Sunday, March 2, 2008

How to Stop Puppy Bites

Here is yet another training tip to add to your collection:

How to Keep a Puppy From Biting & Mouthing
One of the worst fears people have is that their cute, orally-fixated puppy will grow up to be a problem biter. Believe it or not, the most effective solution is just the opposite of what you might think!

Does your puppy like to mouth and play-bite? It hurts, doesn't it? Those puppy teeth can be awfully sharp. 

What can you do to save your skin? 

Just say, "Ow!" 

Here are the five ways a puppy will use his teeth on others: 

Mouthing—which is done to bond emotionally. 

Nipping—which is done to initiate, or perpetuate play. 

Grabbing or Gripping—can be part of play, or may be used by the pup to move your hands away from a part of her body she doesn't want you to touch. 

Snapping—which is a precursor to actual biting, and 

Biting—which is only done in self-defense when a pup is frightened.

None of these behaviors is bad or wrong, at least not when viewed in their proper context.

In Natural Dog Training (the best book ever written about dogs) Kevin Behan writes: 

A big concern for puppy owner is what to do when their puppy grabs them or someone else by the jaws. Is this the beginning of a [vicious dog]? Certainly not; if the puppy didn't have a healthy temperament he wouldn't [feel free to express himself orally]. It is the reticent dog that is more likely to grow up to bite. I've raised a number of puppies and I've never taught them not to bite. They've [all] simply outgrown their oral phase in their own due time just as human babies outgrow their oral phase. I let them grab my hands and bite as much as they want while I stay perfectly still. It isn't long before their teeth can exact an excruciating crunch. When that happens, I yelp in pain. The puppy is more shocked than I am, and his flow of pleasure stops. After the shock wears off, should he persist [in biting too hard], I simply stop interacting with him. Now, if we're around strangers and the pup gets excited, I can expect him to grab a coat sleeve or nibble a finger, [so] I keep him on a lead until his drive subsides, or until I've deflected it into ball playing or sitting for a treat. The worst thing to do is to confront him, say No, or hit him. This is only going to make him defensive and produce the very behavior you're trying to inhibit. When I consult with owners who have a puppy that is biting too hard, it's always because they fought him over this urge. 

Ian Dunbar writes, "The more dogs bite as puppies, the softer and safer their jaws in adulthood." 

Meanwhile, Kevin Behan's approach to teaching your up the difference between soft and hard bites makes sense on so many levels. From a Freudian point of view, saying "No" to a natural drive, especially during a developmental phase, is a sure way to create neurotic behavior later on in life. From a Pavlovian or Skinnerian standpoint, how better to reinforce your puppy's desire to feel connected to you than by allowing him to softly mouth your hand? (Normally enjoyable for both parties.) And what nicer way to correct him for biting too hard than to simply say "Ow!" or, if the puppy persists, temporarily eliminating all contact? And from a dog's point of view, this approach is completely natural and just feels right.

Puppies are always biting and chewing on their littermates. When a puppy bites too hard on a brother or sister, the other pup always yelps, which interrupts the first pup's behavior and his "flow of pleasure" (as Kevin Behan calls it). And while it's true that the offended pup may bite back, or at least snap at his bitey brother, as human beings we don't need to imitate that part of the equation. We would only end up scaring the pup (you don't ever want your puppy to be afraid of you) or getting bit on the nose. Besides, it's just silly to train dogs by imitating all their behaviors, no matter what some of the training books say.

When you say "Ow!" properly—as if you've been hurt, not as if you're mad at the dog—the puppy will almost always start licking you instead. In fact, licking is often a way of sublimating the urge to bite. So another helpful technique is to teach the puppy how to transform its oral impulses from biting into licking.

Do this by teaching the puppy a word or phrase, such as "Kisses" or "Lick, lick". Then when he gets into a bitey mood, use the command and have him lick you instead. If the puppy keeps mouthing, it’s usually because he’s too wound up and needs a time-out. Remember what Kevin says, “should he persist I simply stop interacting with him.” A puppy’s desire for contact is so strong that he’ll quickly learn to moderate his oral impulses. 

