Dogs have evolved to be excellent opportunistic scavengers. If they smell, see, or hear something that they believe may be helpful to their survival, they will often grab it with their mouths. If we or anyone or anything tries to take away what the dog has acquired, the dog may growl and be willing to fight and bite to keep possession of that item. This behavior is called resource guarding, and while undesirable, it is a normal behavior for a dog. The video above illustrates a dog guarding a bone.
This article is meant to teach you what to do when this behavior occurs and how to prevent this behavior from happening in the future. The safety of you, others in your household, the community at large, and your dog must ALWAYS be your first concern. Dogs that bite to keep something that they have may be classified as dangerous dogs.
If you have not had this problem with your dog, you will still benefit from learning how to prevent the behavior. The best place to get that advice is from a certified professional dog trainer or certified dog behavior consultant. Because the potential for getting bitten is a real possibility when a dog guards a resource, I recommend that you see the advice of a professional. In my 20+ years of experience working with people and their dogs, I do not believe that dealing with this type of behavior can be learned from the internet, a book, or a video.
What to do when your dog steals and protects something
If your dog has something they are not supposed to have, do NOT:
get mad at your dog,
or punish your dog.
None of those actions will be helpful. Any type of punishment is very likely to make your dog even more defensive and will substantially increase the odds of your being bitten. Dog bites are very damaging to the relationship we have with our dog. Both you and the dog will lose trust in one another, and it may take weeks and months for this trust to be restored, if at all.
If your dog has something they are not supposed to have, calmly assess the situation. Dogs steal things. I find that these items tend to fall into one of the following three categories:
things that may cause your dog harm if they ingest them, such as a bottle of medicine, a sock, or pair of nylons,
things that could harm your dog and/or cause you great expense such as a cell phone, or a remote control, and
something we would rather our dog not have, but will not cause them any harm. The latter could be a napkin or a paper towel.
In the first two cases, you want to get the items back from your dog as easily as possible without you or the dog becoming injured or traumatized. The best way to do this is to offer a trade with a high-value piece of food such as a piece of deli meat or cheese. Yes, technically, this is rewarding a behavior you do not want; however, it is the easiest way to retrieve the object without you getting bitten.
If the dog has something in category three and you do not feel that you can safely get it away from the dog by trading them for something better, I would just let them keep what they have. Consuming a napkin or paper towel will typically not be harmful.
After you have possession of the object, you should start planning on how to prevent this type of behavior in the future.
Signs of guarding behavior include those shown in the video above, as well as:
Freezing and staring at you while maintaining possession of the object,
consuming the object as quickly as possible,
running away with the object and trying to hide,
snapping and biting at the air,
and biting you if you get too close. This may either be an inhibited bite, with little or no injury or a bite that punctures the skin.
Because resource guarding is a behavior that can result in a dog bite, and because a dog bite can cause irreparable damage to both you and the dog, I recommend that you meet with a reward-based certified professional dog trainer or certified dog behavior consultant as soon as possible. You are unlikely to resolve this problem on your own. In my 20+ years of experience working with people and their dogs, I do not believe that dealing with this type of behavior can be learned from the internet, a book, or a video.
Most dogs have strong instincts to survive and thus may growl to protect resources that they believe are essential to their continued existence. Canine behavior specialists and dog trainers typically describe this behavior as resource guarding. Put another way; it is the dog’s fear of losing something that the dog believes is essential to life. The item most frequently guarded is food, but resources can also include; toys, spaces, trash, inanimate objects, particular people, basically anything the dog believes is worth protecting because of the value it offers to them; sustenance, comfort, attention, and affection. It is important for us to understand that the dog decides the value of something, not us. We may see an object as being totally without value to our dog, but if they believe it has value, they may choose to protect it.
Resource guarding has nothing to do with your dog trying to dominate you. In fact, science tells us that dominance has little or nothing to do with our relationship with our dogs. Trying to intimidate a dog into doing what we want is more likely to cause our dog to distrust us and is less likely to get the dog to work for us than reward based training.
The first thing that a qualified dog training professional will discuss is the importance of managing the dog’s environment to prevent resource guarding from occurring. That means that you need to make sure that things your dog may want to steal are kept someplace where the dog cannot get to them. Socks and shoes are put away in a room that the dog cannot access, or better yet in a dresser. Trash is kept in a container in a closet or pantry or a trash can that the dog cannot open. If your dog always guards a specific treat like a rawhide, then the trainer may recommend that you no longer give your dog this type of treat. Managing the dog’s environment is about us using our more powerful human brains to outsmart the dog.
