Puppies Who Need The Most…or, Much Ado About Nipping

The Kids Who Need The Most Love...

I’ve had a number of requests to talk about the issue of puppy nipping, and to share some of the techniques I’ve been working on to make life with Zydeco a little less painful. So here goes. I’ve been saving this great message about kids for this very post, because I believe that when Zydeco bites me, as well as anyone else in his close family circle, he is often communicating something profound. Of course, most of the time I get the sense he is just over-stimulated. Something exciting happens, and off he goes, leaping and snapping away like a little land shark at the first thing that moves. However, what about those times when he comes up in a quiet moment out of the blue and chomps my leg or arm? I honestly feel that even as painful as it is, he isn’t attempting to dominate me, or discipline me, or injure me, what he is really asking for in his own inscrutable puppy way, is love.

Yes. Puppy’s bite. They bite a lot. It is always helpful to take a step back and remind ourselves first of all that nipping and mouthing is a developmentally normal behavior. When my Zoë was a youngster and didn’t try to nosh everything in sight, I was certain there was something wrong with her, and I was right. She had a thyroid issue and simply didn’t have the energy. Puppies are reinforced and soothed by the sensation of things in their mouth in much the same way as toddlers are. Chomping away on any and all surfaces, clothing, skin, textures, etc. is how they learn about the world, how they relieve teething pain and stress, how they express emotions, and, of course how they learn to communicate–in healthy or unhealthy ways–with their owners, and with other dogs. Although it is certainly a frustrating phase to live through, the number one thing I think pet owners can do to help ease the stress of puppy biting is first of all to RELAX about it. The more uptight and tense we are with our dogs, the more they tend to pick up on that stress and dish it back to us…and let me tell you from experience, stressed out puppy nipping is ten times worse than regular ol’ run of the mill puppy nipping.

ouchy arm2

Stressed out puppy nipping is far harder on the arms than regular puppy nipping

Zydeco is the quintessential example of this. When those teeth of his begin to flash, saying NO!, pushing him away, trying to restrain him by the collar, or even moving my hands (or clothes) back away from too quickly, that’s all just game-on for him, and he comes on harder. Sadly, on a couple of occasions an unhappy little cycle has sprung up between us where the more he nips, the harder it is for me to remain patient (or slow-moving enough to become boring), and the more impatient I get, the more he nips. But without a doubt, if I were to try any of the methods traditionally recommended for puppy nipping such as lip pinches, striking the pup in the nose, spraying with citronella, scruff shaking, or forcibly holding his mouth closed, honestly, I’d lose every bit of trust I’ve worked so hard to gain with Zydy up till now, and chances are very high, he’d just take those more confrontational challenges on too and escalate further.

Z teeth

But there is good news.  First of all, puppies do grow out of this phase (I promise!); and, as long as you don’t fall into some of the common pitfalls which I will list later on, even if you’ve got what seems like a super hyper puppy that is clearly  convinced your feet are actually bouncing rabbits to pounce on all day, your clothes are the latest, greatest, new, edible, shredible tug, and your hands a couple of tasty teething toys, it does not automatically mean he or she is going to grow up to be an aggressive dog. And secondly, with time, patience, and above all, consistency, it is totally possible to teach your puppy the following key things:  1) to let go and get control when you ask, 2) to refrain from grabbing something in the first place, 3) and that hands are for licking, clothes are for ignoring, and toys–only toys–are for teeth.

