Spring must be in the air because I have had several dog training appointments related to puppy biting.
By puppy biting, I mean the kind in which the pup is between about 2 and 4 months old, and they are trying to engage their person socially in the same way they would attempt to engage another dog. It’s something akin to humans playing tag-you’re it, as in, “Hey, I’m biting at you, don’t you want to bite at me, let’s play!” and so they sink their little piranha teeth into our hands or forearms. This is something that is usually perfectly normal and not in the category of problem aggression, but it is still not acceptable since a) humans don’t like to play biting games with dogs, and therefore it’s not a good habit to get the dog into and, b) it can be incredibly painful and annoying since the puppy teeth are needle sharp at that age. Fortunately it’s easy to resolve with the right (and consistent) approach. Some puppies get it in just a few repetitions if everyone in the family sticks to the plan (the record I’ve seen is three repetitions, but about a week is more typical). I enjoy helping people work through this and I customize the training to their pup’s personality for quickest results (the general approach involves teaching the pup that the consequence for play biting is instant loss of play opportunity, which, as you can imagine, really hits home with them. For detailed instructions see Puppy Savvy.).
What puzzles me is that my clients sometimes report they are still hearing outdated advice on what to do about puppy biting. Usually a well-meaning neighbor, veterinarian, family member or reality TV show advises them to physically punish the puppy while speaking to the pup in a stern voice (usually something like “no bite!”). While these techniques can be effective in the hands of experienced professionals in certain situations, I don’t recommend them to my clients for the following reasons:
- Most of my clients have gotten a dog to bond with as a family companion, and hence people feel uncomfortable being physically rough with their puppies. Because they don’t want to ‘fight’ with their puppies, they don’t follow through with the harsher technique or do it as it was intended, thereby creating more problems than they solve.
- Not everyone in the family can apply the punishment techniques equally well, so there is great inconsistency. This results in failure; regardless of technique, consistency is important to success in dog training. My clients typically involve their whole families in the training, which is a good thing, and means that the techniques need to be easily applied by children and adults alike.
- Most of my clients don’t want to model physical punishment for their kids.
- Puppies grow into dogs who will have human hands coming at their faces their whole lives. We now know enough about how dogs learn to know that it can be risky to teach them that hands coming toward them predicts feeling afraid or confrontational. It is more advantageous for most dogs to associate human hands coming at them with feeling at ease and calm.
- Some puppies perceive physical punishment from their people as a threat to their safety and retaliate out of self-defense, anger, or fear. The phrase “aggression begets aggression” comes to mind. Aggression is fallout most dog owners want to avoid.
- Just as in every professional field, there are advances in family dog training. Fortunately we now know what aspects of dominance theory are useful in training dogs, and when it is quicker, safer, more effective and kinder to rely on the principles of learning theory to control our puppies and teach them to behave the way we want. Dealing with puppy biting falls squarely in the latter category.
There will always be well-meaning, if not exactly current, advice offered to puppy owners when it comes to raising their pooches. But my hope is that those who are dealing with a little fluffy land shark find their way to the more modern methods. It’s a win-win for the whole family.