If your dog is guarding their food at meal time, a professional will advise you to, first of all, leave your dog alone while they are eating. How would you like it if someone kept stealing your food off your plate while you were eating? While we want a dog to be safe when eating in our home, the best way to do that is to teach them good things happen when we are near them while they eat. A trainer can show you how to do that safely.
Lastly, a trainer will teach you how to train your dog to respond to a behavior like “Give” and “Leave It.” We discuss both of these behaviors in our Basic Manners class. “Give” is used when we want the dog to relinquish something they have in their mouths and “Leave It” is used when we want the dog to choose to focus on us, rather than trying to get something they find tempting. Keep in mind that your dog will not learn either of these behaviors quickly. They will take more time and effort on your part than teaching a behavior like “Sit”, because in the case of “Give” or “Leave It” we are asking the dog to do something that is against their instincts. A dog may find it unnatural to relinquish a sandwich they scarfed off the table, just like many of us find it difficult to drive past a donut shop.
A new puppy can be a great addition to your family, but they will also require some work on your part. You will very likely have questions about; housetraining, socialization, play biting and nipping, chewing, training methods, wellness exams, nutrition, vaccinations, babies and dogs, kids and dogs and more. This post includes links to articles and podcasts that address the most common questions people ask me when they are thinking of getting a new puppy or that have just added one to their home. While we strongly encourage everyone to attend a Puppy Headstart class while the puppy is between 8 and 16 weeks of age, these materials will provide you with some additional information. You can read or listen to them in any order you choose; however, I believe you will get the most benefit if you go through them in the order that they are listed.
My first word of advice; “patience.” It is very easy to want the ideal puppy immediately, but just as “Rome was not built in a day,” Your puppy will not be the perfect companion in a week, nor in all likelihood in a month. Training is a process, and as such it takes time. Yes, there will times you may become frustrated, but when you look back in a year you will realize it was a precious time for you and your pup, one filled with learning and fun!
I encourage you to read the following shared blog post, all about patience, by dog trainer Nancy Tanner. Read it, print it, and then post it on your refrigerator, or somewhere in your home where it is close at hand anytime you are feeling frustrated with your puppy. –
Enrolling yourself and your puppy in a reward-based dog training class designed by a Certified Professional Dog Trainer is the best thing you can do for you and your dog. Not all trainers and dog training classes are equal. Because dog training is currently a non-regulated and non-licensed profession the quality of instruction and practices used can vary widely, sometimes into the inhumane. The following article will provide you with information on what to look for in a dog trainer and dog training facility.
Do not try to teach your puppy everything at once. In class, we will teach you certain behaviors, in a specific order, for a reason; to make training easier.
During the critical socialization period, between 8 and 16 weeks of age, it is far more important to work on planning and appropriately socializing and habituating your dog than it is to teach them to shake or any other behavior. This is a limited period, and you want to make the most of it. Inadequate or inappropriate socialization is a common reason dogs develop behavioral problems such as aggression and anxiety.
If you are already having problems with your dog guarding food and other items, stealing things, or growling, make an appointment with us for a Help Now! session as soon as possible. Punishment in any form will likely make these behaviors worse and could result in someone being bitten.
Dogs and children both need training and supervision to learn how to appropriately and safely interact with one another. Dogs and children will not automatically get along. If you do not have children, your dog will still need to be socialized with children and learn how to interact with them. If you have children and a dog, you will need to spend time working with both. I highly recommend the book A Kids’ Comprehensive Guide to Speaking Dog! by Niki Tudge. You will discover some things that you probably did not know about dogs while learning how to teach your children about interacting with your dog and any other dog they may meet.
Think carefully about what you teach your puppy; intentionally or unintentionally. Un-training a behavior takes a whole lot more time and energy than training a behavior. A trick like “shake” is cute, but think long and hard if you want a dog that will always be trying to get every person they see to shake, even when they have muddy paws.
If there are multiple people that will be interacting with your dog, discuss what cues, visual and verbal, that you will use for specific behaviors so that you are all being consistent. Do not be in a hurry to add a visual (hand signal) or a verbal cue to a behavior. We do not start using a cue until we are confident that the dog understands the behavior in multiple contexts and environments. If you start using the cue to soon, you may need to change it. We will talk about that more in class.
