You know how fondly I speak of Janet and Leroy, but I have to tell you, at one point, I wasn’t sure Leroy and I were going to do all that well together. I got him just a bit after I got Janice. I wanted to get into breeding Boxers, and didn’t want to have to go through all the trouble of having to take Janice to a stud. So, of course, the perfect solution was to adopt a boy.
The thing is, all puppies are a bit nippy from time to time, but they usually get over it. Leroy, however, was constantly chasing after me, nipping at my ankles, snapping at my sleeves, and even grabbing onto my hand from time to time. And he kept on doing it, long after the “teething” stage should have been over. It’s hard to believe it now, but as he moved into adolescence, there were times when I was almost afraid of him. The nipping was translating over into biting, and it was getting harder and more frequent.
What causes mouthy behavior, and what can you do about it?
Your dog is driving you nuts. He was a sweet, calm puppy, graduated first of his class at obedience school, and you thought he was calm and stable. But now, when you’re going walkies, he takes hold of the leash, grabs your clothes, or worse, even latches onto your hand. It’s worse when you’re at home – he’s always chasing you around, and you can’t trust him not to nip you. Sometimes there’s not even any warning. And the bites are getting harder.
So, he’s mouthy. Every time you try to play, he gets too excited and just starts grabbing. If this continues, then at some point, he’s going to end up hurting someone. So what are you going to do?
It Starts Early
This kind of behavior in dogs can begin even in puppies six to eight weeks. Sometimes, it’s because of a period of inactivity – like if the weather has been really bad, so they couldn’t get any outdoor exercise, or if the owner hasn’t been present all that much due to working long hours. There can be other influences as well. For example, if a puppy has been taken out of the litter too early, they won’t learn bite inhibition.
You know those people who post ads on Kijiji saying, “Puppies for sale, 6 weeks old”? They’re idiots. Puppies need time to be with the litter, to learn how to behave, and taking them from the bitch at 6 weeks is just unconscionable. 8 weeks is pretty standard, but some breeds need even more time – for example, my friend Neila, who breeds Rottweilers, will never let a puppy go before 10 weeks – she says that for some reason, the Rotts just need a little more time.
Puppies learn in the litter. So if for some reason you end up with a puppy who has had no littermates, or had his littermates taken away too soon, you will probably end up with a very mouthy dog. This is because he hasn’t been with siblings who are telling him, “Don’t bite so hard; you’re hurting me!”
If you’re roughhousing with your dog in any way that encourages mouth contact, it might be fun for a while. But then it could go sour. So if you think it’s cute to have your puppy grab onto your hand, think about how it’s going to feel when he’s all grown up. Direct the play more appropriately, and yes, I do mean tug of war! I know that countless trainers will tell you that this is a bad idea, but they’re in the dark ages. Tug of war actually discharges aggression; it doesn’t create it. And as long as your dog is keeping his mouth on the toy, and not on your hand, there’s nothing wrong with it.
Not Enough Exercise
If your puppy isn’t getting enough exercise, then he’s more likely to want to use his mouth during play. He needs more exercise. Keep your hands up when running or walking so that he’s not constantly tempted to grab on. Then, once he’s calm, you can lower your hands.
Not Enough Mental Stimulation
A bored dog is a “grabby” dog. He just wants something to do with his teeth, and your hands or clothes are the best target. When he nips, offer a firm “No” and a toy.
If you’re just choosing a dog, knowing whether or not he’s going to be a problem nipper can be problematic. And if you haven’t been able to see your puppy interacting with a litter, there might not even be a litter. If there is, then watch how they work together. Does one pup bite too hard? Do his siblings correct him? Does he keep biting even when they do? If there is a pup who’s going to continue to torment his littermates even after they’ve made it clear that they don’t like his behavior, then he might be a problem nipper when you take him home. You’d probably be better off to pick another puppy, or if you really want this one, at least be ready to be able to deal with undesirable behavior.
Now, if you’re choosing a “singleton,” – meaning a pup who has no littermates, you might be better off going with multiples. Choose a pup or two from another litter, so that you dog of choice has sisters and brothers. Dogs learn from one another, so if you’re hell-bent on this one dog, give him foster littermates to learn from.
If you have no choice, for whatever reason, than to end up with a singleton without fosters, then you might consider asking your friends, your vet, your dog groomer, or a trainer if they know of any similar-aged puppies that your new arrival could spend time with on a daily basis.
Tug of War
Okay, back to tug of war. I really believe that this can help your dog to overcome the instinct to bite, but you have to go about it carefully. Old-fashioned dog trainers will tell you that it encourages aggression and dominance. But it won’t if you make sure that your dog is never allowed to grab the toy out of your hand. One way of making sure that this doesn’t happen is by offering a treat. If you feel that your dog is getting too aggressive during the tug of war game, then offer him a treat while you take away the toy. You want to make the dog trade the toy for the treat. This creates a bit of a break in the game, and also reinforces good manners.
Now, if your dog’s teeth meet your skin during a game of tug of war, then give him a time out. You’re not punishing him; you’re just letting him know that his behavior is not acceptable. Put the toy behind your back, and don’t offer it again until he’s calmed down. He’ll learn that the bad behavior means that you won’t play with him anymore, but the good behavior means that the game will be back on.
If you’re anything like me, when you get home from a hard day at work, probably the last thing you want to do is walk your dog. But I do it. I know that Janice and Leroy have been just lying around the house for most of the day, and they need their exercise. This is something that I sort of agreed to when I first got them. I knew I had an obligation then, and I don’t forget it now.
Leroy used to get a bit over-stimulated on walks. So I kept my hands up, and walked him until he was pretty well exhausted. It dialed back the nipping a fair bit. I think he was over-stimulated when we first set out on our walks, but by the time we got back, he was calm, and a lot less mouthy.
