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How to Deal With Puppy Nipping and Mouthing

Retreiving breeds can be particularly mouthy as puppies since they have a a lot to learn about how to use their mouths for work

Retreiving breeds can be particularly mouthy as puppies since they have a lot to learn about using their mouths for work

How to deal with puppy nipping seems to be every puppy owner’s greatest challenge.

Dogs’ mouths are a lot like humans’ hands in terms of what dogs do with them. Dog mouths grasp, investigate, hold, dissect, tear and chew. Dogs use their mouths to groom, tend their wounds, correct their pups, provide warnings, ask for things, play soft, and play rough. They can use their mouths to warn others to back off, and to injure.   Some dogs observers say that dogs can be extremely precise when using their mouths.  I believe it.

Puppies of all breeds are so consumed with using their mouths that renowned dog behaviorist Patricia McConnell calls them “a mouth with paws.” But, some breeds, especially the herding and retrieving breeds, are more likely to be mouthy and need careful training to address this behavior.  This includes shepherds, labs, and even poodles and water dogs and their mixes.  Why?  Because these dogs were bred and selected to use their mouths for work.  (Yes, poodles were bred as duck retrievers.)  Herding dogs are also more mouthy, but in a different way.  They were bred nip to control movement and boundaries.

Dog mouths go through development stages.

To develop the mouth dexterity that a dog will need to survive as an adult, a puppy must develop its skills, and it can only do this with practice.  That’s why puppies nip and make so much mouth contact.

Dogs lose their baby teeth and then grow adult teeth. They go through teething and, as with human babies, its probably uncomfortable. So they are driven to find soothing activities.

Puppy mouthing is not generally malicious or spiteful. It’s part of being a puppy.

The biting done by puppies 13 to 16 weeks of age may be particularly startling for owners. At this stage in development, pups test dominance and leadership. They throw temper tantrums. A puppy that seemed gentle when first adopted from the breeder may appear monstrous. He may “begin to have an opinion and be “willing to “fight” to defend to defend that opinion.”

Owners are often concerned that mouthing could be a sign that their sweet puppy is aggressive. There is such a thing as an aggressive puppy, but most of the time the mouthing is just normal puppy behavior. Mouthing from puppies may even include bites that hurt and even break skin.  That does not mean you have to be covered with wounds! It would be hard, however, for a puppy owner to be involved with her dog and not end up with a few nips and scrapes. Puppies have particularly sharp teeth, and they are fast, intense and determined in using their mouths.

What you should do when you are nipped

When you are nipped, by your puppy let him know with a sharp aloud “arp,” and stop your interaction with the dog. Sometimes after owners do this for a few days they will report “he is still biting me, it didn’t work.” For some dogs it will take days and maybe even weeks for this nipping behavior to stop or subside. Remember, you can’t rush a human baby through the “terrible twos.” It’s a developmental stage. You can’t rush a dog through nipping either.

Each time your puppy makes tooth contact with you, he is seeking information: was this bite okay? Was that bite bad? If they do not try them out on you and or with other puppies and dogs, they will never learn something called “bite inhibition.” Bite inhibition is the ability to reduce bite intensity; in other words to have a soft mouth. Dogs that don’t learn to have a soft mouth only know how to bite hard and are less skilled at issuing a gentle warning. This can be disastrous if one day the dog is in pain or very scared. For that reason some dog behaviorists recommend that at first, you lett soft mouth contact happen when the puppy is 3-4 months old young, and yelp and take away attention for only the hard bites. That is how the puppy learns the difference between hard and soft mouth.

What should you do about puppy nipping?

Interrupt biting.

Be proactive with puppy biting and train just as you would train sit, down or other cues. Sit down with your puppy on his mat or on the floor. Pet him. A young puppy will almost certainly make tooth contact with your hand or arm. When he bites hard, yelp a good sharp uh! or awp!. The puppy should release your hand if you’ve yelped loudly and quickly enough. Do not jerk your hand away as that would make your hand a toy and fun. But DO stop petting him. Immediately, as his bite softens and releases, praise him in a sweet voice and resume petting. Since a young puppy mouths so much it is almost useless to try to interrupt all mouth contact. Spend several days interrupting only the hardest bites, then move on to interrupting all bites. Do not worry about gentle tooth contact at this point. You can start interrupting it at later phases if you like.

