Trainer Tips–Puppy Nipping

15May 2014

I have recently had many calls from people with new puppies having some problems with puppy nipping, mouthing, and biting.  So I have decided to do this month’s Trainer Tips on this issue.

Dog Mouthing, Nipping, & Biting:

Somewhat like young children, a puppy learns to explore the world through his mouth.  It is very natural and normal for a puppy to use his mouth in many things, including biting and nipping.  It is up to us as the owner to teach our dog what is acceptable behavior, not only when it comes to using their mouthes, but overall as well.

First off, it is very important that you NEVER hit or slap a puppy (or any dog) for putting his mouth on you.  Doing this will generally only create more problems, not solve them.  Hitting a puppy can lead to distrust, fear, or possibly even aggression.  Obviously, that’s not the path we want to go down.

Teaching a puppy bite inhibition can be down in several ways…


Technique #1:
The first technique I recommend to all clients is to pull away and loudly say “ouch! ouch!” when the puppy uses his mouth in an inappropriate way.
In a litter of new puppies, each puppy will be taught this lesson by his siblings.  When puppies play, if someone goes too far, the other will whimper and/ or yipe to let his playmate know he is hurting him.  This technique uses this same idea. When the puppy uses his mouth in an inappropriate or hurtful manner, pull away and loudly say “Ouch!”
(Be sure that the way in which you pull away from the dog will not cause you injury.)
When loudly saying “Ouch,” make sure you are not yelling or using anger in your voice.  Remaining calm when using this (or any) technique will reinforce to the dog that you know what you are doing (even if you’re not sure) and that the puppy should follow you.

After the puppy calms down, it is important to let him know we still love him.  After the behavior has passed, give the puppy petting and praise.  This will reinforce the behavior of being calm and not biting because the dog is being rewarded for being calm with petting and praise.  This is important!  The more you mark the good behavior and reward for it, the more your dog will want to engage in that behavior.

Technique #2:
Many times when a young puppy is nipping, he wants to play.  While using the technique listed above, it is also helpful to redirect the puppy to put his mouth on something appropriate, like a toy.

When the puppy uses his mouth too hard on you, use the technique above and say “Ouch!”  Still praise and reward the puppy for any calm behavior after the bite or nip.  Now your reward can be petting, or a toy.  Rewarding a puppy with a toy when they exhibit calm behavior after a bite or nip is 2-fold training.  First the puppy is being rewarded for not biting, second the puppies energy can be redirected onto the toy instead of the human.
Be sure the dog is either calm or performs a waiting behavior like sit before you play with the toy.  This way the dog is performing a behavior we want (being calm or waiting in a sit) and we are then rewarding this behavior with the toy while also redirecting the energy and biting onto the toy instead of us.
(When playing with a toy as a reward, be careful HOW you play.  Avoid wrestling, tug-of-war, and games of chase as these things can actually encourage mouthing behaviors.)

If you use these two techniques from early puppyhood, teaching bite inhibition is usually fairly easy.  Remember, it’s important to be consistent.
Sometimes however, puppies just keep coming at you.  This happens for many different reasons.  Sometimes owners are unintentionally teaching or encouraging dogs to do so, some dogs have learned bad habits over many years that are hard to break, or some are even prone to dominant behaviors.  If you have tried the techniques above and failed, there are still things you can do.

First off, never stop trying Technique #2, redirecting the dogs energy onto appropriate items.  Unfortunately this is where people unintentionally create bad behaviors.  It is important to remember to give rewards as rewards for performing a desired behavior, NOT as a distraction from a current bad behavior.