“Changing the World, One Dog at a Time”
Join Me on Facebook!
Follow Me on Twitter!
My Puppy, My Self (archived)


Merle said...

I liked this article very much. Thank you.
I have read Kevin’s book but was not entirely sure I was doing this right. To some peoples dismay I just let my now 5 month old Tibetan Spaniel puppy chew on my fingers but I tell them that not letting him do that is like tying a babies hands behind his back and taping his mouth shut.
I have had issues with mad attacks on my knees and clothing. I can usually deflect that to biting my hands and if he continues do the scream and ignore.
It was good to have confirmed that nipping is an invitation to play, or to continue play. I thought as much because play often turned into nipping attacks on my knees. This and his nipping at my trouser legs can get quite out of hand and yelping does not work anymore. He gets a proper time out when he does this now. Consists of less than one minute in the bathroom with the door closed. This is a very, very brief time out, there is no point at all to extending it as the separation itself is plenty to break the drive and feel rejected. I invite him to come out in a happy loving voice when the time is up and he comes out an instantly rehabilitated puppy and walks next to me touching my leg but no nipping. I demonstrate play bowing to him, which he copies, then we play, to show him the preferred invitation. The nipping is happening less and less often and he is starting to understand that play bowing, not nipping will get me to play with him. Its great. I try to respond to his play bow invitations as much as possible.

LCK said...

Thank you, Merle. I think your experiences are a great addition to this blog entry, and I hope everyone who reads my article will also read this comment.



Merle said...

Well this approach really works. I do not agree with everything Kevin writes, but the overriding principals are very sound. For example he says that you should not kiss a dog as they find it intimidating. I wonder how my dog thinks I should feel about his attempts to swallow my nose whilst he is standing on my face if he finds kisses intimidating  My dog will get kissed whether he likes it or not – and I am pretty sure he likes it.
When I started to consider getting my first dog since childhood I read everything I could find on the net about training. I was so disillusioned I almost decided against getting a dog at all. I did not want my dog to perform for treats, or alpha roll him around the living room. I wondered what the hell had happened in the dog world while I was not paying attention. Our childhood dog was outstanding on many levels (which is a book in itself). She loved to wrestle with us and NEVER hurt us with her teeth (things got pretty wild) and we did little to no deliberate training – we just played with her. In the end I found Kevins site and book and understood how our childhood dog had become so great, mostly through play and not inhibiting her nature, but directing it into behaviours that fit with life with people. I suspect that a dog will largely figure that out for themselves as long as we do not impose unnatural behaviours on them. Eeeeeeefr ¨å’ (my dogs contribution to this discussion, just walked across the keyboard – sounds like an agreement to me).
You are right that biting is very much a bonding thing, not just for the dog but for you too. And you can add trust building to that as well – I do not think my relationship with my dog would be nearly so relaxed and fun if I had not allowed biting. Breeders I know and other dog owners often comment on how wonderfully confident my dog is. One breeder I know mentioned that they meet many new puppy owners with their new dogs all the time. First visit everyone is happy and sane, and the next time they meet them things have degenerated into a neurotic relationship. They note how my dog looks to me when he needs me, but at the same time is happy to throw himself into a pack of strange dogs, to whom he is the only outsider, and play.
From how blissfully my dog chews on my fingers while lounging with me on the sofa, I can see that stopping biting or mouthing must feel like the worst kind of rejection to a dog because as Kevins book points out, it is what he does to make contact with you. I do not feel a need to exchange chewing for licking. His bite is gentle when not in a ‘lets play’ nipping at the legs frenzy.
Another good thing about allowing biting is that your dog becomes very comfortable with you messing around with his mouth, which is great should you ever have to give him a pill, extract foreign objects or contraband (my dog uses his mouth to smuggle things into the house) or when you want to check his teeth or gums for problems.
Must go, we are working on my dogs Austin Powers impersonation.

Kitty said...

