Have you had those moments where the angelic light of your life is happily cuddling, snuggling and gazing adoringly into your eyes with sleepy contentment . . . . . . . then suddenly Piranha Puppy appears?!!
Piranha Puppy is 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 lately!
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 run the risk of raising a dog that uses his mouth in a dangerous manner.
I see many clients who have a dog who has never previously bitten but all of a sudden finds himself in a situation where he feels using his mouth is necessary and makes the choice to bite hard and cause 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 advice is: a) your dog needs to learn when using his mouth is appropriate; and b) he needs to learn how to use his mouth by developing good bite inhibition. Seems like it would be simpler to just not let them use their mouth at all, right? Not so – instead, they need to know how to properly manage those shiny, white “weapons” they possess and it’s important to do so in a neutral and consistent manner so the focus is learning the skill. They shouldn’t “get in trouble” for using their mouths, instead, they need to be taught to be cautious and thoughtful and what our expectations are.
Despite turning 1 year old recently, our young dog Quincy is still very puppyish in much of her behavior. However, physically, she is pretty much a full-grown adult dog at this point. 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 develop bite inhibition and make good choices about how and when to use her mouth.
Bite inhibition is the skill of knowing how hard is too hard and the ability to control your mouth pressure and placement to a finite degree. Dogs also need to learn 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 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 or tug, we come prepared! For any cuddle time, I always make sure that I have several good toys close by that I can quickly grab and wedge into a thrashing mouth. If she won’t take one toy or it gets tossed away by the thrashing, I always have another one ready. If I run out of toys before Piranha Puppy runs out of energy, I just leave the couch so she can’t get any mouth contact or attention from me.
For playtime, we try and keep our energy fairly low and easy if we see her energy start to build. If playful puppy turns into a mad leaping launching creature with an active mouth – we make sure that we also have a good ball on hand or tug toy that can double as a fetch toy. When Piranha Puppy comes to play, 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. In Piranha Puppy state, waiting for her to come to me and drop her toy has its dangers until she has better impulse control! I also tend to keep “the creature” at bay by constantly moving around trees, chairs and deck railings as we’re playing so she can’t get a full head of steam behind any potential launches as she’s busy ducking around things to find and keep up with me.
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.
An easy first exercise – “Take It / Leave It”:
- Make a fist with a treat inside and hold it out for your dog to sniff
- As soon as she quits licking, biting or sniffing and makes even just a tiny pause in her movements and interest in your hand, Click or Mark this and open your fist for her to take the treat off the flat of your hand.
- Keep repeating this until she immediately pauses and waits as soon as your fist is presented, waiting for the hand to open for her.
- A next step in the exercise could be to begin adding a cue like “Take It” when you open your hand – the beginning stages of teaching “Take It / Leave It”.
- From there, you can begin to add a small pause from when you open your hand and cue “Take It”, gradually working into longer pauses.
- If your dog tries to get the treat before your “Take It” cue, simply close your hand and temporarily withhold access.
- I like to teach “Take It” and not add any “Leave It” cue until much later in the process. By controlling access to the treat – opening or closing your hand – the “Leave It” is learned at the same time as “Take It”.
Teaching a solid Take It and Leave It is one 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. Another major benefit – it’s a good impulse control exercise for puppy: “You can’t have that item until I tell you to Take It.”
Another thing that’s important is Quincy’s bite inhibition in general. Thankfully, she’s friendly with dogs so she can learn some important “how hard is too hard” lessons by playing with appropriate dogs. Quincy was fortunate to get a great start in her foster home with some skilled dogs. With us, 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 fairly minimal monitoring. Together, they are learning good lessons on the proper use of their mouths and the give and take of proper play. You can see from the pictures they play a lot of "mouth games" and look ferocious but no one actually closes their mouth and it's a nice display of bite inhibition in play.
Quincy also spends time in daycare playing with many different 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 have some dogs handy who have good play and social skills and you are careful to monitor the play so a young dog doesn’t get a chance to be a bully or get bullied.
It all helps teach good mouth skills so that as an adult she can make good choices and not be a worry for us 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!