Be Prepared.

Have at least two toys and/or treats on-hand before interacting with your puppy. If you do not bring toys or treats with you when interacting with a young puppy, the puppy may assume your hands, arms, pants and shoes are the toys. Use toys and treats to redirect the puppy’s attention onto a new toy the instant the puppy gets bored and begins nipping and mouthing. Do not leave the toys lying around on the floor. The puppy will be more interested if he hasn’t seen the toy in a while.

Avoid rewarding your dog for nipping.

Too often people reward the dog for nipping. They do that by squealing or screaming when they get nipped. Even if you scream “no” the dog has gotten what he wanted: a game with his mouth and you. If you start a tug game by trying to pull your shirt (or whatever) out of his mouth, or touching the dog to push him away, you are rewarding him. Touch is a reward. So what to do? Be calm, and do not give the dog attention. Have the puppy wear his leash, so that if he does nip you can pull him away with leash and not use your hands. You can also drop a big book or something to create a loud noise that startles and interrupts him. Or, ask for an alternative behavior like sit if he knows it really well.

Prevent unplanned nipping events incidents from occurring.

Every time your puppy nips its fun for him, so each nip provides fuel for him to do it again. So, you want to keep incidents that might occur when you are unprepared to a minimum. When you can’t be actively training or playing with your dog, he should be in his crate, or pen, or on a tether.  It is always a good idea to wear your treat pouch, including a toy or two in your pockets, and attach the dog to your belt with his leash. You can supervise and reward your dog for any good behavior that is not nipping. Your puppy should not have free reign of the house or free access to you or other people.  If your puppy is nipping you too much, it could mean he has too much freedom.

Practice Basic Obedience.

Sits and downs will teach the puppy to focus on you and develop impulse control. Practice around the distractions you know encourage the puppy to nip. This type of practice will teach him that he does not have to react when people walk by, for example, and that he will be rewarded with treats and praise for not reacting. For example, if your puppy nips at the front door, practice sits at his place near the door

Exercise

The importance of exercise cannot be overstated. Make sure young, active puppies get plenty of exercise like running and walking daily. Ideally, exercise your puppy before you attempt to pet him or engage in other forms of interaction which are likely to prompt nipping. A puppy who is bored or gets insufficient exercise will generally become overexcited and more likely to nip.

Teach “Leave it.”

This cue teaches your dog to take his mouth away from things. Sit on the floor and put a very yummy treat in your hand and close your fist.   Rest your fist with the yummy treat on your knee.  The treat should be yummy enough that the dog is investigating your hand with his nose.  As soon as the dog backs away from your hand click/mark, and give the dog a treat with the other hand.  The idea is that the dog gets what he wants by being away from your hand.  Very soon your dog wont be “mugging” your hand for the food at all.  That is good.  He knows the treat is in your hand, so click/mark and treat him for staying away from the food and NOT mugging your hand. When you think the dog has the behavior down, add the cue “Leave it” and put your hand with the treat on the floor and repeat the drill. If your dog is leaving your hand along that is good.

Keep it positive.

Many owners are pushed to exasperation by their puppy, and at some point want to extinguish the puppy biting with a punishing correction. They will try old fashioned methods like yelling, smacking the dog’s nose, squirting water at him, and getting in his face. These will just confuse your dog. That’s because the pleasure the puppy got from biting was not eliminated; its value is really high for a puppy in need of mouth stimulation. And they may seem, for a moment like they work. This kind of intermittent reinforcement often leads the owner to try them again and again. But all these techniques do is add something scary to the equation, and your dog doesn’t necessarily know why. There is potential negative fallout from improper corrections: your dog could become scared of your hands, your face, or something he associated with the harsh correction you gave him, such as the couch near where he was scolded. That fear can cause problems down the road.

Be Consistent.

The puppy may think “it is no fun nipping mom because she just leaves the room every time I try, but the kids are a blast because they jump up and down and scream when I nip at them.” This intermittent reinforcement can actually strengthen the behavior as it may teach the puppy to be more persistent. Everyone who interacts with the dog should participate.

About Laurene

Laurene von Klan is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer serving West Los Angeles
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