Today we kick off a brand-new column: Ask the Trainer! In each column, New York Walk & Train owner Colleen Safford, named “Best of NY” by New York magazine, answers questions from DogTipper readers about dog behavior and training. As we kick off this new column, it’s only fitting that today Colleen examines a puppy problem that many brand new puppy families face: biting and nipping!
My Boston is 3 months old; any trainer tips on how to get her to stop biting my hands and feet?
Puppies are built to learn, explore and play with their mouths. While in a litter, play is very important in teaching puppies to develop what trainers call a soft mouth or bite inhibition.
If you watch puppies play, they will teach each other how to use their mouths appropriately. During wrestlefests you might hear one pup squeal and end the play session. He simply walks away from the other pup who just took it a bit too far. This information is important. The overly excited puppy just learned that if he gets doesn’t control his mouth, he loses access to his sibling and the fun. Dogs are social creatures and getting along cohesively with others is innately wired (but also must be developed and maintained). Gradually, the more a puppy plays with other littermates he learns to control his mouth.
Because we take our pups from their litter to help them in acclimating to life with us in a domestic setting (where we don’t use our mouth to play), we take away that natural bite inhibition development opportunity. So, it rests upon us to pick up where the littermates left off!
As mentioned, pups are very social little creatures with a strong desire to play and interact with you. We are going to use that to teach your pup what is appropriate when spending time with you.
At this young age, your puppy should be on leash with a flat buckle collar or harness when interacting with you. This will help you control the situation.
Always praise your puppy with a friendly, but relatively calm voice for appropriate behavior; such as allowing you to pet him, sitting peacefully in your lap, and playing with a chew toy.
When your puppy nips at you, your pants or skin, simply hold the leash away from your body and “turn off.” No eye contact, or words, just completely shut down. After a 5-10 seconds resume interacting with him. You can also loop your pup’s leash to a door know a walk away a few steps.
Repeat as necessary. Like any other learned behavior, repetition is necessary for your dog to make the connection, “I nip him and he stops playing with me.” The “time out” should be short, as you need to be sure pup is making a connection between the behavior (nipping) and the consequence (losing access to you). If left too long….well, puppy brain…
It is very important that you are NOT inadvertently giving the pup attention for inappropriate behavior. Often people make the mistake, of saying, “No! Bad puppy! Uh huh! Stop it!” Puppies not understanding English, just view this as more attention and it actually reinforces the behavior. If you really feel the need to say something, a calm “too bad,” (or your own phrase) stated just once right before you shut off is best.
It is also important that you never grab your pup’s mouth closed or tap him on the nose in an attempt to stop nipping behavior. First, you never want your puppy to question hands coming toward him. This only sets up fear and the possibility of a puppy that also runs from hands that reach at him. Some very gregarious pups also just become more excited by this type of contact and it just escalates the situation.
Taking a small break, remaining calm, and remembering that your pup is simply just trying to learn are the ways to get through this phase.
Do you have a dog training or behavior question for Colleen Safford? Please submit your question using our submit a question contact form (or if you have any problems with the form, just drop us a line at editors AT dogtipper.com and we’ll forward your question to Colleen.) Questions will be answered online in this column and not individually. (See more articles by and about Colleen Safford on DogTipper.)