NIPPING THE HAND THAT FEEDS YOU

This article is in response to the many, many, questions I have received about nipping problems in puppies. It's a common problem. I hope the following will help explain why it is so common and how to turn the behavior into something more agreeable for everyone.

WHY PUPPIES NIP:

Dogs live their life without our most useful "tool" - opposable thumbs. We can grasp and hold things to feel and examine them; dogs use their mouths to explore their world. Puppies have a lot to learn. Not only do they have to learn how to be dogs, but they also must learn how to live with humans. That can be the hardest part! We, as humans, also have to learn somewhat how dogs work, and the communication gap can be enormous!

One of the biggest tools puppies have to learn with is their mouth - not only for vocalization, but to touch and feel and explore…and test their limits! Think about a litter of puppies playing. They are rough and tumble - they bite, nibble, and bark. If one puppy bites another too hard, the bitten puppy lets out a screech which usually is successful in getting the hard nipper to temper his bites. This is how they LEARN, and a BIG part of learning is DOING IT WRONG! This is how anyone, including a puppy, can learn to DO IT RIGHT. If a puppy isn’t doing something wrong, he cannot be shown what right is.

Puppies will test their limits with you, too. Nipping and mouthing is a big part of that testing. They mouth and grab hands, pant legs, skirts, etc. Part of how you teach a puppy to temper their biting lies back with how his litter mates taught him - a shrill shriek "OW!!" to let him know he’s gone too far - even if it didn’t hurt that much. One thing that you are responsible for training this puppy - that should start EARLY- is that UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should that puppy’s teeth touch your bare skin. Now, I know Lab owners are going to say "my puppy enjoys taking my hand into his mouth sometimes". Dogs understand ALWAYS or NEVER, YES or NO. They do not understand SOMETIMES and MAYBE! You will be giving your dog too much human reasoning by letting him decide when it is appropriate to take your hand in his mouth or to nibble your hand!

WAYS TO TEACH "NICE"

I like the word "nice" or "easy" when I teach a dog to respect my skin. If my puppy gets wild and nippy, I will take his collar (after I let out a big "Ow!!" for nipping too hard) and give it a little tug and offer my hand back to the puppy and tell him, in a firm voice, "NO, NICE!" If the puppy nips again, I repeat the command and tug a little firmer, "I said "NO, NICE!" If the puppy licks your hand, sniffs it, or turns his head away, I tell him "Good, NICE!!" and make sure my voice sounds pleased. Each time the puppy gets away with a nip without working your "NICE" command means he has learned that he can, in fact, get away with nipping - and he will continue to do it.

You can also "set up" teaching "NICE" to your dog (as opposed to waiting for it to happen). I get a bunch of small, soft treats (small and soft means that the puppy will not forget why he got the treat if all he has to do is swallow it. He will forget if you give him a biscuit and it takes him 3 minutes to chew it up!) and hold one in the fingers of one hand. In the other hand - I have the puppy’s collar, and he is sitting close to me. I offer the treat to the puppy and remind him that we are being "NICE". If he lunges for the treat, I give him a tug on his collar and remind him, "NO, NICE!" The same goes if he grabs the treat and any part of my hand or fingers. (Note: the hand that is holding the treat remains stationary It is the hand holding the puppy that will move and tug the puppy away from the food. If you move your "food hand", you will encourage the puppy to chase the treat - dogs like moving objects.) With this exercise, the puppy will eventually learn to take the treat without even touching your skin with his teeth.

HEADING OFF TROUBLE:

Now, after all this - some big "NO NOs" that will undermine your attempts to have what we call "bite inhibition" (in other words, what you were just taught to teach your puppy). NEVER, NEVER, play hand games that will rile up your puppy and encourage him to lunge for your hand, or any other part of your body. That is not part of teaching ALWAYS or NEVER! Chase games, especially for herding dogs (German Shepherds, Bouviers, Collies, Shelties, Border Collies, Corgis, etc.) will also encourage them to nip and bite at legs and heels. Not good! The best games to play are games involving fetch and toys. One trainer says that any time you play with your dog, make sure you have a toy between you and the puppy. NEVER play tug of war with your puppy - that will only make your puppy think of himself as your equal! The only time I will play tug of war is when I have a wimpy puppy - but I always start the game, and I always finish it too. I also make sure I have taught my puppy a firm "Out" , "Release", or "Drop it!" command to make sure I don’t have a problem or confrontation when I want the toy back.

Remember, you're in charge!
Your puppy looks to you for consistent - and persistent - training.

Pam Young, LVT CDBC CPDT  
Dog Gone Good LLC
Dog Behavior Consultant
Personal Dog Trainer