Nipping nipping in the bud

By Jon Bastian

It’s natural behavior for puppies to bite. As they begin to teethe, they naturally need things to chew on. Also, dogs generally prefer to use their mouths over their paws for manipulating objects, and this behavior begins in puppyhood as young pooches start to explore their world.

It can be cute at the beginning, but a puppy’s teeth are very sharp and they don’t know how hard they’re biting, so the puppy raising experience will generally include that one moment when Fido playfully bites down on a finger and draws blood.

Needless to say, this is not a behavior we humans want to have continue, especially not into adulthood. Here are the steps to take to nip the nipping in the bud.

Inhibit the biting
When puppies play, they mouth each other, which is totally normal. However, the mouthing can turn into a bite. When it does, the puppy on the receiving end will yelp, and this sound startles the puppy doing the biting, making them release.

Humans can exploit this behavior to teach a puppy to inhibit the bite and learn how much is too much. When a puppy latches onto your hand or finger too hard, let your hand go limp and imitate that yelping sound. When the puppy releases, ignore her for ten to twenty seconds, then resume play.

It’s important to remember, though, not to pull away from the bite. This can trigger your puppy’s chase instinct and make the problem worse. And if the yelp doesn’t work or you’d prefer not to make that sound, you can substitute a loud, “Ow!” or other verbal deterrent.

Don’t repeat the limp and yelp process more than three times in fifteen minutes — when you get to that point, it’s time for a puppy time out.

The goal here is to teach the puppy that gentle play continues; rough play stops. Once you’ve inhibited the hard bites, repeat this teaching process with more moderate bites. Eventually, you should be able to teach her that mouthing without biting down is okay, but anything more than that is not.

Redirect
To teach your puppy that his mouth on human skin is not okay at all, use redirection. When the puppy tries to mouth you, pull your hand away before contact, then provide a treat or wave around a chewy toy until he bites that.

You can also satisfy your puppy’s urge to mouth things with non-contact games, like fetch or tug-of-war. However, remember to never let the tugging become too aggressive, and teach your puppy “let go” or “leave it” command, so that you can always remove something from his mouth without an aggressive response.

Distraction
In addition to mouthing people, puppies will also mouth things in their environment, mostly out of curiosity. In addition to puppy-proofing your home, provide an assortment of interesting and safe chew toys, chosen for your pup’s level of chewing and destructiveness — for example, if she shreds that plush toy in two minutes, you may want to stick with rubber or hard plastic.

“Hide the treat” toys are also great for distracting puppies from nibbling on other things, and these provide mental stimulation as well, since she has to figure out how to get to the reward.

Finally, arrange for playtime with your dog and other puppies or vaccinated adult dogs. This will help to socialize her, and those dogs will also assist in the process of teaching your puppy when a bite is too hard.

Deterrence
There are various products, like Bitter Apple, Bitter Cherry, and YUCK No Chew Spray, that are designed to prevent a dog from licking or chewing by putting an unpleasant taste in their mouth, but there are two important steps involved in using them for training.

The first is to associate the smell and the taste in your dog’s mind so that the scent alone will keep him away from unacceptable chewing targets. To do this, put a little bit of the product on a tissue or cotton ball, then put it in your pup’s mouth. He should spit it out right away. When he does spit it out, let him smell it so he makes the association.

The second step comes in when you’re actively using the product for training — make sure your dog doesn’t have access to water for up to an hour (but not longer) after contact with the product. This may sound cruel, but if your dog learns that he can just run to his bowl and get rid of the taste, the deterrent will become ineffective.

When training, place the product on any objects you don’t want him to lick or bite once a day for two to four weeks.

Ankle biters
Many dogs become fascinated with nipping at people’s feet or ankles when they walk. This is particularly true of herding breeds. To stop your puppy from nipping at your heels, keep a favorite toy in your pocket. When she does bite, stop moving, then wave the toy around to distract her until she latches onto it.

If you don’t happen to have the toy handy, stop moving when she bites and then, when she releases on her own, offer her the toy or a treat, and praise. The idea is to teach your dog that good things happen when bad behavior stops.

Mouthing and nipping are natural behaviors for puppies but unwanted in dogs. Remember, a large majority of dogs surrendered to shelters by their owners are between eighteen months and two years of age — the point at which “cute” puppy behavior becomes frustrating to the owner. Taking these few simple steps now will help prevent that bad behavior down the line, and help you to have a stress-free, life-long relationship when that little bundle of fur grows up.

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