Puppy Mouthing & Bite Inhibition


“Puppy mouthing is 100% natural dog behavior. It’s not dominance. It’s not meanness. It’s a puppy being a puppy, roughhousing with parents and littermates or with human substitutes. Rather than ‘no bite,’ I strongly, strongly urge you to teach your puppy bite inhibition instead. Bite inhibition means training for a ‘soft mouth.’ It teaches your pup to use his mouth gently with people.” – Melissa Alexander

As soon as puppies’ teeth start developing, they start learning about what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate actions with their mouths. If a puppy bites a littermate too hard, his sibling may yelp and stop playing until the puppy calms down. If the puppy bites his mother too hard while he’s nursing, she may remove herself and take away his food. It is through these interactions with the puppy’s mother and littermates that the puppy begins to learn how to use his mouth appropriately.

“Bite inhibition is the single most important lesson a dog must learn… The narrow time window for developing a ‘soft mouth’ begins to close at four-and-a-half months of age, about the time when the adult canine teeth first show. Providing your puppy with an ideal forum to learn bite inhibition is the most pressing reason to enroll him in puppy classes before he is eighteen weeks old.

Bite inhibition does not mean stopping the puppy from biting altogether. On the contrary, puppies must bite in order to learn bite inhibition. Bite inhibition means, learning to inhibit the force of the bites, so they no longer hurt or cause damage.” – Ian Dunbar

Puppies may also bite for attention. Sometimes people respond by making a big fuss and saying “No!”, scolding the puppy, and pushing him away. What they don’t realize is that even “bad attention” is still attention. If the puppy wants you to pay attention, and you respond in any way, you are giving the puppy attention. Any kind of attention is attention. What you need to do is remove attention. You can also make a sound to show the puppy that the biting hurt, and hard bites = removal of attention.

Dog trainer Pat Miller feels that “a high-pitched yelp is at least as likely to incite an excited biting puppy to a higher level of arousal (and harder biting) as it is to tell him he bit you too hard and he should soften his mouth.” She says, “Don’t do it. A calm ‘Ouch’ sends a much more consistent, useful and universal message, which is simply, ‘That behavior makes the good stuff go away.'” If you feel that yelping is only causing your dog to become more excited, then try Pat’s method instead.

“Puppies bite because they are teething and learning to control their bite strength, and because nipping is a way to explore and join the social life of dogs. Another reason puppies bite is because it makes exciting things happen; biting earns attention.

Biting for the reaction usually happens after the puppy enters its ‘forever home.’ The typical scene is where the family is quiet, relaxing after a long day. Mom is checking her Facebook account, dad has his feet up watching the game, Suzy is studying, while Johnny plays Xbox. Everyone is ignoring the puppy. Ho-hum.

The bored puppy muses, ‘How can I get this party started?’ Biting often works to get attention, so the puppy zooms around the room leaving a wake of torn pant legs in its path. Ignored no longer, now the entire family is looking at and touching the puppy, and ‘barking’ with excitement (yelling at the puppy). Every family member has put aside what was previously interesting in order to focus on the puppy. Mission accomplished—the party has started! Puppies are very good at training humans to pay attention to them.” – Casey Lomonaco

As long as your puppy is being gentle, reinforce the desired behavior with calm touches and further interaction. If your puppy bites you too hard, make a noise and remove attention for a few moments. If you are playing with your puppy and your puppy continues to bite harder, then end the game for the time being and return to it when your dog is calmer.

“To end the game, you must be able to get away from the puppy with as little fuss or attention as possible… It’s often helpful to have the puppy tethered, so you can simply move back out of his reach. Or play with him in a confined area and simply stand up and leave that space when he bites too hard.

