Thursday, June 14, 2012

Mouthy Puppies!

I have had a lot of questions lately about puppy mouthing, biting or nipping. This is a summary of the advice I normally give to my students.

There are two problems with puppy mouthing. One is bite pressure/bite inhibition (how soft a dog's mouth is) and how often or what they bite (clothes, skin, pant legs, arms, etc).

My first piece of advice: ditch the spray bottle, scruffing, holding the mouth closed or any other aversive method. They don't work and they can cause your puppy to fear you.

My second piece of advice: persistence and consistency.

You will be dealing with puppy mouthing for a long time. Anywhere from a month to 6 months. It is not going to go away quickly, but it will go away.
When dealing with any problem behavior, we need to do more than deal with just the behavior. We also need to change the way we deal with the dog. This applies to puppies and to adult dogs.

Step 1: Stuffed Kongs are your friend. I stuff them with peanut butter. Or yogurt mixed with PB (and sometimes banana). I freeze this kind. I also stuff them with kibble coated with yogurt (then freeze).

Other food toys include the Kong Wobbler or any Premier food toys. The key to food toys is that you need to make them fun. So, we change what is in the toy, the type of toy and when the dog gets the toy on a regular basis.

If you really need a break from your puppy, then he goes in a crate with a Kong. You can use a special room for him, too, but it (and your entire house) needs to be puppy proofed. If you have not yet puppy proofed your house, then you'll need to get down on your hands and knees and figure out, from their height, what they will get into and then move it out of their reach.

Step 2: Increase exercise. Finding the right balance can be difficult, so keeping a log helps a lot. We don't want to tire a very young puppy out too much, but we also need to keep increasing exercise gradually so that the puppy gets enough.

Step 3: Hand feeding. This can help teach a puppy a lot about how gently to take food. It also builds trust and the bond between you and your puppy.

Step 4: Deal with the mouthing in a non-aversive way. 
Remember, you will need to be consistent and persistent! 
Some trainers advise yelping or saying something (other than No) when your puppy mouths too hard. You can do that if you like, but you need to combine it with the following:
Every single time that your puppy grabs you, stand up and walk away (i.e., play immediately stops). If necessary, walk into a room where he can not follow and shut the door. Wait a few seconds to a minute and then rejoin him. If you continue playing while the puppy is mouthing, then you are rewarding the mouthing.

Redirection: If he grabs your shirt and starts tugging, redirect to a play toy and then play with him. Don't just give him the toy. Because a toy that doesn't move is far less interesting than a human who moves around (and squeals or whatever).

If he stops grabbing you, then you need to immediately reward with praise, food, play or something like that. Remember, we are training the behaviors we want, so we need to take every opportunity to reward calm, quiet behavior (this will not make your puppy a couch potato, but will make him easier to work with if you want to, say, run agility with him).

Keep play quiet and gentle. No rough housing or you will get a rough playing dog. So, tug is fine, but only gentle tug. Playing with toys is fine, but gentle play. If you play gently with him and stop playing when he is rough, then you will teach him to play gently. If you play rough with him and ramp him up and reward the hyper activity with more rough play, then you will have a hyper rough dog.
Impulse control is all about being able to calm down during the middle of play. Now is the time to start teaching that. Play for a bit, then get your puppy to calm down (see below). Then, play for a bit more. Repeat this often for a good start to an off switch.

Step 5: Use your obedience behaviors to control behavior. So, your puppy is getting wound up and needs to settle, we work on puppy push ups (sit, lie down and then sit back up) or a go-to-mat cue. If I have a dog that is wound up, I usually do a training session (5 minutes) and then I will play or take it for a walk or a game of fetch. But, I do the training session FIRST so that I can reward all that good behavior with both treats and with a secondary reward of play time or fetch time afterward.

So, to recap:

If mouthing starts, all play and interaction stops immediately. If necessary, remove yourself from the area around the puppy. Once mouthing stops, initiate play again to reward the puppy when it has stopped.