Management is of course my first line of defense. I am a huge huge HUGE fan of ex-pens for puppies. I love ex-pens so much I may devote an entire blog post to their many uses and virtues. But sticking to the topic at hand for now, a puppy in an ex-pen can’t bite you. It’s that simple. Set that pen up near you in the house so your puppy can learn in context how to behave when near people. Isolate your puppy in a back room, the back yard, or even in a crate and he won’t get a chance to learn. Reinforce often for calm, quiet behaviors, provide plenty of interesting, appropriate chew items inside the puppy area, proper exercise and attention of course at all other times, and voilá, a huge amount of your problem is immediately solved. I’ve also used the ex-pen set up at my house as a way to give myself a time out when Zydy’s attentions and over-excitement were simply too relentless to be worked through in that particular moment with clicker and treats, or even tug toys. There have been a couple times when he ignored all redirection, and very deliberately came after me.  When that happened, I did my best to calmly step away, close the gate between us, and count to ten. Once he settled, I came right back. Time outs are most effective if you do them in very short increments. Repeat enough times and puppy does begin to learn that persistent, hard chomps really do make you leave, and calm behaviors make you come back.

But way WAY more effective than the time out method is pro-active training. We trainers always tell people to focus on what they DO what their dog to do, not what they DON’T want the dog to do. Okay, so, what’s a good alternative to nipping? How about licking? A wonderful, creative KPA colleague, Dani Theule gave me the idea to jump start Zydy’s licking behavior by dabbing a little butter on my arm. It worked immediately…and with Zydy’s amazing ability now to fast-map cues, very quickly I was able to add the cue “lick” and then to have him generalize the licking to my other, non-buttered arm.

Arms are for licking (not biting)

Arms are for licking

In the video below you’ll notice I also am inviting him to bite a tug toy every few reps or so. I’m pairing “Get it” (bite the tug) with “Lick” as  opposing cues on purpose to teach him right away the difference between my arm and the toy. It also premacks the licking behavior with his love of biting toys. I am pleased in the session with his ability to switch back and forth between the higher energy play mode and the settle down and be gentle mode. At the end, I hold the tug at a very poor angle, basically setting him up to bite my arm (!), but instead of saying Ah Ah! or No! or pulling my arm away, I remember to say “lick” instead…and he immediately withdraws his teeth! YAY! This stuff is so cool!!

I now remind myself to ask for licks during Zydy’s extra excited times such as when greeting me after I’ve been away, or after he’s been playing tug for awhile, and it almost always works! He starts licking my arm and calms right down. I also request licks now when he charges over with that evil gleam in his eye  (“WASSUP, SARAH?!”), and by golly the full-on chomping incidents are decreasing rapidly. The hardest part sometimes for me actually is remembering to use a pre-trained cue that Zydy knows (rather than bust out with Hey!) when he makes a mistake and nails me. But when I do remember. Four out of five times, he usually backs right off…and it works even better when I remember to ask him to Leave-it before I put my hands or some other enticing item into range.

And here’s the same idea with a “Leave-it” / “Take-it” pairing to help him learn not to attack my feet. Note how once again at the end I make a mistake in getting him too riled up and he almost loses control for a moment, but as soon as I let go of him, back off, calm my own body movements and remember to say “Leave-it,” he gets back on track.

One thing I want to clarify is that these training exercises are actually not designed to eliminate the biting behavior entirely, because honestly, I don’t think it is healthy or reasonable to suppress this natural urge in a young dog. Many people ask me “how do I get my puppy to stop biting?” And my answer is, you might as well ask your puppy to stop breathing. The goal of clicker training isn’t to turn a living, emotional, thinking creature into a furry robot that just sits in the corner and looks cute. The goal of clicker training is to build clear channels of communication between animal and human so that you can get off the evil stress-cycle long before it even gets started. Teaching Zydeco cues like “lick,” and “leave-it” allows me to make requests of him that don’t involve force or antagonistic manipulation, and to let him know which behaviors will work to get what he wants from me. It isn’t about suppressing his needs at all…And speaking of getting what he wants, I just want to mention here that it is important to pay well for Leave-it, using your highest value treats, favorite tugs, or anything your dog really really likes. You never want to take the choice of self-control for granted. Particularly not with a dog like Zydeco.

There are three main needs expressed in Zydeco’s biting behavior: 1) the need to connect / get my attention, 2) the need for stimulation / get something exciting to happen, and 3) the need to feel unfettered /un-pestered /and safe (i.e. hands off please you pesky primate!).

