This episode of The Woof Meow Show from March 9th, 2019 is the second show in a three-part series. Kate and Don discuss; play biting, roughhousing, the importance and benefits of starting a Puppy Headstart class by the time the puppy is 10-weeks old, handling for grooming and routine care, managing kids and a puppy, growling, stealing, play, and chewing. You can find a list of links to corresponding articles on Don’s blog labeled as:
Part one in this series addressed things you will want to consider before you bring a puppy home; like choosing a veterinarian and a dog trainer and getting signed up for a training class that uses pain-free, force-free, and fear-free methods. Then Kate and Don move on to things you will need to do when you bring that cute ball of fluff home, and the first thing they emphasize is the need for patience. Kate and Don conclude the episode by addressing these critical puppy topics; socialization, alone training, and housetraining. This episode is available as a podcast at Podcast – Especially for New Puppy Parents – Part 1 – http://bit.ly/WfMw-Esp_Pups1
The third show in this series will address the initial training tasks you will want to focus on with your new puppy. That includes; handfeeding for attention, food as a powerful reward and motivator, and how to use life rewards. They will also address the importance of learning how to keep yourself and other people from inadvertently rewarding behavior that you do not like, such as jumping. Based on their experience teaching thousands of people how to train their dogs Kate and Don discuss why training takes time, commitment, and consistency and how to avoid common training mistakes.
You can hear The Woof Meow Show on Z62 Retro Radio, AM620, and WKIT HD3 at 9 AM on Saturday. If you are not near a radio, listen on your computer at http://bit.ly/AM620-WZON or your smartphone or tablet with the free WZON 620 AM app. A podcast of the show is typically posted immediately after the show. You can download this show and others at http://woofmeowshow.libsyn.com/, at Don’s blog http://bit.ly/Words-Woofs-Meows and the Apple iTunes store.
Dog parks can be an excellent place for your dog to run, romp, and socialize.
They can provide an outlet for much needed mental stimulation and physical exercise, especially if you do not have a fenced yard where your dog can do this at home. However, as I will explain in this article, dog parks can also be the site of great tragedy. I cannot emphasize enough, the need for caution before you take your dog to the dog park.
What Do the Experts Say About Dog Parks?
In a March 14, 2018 blog post by Nancy Kerns, the editor of The Whole Dog Journal, Dog Parks Are Dangerous! , Kerns describes what she calls “…a completely avoidable dog park fatality.” The news report by KCRA-3 in Sacramento shows video of Honey at the dog park the day before she was killed and describes what happened. The dogs who killed Honey in this incident are dangerous dogs and should never have been allowed off-leash outside of a fenced yard at their home again, much less be allowed at a dog park, yet what will prevent that from happening?
Kerns is not alone in her cautious approach to dog parks. In April of 2013, Dr. Karen London’s article Culture of Dog Parks appeared in The Bark, where she wrote: “It’s hard to deny the cliché that dog parks create both the best of times and the worst of times.“
In the January 2018 issue of The Whole Dog Journal, professional dog trainer and author, Pat Miller, outlined the pros and cons of dog parks in an article of the same name. Miller notes “As dog parks have become more common (and, indeed, as dog ownership has been on the rise in the past decade) they have somehow morphed from being something that local dog owners band together and fight to build, to places where few really knowledgeable owners care to take their dogs. It seems everyone has a horror story to tell about “that day at the dog park,” featuring overstimulated dogs running amok, dogs practicing bully behaviors, dog fights, and even dog deaths.” [Emphasis added]
I love dogs and like nothing better than helping people and their dogs have the best life possible. I do not believe anyone intentionally puts their dog in harm’s way. However, in today’s fast-paced life where we often seem to jump from one task to the next with little forethought, we can put our dogs at risk. There are many things to consider before you take your dog to the dog park. As I discuss the pros and cons of dog parks, I will provide you with suggestions on what you can do to make sure that if you choose to take your dog to a dog park, it is a pleasurable experience for all.
Questions to Ask Yourself Before the 1st Trip to A Dog Park
Assessing Your Dog
How long have you had your dog? If you have just rescued a dog, congratulations and thank you for providing a home to a dog in need! However, you need to understand that going through the rescue process can be pretty traumatic, and as a result, you may not know your dog’s true nature for several days or even weeks. To ensure your dogs transition from rescue to companion goes as smoothly as possible, take some time to get to know your new friend. Build an incredible bond before you tackle an adventure, with significant risks, like the dog park. The same holds true for starting a training class, and yes you should complete a training class with EVERY dog in your family; however, not all rescues will be ready to start a class immediately, as I learned with my rescue dog Muppy.