If you have questions that just will not wait until class starts, contact us and make an appointment for a Help Now! session.
The blog posts listed below will all be very useful for anyone thinking about getting a new puppy or for those of you that just added a puppy to your family.
The shows listed below are from The Woof Meow Show (www.woofmeowshow.com) and cover a wide variety of topics that will be of interest to anyone with a new puppy. Click on the title to listen to the show.
Common Puppy Training Issues
<Click on the title to listen to the show>
Podcast – We’re Getting A New Puppy (or Dog)! – part 1 – This show and part 2 of this show, which will aired on March 11th, are companion shows to our January 14th and 21st shows entitled Finding the Right Dog for You and Your Family. Once you have found your new furry companion, whether they are a puppy or an older dog, there is much you need to be thinking about before you bring your new friend home. In this show, Don and Kate discuss the things you will need, might need, and don’t need. They finish the show with a discussion of the importance of a well thought out socialization and habituation plan for a puppy. If you have a puppy or dog selected, or are thinking about getting a canine companion, this show will help you prepare for your new dog. FIRST AIR DATE: 4MAR17
Podcast – We’re Getting A New Puppy (or Dog)! – part 2 – This show and part 1 of this show, which aired on March 4th, are companion shows to our January 14th and 21st shows entitled Finding the Right Dog for You and Your Family. In this show Kate and Don address the most typical behavior concerns with a new puppy or dog; housetraining, jumping up on people, play biting, and chewing. While this show is no substitute for a well-designed puppy class, it will get you pointed in the right direction. FIRST AIR DATE: 11MAR17
Podcast – How to Choose A Dog Trainer – Kate, and Don discuss what to look for when choosing a dog trainer and dog training class, as well as what to avoid. Dog training and recommended approaches to training a dog have changed dramatically as we have learned more about canines. As a result, we now know that some long-standing methods used to train a dog in the past, are in fact detrimental and can cause serious, long-term harm to your dog. Learn what to look for so that you and your dog have the best experience possible. FIRST AIR DATE: 7JAN17
Podcast – The benefits of training your dog and 2017 Training Classes at Green Acres – Kate and Don discuss why training a dog is so beneficial to all involved; the dog, the dog’s immediate family, and society in general. They discuss the advantages of working with a certified professional dog trainer so that you have someone that can coach both you and your dog when things are not going as expected. Additionally, they discuss why choosing a trainer that is committed to pain-free, force-free and fear-free training is so important. Lastly, they discuss the training classes that will be offered at Green Acres Kennel Shop in 2017. FIRST AIR DATE: 10DEC16
Dog Training Questions for Don and Kate with special guest host Dr. Mark Hanks – part 1 – Dr. Hanks interviews Don and Kate about their experiences as professional dog trainers. He asks Kate and Don about how training has changed in the past 26 years since Mark began his practice, why training a dog is important, the importance of training for mental enrichment, how breed effects training and compatibility with a family, how human intervention has adversely effected health and behavior, researching dogs before one decides what dog and breed to get, making temperament a key decision when picking a dog, what we typically teach a client and their dog, Green Acres holistic approach to training (husbandry, nutrition, body language, ethology, and training), inadvertent reinforcement of undesirable behaviors, the continuing necessity to refute antiquated and inaccurate myths about canine behavior, the optimal age for starting training, the structure of Green Acres training classes, Green Acres program to help parents find the best pet for them, how family lifestyles have changed and how that affects time for a dog, knowing when to wait before starting a group training class, and how they deal with special needs rescue dogs.
Dog Training Questions for Don and Kate with special guest host Dr. Mark Hanks – part 2 – Dr. Hanks asks Kate and Don about: Green Acres holistic approach to training (husbandry, nutrition, body language, ethology, and training) and how we work with families to understand their dog and the importance of having a good foundation of education so people can better understand their dogs, how some students may attend class without their dog either because their dog is sick, in heat or simply because the dog learns better at home, private training options at Green Acres, the critical period of puppy socialization and habituation, why socialization needs to be actively planned and implemented by owners – it doesn’t just happen, what do you do you when want your puppy to be a therapy dog, the difference between therapy dogs, service/assistance dogs, and emotional support dogs, the fake service dog epidemic, can you teach an old dog new tricks, how do you deal with constant barking, and how do you deal with clients that need the dogs behavior changed tomorrow.
