Listen, puppies nip. They nip, they nibble, they bite. That’s what they do. Why? They don’t have hands!
Biting and nipping is a behavior that starts very early in a dog’s life. As puppies, this type of physical contact is a way to communicate a variety of messages. One of the most common motivations for this behavior is to initiate play and get your attention.
Why It Won’t Stop
The nipping won’t stop because you keep training the puppy to continue the behavior! Confused? You need to watch the video I made where I tell you how to stop any bad behavior from getting worse. Until you do, I’ll give you the brief rundown.
Any behavior that is reinforced will continue and even increase in frequency. What does it mean to say “reinforced”? A behavior that is reinforced is a behavior that was followed by a consequence that led the subject to want to repeat the behavior.
For example, if every time you told a lie you got out of trouble, what are you going to do more of? Telling lies of course. Why would that happen? Because you every time you told one previously the choice to lie was reinforced by the other person letting you off the hook. The reinforcer in that case was the consequence of being “let off the hook”.
So many undesirable behaviors in puppies and dogs are actually reinforced on a regular basis by their owners. Part of this is because they either don’t understand the concept of reinforcement (read HERE to learn) and the other part is they failed to identify, or even look, for what exactly is the reinforcer for the puppy.
When we are talking about nipping the most common reinforcer for for the behavior is attention. Remember how you just read about why puppies nip? Well if they are doing it to engage you in play and attention, then the last thing you would want to do to a nipping puppy is continue to play with them or give them attention! Even eye contact or your voice at that moment can be reinforcing.
So Now What?
I know for a lot of people the first reaction is to use some type of positive punishment like a flick, smack, yell, or for other more unproductively creative individuals, a water bottle. While positive punishment can absolutely work to stop an unwanted behavior, the usage of it requires extremely good skill and timing. The reality is that this type of timing comes after years of training and experience. Just being honest, and honesty is the only way you are going to find a resolution to your situation.
As you learned when you read my article on operant conditioning, there are in fact two different types of punishment we can use when we want a particular behavior to stop. The other one is negative punishment. I really like to use this approach for this approach. Here’s how you use it.
The No Bite Game
Get down on the ground on your knees and play with the puppy. You should always have an appropriate tug toy when interacting with your puppy so they have an alternative to your hand. If the puppy begins to bite your hand, you can say “no” the INSTANT it happens and you simply stand up, cross your arms and look at the ceiling. This also will work if you say nothing. The puppy will learn from your behavior much more than your voice.
You have removed your attention and engagement as a consequence for the puppy biting you. This is negative punishment.
Once the puppy settles down, get back on the ground and give a gentle touch to positively reinforce the puppy’s behavior choice to stop biting. If and when the puppy nips you repeat the same process.
This is super important for children too and I call it the “No Bite” game. By turning it into a game it makes it more engaging for kids and helps teach them how to properly communicate with the family dog.
**thank you to Hope and Lauren for sharing their puppies with us all in this post’s photos!**