It’s Not Shark Week…
Tips and Trick for Nippy Pups
By Sarah Fulcher
You’ve just brought home your new furry bundle of joy. Everything is going swell for the first week – you’re impressed at how sweet and calm your puppy is. Then, out of nowhere you have a shark on your hands! Where has my sweet, quiet pooch gone? Or perhaps you had a mouthy pup straight from the get go. Either way it’s important to understand that puppy nipping is totally normal. Even if your new addition started out sweet and quiet they grow up and get more energy and things can change!
NIPPING IS NORMAL
Puppies explore the world with their mouths so it is natural for them to put their teeth on their surroundings – including you! Dogs also play by mouthing and biting and while it’s totally normal and natural, humans are much more sensitive than dogs, and puppies need to learn that biting and nipping the two-legged family members is off limits.
A nipping problem can start before you even bring your puppy home. A proper upbringing by the breeder or puppy raiser can make a huge difference in how well your puppy deals with stress and gets a jump start on bite inhibition. I recommend puppies stay with their litter until at least 7-8 weeks as they learn some critical things from mom and litter mates up to that age. Puppies that leave the litter before 7 weeks of age seem to pretty consistently have impulse control, mouthing, and handling issues. The younger the puppy is when it leaves the litter the more pronounced these problems can be.
REST IS ESSENTIAL
One critical piece of misinformation that often gets overlooked and is often essential in reducing mouthiness is making sure your puppy gets enough rest. Just like young children, some puppies get wound up when they are tired and become excessively nippy when in this state. Young puppies should rest every few hours for about a half an hour. Crate training can be very helpful in promoting these rest periods, or you can also set up a puppy pen area for your pooch’s downtime. They may not sleep right away so you can put them away in the crate or pen with something healthy to chew on like a bully stick, stuffed Kong or a safe toy.
Many people also notice that their puppy goes crazy and is excessively mouthy at a certain time in the evening – this can also be chalked up to being over tired. If you can predict the general time your puppy will have their ‘mad moment’ be proactive and put them into their place if possible for some quiet time before they fly off the handle. Otherwise if you miss the opportunity to catch them before they go nuts it’s fine to take that as a sign that puppy needs a break and put them away for some quiet time.
SOFT MOUTH TRAINING
If you have a young puppy, for example, under 12 weeks old, it is a good plan to begin soft mouth training. However if your puppy came to you with some more intense mouthing for whatever reason feel free to skip this step if you don’t feel you can comfortably accomplish it. With soft mouth training you want to allow the puppy to put his mouth on you, but provide feedback when he bites hard enough to hurt. This is very similar to how they learn how hard to bite other dogs. With a young pup, you can usually do a loud, high pitched “YIPE” and stop playing for a few seconds. It’s a good plan to then redirect your puppy to a toy or something safe to bite.
If you find that your puppy is biting hard most of the time or isn’t responding to the yipe it may be time to switch tactics. With some puppies (or once they are a little older) the yipe will only amp them up. You may need to switch tactics and use a loud “OUCH” as if you’ve been punched in the arm for any tooth contact to skin. Then pause interactions for several seconds and then redirect to a toy. If your puppy is biting hard or not responding to a yipe, they are probably beyond the stage for soft mouth training. If your puppy doesn’t respond to the ‘ouch’ by backing off or comes right back for more and won’t redirect to a toy it might be time for a brief, non-emotional time out.
The time out can be done in the crate if your puppy as a strong positive association with the crate. You should not be doing too many of these in any given day and should notice an improvement in the biting within a few days so it should not be enough to make the crate a negative place. If your puppy doesn’t have a positive association with their crate and you’re concerned about using it for a time out zone I suggest setting up a tether station away from the main areas of household activities and using that as a time out area.
The purpose of the time out is to remove all attention for the nipping behaviour which is an extremely powerful and meaningful social consequence for dogs. Many puppies do learn that biting gets them attention (remember, any attention is good attention!) or that biting makes things they don’t want to happen stop, and a time out can be a very effective consequence in these instances especially. The time out does not need to be long – I typically suggest 30 seconds or until the pup stops protesting.
It’s important to pick a “time out cue” that you will give to the dog before you move to put them in the time out. This should be something used only in this instance that the entire family uses consistently. It helps the puppy to connect the undesirable behaviour with the consequence and also gives the puppy a chance to avoid the consequence entirely should they stop in response to hearing the time out cue.
TEACHING IMPULSE CONTROL
I also recommend a few exercises to help puppies learn not to nip humans. One of my favourites is feeding the puppy’s meals by hand and allowing the puppy to learn that they must not nip or mug our hands to earn the food. Simple put a handful of kibble in your hand and place it in front of your puppy. Allow them to lick, nibble, or paw at your hand. If they bite hard enough to hurt yell “ouch” and remove the hand for 3-5 seconds. If at any time the puppy ignores your hand for a second or two say “yes” and allow them to eat the handful of kibble. Repeat until their meal is finished.
Another exercise I like to use for mouthy pups I call “Earth to Dog”- it helps with nipping, proofing sitting, and jumping up! To start, lure or cue the puppy to sit. Then take a treat or kibble in your hand and hold it high above the puppy’s head. Slowly lower the treat straight down towards puppy’s head. If puppy jumps out of the sit quickly pull the treat back up high out of reach! The goal is that they hold the sit and don’t snap at your hand long enough for you to almost get the treat to touch their nose – then you release them to have the treat. This helps to teach impulse control around food, not nipping at hands, and to take treats nicely.
YOU’VE GOT THIS!
Although it may seem like one of nature’s unnecessarily cruel jokes, there is a reason that puppies come equipped with those incredibly sharp teeth – so that they can learn how to gently use their mouths. However, they can really hurt! Having a mouthy puppy gets pretty frustrating in a short amount of time and nipping is one of the most common complaints I receive from puppy owners. But remember, puppy nipping and mouthiness is a totally normal behaviour.
Add these exercises into your training toolkit and if you are consistent you should achieve some relief from those tiny shark teeth. Some puppy biting can be a really serious problem, so don’t hesitate to contact an experienced dog trainer in your area should you need extra help. Consider enrolling your new addition into a Puppy Kindergarten class as well – the continued interactions with other dogs will help to teach some bite control, especially if your puppy left the litter too young. Most of the time nipping is just totally normal behaviour so don’t panic and enjoy your new family member! Thankfully it’s generally pretty easy to teach a pup to have a soft mouth, with the right tools and consistency.