However, if you have a puppy, you need to recognize that a critical learning period for a puppy starts at eight weeks of age and ends by sixteen weeks of age. You will want to start them in a class during this timeframe or at least be working with a reward-based, fear-free trainer at this time.
How old is your dog?
Puppies – For health reasons alone I would NEVER bring a puppy to a dog park until they are fully vaccinated. Remember, unlike a reputable puppy headstart class or daycare, no one is verifying that dogs visiting the dog park are current on all recommended vaccinations and are free of worms fleas, and other parasites.
Puppies first learn about interacting with other dogs and how and how not to play from littermates, mom, and hopefully from other appropriate older dogs. A singleton puppy, or puppies that are removed from mom too soon, may miss out on many essential learning opportunities and may not be appropriate for the dog park. If you adopt a puppy that falls into this category, I recommend working with a reward-based, force-free trainer without delay.
While it is essential for a puppy to have opportunities to play and interact with other dogs, especially during the 8 to 16 week socialization period, it is vital that you plan and control those playtimes to ensure a positive outcome. That means you need to know the people and the other puppy that will be playing with your pup.
The best playmates for a puppy are those of the same approximate age and size that also enjoy the same type of play. Some puppies like to chase while others like to be chased. Some want to body slam, while others prefer to wrestle. Puppies with mismatched play styles may not have a good time.
I also advise my puppy headstart students to avoid letting their pup play with “teenage” dogs between 12 months and 36 months of age unless they know those dogs very well. Doing so is not all that different from sending a five-year-old child out with a group of teenagers. Yes, a young puppy may happily interact by playing with canine teenagers, but they may also learn to play too rough and in a manner that will not be appreciated by pups in their age group.
Lastly, the best play opportunities for a new puppy is with one other puppy at a time. By limiting a playgroup to two puppies, you avoid the possibility of a group of pups bullying one puppy. Two dogs are also much easier to supervise than several puppies. Yes, daycare’s will have more dogs playing at once; however, any reputable daycare staff will have several hours of training on behavior and group play before being asked to supervise a group of dogs. Even then a trustworthy daycare will limit the size of playgroups to no more than five to eight dogs per supervising pet care technician.
Senior Dogs – An older dogs view of enjoyable play may be very different from the type of play preferred by puppies or adolescent dogs. Many older dogs prefer just wandering, sniffing, and exploring their surroundings. They avoid interactions with younger, overly enthused dogs that often play too rough. If your senior dog is in this category, the dog park may not be a good choice. An older dog can wander and enjoy themselves on a long line many places where they do not need to concern themselves with rowdy dogs.
Has your new puppy or dog been examined by your veterinarian? – Before taking a dog to the dog park, you need to take them to your veterinarian for their first wellness exam, even if the shelter or breeder just had the dog at their veterinarian. Your veterinarian will make sure that your dog gets all of the necessary vaccines or titer tests before they are exposed to the world. Your veterinarian will also discuss flea and parasite preventatives. This is important because no one is verifying that other dogs at the dog park have been vaccinated and are free of parasites. You do not want to take your dog to the dog park and have them bring home any unwanted and potentially harmful parasites, bacteria or viruses.
If your new friend has not been spayed or neutered yet, this is also when your veterinarian will discuss the pros and cons of neutering and the appropriate time for doing so. Spaying and neutering is not a black and white topic as it once was. You may want to get more than one opinion about whether you should spay or neuter, and when you should do so. Do not let a breeder or veterinarian dictate what you decide. When it comes to dog parks, understand that an unspayed female should not be at a dog park or daycare at any point during her heat cycle, and unneutered males may not always play appropriately. Many boarding and daycare facilities will require that dogs be spayed/neutered by six months of age if they participate in group play.
How well was your dog socialized between three and sixteen weeks of age? Puppies have a critical socialization period between three and sixteen weeks of age. If you have a rescue dog, it is unlikely you will know how your dog was socialized, and it is a pretty safe bet that they had little or no socialization. That means that it is very likely that they will be cautious and possibly fearful of anything or anyone that they have not experienced previously. I would NOT recommend taking a dog to the dog park as a way of making up for a lack of socialization during the critical period. Also, recognize that socialization is about much more than introducing your dog to a couple of other dogs. Dogs vary widely in appearance and behavior, so it is essential that your dog have positive experiences with dogs of a wide variety of shapes, sizes, ages, colors and play styles. While remedial socialization is possible, it must be planned and controlled, and one must proceed slowly. Under socialized or inappropriately socialized dogs are not a good candidate to go to the dog park until they are no longer anxious in novel situations. Habituating your dog to novel stimuli may take several weeks of effort on your part. A reward-based, force-free trainer can help you plan a socialization program for your dog and can help make sure that you minimize any mistakes.
