Oh those adorable puppies! We love to hold them, play with them and aw at them. But we don’t love marks on our skin or holes in our clothes when those very sharp baby teeth grab hold.
Ouch, that can really hurt! So, what is a new puppy caregiver to do?
Well, first you need to recognize that nipping behavior for a puppy is absolutely completely normal from his perspective. As soon as those sharp baby teeth come in, while he is still together with litter mates, he began to learn about consequences to behavior. If he bit too hard, his siblings more than likely yelped and stopped playing. If he bit his mother too hard while nursing, he probably forgoed nourishment for the time being.
Once you separate that playful pup from his litter, it is up to you to continue that teaching process. Your puppy is now relying on you to teach those skills necessary to live successfully in the human world.
Bite inhibition is one of those skills. It refers to an animal learning to moderate the strength of its bite, an important factor – that could one day mean the difference between life and death – in the socialization of pets. Teaching a puppy how to control the pressure he exerts into a bite will prevent or minimize the chances of his inflicting real damage when he is in a situation of needing to defend himself. Dr. Ian Dunbar has a categorized bite scale on the severity of bites.
Please click here to learn more. Ian Dunbar Dog Bite Scale
German Shepherd puppies are an example of a breed that is especially notorious for nipping. Because of their strong prey and herding instincts, they tend to be very attentive to movement, love to chase and grab things with their mouth. Toys, legs, arms, or small animals may in an instant become targets of what he sees as fun, enriching activity. By moving your arms or legs, you may actually be increasing his drive.
Why you should teach this skill in the most positive way:
Punishment based methods such as squeezing the dog’s muzzle tightly or flicking him with a hand to show ‘who is the ALPHA dog’ has many negative ramifications. For a puppy with strong herding and prey instincts, that action may actually have the opposite effect and increase his arousal.
Other problems with those types of behavior change strategies include: punishment only serves to stop the behavior – not to teach what behavior you’d like you puppy to do instead; punishment actually is two aversives – the onset of a punishing stimulus and the removal of the reinforcer that has maintained the behavior; punishment does not teach the caregiver how to teach new skills but it does serve to reinforce the caregiver increasing the likelihood that the teacher will use negative strategies in the future. Additionally, by using punishing strategies you are teaching your puppy to associate negative consequences with being near you AND teaching your puppy that hands can do bad things.
A few overall tips for teaching your puppy bite inhibition:
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of socialization for puppies with a wide range of positive experiences with people and dogs in a variety of settings. After all, confident and comfortable are less likely to bite.
While your puppy is teething, always ALWAYS supervise young children’s interaction with him. Teach your children to play calmly around your puppy (nor running from your puppy or chasing him), not wear lose fitting clothing that he can grab onto, not take anything from your puppy, and how to ‘be a tree’ for those just in case moments to settle your dog down. (NOTE: I do programs for children and parents called My Dog’s Superhero on proper interaction. My next program will be at the City of Blue Ash’s Paws In the Park event on October 5.)
Instead of feeding all of your puppy’s food in his bowl, reserve much of his daily diet for teaching the value of chew toys (like Kongs filled with food), ‘wanted behaviors’ (behaviors you want to reinforce so that you will see more of) including teaching how to take food and other items gently from your hand (with a relaxed mouth). By the way, hand feeding is an awesome way to strengthen your relationship with your puppy while teaching him that hands represent good things coming. (Note that children should feed puppies with an open palm. In the case of mistakes, puppy teeth and the tender skin of kids are not a good combination.)
Set up play dates with appropriate puppies and/or well socialized dogs.
Make sure your puppy is getting plenty of physical and mental stimulation. Boredom is one reason for nipping – and it sure can be fun for a little guy to see humans scream or run.
Management. When you can not supervise your puppy while he is teething, keep him in a puppy safe environment such as a play pen or a room with a baby gate or a crate where he can not practice behavior you do not want him to learn. When you go to pet him, give him a chew toy to engage and encourage him to chew on appropriate items.
Dr. Ian Dunbar recommends that your puppy first be taught to inhibit the force of his bites BEFORE he is taught not to bite altogether.
Puppy bite inhibition teaching tips
First things first: Work with your puppy on bite inhibition only when he is in a calm state and you are too. Work in an area where you are able to put distance between you and him when the game rules are broken (he exerts too much pressure in his bite). Having him in a puppy proof penned off area or having him tethered is a great idea. Also, have plenty of chew toys around. Do not wear any loose clothing that a puppy will grab onto and pull.
Have ‘structured’ play time where you play with him in this area. If he gets too wound up and bites too hard, game ends. ‘Yelping’ and stopping play is enough to send a message to ‘most’ puppies (although for some puppies like German Shepherds this may actually get them in a higher state of arousal). If your puppy stops mouthing when you yelp, simply praise him and continue to play. If necessary, without any emotion, simply get up and walk out of reach. Then come back when he has settled down and give him another opportunity to practice more calm play.
Gradually shape the amount of pressure you allow (less and less pressure) before yelping and/or moving away.
Never allow your puppy to mouth human hair or clothing.
Once your puppy learns how to mouth without exerting pressure, then you can teach him to reduce the frequency of his mouthing, and teach him a reliable ‘off’ (or whatever cue you choose). ‘Off’ means you move away from the object (food or toy or hand), and ‘if’ you do, then your consequence will be that you will get that object. You can shape this for longer durations before giving your puppy the object. This is a great skill to have if your dog has a hand or foot in his mouth.