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.
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.
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.
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!).
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.