Bite Carefully, Please!
When puppies play together they do a lot of biting. They may lie next to one another, mouths in constant action with each other. Usually there is a lot of growling and lip curling and they appear to be ready to kill one another. What is going on?
Those puppies are learning bite inhibition and it is a very, very important lesson indeed. Those needle sharp puppy teeth can quickly cause pain but most of the time the game goes on for minutes at a time. Clearly the pups are maintaining control of those teeth. If the bite control machinery fails there will be a sharp yelp and that could well end the game. The pup without control finds herself playing alone and that isn’t nearly as much fun.
When pups are given a proper start in life they get to practice that same behavior with mom or another adult dog as well as litter mates. Mom or the tolerant adult allows the pup the chance to play so long as there is self control on the part of Mouthy Mable. Biting too hard, not responding to a well spoken Yipe!, ends the game.
We need to learn from that behavior. There are people that severely punish a pup for practicing on human flesh but, unfortunately, that system can backfire big time. Most of the time, in fact, the pup leaps right back into the game biting harder than before! No, I am not advocating allowing M. M. to scrape, puncture and leave you with blood running down your arm! What I am suggesting is to teach your pup proper use of those needle sharp puppy teeth.
Allow – no, encourage! – puppy mouthing of your hand. Just your hand! At the moment that the biting gets too rough let out a really high pitched yelp. A puppy that has had the opportunity (and ALL puppies should have that opportunity!) to learn from litter mates and mom will back off for a moment and may well lick your hand or otherwise indicate a Oops! Sorry. I didn’t really mean to be so rough. If Jaws does not respond appropriately give him one more chance, really yelp for all you are worth and leave the pup alone for a couple of minutes. Return and repeat the performance until the light goes on: Hmmm. I bite, hear that yelp and I find myself alone.* That’s no fun. Enter bite control!
It is not only inadvisable to punish a pup for puppy mouthing but it may end up in a serious bite later because the warning signs have been punished. Many people will state that a dog bit “with no warnings” – usually because the growl or other advisory signal was punished – not the bite that followed!
Puppies that learn bite inhibition are most unlikely to bite hard should they be pushed too much in some future situation as an adult. And, all dogs can be pushed over threshold!
When this program is clearly working it is time to introduce a Leave it! cue.** After all, there are definitely times when you do not feel like playing the game and a turn-off switch is needed. Teach Leave it! with food tidbits and toys before using it with the biting game. The reason is that M.M. needs to learn the lesson when she isn’t aroused and focused on playing. Once she understands the game present the Leave it! once in awhile when the pup starts the play biting game and then once every 3 or 4 times that play biting is started by the pup. Gradually build up to being able to say Leave it! any time that you do not want to play the game. But, do not totally discontinue the play biting game because for a dog to maintain a soft mouth occasional practice is imperative. Pups over 6 months of age should never make contact with human flesh if properly socialized and trained.
One important tip: Difficult as it is do not grab your hand away from the pup when the biting gets too rough because the pup is certain to reflexively grab for your hand and you are most likely to suffer scrapes from those puppy teeth.
*Occasionally a pup will actually get more excited about the yelp. In that case simply say something like Oops! and leave the scene.
**Short course to teach Leave it! Place a piece of food in one hand and a tastier piece of food in the opposite hand. Let the pup see/smell the first piece of food, close the hand as you say Leave it! You will get sniffing, licking, nibbling, pawing, etc., as the pup makes an effort to get to that tidbit. The INSTANT the pup looks away say YES! and give the food from the other hand. Repeat a dozen times or whatever it takes for the pup to instantly look away from the hand when you say Leave it! Then switch hands.