Great article and comments; it gives me some hope for my golden retriever girl, Phaidra. Her play biting isn't getting any softer, though; I have bruises up and down both arms, and every stitch of clothing I own has at least one tear in it. Phaidra is 8.5 months now and over 60 pounds, and we've done the pained "ouch!" and time-out thing since we got her at two months. Doesn't seem to be soaking in much, though. She doesn't do that with my husband, only with my 10-year-old daughter and I (and my daughter's a bit frightened of her). The problem I've had is that yelling "ouch!" seems to set off a feeding frenzy. She's not breaking the skin, but I have perfect fang bruises on both hands and arms. I know all retrievers are mouthy; my last dog, Molly, was a female chocolate lab/flat coat mix, but she didn't seem to be aware that she had teeth. She was an adult when I got her, though, but was still very energetic. Molly was trained with a choke chain, along with some of the Louisiana search and rescue dogs, and she was incredibly smart, very gentle, and loaded with personality--and had a fan club everywhere she went. Phaidra, on the other hand, is all fangs. I took her to a puppy kindergarten class at our local PetSmart that emphasized gentle training--we finished the class, but she seems to have forgotten everything she learned about walking nicely on a leash, which has made walks less than fun for both of us. She does love to chase a tennis ball, though, and we careen around our screen room, throwing the ball, doing random sits and downs and lots of hugs and chasing, several times a day. I have noticed that every time Phaidra gets excited (which is pretty much whenever she's awake), the biting gets harder and worse, though. At least twice a day she gets a case of the "zoomies," where she all of a sudden jumps up, races around the room, skids into walls and furniture and grabs (very hard) at my arms and ankles when she zooms past. She also gets an odd look on her face, kind of like the elevator's stuck between floors, for a couple of minutes. It's a really crazed look, very odd, and then just as quickly, it's gone. But yelling "ow" when she's like that (and really hurting!) just seems to make her that much rougher. Getting her into a time-out is a challenge then, too---we have an ex-pen in the living room that we try to herd her into if she's too wild; she calms right down when she goes into it, but herding her in can be tough. The zoomies are pretty predictable, so I try to make sure we're in the screen room out back, where there's less to smash into and the floor is concrete instead of slippery ceramic. I've never seen another dog act quite like this---is this just normal puppyhood exuberance that she'll grow out of, or will we still be doing this three years from now?

LCK said...

The zoomies is a very typical behavior, particularly with some breeds.
I'm sorry the "Ow!" hasn't been working. It works much better with very young puppies. And it has very little effect on pups who've been taken from their littermates too soon (before 8-10 wks.). Retrievers are also notorious for the behavior you're describing.
Does Phaidra get a chance to play with other dogs? They'll set her straight pretty quickly if she uses the same oral tactics on them...

LCK said...

Oh, and yes; she'll grow out of this eventually.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Lee, for the reply. It's reassuring to know that eventually she'll grow out of this. I sure hope I have fingers left by then....and sanity, too! I've wondered several times, as Merle alluded to, whether we're overthinking the whole training thing. I surely don't remember being a dog mom being QUITE this complicated years ago!

I haven't had Phaidra playing with many other dogs; my sister has a Welsh corgi and a mini dachshund, but they're such small critters, I've been afraid my moose would squash them. They aren't particularly fond of her, either. My sis and I have six acres for the dogs to run on, but Phaidra has to learn to mind a bit better and come when she's called before I'm willing to let her off leash to play. My sis's corgi usually minds, but he raced up to an elderly man walking a small dog next to their property, trying to get the dog to play (the corgi's very friendly), and the man pepper-sprayed him and my sister. The poor dog tore an ACL trying to get away from the man. I surely don't want to take a chance on that happening!

I spoke with a trainer last week; I'm almost ready to send her off for training, as breath-takingly expensive as that is here. Nothing I've tried seems to help; if anything, screams and even trying to her her into a time-out only agitate her further. I got her at 8 weeks, so she was with her mom long enough to learn some manners, but she seems to have forgotten them. I'd like for her to be able to play with other dogs, but don't know many her size. My town was one that was heavily damaged in the hurricane, and we lost half our parks; the ones we have left don't allow dogs, which makes it rougher to find places to play and find other dogs. If I can just get her more interested in playing and less in gnawing on my arms and legs, we might be able to find more folks to play with, though. Wish me luck!