Puppy Mouthing

At night just before bed when he’s sleepy Zydy loves to cuddle and do this gentle mouthing behavior on my hands and arms. I allow it because he usually has good self-control and seems to find it comforting and calming.

The first need is addressed well by his new licking behavior. I’ve also been working to reinforce him with attention for bringing me toys, as well as for leaning his shoulder against my legs–which he already likes to do, or putting his chin on my lap–which is friggin’ irresistible. My feeling is…meet the need, and the biting part of how he is communicating that need to me will mellow considerably.

Zydy’s need for stimulation is met with the paired “Leave-it”/ “Get-it” game. He is really learning that if he waits, I’ll invite him to do something fun like kill a toy, chase me around, play fetch, etc. We repeat the pattern over and over and over again: self-control is the doorway to all fun things…and boy has he earned himself a lot of really fun things during his time with me–fun with agility equipment, the privilege of going on a walk or a hike, the chance to play with a chase-it toy, the opportunity to learn new things…the list goes on and on, and he is just eating it up.

The final need for safety I haven’t talked about much yet. Basically, Zydy bites sometimes just to get you to let go of him. He chafes against retraint like gangbusters, especially collar grabs when he’s excited about something. Although he likes firm touches, often leans against us, and even cuddles freely, he’s ticklish with softer touches, and often gets mouthy with handling of his feet and back. Recently I made the mistake of allowing the vet to trim his nails. He came out with bleeding quicks and I thought it would be really hard to earn back his trust. But, as you can see in the video, the foundation work he and I have done still holds, and is able to trump one bad experience.

In this session I’m demonstrating some basic counter conditioning–paring the sensation of me holding the Quick Stop against his toe with his favorite food, followed by an example of how to use the clicker to teach husbandry behaviors.

I really like to prepare a dog for the touch ahead of time like this instead of just grabbing him out of the blue. Because we’ve practiced a lot Zydy knows already that when I say “hands” and move towards him slowly like this, I’m about to touch him somewhere. The repetitive, ritualized pattern of the whole thing is reassuring.

So that’s really it. Is our boy a 100% perfect, not-biting puppy 100% of the time? Nope. He’s still usually got his mouth non-stop on toys, bones, cardboard, paper, plastic bottles, squeaky toys, Kongs, dog beds–anything in range–you name it. But the more channels of communication and repetitions of trust I open up between us with that darn miraculous clicker, the less he seems to have to resort to biting to express to me what he needs.


    • Sarah Owings

      YAY Go Team Deagan! Zydy reminds me of Deagan a little bit–all go go go. Hard to put on the breaks. Hope my posts are helpful. You are doing such great work with your boy! 🙂

  1. Sharon Empson

    Great thoughts Sarah! They are little land sharks, but how awesome to take the time to reinforce what is good and ignore what isn’t. We will see how this all translates to his family when he returns to them. Love your articles. Before I took the KPA course, when I had a puppy that bit, I made a little yelp. the puppy would immediately let go and lick. Puppies are rowdy and don’t know their own bite force sometimes. Keep up the good work, Love sharon empson california   Sharon and Jerry Empson But none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. Acts 20:24  


    • Sarah Owings

      Thanks Sharon. Yep. Sounds like your puppy understood you well. With Zydy, I’ve found that the YIPs are a little too exciting too! He thinks “oh boy” I made you squeak like a sqeaky toy. Let’s do that again!” 🙂 But holding really still and quietly asking for a lick or a leave it works well. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Abby

    Hi Sarah!

    I am so glad I found your videos and this post! I recently adopted a 5 month old puppy and everything is going rather amazingly except for the biting. Initially, (and now too, I suppose) I was so concerned it was not normal and that it was aggressive. It seemed more like bites than the mouthing I had read about, and those teeth hurt. He even made an unhappy growl/snarl at me once. I had reacted inappropriately and escalated the situation quickly, I think. He was just way, way too overstimulated.