Is your dog anxious, fearful, reactive, or aggressive towards dogs or people? If, yes, do NOT take your dog to the dog park. There are many reasons your dog may behave in this manner. Taking them to the dog park is unlikely to change your dog’s behavior and in fact, has a high probability of making this behavior worse because the dog park will be filled with the things that cause your dog to react; people and other dogs. It also puts other people and dogs at risk of a severe
How well trained is your dog? To keep your dog, yourself, and others at the dog park safe, you have a responsibility to maintain control over your dog at all times and in all situations. Minimally, your dog should have a reliable sit, recall, an attention/look behavior, and a leave-it Your dog should reliably respond to these cues in your home and in the presence of other dogs and people in novel environments. If you and your dog have not become proficient at these behaviors, or if your dog is distracted by other dogs, enroll yourself and your dog in a reward-based training program that does not use aversives. You will be ready for the dog park once your dog responds reliably to behavioral cues in the presence of other dogs and people.
The sit behavior is useful for getting your dog under control, helping the
dog to learn to control their impulses and a way you can prevent them from jumping on other people and dogs at the dog park.
A reliable recall behavior will allow you to get your dog to return to you instead of joining a dogfight or may prevent them from mobbing the new dog entering the park.
A well-trained leave-it can work in much the same fashion.
After you have accomplished teaching these behaviors, then take your dog to the dog park.
Why are you taking your dog to the dog park? Not every dog needs to go to
the dog park or for that matter doggie daycare. One of the new myths being perpetuated by some is the idea that you are a bad dog parent unless you take your dog to daycare or the dog park several days per week. The fact is, not all dogs will benefit from or enjoy dog parks or doggie daycare. We rescued our Cairn Terrier Dulcie when she was about five years old. We let her settle in our home, and a few weeks later I sent her to daycare. I owned the daycare, it was easy, and I thought she would enjoy socializing with other dogs. Within a couple of days, my staff was telling me “Dulcie hates daycare. She has no interest in the other dogs and wants them to stay far away.” That ended Dulcie’s daycare adventure and also let me know that Dulcie would have hated a dog park.
If your dog loves a rousing game of fetch, it is entirely possible that they will not enjoy other dogs chasing after their “ball.” There are many places to play fetch other than the dog park.
If your dog only needs a place to sniff or roll in the grass, fence in your yard or if that is not an option, put your dog on a long line (a 15 to 20-foot leash) and let them explore your yard or non-dog parks where dogs are allowed.
Daycare and dog parks are for well-socialized dogs that already enjoy the company of other dogs and people.
Neither the dog park nor daycare is an appropriate venue for the remedial socialization of a dog that is anxious or reactive to other dogs or people.
Do you have a basic understanding of dog behavior? Many of the myths about dogs, such as; dominance and being “alpha,” and the need to use aversives to exert dominance are not only false but are counterproductive to the training, management, and care of a dog. They can easily cause a dog to become unsuitable for interactions at the dog park. If you need help in understanding what is fact and what is myth about canine behavior, seek out a professional rewarded-based, fear-free dog trainer. Do NOT rely on the internet which is where many of the erroneous information about dog behavior is routinely circulated.
Do you understand the subtlety of body language used by dogs? Dog’s use their body to communicate with other dogs as well as us. A dog may give many signals before they react, giving us an opportunity to help them before things get out of hand. You need to be able to recognize your dog’s calls for help. A professional force-free and pain-free dog trainer can teach you how to interpret what your dog is trying to tell you.
How well do you understand dog play behavior? Most dogs love to play, and it is an essential part of their ongoing development. However, no dog will play if they are thirsty, hungry, tired, in pain or fearful. Dogs need to feel both physically and emotionally safe before they will play. A dog that is new to you, especially a rescue, is unlikely to feel safe in your home immediately, much less at a dog park filled with strangers. Until you have established a bond of trust with your dog, you are better off avoiding the dog park. When you do decide to visit the dog park, be ready to leave if your dog is not having a good time.
Play has no other aim but itself, it is all about fun. Normal dog play includes bits and pieces of aggressive, predatory, and sexual behavior in a non-threatening context. Once a dog is playing it usually is all about play. Keep the dog park for play and other places for training. A visit to the dog park can be a high-value reward after a brief training session.
