Like most things on the internet regarding dog training advice or guidance, this article is merely a snapshot of the issue. In no way is it the “end all be all” solution to this issue. The reality is, like most topics, an entire book could be written going into the depth of the behavior, behavior in general, and how you can address it. This is just an introduction to understanding puppy biting and there are links at the end that go into far great depth. I absolutely encourage you to READ THOSE LINKS!
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.
Set Up To Fail
A common issue that I see from the vast majority of pet dog owners is that regardless of the issue or behavior they are trying to address, they unknowingly are setting the puppy or dog up for failure. This obviously creates an immense amount of frustration for the humans dealing with the behavior, and what many don’t realize or take into account, is the that their frustration is passed directly on to the puppy. This causes stress and conflict within the relationship, which then makes it even more difficult for proper communication, leading to more failure, and frustration …..
You get the idea.
So how in this case could you be setting the puppy up for failure?
Puppydom (yes, i made up that word) is a ton of work. If you don’t think it is, you aren’t doing it right. The first year should be focused on teaching this animal, dogs are animals remember, how to exist in harmony in your home. They have no clue what you want, and they have no clue what you are saying. This means each and every day you must have a directed and methodical plan on how to teach them what you want.
You know what all those humans who have super obedient dogs have in common?
They understand this concept. When they bring home a new puppy they aren’t letting the puppy have free run of things and the only time the puppy is out of its crate or confined area is when they are TEACHING IT SOMETHING.
The purpose of this article is to talk about nipping and biting. In order to execute the techniques and games explained in the next section you must make sure you are setting the puppy up for success first. What that means is that if the puppy is super hyper and fired up don’t try and work on this behavior!
Because the puppy is super hyper and fired up!
Just like children, and adults for that matter, there will be more chance of learning to take place when the student is in the right frame of mind. The first thing you should do with your puppy ANYTIME they come out of the crate is take them outside for bathroom opportunities and EXERCISE. A tired or chill puppy is one you can interact with and have a hope of teaching something. This is especially true for working on nipping issues.
Also you need to be deliberate in your preparation. I NEVER have a puppy or dog i’m working with out with me without some type of reinforcer on me. I have treats in close proximity and I definitely have an appropriate tug toy. If I am constantly providing opportunities for the pup to engage with the appropriate tug item, i am decreasing the opportunity for them to bite me and risk making that behavior stronger.
Be more deliberate with your interactive time with your puppy!
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.
READ MORE ON THE SUBJECT
As explained in the beginning, this is just a brief overview of the issue. There is an entirely separate approach that quite honestly, I feel is just as important if not more, and that is the concept of teaching bite inhibition. Puppies in a litter bite each other constantly. This is actually a part of their social interactions. When one puppy bites too hard, the other communicates that it was too hard and the biter learns to “soften” the bite. The biting doesn’t ever really STOP, it just becomes more “appropriate”. Essential to a dog’s ability to navigate and communicate the world is the understanding of how to use their mouths “appropriately”. This type of education is done most efficiently and effectively While this article addresses how to avoid reinforcing a behavior that you simply want to stop, there is much more information out there on the concept of getting deeper with instructing and educating the dog how to bite without “hurting”. Some agree, while others think its malarky, go figure. I however think an essential part of education is looking at things from a diverse assortment of perspectives. Here are two GREAT links that can provide a look at bite inhibition.
**thank you to Hope and Lauren for sharing their puppies with us all in this post’s photos!**