Who doesn’t love a puppy? They are utterly adorable and give us a healthy dose of oxytocin. What’s not to love? Well, maybe those sharp, little shark teeth—all that puppy nipping and biting! Our new puppy Cailie is bringing to mind all the former puppies we’ve had and how we’ve channeled that puppy energy and mouth to other objects. It’s self-preservation, mind you!
Puppies explore the world with their mouths.
If they’re not checking out every single nook and cranny of your home to see what new and exciting item or object may be there for their entertainment, the pup is likely using those little shark teeth on your pant legs, your shoes, your calves, or when jumping, even your knees! Even with the best of management, when you have a puppy, then you surely have at least a few nicks and cuts on your hands or arms from those little shark teeth. Surviving the puppy period can be challenging.
So what do you do?
It’s vitally important to help your puppy learn what “to do” versus always trying to stop the nipping and biting. Management to the rescue!
Management means manipulating the puppy’s environment so the pup can’t practice the unwanted behavior (puppy nipping and biting) and sets the puppy up to “get it right.” If the puppy “gets it right,” she earns reinforcement and reinforcement is what makes a behavior more likely to happen again. Got it? Reinforcement helps YOU get more of the things YOU want from your puppy!
Management Tips to Prevent Puppy Nipping and Biting
Puppy Proof Your House: I’ve never had two-legged children, though I know parents child proof a home—do the same for your puppy! Clear your floors and tables of anything that could be tempting or dangerous to your puppy. Use pet gates to prevent the puppy from getting into “off-limit” areas. Temporarily put away all small rugs and doormats (so tempting for a puppy!).
Have a plethora of “legal” chew items that your puppy can enjoy. In our home that’s Nylabones, rugged chew toys, such as Kong toys, Outward Hound Invincible toys, and other assorted stuffed animals with squeakers. And fleece tug toys. Refrain from thinking an old shoe or sock will do the trick. The puppy doesn’t know the difference between a new shoe and an old shoe. Pick up ALL shoes and put them out of reach. Shoes are really stinky. Yes, even YOUR shoes are stinky! Dogs love stinky. Place your shoes where the puppy can’t get to them.
Wear tight-legged pants. Think about your feet, ankles, and calves from the puppy’s perspective. Your feet are always moving, and to a puppy, that’s an opportunity to chase. Take it from me. In the first few days that Puppy Cailie was in our home, I lounged around in lightweight, cargo pants with flowy legs. Bingo! The cuffs of those pants were a target for her little sharky mouth.
By wearing tight-legged pants instead of pants with flowing legs there’s less movement around your ankles which will help diminish chasing. You notice I said “diminish,” right? It’s not going to totally prevent the puppy from grabbing at your legs, but it will certainly be beneficial in the long run. Once I switched to tight-legged jeans, her chasing diminished.
Anticipate and be ready to redirect. All puppies will chase feet, however, an Australian Shepherd puppy like Cailie is bred to nip and chase. Accept the breed characteristics of your pup and be ready to train her “to do” what you want. That means being ready to offer up something else BEFORE she latches on to your feet, ankles or pants. Thank Heavens for long tug toys!
I have several long tug toys that I carry with me as I move through the house or when out of doors when Cailie is following. If she starts bouncing toward me with her “Oh, I’m about to grab your leg!” look, I offer up the tug toy. She happily grabs it and off we go. She’s happy. My legs are spared! She’ll eventually let go of the tug toy when her focus shifts to the next interesting thing or moving object. Other times we play a game of tug, then I get the chance to “trade” her for a piece of food which helps her learn to drop something she has in her mouth.
Exercise and mental stimulation. If we could only bottle that puppy energy! That energy needs to go somewhere. You’ll experience less puppy nipping and biting if your puppy has enough exercise and mental stimulation. We’re fortunate to have seven fenced acres to enjoy with our dogs. Our morning and evening off-leash walks are a wonderful way to provide both physical exercise, as well as mental stimulation. Think about all that sniffing. Be sure to provide safe, off-leash exercise for your puppy. If you must walk on leash, think about doing sniff walks where you let the pup explore with her nose.
Ball pits, a designated area where the puppy can romp and play with multiple balls, are fabulous for enrichment.
Another fun idea is an inexpensive clothing hamper with the bottom cut out. It can provide hours of entertainment and also helps develop confidence.
Know your puppy’s arousal level. With too much play, your puppy’s arousal level can hit the roof. For our puppy, Cailie, that’s when we see an increase in her nipping and biting. Be observant of how long it takes for your puppy to ramp up in excitement. Learn when to interrupt a play session before the pup tips over to fractious behavior. You can take a short training break and work on impulse control exercises (sit and down) or give the puppy a chew item, such as stuffed Kong, to help disperse that energy.
The last hurrah (also known as the puppy bewitching hour). With every puppy in our own home and every client puppy we’ve had the pleasure of working with, there are a few predictable times of day when a puppy gets over-aroused—even with the best observation skills. When that’s the case, those sharp jaws are in overdrive! Be ready to prevent the fractious behavior by doing a short training session, a romp in the ball pit, providing a stuffed Kong or other chew item, or by using any number of food puzzle toys.
Train your puppy. Puppies are little sponges, and while they have short attention spans, they learn very quickly. Every moment with your puppy is a chance to reinforce what you like or redirect her to something of YOUR choosing, thereby helping her make wise choices that please you and please her. When I get up in the morning, I don my treat pouch and am ready, willing, and able to reinforce her for all the great choices she makes during the day.
My favorite behaviors to teach a new puppy are Focus and Attention, Sit, Down, Leave It, and Trade. If you teach your puppy to Focus on you, then you have a chance to begin training other behaviors. Teach first, then train. Sit and Down are impulse control exercises (yes, puppies can use a bit of that). Leave It helps the puppy learn to move away from a delectable object and look back at you, and Trade teaches your puppy to willingly give up something the little one managed to grab with her tiny mouth. All of these trained behaviors are useful in our own home right now. For example—now that Cailie sits immediately when I say the word “sit” (the verbal cue), when she’s bounding toward my leg with “that look” in her eye, I can cue her to “sit” which prevents the unwanted behavior of grabbing my leg with her puppy teeth. I’ve given her instruction as to what “to do” and, of course, she gets reinforced.
Puppy Cailie is eleven weeks old and has only been in our home for three weeks. With the daily focus on training, she’s pretty stellar with these training exercises. I set aside three to five minutes each day to formally work on the above exercises. Keep your formal training sessions short. Puppies have short attention spans, so quit while you’re ahead. Keep them wanting more! Remember, however, that learning happens 24/7, so be ready to catch your puppy doing what you like, reinforce her with a yummy piece of food, and you’ll be surprised how quickly she learns!
Lisa Lyle Waggoner is a CPDT-KA, a CSAT (Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer), a Pat Miller Certified Trainer Level 2, Faculty for the Victoria Stilwell Academy of Dog Training and Behavior, a dog*tec Certified Professional Dog Walker and the founder of Cold Nose Collegein Murphy, North Carolina. She enjoys providing virtual behavior consulting and training solutions to clients around the globe and offers coaching, mentoring and behavior case support for pet professionals. www.coldnosecollege.com