shield, which went directly into his mouth instead of my hands.
- Employing the pre-emptive strike. Immediately when I got up in the morning, before I fed Puppy his breakfast, we went outside in the backyard and ran around, playing with chew toys and tennis balls. Then after breakfast, we went out again. I found that if I gave him the chance to burn off his restless energy right off the bat, he was far less likely to become overstimulated later.
- Ice Cubes. This puppy loved ice cubes, so I provided them often throughout the day. Not only did they keep him busy for awhile, but the cold seemed to feel good on his teething gums.
- Time-Outs. When all else failed and Puppy was just too hyped up to respond to the other techniques, he was put in a time-out for about 10 minutes to calm down. Both the crate (placed in the room in full view of me) and temporarily tethering him with a leash to the dining room table seemed to work.
What I Learned
Puppy mouthing and nipping occurs between the ages of 4 and 6 months for several reasons:
- Puppies love to explore their world with their mouths.
- Puppies are teething during this time period, and just like for human children, it feels good on their swollen gums to bite down hard on something.
- It’s during this time that puppies are learning bite inhibition, or how to consciously control the force of their bites.
- Nipping is a way to join in social activities with other dogs, and learn the accepted social rules of dog culture.
- Mouthing and nipping gets attention. Puppies are very good at soliciting attention; in their minds, negative attention is better than no attention at all.
Of course, just like with human children, every puppy is different. What works to discourage mouthiness in one puppy may not work for another. It takes a lot of patience to consistently reward a puppy for playing well and to ignore him or put him in a time-out when he’s being too rough.
Once you have a handle on keeping your body from becoming a human chew toy, clicker-training can be added to help your puppy with impulse control. Jen Gabbard at Puppy Leaks offers the following advice:
You want your dog to learn exactly what the boundaries are, and clicker training works well for this exercise. Place your hand in front of your pup’s mouth; if he doesn’t bite give him a click, treat, and praise like crazy. When you’re comfortable that your pup isn’t going to bite your hand when you place it in front of his face, you can up the ante. Start by slowly waving your hand in front of him; if he doesn’t bite it, praise, click and treat. Just remember this activity will take a lot of practice – you’re building up his impulse control, which isn’t something that can be trained in just a few sessions.
Not every puppy is as challenging as my friend’s puppy was. There are many additional approaches that can be taken to help with puppy mouthing and nipping:
- DO socialize your puppy with calm, well-behaved adult dogs and other puppies so he can learn good canine manners.
- DO have plenty of different chew toys and treats available so that YOU don’t become the toy. Bully Sticks work well for this because they last a long time and can keep puppies occupied for awhile. Just remember to always supervise your puppy when giving chew treats.
- DO rotate toys. If there’s a big pile of toys laying around that your puppy has access to anytime he wants, he can become bored. And when he’s bored, your moving hands and feet will be much more interesting!
- DO hand-feed your puppy, which offers the opportunity to practice rewarding your puppy for using his mouth gently.
- DO give your puppy clear feedback on the strength of his bite. When he uses his teeth acceptably, reward him with treats and lots of attention. When he doesn’t, redirect him by giving him something to chew on in his crate for awhile, and calmly and unemotionally remove yourself (and your attention) from the situation.
- DO consider working with your puppy on bite control exercises while he is tethered, so he can’t chase and nip you.
- DO use consequences instead of punishment. Physical or verbal punishment will always backfire, and can make a puppy who is already over-excited even more aggressive. Never use methods that intimidate your puppy, such as forcing him onto his back, grabbing him by the scruff of his neck, jerking his leash, or grabbing his muzzle. Not only do these NOT teach your puppy what you want him to do, they can lead to serious behavioral problems down the road.
- DO sign your puppy up for socialization classes or puppy kindergarten. Socialization exercises will give him more confidence and allow him to learn acceptable behavior from other dogs.
- DO reward your puppy with lots of verbal praise when he directs his chewing to a toy instead of your hands.
- DON’T try to walk or run away suddenly when your puppy starts nipping you, as this can actually make things worse. Moving objects are always more interesting to a puppy than something that’s still.
- DON’T hold your puppy’s mouth shut or slap him on the nose to punish him for biting. This can cause serious consequences later.
- DON’T use your hands to tease or play with your puppy.
- DON’T hesitate to employ the time-out when your puppy becomes too stimulated. Calmly and unemotionally place him in his crate or exercise pen to allow him to calm down.
- DON’T inadvertently teach your puppy to mouth you. If he learns that mouthing or nipping gets him attention (whether good or bad), you’ll be reinforcing his behavior. Instead, let consequences teach the behavior you want – for example, biting leads to a time-out.
A Happy Ending To The Story
It’s important to remember that not all puppies respond to their environments in the same way, so please don’t beat yourself up if you’re experiencing challenges during the puppy mouthing and nipping phase. Although it can be very frustrating at times, keep trying until you find the right combination of things that work best for your puppy.
So whatever happened to my friend’s puppy? Well, I’m happy to report that, despite his rocky nipping period, he finally grew out of his great white shark phase and into a sweet, well-adjusted, gentle, and loving dog. And as for me, I managed to escape my ordeal with no permanent scars.
I just love happy endings…don’t you? 🙂
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Have your ever experienced challenges with a biting and nipping puppy? If so, what techniques worked best for you? Please share your story with us in the comments below!