Dog Training Questions for Don and Kate with special guest host Dr. Mark Hanks – part 3 – Dr. Hanks asks Kate and Don about: dominance, pack hierarchy and alphas and the current science which indicates wolves are a cooperative social species, the benefits of kind leadership as opposed to coercive based leadership, the myth of dogs doing things just to please us, temperament and personality in dogs, the importance of knowing parents because of the genetic role in temperament, “stubborn” dogs versus under-motivated dogs, epigenetics and the possibility of mental health disorders in dogs like autism and PTSD, and temperament as a continuum and nature versus nurture.
Housetraining – In support of APDT National Train Your Dog Month Kate and discuss housetraining tips for people with new puppies or for dog owners with older dogs that don’t quite get it. We’ll discuss our proven housetraining program which is also available as a handout on our website – (http://www.greenacreskennel.com/blog/2014/02/16/housetraining/).
First Air Date: 5JAN13
Dogs and Babies with Jennifer Shryock from Family Paws Parent Education – Kate and Don interview Jennifer Shryock the founder of Family Paws Pet Education about their innovative programs; Dogs & Storks™ and the Dog and Baby Connection. We’ll discuss why prior planning is so important for the successful integration of a new baby in a home with a dog and what you can do when you have questions.
First Air Date: 17AUG13
Dog Bite Prevention & Doggone Safe with Teresa Lewin of Doggone Safe- part 1 – In part one of this two-part series Kate and Don talk with Teresa Lewin, one of the founders of Doggone Safe, a non-profit dedicated to dog bite prevention through education. In this first show, we discuss the dog bite problem (50% of all children will be taken to the ER for a dog bite by the time they are 12), why these bites usually occur, and what Doggone Safe and their partners like Green Acres Kennel Shop are doing to help prevent them. If you have dogs and children or family with either, or if you work with children, you will want to listen to this show. Checkout the dog bite prevention page on our website for more information – http://www.greenacreskennel.com/dog-bite-prevention
First Air Date: 6APR13
Dog Bite Prevention & Doggone Safe with Teresa Lewin of Doggone Safe- part 2 – In part two of this two-part series Kate and Don talk with Teresa Lewin, one of the founders of Doggone Safe, a non-profit dedicated to dog bite prevention through education. In this second show, we discuss Doggone Safe’s innovative Be A Tree program for children and their Be Doggone Safe at Work program for adults that encounter dogs during work. We’ll discuss how these programs work and their availability through Green Acres Kennel Shop. If you have dogs and children or family with either, or if you work with children, you will want to listen to this show. Checkout the dog bite prevention page on our website for more information – http://www.greenacreskennel.com/dog-bite-prevention
First Air Date: 13APR13
Pet Food Myths – part 1 – In part one of this two-part series, Don and Kate discuss several myths and conceptions pet guardians have about pet food. The fact is that not all pet foods are the same, and the quality varies greatly. Kate and Don reveal these myths and guide the listeners on how to evaluate their pet’s food so that they can provide their pet with optimal nutrition that fits their budget. First Air Date: 6JUN11
Pet Food Myths – part 2 – In part two of this two-part series, Don and Kate discuss several myths and conceptions pet guardians have about pet food. The fact is that not all pet foods are the same, and the quality varies greatly. Kate and Don reveal these myths and guide the listeners on how to evaluate their pet’s food so that they can provide their pet with optimal nutrition that fits their budget. First Air Date: 13JUN11
A common call we receive goes like this: “We have a new puppy. She’s 11weeks old and has a lot of energy and is biting a lot as well as nipping at our ankles when we walk. We have tried spanking her butt, tapping her nose, and holding her on her back while holding her mouth shut. We continue to say “no biting”, but it doesn’t seem to help. She actually seems to be getting worse with my spouse and children and if anything it is causing her to be more aggressive.”
Don’t feel bad; you are not alone and I promise you, your puppy is not really a land shark in disguise.
Having a puppy biting and nipping at your heels can certainly be a very frustrating and painful experience and often takes some of the joy out of having a puppy in the first place; let’s face it, being bitten by those sharp little teeth hurts! That being said, the behavior, from the puppy’s perspective is a very normal one and right on target with their developmental period. Responding to this behavior by way of physical force was frequently recommended by dog trainers in the past, and unfortunately is too often still recommended by some trainers that have not kept up with the advances in the field of canine behavior.