I also worked on stimulating his brain a fair bit. Leroy is a smart dog, and I figured that he needed mental exercise as much as he did walking or playing fetch or whatever. I made use of a lot of interactive toys, like hiding treats in Kong balls. It seemed to satisfy his need to chew on something other than me! I also did things with his food – like I’d put three dishes down on the floor, and hide his food in one. It was a shell game for dogs! Leroy would work to find his food, tip over the bowl and so on. And while he was playing with the bowls, he wasn’t chewing on me!
Then, after I fed him, we’d go for a walk. Usually by this time he’d be considerably calmer, but if he started acting up, I’d do the “arms up in the air” thing again.
Okay, I know that there are tons of dog people out there who are going to scream uncontrollably when I say that I use a choke chain. But I do. I use a nylon choke and snap on a leash. Leroy’s choke chain fits his neck with about two inches to spare, so he can’t slip it. It worked wonders with stopping the nipping. When he’d take a dive toward me, I’d yank the leash in the opposite direction, and Leroy would come up short. It didn’t hurt him, but it stopped him.
It didn’t work for long, though, because Leroy quickly got the idea that he could bite on the collar. Being the resourceful person that I am, I bought a length of narrow PVC pipe and slid it over the leash. Now, Leroy had nothing that he could chew through. And since the pipe was rigid, he couldn’t turn around to grab onto me.
You can also try tethering. It might not work for every dog, though. The way it works is you put a carabiner on the end of the leash. When the dog grabs at you, tether him to a close, solid object and walk out of reach. Then bring him back to you when he calms down. Rinse and repeat.
Other Training Aids
Some of these methods won’t be right for all dogs.
I can’t say that I’m crazy about this method. Most dogs will be strongly resistant to a head halter, but it will give you control in a way that a harness won’t. When you use a head halter, your dog won’t be able to grab you, because there will be pressure exerted outside the halter and away from you. The biggest problem here is going to be to convince your dog to accept the head halter.
Most nipping is going to happen outdoors, while your dog is on a leash. However, some dogs will take nipping indoors. In this case, you might want to use a simple barrier method. If he can’t get to you, then he can’t nip you. However, I don’t really consider this to be an acceptable alternative to behavior modification.
This is really a last-resort option. If, despite all your efforts, your dog is still grabbing onto you, you might want to consider a muzzle. A basket muzzle is best, because it will prevent your dog from biting but still allow him to eat, drink and breathe. Never leave a muzzled dog unattended, though.
This still isn’t a quick fix or a permanent fix. You should only use it if you or someone else in your household might be in danger from a nipping or biting dog. Other options, like behavior modification, are always better.
Consider a Pet Walker
If you can find a professional pet walker that is skilled in handling mouthy dogs, that could help a lot. This comes with the caveat, though, that if your dog’s mouthiness contains a real element of aggression, then you might need the assistance of a qualified animal behaviorist.
Your dog’s behavior might be very frustrating, but please resist the impulse to shout at him or punish him. You won’t be teaching him what you want him to do instead of biting, and you might actually end up even reinforcing the bad behavior. What you want to do is encourage him to behave the way you want him to – not to fear punishment. You don’t want to harm your relationship with your dog, or make him afraid of you.
Okay, now, back to the head halter. I really think that this is the best way of convincing your dog that biting and nipping is not a good idea, and not something that he really needs to do. And the best way to train your dog to a head halter is to combine the approach with great treats, right from beginning to end. So first off, put the head halter behind your back. Then show it to your dog. This might take a few tries to get your dog accustomed to the idea, so if he doesn’t seem overly happy with the idea of the head halter, then just pull back, regroup, and try tomorrow. Always stop if the dog becomes unhappy, anxious or resistant.
Show him the halter and give him a treat. Do this until he gets the idea that the appearance of the halter will mean that he gets a treat. Then, let him smell the halter, and give him another treat. Keep on doing this until he bumps his nose into the halter when he sees the treat.
Next, attach the halter’s collar around the neck of your dog. Don’t use the nose loop just yet. Give him another treat. Take the halter off, and give him another treat. Do this several times.
Now, attach the band of the collar around his neck. Again, don’t put on the nose loop. Let him get used to the collar. Keep giving treats. Bit by bit, increase the time that your dog is wearing the collar.
Now, encourage your dog to put his nose into the loop by putting a treat out in front. Once his nose is in the loop, give him another treat. At this point, you’re going to want to offer treats only when your dog puts his nose into the loop. It might take a while, but you’ll get it eventually. When he’s comfortable having his nose in the loop, then, move the collar straps around to the back of his head, but don’t fasten the straps, and keep giving him treats through the loop.
Finally, you’ll get to the point where you can have the head halter on and the collar in place. Then work on attaching the leash, and encourage your dog to walk on lead while accepting treats. Ultimately, you’ll be able to go out for a walk.
So there you go. You’ve trained your dog to walk on lead politely, without nipping.
Dealing with a nippy dog can be a problem. I hated feeling afraid of Leroy, because I loved him so much. But the nipping was getting beyond scary, and I knew I had to do something. I didn’t go down an easy road with him. But, ultimately, he and I worked through it, probably because he was a very good dog to start with, and also because I just wasn’t going to give up.
In the final analysis, I think that if you can’t manage nipping in a puppy, you probably shouldn’t have a dog in the first place. That said, though, it’s not a whole pile of fun dealing with the nipping issue. So here’s what you do. Make a commitment and don’t look back. You’re supposed to be in it for the long haul. Some puppies need more work than others. I’m glad I kept at it with Leroy. Right now, he’s the most amazing dog! And if I’d bailed when he got nippy, I wouldn’t have the wonderful, sweet companion that I have today.