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Nipping in the Bud

It’s normal and even cute when your puppy nibbles, but you need to teach him that teeth and skin just don’t mix

Where there are puppies, there will be teeth. In fact, teeth on skin or clothes is one of the big topics with puppy-families, especially when there are kids at home. But if you asked us, our answer would be: if you have no tolerance for teeth on skin or clothes, don’t get a puppy. (Note we’re not talking about aggressive biting here, which is a weighty behaviour problem that requires a careful attitude.) Puppy nibbling is painful, and it is irritating. And it is part of having a puppy. We work to reduce it, but we also adjust our expectations to realise that it will happen for many weeks–and maybe even months–after bringing the new pup home. If it were simply a matter of knowing and practicing certain techniques, then a trainer should glide through puppy-hood unscathed, right? My arms and hands attest to the fact that doing it “right” doesn’t completely stop puppy nibbling. While you’re holding a toy for the pup to chew, her mouth may slip and nick your hand instead. Or, she may be in a mood and uninterested in anything other than human flesh. A fun game of tug can turn painful when she jumps to readjust her grip and grabs your hand instead of the toy. We are sure it must’ve happened with all of us. Puppies like to play and the more they play, the more excited they get, and the more excited they get, the more they use their mouths to play. Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is this: if you have a puppy, you will have teeth on your skin and clothes. A reward-based trainer can help you minimize and manage the nibbling, but we cannot eliminate it (some trainers would even say we do not want to eliminate it). Mouthing and chewing is a very normal, very frequent part of a puppy’s behavior repertoire. Requiring or forcing them to forgo it would be like asking us to stop breathing. Not only is chewing a normal dog behavior, but it’s also a means of pain relief for puppies who are teething. And if you do have kids and are considering a puppy, plan to actively supervise them anytime they are interacting with each other. The bottom line, however, is that the pupper has to learn that he should take treats gently from your hand and also that any game involving humans don’t get toothy. But we’re lucky because dogs already know this. Watch a little puppy play with his little mates when he’s still with his mom: if one puppy gets a little bit bity, the one that’s been bitten will go “Ouch!”. And the game will stop completely. So puppies learn very early that when teeth come out, play finishes. So we need to teach them that it’s exactly the same thing with humans.

First of all, never slap or hit your puppy in the face. This does not work! Your puppy will just think you are playing or could become afraid of you. This may even lead to some much bigger problems than simple puppy nipping. The general rule to stop puppy biting problems is to always encourage acceptable behaviour and always discourage unacceptable behaviour. If you don’t clearly communicate to your dog that the biting is unacceptable, he will not know he is doing anything wrong. It’s up to you to show him what is acceptable behavior, don’t just expect your puppy to know this! (You are really taking on the role of his littermates for this task).
Treat Route: Take a treat, hold it in your hand and wrap your fingers around it and no matter how much your dog tries to get at it, bite your hand or paw at your hand you mustn’t let him have it. What you have to wait for is the minute that his nose comes away from your hand. That’s what you’re rewarding him for. He needs to know that he’s never ever going to get a treat by biting your hand.
The only way he’s going to get it is to stop doing it and back away from the hand a bit. That way he knows that biting and grabbing a hand is never going to get him a treat. And it’s also a very good way to give a treat to a dog that you’ve never met before. Wrap the treat in your hand and then open your fingers gently and let the dog have it. Since biting is an unacceptable type of play with you, it’s important to teach your dog how to play with toys instead of your hand. Playing is a healthy natural activity that helps build a bond between you and your puppy. Before teaching your puppy not to bite it’s important to teach him to decrease bite pressure. When you’re playing with toys it’s the same thing: his teeth mustn’t ever touch your hand. If they do you say “Ouch!”, kind of the same way his little mates would, and turn away from him. So if you feel his teeth on your hand at all you let him know with a little “Ouh!”, turn away and let the game stops for a few seconds. Make sure to speak up every time he bites too hard so that your puppy can learn your threshold for what is acceptable and what isn’t. Then go back and play again but he has to remember not to use his teeth and to be more careful next time.
What’s really important is that everybody in the family practices this, not just you. Anyone who plays with the dog has to teach him that teeth and skin don’t mix!

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