Since typically, a puppy’s nipping behavior is repeated on a regular basis, they must find that behavior to be a rewarding one on some level. In an effort to eliminate the “problem biting,” people often inadvertently reward the behavior. In addition to the unintentional rewarding by humans, puppy biting is often a behavior that can be self-reinforcing.
Unfortunately, since we cannot ask the puppy why it finds the behavior rewarding, there is no way of having 100% certainty what the payoff is for each particular dog. However, if we look at typical canine instinctual behaviors we can make an educated guess. Dogs, as predators, are attracted by movement and are hard-wired to pursue things that are moving away from them. A swaying pants leg, robe, or dress can appear to be a very stimulating toy, tauntingly inviting any puppy to “latch on.” Some breeds, such as the herding breeds, often have more of a genetic predisposition towards the biting of feet and ankles.
This instinctually triggered nipping behavior often starts as a form of play and quickly escalates. A puppy may learn that when they grab our ankle they can get us to yelp, just like a squeaky toy, which they find extremely fun. No matter what the initial cause of the behavior, paying attention to the puppy in any manner (looking, touching or speaking to them) may be construed as a reward and at least from their perspective, participating in the play.
Your puppy’s increased aggression when you physically reprimand the biting may also be perceived as “rough play” and tacit approval from you to magnify the response. If the puppy feels threatened an escalation in aggression may be motivated by fear or anger and frustration. Attempts at correcting a puppy that is causing it to respond in fear or anger may result in a dog with serious behavioral and fear issues in the future.
Remember the old adage, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Examine the circumstances and the environment in which the nipping behavior occurs. Consider time of day, what you are doing, what the puppy is doing immediately before the behavior, the puppy’s activity level (tired, over-tired, hyper), and what else is occurring in the environment. Many puppies will “act up” when they are bored and not getting enough exercise or conversely, they are over-stimulated and not getting enough sleep. Look for triggers associated with the behavior so that they can be prevented in the future by managing the puppy and its environment. For example, if your puppy starts nipping when you want to end a play session, look at alternative ways to end play. A quick trip outside to “do its business,” followed by some down time in a crate would be one way that you could manage this behavior.
While prevention is one tool, we also need to ensure that the undesirable behavior is not being rewarded; this is often the most difficult part because it is our natural instinct to react and reaction (looking at, talking to, or touching the puppy) is usually rewarding. Put on some old worn out jeans and setup a situation where your puppy is likely to become a “land shark.” Make sure you have some tasty treats in your pockets to reward the behavior you like. When the puppy grabs at your pants leg, pretend you are a tree and stop. Do not look at, talk to, or touch your puppy. The very second the puppy lets go of your pants legs, quietly say “yes” to mark the behavior, and as long as your puppy is not biting, reach down and give it a treat.
If your puppy is one that likes to chase and nip at you from behind, perform the above exercise on leash, with the leash tethered to something secure, like a large piece of furniture. When you step out of range, your puppy will probably start barking in an attempt to gain attention. Continue to be a tree, ignoring the puppy until it stops barking and lunging on the leash. Quietly reach down and give the puppy a treat; alternatively you can play with the pup for a bit. If you choose to play be ready to completely ignore your puppy again when the play escalates to the point where it is too rough.
If your puppy has an extremely reliable sit behavior, “extremely reliable” meaning that you can say “sit” it once and only once and the dog will immediately respond on the first cue, then you could ask for a sit as a means of refocusing the dog. In this case by asking for a sit, you are using what is called a mutually exclusive behavior; a puppy cannot be sitting and “acting out” at the same time. This scenario illustrates how training for extremely reliable behaviors can be very useful.
Play biting and nipping is normal canine behavior for a puppy. It’s best to start working on this right at 8 weeks of age. If your puppy is 13 weeks of age or older and play biting is still a problem, contact a reward-based, force-free trainer for assistance.
Don Hanson is the co-owner of the Green Acres Kennel Shop (greenacreskennel.com) in Bangor. He is a Bach Foundation Registered Animal Practitioner (BFRAP), Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC), Associate Certified Cat Behavior Consultant (ACCBC) and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA). He produces and co- hosts a weekly radio show and podcast, The Woof Meow Show heard on The Pulse AM620 WZON and streamed at http://www.wzonradio.com/ every Saturday at 9 AM. A list of upcoming shows and podcasts of past shows can be found at www.woofmeowshow.com. Don also writes about pets at his blog: www.words-woofs-meows.com.
