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Managing Puppy Biting
by Dee Chuisano

When you watch puppies play, they bite and mouth each other. Biting and mouthing are important parts of a puppy’s learning experience. By biting and mouthing, a puppy learns how to use and control the pressure of his jaw. It is an important lesson of survival and eventually, if left to grow up naturally in the wild, the pup would learn how much hard pressure to use in downing prey or fighting an opponent. It is also an important lesson in pack living -- learning how much gentle pressure to use while playing with other pack members. Puppies are not born with the ability to control their jaw muscles, they learn by trial and error while they interact -- playing mouthing and biting other pack members. If a young pup bites his playmate too hard, his playmate will yip and often not go on playing. This teaches the puppy to inhibit the force of his bite so he can continue playing with other puppies.

When we bring a puppy into our home we bring them into our family pack. It is our responsibility to teach them how to live in our society. Puppies do not know that biting humans is unacceptable behavior. We need to teach them this in a way they will understand -- a way that will be fair to a baby dog. So by managing, tactfully redirecting, or carefully controlling the biting -- you will be helping the pup to succeed. Understanding that biting and mouthing is normal puppy behavior does not mean that it should be ignored. With a young puppy under 3 months old, I allow gentle mouthing. When the puppy starts mouthing my hand, I keep my hand very still; giving no feedback of movement, no excitement nor stimulation. The puppy will usually get bored and stop. If however, I try to move my hand away to escape those needle teeth when the puppy start mouthing, often the puppy will chase my hand and try to grab it even more vigorously.

I see a lot of children and adults unintentionally cause more biting behavior by doing this. Those little puppy needle teeth really hurt and when the hands are flying, they can tear skin. This is one of the reasons children and puppies need constant supervision. I know it is very hard for children to allow a puppy to mouth after the child has been scratched by those teeth. I tell children to put their hands under their armpits for protection until an adult comes to help. It is an adult’s responsibility to teach the pup how to act with children and to also teach the children how to act with a puppy. Managing puppies and small children is a constant job. Both puppies and children are unpredictable and neither understand the consequences of their actions. Sometimes, even if I don’t move my hand, the puppy will start to chew on a finger as if it were a bone. When this happens I will yip or screech to let the puppy know that he hurt me. I want puppies to learn early that humans have very thin skin and that they must be very gentle with us. When I first screech the puppy will stop mouthing or biting. I then give the puppy something else that he can chew on. If after a number of times and within a matter of many days, the screeching does not deter the hard mouthing, I go to the next step which is to screech and abruptly leave the puppy, I will go so far as to leave the room, shutting the door behind me. I will wait at least 30 seconds to one minute before returning. Our presence is very important to a puppy. They are very social animals and do not want to be alone, so this is a good lesson for a biting puppy -- bite too hard and you will find yourself alone with no one to play with. I feel it is unfair to verbally reprimand or physically punish a young puppy for mouthing or biting. I do think it is very important for the puppy to view its new family as trustworthy. A new relationship is just beginning with a little creature from a different species. I want to be worthy of his trust by not doing anything negative. I have too often seen the way negative corrections backfire and cause defensive biting behavior. I have seen many dogs that do not trust people because of the way puppy biting was handled. No one would consider it acceptable to physically punish a human baby for biting behavior. It would be inhumane to smack a human baby under the chin for biting while it was teething. It would be totally wrong to squeeze a human baby’s mouth if he bit our finger too hard. And we have all heard of shaken babe syndrome. The why would we do this to a baby dog?

I do not want to confuse the puppy be correcting this natural behavior before he has learned alternative. This baby dog does not have enough experience to make the right decision in this human world, so I am patient. I teach him the way to behave and manage the unacceptable behavior. I do not play any games with him that will cause him to bite me ore use his teeth on me such as play wrestling, tug of war or pushing around. I am prepared by having plenty of toys around to distract him from biting on me. I play retrieving games and make sure the puppy brings things back to me. I allow the puppy to play and socialize with other puppies and well socialized adult dogs. This way he will have an outlet for his normal biting behavior. This will allow the other puppies and dogs to teach him to inhibit the force of his bite. By playing with other canines he will continue to learn to communicate with his own kind. The best place to take a puppy for socialization, play and an education is a well-run puppy class.

Meanwhile I start to teach the puppy the word OFF. This is done with the use of food. I have found it to be very successful in teaching the puppy not to bite. I start out by putting a tasty piece of food, maybe a hot dog treat, in my hand. I close my hand making a fist. I place my closed hand in front of the puppy’s nose. He know there’s something very good there and offers all kinds of behaviors to get the food. He will probably paw my hand, lick my hand, nibble my hand. The more persistent the puppy is, the longer it will take till he gives up. As soon as his head backs off from my hand, I say OFF, open my hand and offer the treat, tell him TAKE IT and Yes when he does. I will continue to place treats in my closed hand until he no longer tries to give certain behaviors to get the treat; going through the ritual each time by saying OFF, TAKE It and YES. After doing this a few times a day for a couple of days you should be able to say OFF, before he attempts to get the treat. I then use a more powerful treat to see if he understands the word OFF. If he does I apply it to his biting behavior. When he is soliciting play by biting or mouthing my hand, I make a fist and say OFF. When he backs off, I make sure to get a toy or a treat immediately, in order to reward him for the right choice. This does work -- teaching our puppy the right behavior.

There is another behavior associated with mouthing which many natural retrievers exhibit. Natural retrievers have an oral fixation and have a need to hold something in their mouth. Many times, this behavior is connected to how the pup greets people, i.e., the pup mouths the hand or arm of the person they are greeting. As this behavior is part of the greeting behavior, I never want to punish or correct a pup for doing this. I also do not want to confuse the dog by allowing him to mouth my arm or hand. I manage and redirect this mouthing to a toy that I leave by the doorway. While the pup is trying to mouth my arm, I pick up the toy and tell the pup GET THE TOY as I shake the toy to get his interest. The pup redirects his attention and takes the toy in his mouth. I then stroke and pet the puppy as he’s holding the toy, telling him what a great dog he is. Once the puppy is taking the toy and redirecting his mouthing to the toy, I redirect then give the toy BEFORE he starts mouthing by having the toy handy as I come in the door and always praise and gently pet him with the toy in his mouth. After about a week or picking up the toy and handing it to the puppy, I then leave the toy on the floor, bring the pup over to the toy, point to it and I say GET THE TOY. When he is successful at this progression, I leave the toy away from the door on the floor and direct the dog to GET THE TOY. Eventually the pup looks for his toy to bring to you when he greets you. When visitors come, you may have to help the pup remember how to properly greet visitors because he may become so excited he forgets. So HELP him to be successful. As with all areas of teaching a dog how to behave in our human society and managing unwanted behaviors, you, the teacher must be PATIENT, PERSISTENT, CONSISTENT and UNDERSTANDING. A good teacher is generous with their praise and always lets the student know when he’s doing a good job. It is also very important for a teacher to help the puppy when he makes a mistake and to encourage him to make the right choice. That way he can be successful, and again be praised. The bond that develops by using management and praise is built and cemented into a lifetime of trust and enjoyment for all members of this historic relationship between dog and man. This type of education will never harm the spirit of the dog.


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