Example 1:
I had a client who had been unintentionally rewarding her dog’s bad nipping behaviors for years.  Although the owner had the right idea, they went about it in the wrong way.  Whenever the dog would get over-excited, he would start to get nippy around people’s ankles.  The dog had biten several guests more than once.  In an effort to distract the dog, the owner would get out treats whenever company would come over, but the training she thought she was doing was far from what was actually happening.
The owner meant to use the treats as a reward for not going after people and nipping, but her timing was way off.  Instead of rewarding the dog for performing a desired behavior like moving away from the guest or laying down or sitting, the owner was rewarding the dog for biting.  Although the owner’s intent was genuine, the training fell flat.  I’m always glad to see people who do their reading and homework, but it’s all about the delivery.
So, when this dog would go for someone, the owner would shove food into the dogs face (not first requiring the dog to perform a desired behavior).  By doing this, the dog learned that attacking people that entered the home was highly rewarding.  Every time he attacked, he was rewarded with a treat.
Take care that you are using Technique #2 in the proper way.
When I arrived for training, I basically needed to adjust her timing.  I reminded the owner to wait for (or encourage) a good behavior, something we want the dog to do, before rewarding with a treat.  While training with me, the dog (and owner) learned to move AWAY from the guest to get a treat.  This then taught the dog that giving humans that come into the home their own space is highly rewarding.

Body Language:

Although dogs do use vocalizations to communicate, most of their communication is done through body language.  This is something you should be aware of when training your dog.  Your body language tells your dog what you are really feeling.  Make sure you remain calm, standing tall and straight.  Things like leaning back, slouching your shoulders, and moving away makes you weak in the eyes of a dog.  You want your dog to learn you are the leader; that he must follow you.  So stand tall, proud, and calm.

Example 2:
When it comes to dogs that nip, body language is especially important to be aware of.  A dog that gets into a nipping behavior is constantly testing the humans and pushing his boundaries.  Unfortunately what ends up happening is the more the dog pushes, the more the humans retreat.  This is not what we want.  Instead of moving away from a dog that jumps up or nips and chases you, it is actually better to stand tall and move into the dogs space, while disagreeing with the bad behavior.  This must be done correctly and carefully.  (If you are at all unsure or afraid of your dog, please seek professional help as soon as possible.)

Example 3:  
As a trainer I’ve walked 100s of dogs all over the country.  Unfortunately many people do not keep their dogs contained when they should be.  Although this is NOT something I recommend you try if you do not feel comfortable, it serves as a good example of how important body language in dogs is.
Many times while out on a walk I have been approached (or charged) by random dogs.  Now if you do not already have the dog you are walking under control, you will in no way be able to do this. When approached or charged by a random dog, I will keep the dogs I am walking behind me, stand tall, and move forward towards the approaching dog.  I will also yell something like “Hey! Get!”
Because the dog(s) I am walking is under control and behind me, this tells the random dog that I am in charge.  When I stand tall and move towards the approaching dog, this tells him I am not afraid and  that I am calm and confident.  This will usually deter an approaching dog.  Now do not think for a second that this is true of all dogs and will always work.  I have also been charged by a dog that I knew I could not stop and took off running to safety instead.  I simply want to use this as an example to illustrate the importance of body language to dogs.
Now on the flip side, if I had been behind the dog I was walking and had a weak body language, that would tell the approaching dog the I was afraid and not in control.  The dog would most likely then come right up and either attack my dog or me.
When in doubt, look for an easy escape, or try yelling to get the attention and help of other people near by.  If you are able, lift your dog onto something to get them out of harms way.  (Get yourself up there too if you can).  If you simply lift a dog, the approaching dog may bite you while trying to get at your dog.

Changing the Behavior:

Following these techniques can help you train your dog, but its equally important to include basic training in your program.  If your dog will not sit or come for you, why should he not bite you?  You must also train your dog in basic manners.  This will help establish leadership over your dog.  Remember to lavishly reward any and all good behaviors.  The better relationship you have with your dog, the easier it will be to train him to do anything you want (or to stop doing those things you don’t want).  Remember that consistency is  important.

Finally, many times a nipping problem can be easily helped or even curbed with just a little more exercise.  Humans sometimes forget that puppies have TONS of energy.  And depending on your dog, they may be a high-energy type dog their entire lives.  Dogs need lots of regular exercise.  If they do not get this need fulfilled, they will find other ways to take out their frustrations, like nipping, chewing, and digging.  Keep your pet exercised and establish the rules.  Be consistent and use positive reinforcement, and you will be on the right path to a happy dog for life.

If you have tried all the things above and your dog has still been nipping or biting you for a month or more, it is time to seek professional help.  A nipping puppy can be a nuisance, but a full grown biting dog is a dangerous problem that can not be ignored.  Stop your problem behaviors before they get worse.