If you are having problems with your puppy or dog biting, we strongly encourage you to contact us ( 207-945-6841 ) so that you can make an appointment to see us for a Help Now! session. If you are not in our service area, we suggest you visit the Pet Professional Guild Trainer Search page ( https://www.petprofessionalguild.com/Zip-Code-Search ) to locate a force-free trainer near you.
OBJECTIVE: To teach your dog to have a gentle bite that does not hurt, if he ever makes mouth contact with you or any other person.
No matter how much training you do and how gentle your dog is, under certain circumstances any dog can be provoked to bite. Biting is an act of defense for a dog; it is often an instinctual response to specific situations. There are a variety of reasons that a dog may bite and contrary to popular belief, few bites are committed by “aggressive” dogs.
All dogs have what is referred to as a bite threshold. A bite threshold can be either low, high or anywhere in between and is individual for every dog and will be variable depending on what else is happening in the dog’s environment at that particular time. The best way to think of this threshold is to equate it to the “snapping point” in people. Some individuals are more tense and quicker to react in a situation than others. Virtually everything going on in the world around them will contribute to where a dog is at that given moment in time in relation to their bite threshold.
Hypothetically, a dog with a very high threshold (less reactive) who is well socialized, well fed, well rested and just kicking back around the house playing a bit and being petted will typically be unlikely to bite the mailman, unless the simple presence of the mailman puts this dog over threshold. The same dog, that is hungry, tired from all of the company that has been visiting, sore from the extra exercise and whose routine has been completely thrown out of whack would be more likely to bite that same mailman. All of these factors play into where the individual dog is at on the continuum. As humans, this should be pretty easy to understand; if we have had a bad day and have a headache, we tend to be grumpier than usual. With this in mind, we believe that it is important to first help a dog learn to inhibit their bites before we work on teaching them to not bite at all. The ultimate goal is that if your dog is ever put in a situation where he/she feels a need to defend itself, it will inflict only a minimal amount of damage.
We strongly discourage the use of traditional methods to teach puppies to not bite. These include, but are not limited to scruff shakes, cuffing the puppy under the chin, pinching their lips against their teeth and even the infamous “alpha wolf rollover” where you hold the dog down on their back. Often people find that when using these methods the puppy bites harder, becomes fearful of hands around its mouth and head and damages the trust the puppy has in its guardian. Aggression on our part results in more aggression from the puppy.
The 2015 AAHA Canine and Feline Behavior Management Guidelines published by the American Animal Hospital Association states:
“This Task Force opposes training methods that use aversive techniques. Aversive training has been associated with detrimental effects on the human–animal bond, problem solving ability, and the physical and behavioral health of the patient. It causes problem behaviors in normal animals and hastens progression of behavioral disorders in distressed animals. Aversive techniques are especially injurious to fearful and aggressive patients and often suppress signals of impending aggression, rendering any aggressive dog more dangerous.
Aversive techniques include prong (pinch) or choke collars, cattle prods, alpha rolls, dominance downs, electronic shock collars, lunge whips, starving or withholding food, entrapment, and beating. None of those tools and methods should be used to either teach or alter behavior.” [ emphasis added ]
The method we describe below works very differently. With this method you can minimize biting and any damage if your dog should ever be placed in a situation where it feels it has no choice but to bite.
Your puppy, even at its young age, has strong jaws and sharp teeth. As your puppy matures, its jaws will only become more powerful. An adult dog has jaws and teeth that are fully capable of ripping apart a carcass and cracking bones. Dogs developed such well-built apparatus because they needed them to survive in the wild.
Dogs are very social animals and because their jaws are such an incredible and potentially dangerous weapon, they have created a ritualized form of aggression to prevent serious injury to one another during altercations. Every puppy is born knowing how to bite; yet they do not automatically know how to bite softly. They can however learn to bite softly through their interactions with other puppies, dogs and us. However, learning how to control their bite with other dogs helps them with other dogs. If you want them to learn how to control their bite with people, you need to teach them.
When we see a litter of puppies playing, we see them exploring one another with their paws and their mouths. This play is fun for the puppies, but it is also an important part of learning. Much of their play involves biting one another. This play is part of how they acquire the skills necessary for ritualized aggression.