Play is ALWAYS voluntary. First of all, it is NOT play if any of the participants are not interested in playing. When a dog initiates play, it is normal to respect others dog when they tell them “not now.” Not all dogs do well at this. When my dog Tikken was a puppy, she was not good at listening to older dogs who asked that she back off.
Play is self-rewarding. Just like some people get a “runners high” and others get addicted to gambling, chocolate, nicotine, and narcotics some dogs can get addicted to playing, which is not a good thing. The same thing that happens in the brain of a runner or drug addict can happen in the brain of a dog. Fetch, which is predatory behavior, is self-rewarding, and with some dogs can become a compulsive behavior. Our dog Dulcie was a ball addict. When people did not “give Dulcie “a tennis ball fix,” she became cranky and chronically stressed. Chronic stress can cause numerous emotional, mental and physical health issues. Dogs can also get addicted to the dog park, so remember, visit in moderation. I discourage daily visits to the dog park.
Play is not the same as reality. While play is very real, it is a variation on normal behaviors such as aggression, predation, and sex. That is why dogs will typically signal play via a play bow. The play bow means that what the dog does following the play bow and is NOT aggression or predation. Be aware that the play bow can also be used as a calming signal to increase distance. A play bow requesting play will be very dynamic with fluid and quick lateral motions. A play bow in slow motion is a way of saying “take it down a notch.”
Play is flexible and variable. Dogs will find a variety of ways to play. If it is with an object, play might constitute mouthing it, tossing it around, or pushing it with their nose. If it is play with another dog they might wrestle, chase, lie down and chew next to each other, then do some more chasing. Play is variable to keep it fun.
Play includes role reversals; there are no winners. Appropriate play between two dogs should be balanced. Dog A chases Dog B; then Dog B. chases Dog A, etc.. Dog B is on top when wrestling than Dog A gets their turn on top. If play is one-sided, it is no longer play.
Play includes self-handicapping. Older and larger dogs will often self-handicap when playing with smaller and younger dogs. We used to have an English Mastiff daycare with us, and she was one of the best dogs at getting puppies to play because she was so gentle and good at self-handicapping.
How reliable are your dogs sit, leave it, and recall behaviors? You have a
responsibility to be able to control your dog when they are out in public. Lack of training becomes even more critical at a dog park. If your dog cannot reliably perform a; SIT, LEAVE IT, or RECALL in the presence of other dogs, they are not a good candidate to take to the dog park. A professional, reward-based, force-free trainer can help you teach your dog these behaviors.
Do you know how to break-up a dogfight? If you are at all worried about your dog getting into a fight, do not go to the dog park. If you scout out the dog park before you bring your dog there, you should minimize the chances of a fight if the dog park passes my recommended tests. Dr. Sophia Yin has written an excellent article on breaking up a dog fight which you can access by clicking the link found above.
For Your First Visit – Leave Your Dog At Home
I recommend that you visit the dog park without your dog until you can first assess the physical facility and the parks culture. Visit the dog park without your dog on a day and at a time when you are likely to visit, looking for the following:
Assessing the Dog Park
Does the park have a double-gated entrance? – A double-gated entrance is a basic safety feature for a dog park. By opening only one gate at a time, it is possible to limit the possibility of dogs escaping. If there is no double gate, find another dog park
Is there a separate area for smaller dogs? – There is a huge difference in mass between a 4lb Yorkie and a 250lb English Mastiff. Even with no malicious intent, a larger dog can seriously injure a small dog during play. If you have a small dog, 30lb and less, you need a separate area at the dog park. Moreover, just because your little dog thinks they are a big dog, is no reason to allow them to play in the big dog area.
How large is the dog park and where is it located? – Ideally, a dog park will be several acres in size. Sadly, dog parks are often low priorities for many municipalities and are typically too small. Ten dogs in some dog parks at the same time may be too many. Dog parks are often located on the outskirts of town or in a less than desirable neighborhood, so think about your safety as well. My favorite dog park is Bruce Pit in Ottawa, Ontario. I had the opportunity to tour Bruce Pitt with my friend Carolyn Clark and Turid Rugaas, the author of Calming Signals. The park is enormous with varied terrain for the dogs to explore. It is possible to for your dog and a canine buddy to interact there without encountering a horde of frenetic fur balls.
Is the fencing in good repair so that a dog cannot hurt themselves or escape? – I own a kennel with lots of fencing and can tell you unequivocally it requires constant maintenance, especially after a Maine winter. Sadly, the dog park is often the last on the priority list for many municipal park departments. If the fencing is in disrepair, find another dog park.