    Your view on the issue was so refreshing. So many others gave advice like hitting him on the nose or forcing him to bite his lip. That is not the relationship I want to build with him, as frustrating as it is to deal with the behavior. Beyond that, he was found abandoned and sick and I would rather not do anything to break his trust so quickly into things.

    We (hopefully) start basic obedience soon with a highly recommended trainer and hopefully she can also reassure me and help give me some additional methods.

    I am still struggling with what is ‘normal’ puppy behavior for my rambunctious toddler, especially as my current dog is a 15 year old Chesapeake bay retriever and is as laid back as can be. I am trying to constantly remind myself of that–that he is still is just little and that this isn’t his fault. I find myself feeling hurt or angry, and I have to take a step back. I would never blame a 2 year old child for their outburst.

    I am rambling, but I really just wanted to thank you! I was feeling a bit overwhelmed after he got pretty bitey today and was struggling with it!

    • Sarah Owings

      Hi Abby, so glad to be helpful. Yes. This can really be a difficult age and it is tough figuring out the difference between normal puppy nipping and nipping you should be worried about. This puppy in my blog, Zydeco, even used to growl at me…but it was just his voice, just him talking. He has grown up to be a truly lovely boy with all family members he knows and trusts. My best advise to you is to use your exercise pens. They are your friend. And redirect redirect redirect all mouthiness to toys. you should always have a toy in your pocket, always have a yummy chew like a bully stick available….and if none of that works, give yourself a break and simply walk away from the ex-pen when puppy is over the top. Reinforce OFTEN for not nipping too, and toss treats on the floor often for puppy to chase down instead of come at your feet….I’ve worked with many dogs. All grow out of the nipping eventually, and none that I know of grew up to be aggressive because they nipped as puppies. However, I have met many dogs that did grow up to be aggressive /defensive because their owners took a confrontational approach to discipline or punished early puppy nipping harshly. Good luck!

      • Abby

        I just had to come and leave a bit of an update. That first week with my puppy was absolutely horrible. Honestly, I am completely surprised we made it through it and that he wasn’t taken back. All he did was growl, snap and bite at me, and all I did was worry, get stressed and panic. I was so worried he was going to be violent and this blog was really the first light that his behavior was normal. Not a good start for either of us.

        I absolutely laugh at that week now, and how I was so worried about him. This puppy doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. On the contrary, he is made entirely of playful bones.

        He is an absolute delight to everyone he meets. My coworkers wife even recently told her husband that he better watch out, because if I were to ever give up my dog they would be adopting him for sure!

        He is so spunky and curious. He is also smart and devious and keeps me on my toes, for sure. We still have a long way to go with training, but my goodness we have come so far. He and I go everywhere and do everything together. If they let me, I’d even go grocery shopping with him.

        We are still fine tuning house-training which had a bit of a back-track after I thought we had nailed it. We are also trying to manage loose leash walking, because…well. Let’s face it. Walking next to the human is boring. Lunging towards dogs, the grass and woods? Way more fun. I can’t blame him.

        Anyways, I just wanted to thank you again and let you know that things have turned out rather idyllic and we are making slow, but steady progress. And, for anyone else who may be at their wits end struggling with their puppy– it gets better. It gets way, way better and it is so worth it 🙂

        • Sarah Owings

          Way to hang in there, Abby! So glad to have helped. I’m spending another 3 weeks with Zydeco this summer. He’s a great big one year old adolescent now. But sometimes, his baby teeth still flash…and yes, it is all love.

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  4. alexah615

    I just got my first puppy after having cats all my life and I’m pretty sure I’m doing things all kinds of wrong. She’s definitely a little nipping devil. Will this work without the clicker?

    • Sarah Owings

      Yes. You can do this without a clicker. Just say YES! for the choice not to nip, and then feed treats. Be generous for all good choices, and be sure your puppy is getting plenty of rest and downtime. Overstimulation usually makes everything worse. Use the gates, tethers, and lots and lots of acceptable toys and chews to redirect her, and to save your sanity. Toys on a rope to chase and pounce on are great! She will grow out of it I promise!

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