LCK said...

You could try spraying Bitter Apple on your arms.
It sounds like she has a lot of excess energy though, so my main concern would be finding new ways to burn it off, and ways to help her center herself emotionally.
The pushing exercise (found in several posts here, but most fully described on Neil Sattin's blog) might help.
How old is she again?

Anonymous said...

She's almost 9 months old now. Actually, bitter apple was the first thing I tried. We've gone through a ton of it; she doesn't seem to mind the taste. In fact, yesterday we realized she's a good little Cajun doggie! One of the trainers suggested Tabasco, since bitter apple didn't work. I had my doubts about it; concerned about the oils, but she was gnawing the baby gate while we were playing in the screen room, so I made sure she had some fresh water, then sprinkled Tabasco on the gate. I figured the smell alone should keep her away, but noooooo. She not only licked off all the Tabasco, but when I applied more, (about 20 drops!) she licked that off, too. Didn't go for the water bowl, either, but she acted like I'd given her a gourmet treat. Figuring maybe the hot sauce wasn't as hot as I thought (I don't use it, myself) I tasted it---my mouth burned for half an hour. Phaidra kept going back to the gate, licking, and then looking hopefully at me and wagging her tail. Somehow, I dont' think seasoning my arms would be a good idea.... If nothing else, she's keeping me in writing material.

I think you're right about the exercise; she likes to just race back and forth, so in addition to walking and playing ball, I'm considering putting in an aerial trolley in the back yard for her to race back and forth on. I don't let her have the run of the back yard yet, without being with her; she thinks my herb garden is her personal grazing ground, but the trolley might work. She shredded several of the solar screens in the screen room, and I caught her sticking her head out the window to snag leaves off my mint and basil--had to move them the other day. At 60 pounds and growing, she had a greater reach than I thought. I love her to death, but I swear I'm popping out more gray hair with her than I did with my daughter!

LCK said...

Chinese or Thai hot sauce, maybe?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps a hotter sauce would do it, or maybe I'm just raising a canine gourmand!

Unknown said...

Hmm, well I have a 7 week old Blue Heeler that nothing seems to work on as for the biting issue. She is very smart, but I the breeder gave her to me at 5 weeks. ( I did not know that it was too early. I asked and she said it was fine.) But anyway, she bites up a storm, I've screamed ouch, said no, popped her on the nose, pinched her nose, bit her ear. etc. etc. Tried nice and not nice approaches, nothing works. If I let her continue to mouth, or play bite, she just gets harder and harder. If I scream ouch, it just makes her bit harder. If I pop her on the nose, she will release, snort a bit, growl and attack me again....... any tips???

LCK said...

Yeah, the "ow" thing doesn't work with dogs who've been taken from their littermates too soon. The best thing to do would be to take her back to the breeder and let her brothers and sisters teach him what's good biting (soft) and what's not (hard). Or find some older dogs who'll teach her the lessons she needs to learn. The other stuff, the violent, aggressive approach, is going to have so many ill effects later on in her life that you've really gotta cut it out now, pronto.
Try spraying some Bitter Apple on your hands. I did this with a very mouthy German shepherd who's been staying with me this week. He's about 6 mos., I'm not sure when he was taken from his littermates, but he seems pretty normal, he just loves my hands to pieces.
Shpritz your hands good, then let her at 'em; chances are she'll get the idea. (If she likes the taste of Bitter Apple add a little Chinese hot sauce to the mix--just a little; you don't want her eyes to start spinning).
Good luck.

Anonymous said...

