Ouch! My Puppy Dog is Biting My Hands and Clothes
By Aidan Bindoff
This article explains in plain english the fastest way to stop your puppy dog biting at your clothing, hands or other body parts. If you have “tried everything” or simply have no idea what to do, the answers are all here and made easy. Methods are humane and pet-friendly, utilising positive reinforcement and ‘time-outs’ instead of spanking or scolding.
All puppies will bite and chew your body parts or clothing. It is just what puppies do. Their sharp, needle-like teeth can cause quite a lot of pain, and clothing can easily be damaged. It makes sense that we want to teach puppy that this is unacceptable as quickly as possible. What’s more, if puppies are allowed to continue this behavior, by the time they are adolescents or adults they could cause some serious damage!
That’s not to say that having a puppy’s mouth on you is necessarily a ‘bad’ thing. Puppies need to learn what we call ‘bite inhibition’, which is a soft, inhibited bite. Why? All dogs will bite under certain circumstances, particularly if taken by surprise. The dog that learns bite inhibition can bite without causing any real damage.
First, some theory. Don’t worry, it’s not long and boring!
If you have read my earlier article “Secrets of Dog Training Professionals – Operant Conditioning” then you will be familiar with the term ‘Negative Punishment’. Sounds awful, doesn’t it? But don’t worry, Negative Punishment simply means that behavior is decreased because we took something away as a consequence of that behavior.
A ‘time out’ is a Negative Punisher when the target behavior is decreased. Time outs are one of the most humane and pet-friendly punishments we can use, when used with thought and care.
Puppies bite at our hands and clothing because that is the way that puppies like to play. It is fun, and they enjoy our attention. They particularly like it if we try to fight them off of us. Have you ever seen two or more puppies playing? They like to fight each other with their mouths and paws.
Normally, other puppies teach our puppy not to bite too hard by squealing in pain. When we take our puppy from the litter, these other puppies aren’t around to teach proper bite inhibition any more. Some people advise trying to emulate a ‘puppy squeal’ to discourage biting too hard.
I don’t know why, but people just don’t seem to be very convincing with their squeals, so I don’t recommend it as a training technique. What’s more, some puppies seem to enjoy it when their human squeals and will get more excited, resulting in more biting. This is obviously not what we want puppy to do! If you can squeal and your puppy immediately stops biting, then this is an acceptable technique. Monitor the behavior long-term, though, to make sure biting too hard is decreasing.
A different, yet highly effective aproach is to say ‘ouch’ in a neutral tone of voice (not loud, not high-pitched and not angry) then walk out of the room, shutting the door behind you for 30 seconds. This marks the exact behavior you are trying to punish, then gives a time-out as a consequence.
It may take puppy a little while to figure out the link between his biting and the time-out, but the marker will make it clearer. It is important to say ‘ouch’ in a neutral tone of voice, and say it exactly at the moment that puppy bites too hard.
Notice that I said “exactly at the moment that puppy bites too hard”? We don’t want to discourage young puppies from biting altogether, this would be bite prohibition. We want to teach puppies to inhibit their bite.
Time-outs should not be excessive. A long time-out can be stressful and lead to other unwanted behaviors. 30 seconds is more than enough and seems to be quite effective. Don’t look back at puppy or try to push puppy away when you say ‘ouch’. Simply get up and leave, closing the door behind you.
If you have family or friends in the room then it might be easier to lead puppy out of the room and shut him out for his time-out. However, this doesn’t seem to be as effective to me.
Remember, it is only punishment if the behavior decreases. Continuing with a punishment which is unclear or ineffective is a waste of time and borders on abuse (although, it would be hard to do damage with a 30 second time-out). Consider your timing, consistency and whether or not there is anyone else in puppy’s life who is not following through with this protocol consistently. It is important that you explain the rules to anyone who plays with puppy.
If all else fails, seek professional advice. Most vet clinics are now offering puppy kinder classes using humane and pet-friendly techniques.
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