Dog Behaviour – Play-biting Puppies

Introducing a puppy into the family is an exciting time for children and adults alike. There’s an air of anticipation and expectation; it’s a thrill for everyone – that is until the puppy does something that is not quite what we want, such as nipping the children, hanging onto clothing eating the furniture or jumping up.

Puppies learn how to socialise in the litter with their siblings. They play rough to test the other puppies, seeing how hard they can nip each other before being on the receiving end of a harder nip that tells them they have overstepped the mark. Their mother also supervises their activities and if they are too aggressive whilst feeding, for example, she will reprimand them with a growl or a nip to put them in their place.

There is always a hierarchy amongst puppies and as is the case amongst cubs of other animal species in the wild, the stronger siblings emerge as the leaders. They are more likely to survive when food is scarce and fend off challenges from weaker siblings. They can become over-assertive, however. Puppies are not synonymous with aggression, but, yes, puppies can be aggressive when it suits them. The warm, furry bundle of fluff that was brought home and given everything it was thought to need can grow into an exasperating monster, especially when he is the first dog the family has ever owned.

As a dog behaviourist, one of the most common problems I deal with is the puppy nipping the children and to a lesser extent, the owner. The optimum age for a puppy to leave the litter is eight weeks, this allows him time to learn how to socialise with his siblings, learn valuable lessons from his mother and in the best circumstances, socialise with the breeder and family members. Taking a puppy away earlier shortens these learning experiences; leave him there much longer and he misses out on socialising with people, which is so important.

Socialisation with dogs and people is an essential part of a puppy’s early learning that will affect how he fits in with our society as he matures into an adult dog. It’s a critical period too for teaching him manners and how to use his razor sharp set of pearly white teeth! Anyone who comes into contact is almost certain to have experienced that wince-inducing pain of being nipped, albeit inadvertently. Without doubt it hurts.

Teeth are primarily tools for chewing and tearing food in preparation for digestion, however, they are also deployed against littermates when learning bite inhibition and how much pressure to use. When they bite too hard, the victim will either retaliate or stop playing. It’s a natural instinct for them to want to dominate their siblings and in some puppies the drive is greater than in others. As with children, bullies are avoided by others, so it is with puppies and they need to learn to moderate their bite in order to stay friendly with the others. It follows then, that when a puppy enters his new home he will bring these experiences with him and when humans replace littermates, growling, play-biting, mouthing and nibbling are totally natural actions, albeit unacceptable behaviour if it continues as the puppy grows. Training should start immediately the puppy comes into the home; teaching manners is essential, otherwise he can become confused when we tell him off.
During a recent visit to see Jet, a handsome black Labrador puppy, Rachael told me that he had nipped just about everyone in the household shortly after his arrival. It is a common occurrence when Jet wants attention he generally nips Oliver, the youngest member of the family, who may respond by pushing him away, which is a signal to Jet that the game is on, or he may encourage Jet by playing rough together, so Jet has got his way and this reaffirms that nipping is acceptable behaviour. As Jet grows, his nip will become a bite that will probably cause skin damage, especially to a young child. These early signs of dominance and aggression need to be stopped immediately.

I suggested to Rachael and Oliver that they spend time observing what Jet uses his mouth for when playing with them – he shows affection by licking, he touches them and he tests them when play-biting and mouthing, which are exactly the same as when he was playing with his littermates, especially when they were playing rough. As with all dogs, Jet will learn how to hone his innate skills, such as the strength and timing of his bite. I advised Rachael that puppies deter robust play-biting by retaliating with a harder bite and then refusing to play at all.

I asked Oliver if he allows Jet to mouth his hand when playing or stroking him and he nodded. I think this is the “thin end of the wedge”, that is, as Jet grows, so will his bite strengthen and it is always more difficult to retrain a dog than to set out rules of play from the start. To allow and encourage a puppy to bite, for that is what nipping is, sends the wrong signals to him. When he bites too hard, we tell him off, which confuses him. Our reaction to being bitten – a quick withdrawal of the hand or a yelp – can reinforce the puppy’s perception that it’s all part of the game and encourage him bite harder next time. This also encourages dominant behaviour, which will only get worse as the puppy matures into an adult dog.

A similar scenario is when puppy grabs a trouser leg and shakes it. Initially, because the puppy is so small we might think it is cute and join in the game, but he is actually practising his prey drive. It gets more vigorous as he matures. My advice to Oliver was to stop Jet grabbing any clothing – Jet has already ripped Oliver’s shirt – as well as avoiding playing rough or tugging on a rope toy. So we needed to adopt a set of rules.

When Oliver or Jet wants to play tug with the rope, Oliver must win – always. I taught him how to take the rope by exchanging it for a treat. Oliver offered the treat in one hand and held out the other hand for Jet to place the toy on and said “Give!” When Jet gets too animated during the game, perhaps by trying to bite the hand or growling, I advised Oliver to take the toy and end the game, keeping the rope away from Jet and not allowing him to have it. Younger children than Oliver should not be allowed to play tug, even when supervised, because dogs can get over-excited and forget the rules of the game. Pulling and shaking toys is an innate character trait for most dogs; they are simulating how they would deal with prey they may catch in the wild. Dogs may be domesticated, but their innate instincts are still present and can be triggered when the circumstances demand.

During my visit to Rachael and Oliver’s home, I advised them to block Jet’s attempts to get their attention by play-biting, simply by showing the flat of the hand directly towards him and saying the word “No!” firmly and looking Jet straight in the eyes for two or three seconds and then ignoring him. Teaching this command is useful for other purposes too – it’s a means of reinforcing other rules when Jet breaks them. For older dogs, another method of correction to stop an unwanted behaviour such as play-biting or being destructive, is to attach a lead to the collar and allow it to trail behind (the dog must always be supervised in order to avoid the lead becoming entangled and inadvertently restraining him). The moment the dog starts the behaviour, flick the lead, block with the hand and say “No!” firmly. This, in combination with eye contact, will convey to the dog that the behaviour is unacceptable and must cease. Using the lead also avoids direct contact with the dog, which is often perceived as a reward and worth repeating the unwanted behaviour in order to be touched. Shouting and hitting out with the hand proves nothing but weakness on the part of the owner and can encourage the dog to leap forward and bite, before retreating with speed before it comes to harm.

Re-directing Jet’s attention from play-biting by throwing a ball for him to fetch is a constructive method of training him not to bite the hand and at the same time, teaching him what he can use his teeth on. I like to use a ball on a rope with puppies, because it allows me to retain control over the ball; again, when I want the ball back I offer my flat hand and exchange it for a treat at first. When the puppy realises how much fund fetching a ball is, the treat is not necessary.

Rachael and Oliver will be attending puppy classes immediately Jet has completed his vaccination programme. Obedience training is the best way to prevent play-biting and other unwanted behaviours. Jet is a quick learner and has already realised that training is fun and rewarding. The more time spent training Jet, the stronger and more enjoyable the relationship between the family and puppy will be. Jet will know the rules and want to please, rather than being a dog to be avoided.

Written by Sue Gilmore

This article appeared in Dogs Monthly magazine in spring 2013