Our rescue puppy was found with 2 other litter mates, and at the time they were probably about 6-1/2 weeks old; they were wandering around the desert, but couldn’t have been there too long because she came to us healthy albeit underweight. Her behavior is consistent with what other folks have posted; the “zoomies” occur at least once or twice a day, in particular at night after eating dinner and eliminating. During the day she can be mouthy, but usually it’s soft and she’s more focused on her chew toys, playing ball or sleeping. At night, between 5:30 – 9, it’s another story. The nipping and grabbing, along with little marks and play posturing, is significantly intense. “Ow” and high pitched shrieks don’t work, and actually known to make this worse. As she nips and grabs, she is also tearing clothing and sometimes drawing blood or creating bruises. We try to distract her with interesting toys and activities, but once she gets started its hard for her to stop. Both my husband and I have to leave the room when this goes on because if the “play” stops with one, then she simply redirects her energy to the other. This makes my husband un-happy because he’s of the generation where dogs stayed out in a yard with food and water, and the only kind of training they received would have been for hunting. We’ve tried time-outs, but the only place to put her is in the crate, and I want her to associate this with a happy, calm place and not punishment. More recently we’ve tried to stop this behavior by going into “training mode,” using treats and a clicker for the eyes exercise, sit, down, stand. Bitter apple works, but I’m only using it our furniture as I really want our pup to learn proper bite inhibition naturally. I know that she’ll outgrow this --- at least she better for my sake because my husband’s patience with positive training is waning --- but in the meantime what else can we do?

LCK said...

Yeah, yelping doesn't work as well with puppies who've been taken from their littermates too soon. One thing I always tell my clients (and this works with most dogs) is to make sure you're saying "Ow!" as if you're in pain, like you're withdrawing emotionally from the dog, rather than as if you're angry and saying "Ow!" AT the dog.

However that's probably moot in your case.

As for what you can do to help resolve this, you've already said you don't want to use two of the best tools available: a crate and Bitter Apple. You're right that the crate should not be used for punishment, but this dog seriously needs a time out, alone with her "thoughts" and emotions so that she can learn to moderate her emotions on her own. So it's not like being put in solitary confinement, it's like being given a chance to learn how to calm down naturally. Which WILL happen if you're consistent about leaving her totally alone in the crate until she calms down on her own. Then you let her back out.

As for Bitter Apple, I don't see it as being unnatural at all. Personally, I like a dog to mouth me when the dog is calm and does it gently. But there are times when the dog's motor is revved up a bit too much, and I can't redirect her into a toy, and she's not revved up to the point that I think a time out is necessary (or helpful), so I'll spray a little Bitter Apple on my hands or shoelaces: problem solved.

I hope this helps.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your quick response. A couple of times when she bit down so hard that I was on the verge of tears she stopped. Unfortunately, my husband has a harder time with this concept, so he does sound angry. As for the crate, we probably don't use it enough because my husband is mostly home during the day; puppy uses it for many of her meals and always for bedtime but only occasionally wanders in for naps. We found Bitter Apple worked really well with the furniture, so my concern was that it would work too well if we started applying it to our hands, arms. I know mouthing is natural and was afraid she would stop too soon, without learning proper bite inhibition. With that said, I can't have her continue drawing blood or tearing clothes, so Bitter Apple it is.

LCK said...

I don't know if I made this clear enough in the body of the text, but you shouldn't be "allowing" the puppy to mouth you, you should be "encouraging" it, but only at times when she's already calm. That way you can get much better responsiveness to the "ow!" the way Kevin Behan describes it in his book.

It's at those other times when Bitter Apple comes in handy.


Anonymous said...

Yes, we initiate mouthing and only encourage this when she is calm. The uninitiated mouthing at night was a persistent nipping behind the knees and some rough grabbing. Our vet wanted the puppy to be completely isolated from other dogs until after the 4th vaccination. Although she would play during the day with my husband and again with me in the early evening, this didn't seem to be enough. We decided to go against our vet's wishes and introduced her to my parents’ healthy golden retriever. She's been going to their house for closely supervised play, and it really does seem to be helping. They played together in the afternoon for the last 3 days, and there's been absolutely no uninitiated mouthing at night. Just one really tired puppy! This week she'll have play sessions in the morning, and I plan for us play ball and tug in the evenings. We are having success with the bitter apple in curbing the foot fetish and the pants grabbing. Hopefully all of this will allow us to take charge of the mouthing and reduce the number of timeouts.

LCK said...

Here's a link that might help your vet understand the importance of puppy play:

Best of luck,