Puppy mouthing never requires anything more aversive than time outs or withdrawal of attention. Work on bite inhibition when you can, and at other times redirect or end the game. Physical aversives are confusing, unfair, and unnecessary.” – Melissa Alexander

I very much enjoyed this excellent, comprehensive article, “How to Survive Puppy Teething and Nipping,” by Casey Lomonaco. She included many helpful tips, such as the following:

DO manage and redirect. Crates and tethers are valuable management tools. You do not want to associate crate time with punishment, so when your puppy needs to go in the crate to relax for a bit, offer one of the chew toys you have prepared. Doing so allows you to redirect your puppy’s teething instincts to an appropriate outlet. If you are using a tether, make sure that your puppy is securely attached in an area that has been puppy-proofed. Neither the crate nor the tether area should make the dog feel socially isolated (keep both in a living area and not in a damp, musty corner of the basement).” – Casey Lomonaco

People, please–no dungeon dogs. 😉

DO give a dog binary feedback on bite strength. Acceptable use of teeth is rewarded with treats, attention, affection, or whatever the dog likes. Unacceptable use of teeth results in redirection (chew on this in your crate for a while) or negative punishment/removal of opportunity (biting makes people walk away from you). For puppies that continue to chase and bite at you when you move away from them, the tether can be especially helpful. Simply walk out of the tether area, cross the room, sing a verse of your favorite song in your head while ignoring your puppy, and then return to begin a new training session. It is essential that this removal of opportunity is unemotional and that it happens instantly and consistently as a response to using unacceptable bite force.

DO teach your puppy to use his mouth politely. There are many of great resources on the internet and several different techniques you can use. As with all puppy training, work in short sessions (average 10 treats per session). Here are some of my favorite training exercises:

  • Teach hand-targeting and/or put “kisses” on cue. These are great new behaviors for your dog to learn, but also teach an appropriate way to interact with hands that can earn reinforcement opportunities!
  • Play “I’m ok with that.” This idea comes from one of Karen Pryor’s articles about dealing with puppy nipping. It’s my favorite way to train bite inhibition.

If your puppy bites your hand hard during any of the exercises, stand up, turn your back on the dog, and walk away or ‘Be a Tree.’ Consider practicing when your dog is tethered so he cannot chase and nip you.”
– Casey Lomonaco

I also agree with Casey that it’s important to have plenty of chew toys available for the puppy, and I liked her suggestions of frozen stuffed Kongs, bully sticks, and “even old washcloths soaked in low-sodium chicken broth and frozen.” However, I personally would like to do more research on rawhides (since I’ve heard serious concerns about them) and non-edible Nylabones. If anyone would like to share their thoughts, please feel free to do so in the comment section below. Thank you!

In regards to teaching an alternative behavior (“Kisses”), you can put peanut butter* or cream cheese on your fingers to entice the dog to lick you. When your dog licks you, you can click or use a marker word (such as “Yes!”) and praise. Once your dog is reliably licking your hands (instead of biting), you can add the cue “Kisses.” This way you can give your puppy an alternative behavior to perform which will bring about more rewards and further interaction.

It’s also helpful to teach your dog not to mouth at your hand or fist when you’re holding a treat. You want to teach your dog that waiting for the treat and not grabbing at your hands is the fastest way to get what they want. You’d do this by showing your dog your fist with the treat inside, and you would be clicking (or using a marker word) & treating for the moment that the dog backs away from your hand/gives space (instead of mouthing and licking at your hand). The idea is that you want to continue rewarding the dog for staying away from your hand. You want to avoid creating a behavior chain of the dog mouthing at your hand and then giving space. See Kikopup’s video on “No Mugging!” above. This exercise may help teach your dog to be calmer and less mouthy when you’re working with food. I personally would try this before/instead of teaching “Kisses.”

You can also use a clicker or marker word to work on handling exercises with your dog. You would slowly get your dog used to being touched in various different ways, and you would reinforce calm responses (instead of mouthing and biting at you). See Kikopup’s “How to Train Your Puppy Not to Bite” video above for a visual demonstration.

* If you’re using peanut butter, I would try to find an organic peanut butter that has no sugar or additional ingredients. Doggone Safe, a charity dedicated to dog bite prevention, made a great point about how you should be sure that the puppy “has no chance of licking an allergic child after the training session.”

References & Resources:

Bite Soft by Pat Miller

Puppy Biting by Ian Dunbar

Bite Inhibition Training by Melissa Alexander

How to Teach Your Puppy Not to Bite by Doggone Safe

How to Survive Puppy Teething and Nipping by Casey Lomonaco

Got Puppy Nipping? Take the Clicker Approach by Karen Pryor

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