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Taming the Shark-Toothed Puppy

Playful nipping and biting is natural, but teaching pups not to direct it at humans is essential.

Every time I bring home a new puppy, there’s a period when I find myself wondering, “Why, why, WHY did I do this to myself?” All the nipping of hands and ankles, chewing of anything in sight and on top of it all, the rigors of housetraining are enough to drive anyone a little mad. However, it’s not long before I find myself wondering how I ever survived without this new furry creature in my life.

If I, a life-long “dog addict,” suffer some doubt and regret while going through those first few painful weeks of intensive puppy training, imagine how stressful that period is for the first-time puppy parent. All the reading in the world can’t fully provide the coping skills people need to survive puppyhood while shaping their bundle of fluff into a picture perfect pet. Much of that just has to be learned in the trenches, and it really helps to have a seasoned puppy pro to guide you along the way.

This week I met with a young couple who found themselves in precisely this situation. They were so concerned about their puppy’s “out of control” nipping and biting that they were even considering giving the puppy up. I assured them that this is just one of the ways in which puppies are pre-programmed to play with other puppies. The behavior they were seeing was completely natural at this stage despite the fact that many new dog owners mistake it for aggression or “dominance.” In fact, next to housetraining, excessive nipping is the problem puppy behavior owners most frequently seek my help with.

Of course, I also emphasized how important it is to nip playful nipping-of-humans right in the bud. Contrary to what many dog owners believe, this isn’t a behavior most puppies naturally grow out of without the right feedback. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of bad advice out there on this topic.

One of my pet puppy training peeves is when a student tells me their veterinarian recommended scolding the pup while clamping its mouth firmly shut or poking their finger down its throat when it nips. Using out of date methods like these might get the pup to stop nipping, but they may also cause the pup to resent human hands reaching towards its head. In some dogs (especially ones prone to anxiety), this could even have the unintended side effect of swapping out playful puppy nipping for an actual aggressive bite during adolescence or adulthood if the dog feels threatened when someone reaches out to pet it on the head one day.

My other pet peeve is a practice that is not damaging so much as just ineffective. So many resources out there say, “When the puppy nips you, say ‘Ouch!’ or ‘No!’ and redirect the puppy to a toy.” What’s wrong here is the timing. From this approach, many pups learn that nipping people initiates play. I completely agree that redirection is a great approach, but the real trick is to anticipate that the pup is about to nip, and maneuver a toy in the pup’s mouth before teeth touch skin or clothing. When done consistently, it just becomes a dog’s habit to hold a toy in its mouth when playing with humans. Occupying a dog’s teeth in this way makes nipping impossible.

Most pups readily learn that nipping people “doesn’t work” if their humans consistently shun the dog (time out) when they feel its teeth. The sequence is:

  • puppy nips, human utters a sound (some like “ouch,” but I just use my universal “ah, ah!”)
  • human abandon’s puppy, leaving it safely in a dog-proofed area or, if this is not possible, puts the puppy in a pre-arranged “unfun zone,” for a few seconds up to a few minutes—just long enough for the pup to feel the pain of being alone, but not so long that the pup loses sight of this time out’s point.

Some pups do benefit stronger feedback. However, when any kind of aversive (including a startling noise like a shake can or Pet Corrector spray) is used, extreme care must be taken not to accidentally associate the punishment with other stimuli in the area at the same time. For example, if a pup is startled for nipping and at the same time they are aware of something new to them, perhaps a baby carriage or an umbrella, they are likely to develop a superstitious fear of that thing as well as associating bad consequences with nipping people. I always recommend working with a professional dog trainer rather than trying this sort of technique on your own.

No matter what techniques you choose, when you are not prepared to follow through with your training protocol, it’s critical to use management methods to prevent a pup from practicing its nipping habit. Pet tethers, gates, playpens, crates—and even a basket muzzle for extreme cases—can all be useful in this respect.

It’s not entirely impossible for a puppy to actually display aggressive biting behavior, but it’s extremely rare in my experience. I can count on one hand the number of puppies I’ve encountered over the past decade that fall into this category.

Puppies are nippy little creatures. That’s just Mother Nature’s way of ensuring they get plenty of feedback about bite strength before their jaws reach their full potential for power. One of the most important skills a new pet parent can teach their pup is how to interact with humans without using their teeth, and the manner in which people accomplish this is just as important.

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