Is the grass mowed on a regular basis and are the weeds under control? Like it or not, ticks are now part of our lives in Maine. Ticks love long grass. Recognize that if the grass at the dog park, both inside the fence and along the outside border of the fence, is not mowed on a regular basis, you may be exposing your dog and yourself to ticks and the many diseases they carry.
Is the park equipped to handle dog feces? – Any dog park needs to have; a dispenser for bags you can use to dispose of your dog’s poop and a closed container to be used for the disposal of filled poop bags and other trash. If the trash can is full, it is not getting emptied often enough. Dog feces will attract rodents, which in turn can spread parasites throughout the park. Walk around the park and observe if it is clear of feces. If not, this sadly suggests those using the park are not being good stewards and that you will want to find another dog park.
Assessing the Dog Park’s Culture
Are people focused and monitoring their dogs? Dogs at play need to be supervised, and you cannot be wrapped up in conversations with other people or engrossed in a cell phone and still be responsibly monitoring your dog. The best dog parks will not have places for people to sit. If people are not supervising their dogs, you want to pick a different time, day, or dog park.
How many dogs are present and is there one person for each dog? Dog Walkers and Pet Sitters sometimes bring groups of dogs that they are caring for to dog parks because they do not have their own People with multiple dogs may also bring more than one dog to the dog park. I believe that there should be one responsible adult human per every dog at the dog park.
How do the dogs in the park greet newcomers? Are they under control? When entering a dog park, a person and their dog are often swarmed by other dogs at the park. While the dogs charging to greet your dog may not have any malicious intent, your dog may not see it that way. If other people at the dog park are acting responsibly, they will call their dog to them and keep it under control so that you and your dog can enter the dog park in peace.
Are any of the dogs at the park bullying other dogs? If another dog is behaving pushy towards your dog, your dog will probably find the dog park a less than enjoyable experience. The dog that is being the bully is learning that type of behavior is okay, which means they are more likely to practice it more often. The dog park needs to be a bully-free zone.
Are any of the dogs wearing shock, choke, or prong collars?Aversives (choke collars, prong collars, shock collars, and more) have no place in the training or management of any dog and are likely to cause fear and aggression; neither trait makes for a good dog park dog. Both the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) and the Pet Professional Guild (PPG) recommend that aversives should never be used.
So Let’s Go to the Park!
If you believe you and your dog are ready for the dog park and have found a park that meets your criteria for safety, then by all means go. Listed below are items I suggest you take with you whenever you visit a dog park with your dog.
Things to Bring When You Go to the Dog Park
An extra leash
Water and a bowl
A first aid kit
A cell phone pre-programmed with the number of the closest vet, but keep it in the car
Your insurance information and a pen and paper to record information
Things to Leave at Home or in the Car When You go to the Dog Park
Your cell phone
Your iPad or any type of electronic tablet
Anything that will distract you from supervising your dog
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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. He is committed to pet care and pet training that is free of pain, force, and fear. The opinions in this post are those of Don Hanson.
In this blog post from Companion Animal Psychology, Zazie Todd, PhD reviews a paper that examines why dogs play. The paper discusses four theories as to why dogs play and suggests that play is not always a sign of good welfare.
In this episode of The Woof Meow Show from October 22nd, 2016 Kate, Don and Dr. Mike McCaw from the Veazie Veterinary Clinic answer listener questions about cats. Questions we address are: How many kittens are in the typical cat letter?, How old should kittens be before you can handle them and play with them?, Do all indoor cats need to have a Rabies shot?, If I live in a rural area is it okay to let my cat outdoors? How can I help an outdoor cat learn to like being indoors?, What is it with cats and bags and boxes?, How big of a deal is teeth grinding with cats?, Why does my cat always follow me into the bathroom?, Why do some cats play in their water dishes? How can I keep my plants safe from my cats?, When should I be concerned about my senior cat’s mobility and pain levels? We have a cat door, and my cat brings in “feathered gifts,” what can I do? and cats and holiday ribbon – help!?!
You can hear The Woof Meow Show on The Pulse AM620, WZON, and WKIT HD3 at 12 Noon on Saturday. If you’re not near a radio, listen on your computer at http://www.wzonthepulse.com or your smartphone or tablet with the free WZON 620 AM app. A podcast of the show is typically posted immediately after the show, and can be downloaded at www.woofmeowshow.com and the Apple iTunes store.
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.