While puppies are playing with one another, they are also learning bite inhibition – how to control the strength of their bite. When two puppies are wrestling and one bites the other too hard, the puppy that has been bitten will yelp or snark and stop playing. The puppy that did the biting has just learned that if he bites too hard, his littermate stops playing with him. Eventually the one that was bitten too hard will return to play and the biting puppy will have learned to have a softer mouth. When we take a puppy away from its litter, we also are removing it from a school where it learns much about bite inhibition. If taken into a home without other dogs, and if its new people do not allow play biting, the puppy will no longer have opportunities to learn how to inhibit its bite. This is a huge issue for puppies that are taken from mom and the litter prior to reaching eight weeks of age.
Unfortunately, many outdated dog-training books actively discourage play biting. They infer that if the dog is allowed to play bite it will think of you as a littermate and will try to dominate you. In reality, play biting is an important part of your puppy’s development and something that should be worked with, not against, if you want your puppy to develop a soft mouth. Our goal is to teach the puppy to inhibit this natural canine behavior before they are adults and can cause serious injury.
It is also important to understand that “play biting” is a very different behavior than “chewing” While you dog uses their teeth as part of both behaviors one involves mouthing a living, breathing playmate that will react and interact while the other involves gnawing on an inanimate object that does not interact. This is why giving the dog a toy when they are play biting does not typically stop the play biting behavior.
Teaching Bite Inhibition
It is important to setup opportunities to teach your puppy bite inhibition instead of just trying to teach them when a bite happens. Pick times when the puppy is not all wound up but is more relaxed. If the puppy is in the midst of “the puppy zoomies*” when you try to teach this they are likely to bite harder and are less likely to learn.
*Puppy Zoomies – those times during the day, usually early morning and early evening, when your puppy runs around with great gusto and enthusiasm, almost as if they are possessed.
When teaching bite inhibition, you want to initially target the hard bites. Setup a play area for yourself and the puppy. Make sure that there is absolutely NOTHING in this area that the puppy can play with other than you. No other people, dogs, toys or anything they can mouth. Play with your puppy allowing him to mouth your hands while monitoring the pressure of his bites.
When the puppy bites too hard, say “ouch” as if he really hurt you. This word will become the conditioned stimulus which the puppy learns to mean “playtime ends.” Note: you want to use the same word every time, as does everyone else in the family. Some puppies may be overly stimulated by a “yelp” so you may need to tone down the volume.
Immediately stop play and get up and leave the area for 30 seconds. You must completely ignore the puppy. Do NOT look at, touch or speak to the puppy, just walk away. Make sure the puppy has no toys or other people they can interact with. We are teaching the puppy that when they bite too hard their friends leave and ALL of the fun in the universe comes to a screeching halt.
After 30 seconds return and resume play. When the puppy eventually bites too hard again (and he most likely will), repeat steps 2 and 3.
The above cycle will need to be repeated several times for the puppy to learn. Every day or so you will reduce the amount of pressure you tolerate so that in time your puppy learns that you have very soft skin and he can only mouth you very gently. Think of this like the 1 to 10 pain scale used by doctors. On day one you yelp at 10, day two at 9, and so on. Be careful of moving to a soft pressure too quickly. If your criteria are too high, you are setting your puppy up to fail.
If you try teaching bite inhibition and it turns into the “puppy zoomies,” quietly and with much positive energy, pop your puppy in their crate for a brief timeout.
Some puppies will follow you and nip at your heels and clothes when you stop play. If this is the case, the bite inhibition exercises should be done with the puppy on a leash that is tethered to something like a table so the puppy cannot follow you.
The amount of time it takes your dog to learn how much pressure is okay will vary from dog to dog. The retrieving breeds generally pick this up quite quickly as they have been bred to have very soft mouths. Who wants to have their duck brought back all full of holesJ. On the flip side, it may take a bit more time to help your terrier become soft-mouthed.
Children should not participate in the bite inhibition training. While children and dogs often become the best of friends, young children frequently send dogs all the wrong signals. They scream, flail their limbs, run and fall down. All of these behaviors trigger your dogs hard-wired prey drive as they are essentially the same thing wounded prey would do. If the puppy gets too revved up, a timeout is necessary for both the puppy and the kids.
NOTE: If bite inhibition training was not started when your dog was a puppy (between 8 and 12 weeks), it may not work as well as you would like. If this is the case, please talk with one of the instructors for other ideas on handling biting issues.