By Valerie Barry, KPA-CTP
In Partnership With Dogs
Have you had those moments where the 4-legged, furry, angelic light of your life is happily cuddling, snuggling and gazing adoringly into your eyes with sleepy contentment . . . . . . . then suddenly Piranha Puppy appears?!! Abruptly super-charged with mad energy – rolling, growling, kicking, head thrashing about and mouth whipping around grabbing and biting at anything and everything it comes into contact with! It’s a startling and alarming transformation and happens in our house at least twice every day.
Having turned 1 year old recently and physically looking like an adult, our young dog Quincy is still very puppyish in much of her behavior. Because we didn’t have her as a very young puppy, we are making a big effort to focus on her mouth manners before she gets too much older. We need to help her make good choices about how and when to use her mouth as well as help her develop good bite inhibition.
One of the most challenging aspects of adolescence for puppy parents is the continuation of the nipping and biting behavior as those puppy teeth fall out and become adult teeth with adult strength behind them. An important part of raising your puppy, then your adolescent and finally your adult dog is teaching them what their mouth is for as defined by us humans. It’s important that these lessons are taught in a thoughtful and non-confrontational manner. Using forceful and punitive training methods will only make matters worse and risk having a dog who may choose to use his mouth in a dangerous manner.
I see many clients with a dog – often one they have had awhile and know well – who has never previously bitten but suddenly finds himself in a situation where he think using his mouth is necessary and ends up causing damage as his first bite. This is exactly what we are striving to prevent when we teach our clients how to manage and train when their dogs first start using their mouths. The goals are: a) your dog learning when using his mouth may be appropriate; and b) learning how to use his mouth by developing good bite inhibition.
Seems like it would be simpler to not let them use their mouths at all, right? Definitely not. Instead, we need to teach our dogs how to properly manage those shiny, white “weapons” they possess. It’s vitally important to do so in a neutral and consistent manner so the focus is learning the skill not being concerned about “getting in trouble” when they use their mouths. Dogs need to learn to be cautious and thoughtful with their mouths, what things are appropriate to put your mouth on and what things are off limits for any mouth contact. I remember a client I had many years ago who thought it was sweet that her Rottweiler mix would run over and “hold” her daughter’s hand in her mouth as they ran around the yard together. It was very difficult to convince this woman what a bad choice this could ultimately be!
All good training is a combination of Management and Training. Here is some of what we are doing to teach Quincy how to use her mouth:
We can generally predict when Piranha Puppy will make her appearance – often after breakfast or dinner or early evening after a day of relatively low activity. If we decide to join her on the couch for a cuddle or engage her in a rousing game of fetch, we come prepared and have a plan!
For cuddle time, I always make sure that I have several good soft toys close by that I can quickly grab and wedge into a thrashing mouth if Piranha Puppy makes an appearance. If she won’t take that toy or it gets tossed away by the thrashing, I always have another one ready.
For playtime, we try and keep our energy fairly low so as to avoid building up her energy until she has learned better impulse control. I make sure that I keep her at a distance by using two toys and throwing one at a time across her path well before she reaches me which generally interrupts her forward motion and distracts her. If I wait for her to come to me and drop her toy when she has a full head of steam I may get an unwanted visit from Piranha Puppy at this stage in her training! I also tend to keep constantly moving around trees, chairs and deck railings as we’re playing so she has to focus on where I am which helps prevent potential launches as she’s busy ducking around things to find me.
Another aspect of good management is the use of relevant consequences. Being proactive and preventive is always the best first choice rather than relying on consequences to do the job. However, when necessary, consequences can help with training if applied properly and fairly. A consequence that would be relevant to our dogs is one that temporarily removes whatever it is that’s motivating the behaviour. So in the case of Piranha Puppy, if we run out of toys to use during cuddles or if we fail to avoid a sudden launch during a game of fetch, we can simply make ourselves or the play temporarily end. We can direct Quincy to her crate for a brief time out (a minute or less is often enough), or simply freeze in place and stop play for a short period until her energy becomes calmer. It’s important that the consequence is neutral – we don’t say anything or have any angry energy behind our actions. The intention isn’t to frighten or force her into better behaviour but rather to have her thinking “What happened to make the fun stop??” As soon as her behaviour changes, the fun begins again. If we’re consistent, she very quickly learns that using her mouth is what causes play to end. Because she’s highly motivated by play and even cuddling and attention from us, she works hard to control her mouth in order to keep the fun coming.
A really important lesson I usually work on right away with a new dog is how to take treats nicely. I prefer not to teach a cue like “Gentle”, but rather create an expectation that anything I give you must be taken with a careful mouth. I don’t want to have to remember to say “Gentle” for the rest of my dog’s life whenever I hand over treats or toys. I want to put the responsibility on my dog to be thinking about how to use her mouth nicely in order to get what she wants to have.
“Take It Nicely”:
- Make a fist with a treat inside and hold it out to your dog.
- As soon as she quits licking, biting or sniffing and makes the tiniest pause in her interest in your hand, Click or Mark and open your fist for her to take the treat off the flat of your hand while you cue “Take It”.
- Keep repeating this step until there is an immediate pause as soon as your fist is presented.
- Now begin to add a small pause between when you open your hand and when you cue “Take It”.
- If your dog tries to get the treat before your “Take It” cue, simply close your hand and temporarily withhold access to the treat.
- Once she gets the hang of waiting for her cue before taking the treat, begin to vary the time of the pauses – shorter and longer.
Because we are offering the treat off the flat of your hand, there is no opportunity for your dog to use a hard mouth. The next step in the exercise would be to begin to offer the treat in stages working up to a normal treat position between your fingertips. A next hand position might be to hold the treat mostly in your fist but partially sticking out so you can pull it away if the mouth is too hard. Next could be several fingers holding the treat, palm facing down; then palm facing up; then fewer fingers until finally you are using just two to hold a treat. You still need to be able to withhold the treat if your dog’s mouth starts getting too hard, so it does help to use larger and harder treats that are easier to pull away without relinquishing any nibbles.
This is a good exercise to work on with adolescent dogs. Not only does it help you build mouth awareness and softness for treat taking, but it also provides a good start to the games of Tug and Fetch – the “Take It”. Another benefit – it’s a good impulse control exercise for puppy: “You can’t have that item until I tell you to Take It.”
An important aspect of learning to manage her mouth is helping Quincy develop good bite inhibition with dogs as well as people. Bite inhibition is learning to have very precise control over her mouth pressure and placement. Thankfully, she’s friendly with dogs so she can learn some important “how hard is too hard” lessons by playing with appropriate dogs. Quincy has developed a really nice relationship with her BFF, Frankie, who happens to be the same age. They both play very well together with minimal intervention. Together, they are learning good lessons on the proper use of their mouths and the give and take of proper play. She also spends time in daycare playing with many other types and ages of dogs for well-monitored periods so she can learn that not every dog plays the same way and some dogs are more sensitive than others. It’s a great lesson if you are careful to monitor things so a young dog doesn’t get a chance to be a bully or get bullied. The use of relevant consequences is important here too. Temporary removal from play is a powerful motivator to teach her to be more careful with her mouth during play as well as teaching her to tone down her play style. Again, the removal is done neutrally with no words or angry energy and it’s very brief.
Putting in the work now to teach Quincy good mouth skills is well worth the time and effort so that as an adult she can be relied upon to make good choices when she’s interacting with dogs or people. It’s all just part of the process and part of the fun of raising a good dog. In the meantime, we get to have our fun with Piranha Puppy from time to time – but those times should soon start to become less frequent until Piranha Puppy bids a final farewell!