OMG! Make It Stop!"
The #1 frustration puppy parents have is not potty training. It’s puppy biting. On top of being frustrating, it’s also often painful.
When you’re puppy turns into a shark, please remember that it’s good for puppies to use their mouths. It’s how they explore their new world. So the biting itself is good.
The real problem with puppy biting is that it is being directed toward something inappropriate (you!). That means the primary task with puppy play biting is that we need to address two things: (1) the inappropriate targeting, (2) the arousal levels that fuel it… not necessarily in that order.
You're Puppy is Struggling with an Arousal Issue
Have you noticed that asking your puppy to stop biting you often doesn’t work. There’s a reason for that.
The higher the arousal (or stress) levels are, the harder it is for the puppy to process new information and respond to it appropriately. When arousal levels are really amped up, making good decisions is nearly impossible. (You probably know from your own life how a high arousal can lead to bad decisions.)
It’s important that you recognize this up front. Once you do, it will help you figure out what to do and what not to do.
The Big Mistake
Too many puppy parents get angry and react excitedly when they feel their puppy’s teeth. Let’s think through what happens with the puppy at this point.
Imagine that you are overly excited about something. And the person you are with demands that you “calm down!”. How would that affect you? Would your arousal/stress levels go down and lead to a calm state? Probably not. That kind of corrective energy normally pumps up the arousal/stress.
Here’s something to remember: The answer to an arousal issue isn’t more arousal.
So, here are some things you want to avoid.
- Forcefully grabbing
- Causing pain
- Yelling “yipe”
These ultimately make things more difficult for your pup. First, when they work it’s because they trigger fear in your puppy to make it stop. If you don’t want your dog to start being afraid of you, don’t do these. Personally, I don’t want fear to be foundational to my relationship with my dogs. I hope you don’t want that kind of relationship with your dog either.
Second, they all add stress, or arousal, to your dog. And, again, the answer to an arousal problem is not more arousal.
So, What Can You Do?
I know it’s hard, but it’s in your best interest to remain as calm as possible. Dog’s are really good at reading the emotions of others and matching it. Remaining calm helps you to avoid adding more arousal to an arousal problem.
Make Biting Counter-Productive
Remaining calm does not mean letting the pup keep chewing on you. If a puppy is playing and puts its teeth on my skin or my clothes, my first response is to calmly and immediately pull my hands away, cross my arms, turn my back, and look away from the puppy. I don’t say anything or do anything to the pup. I am simply withdrawing my attention as an indicator that I don’t like that.
The puppy’s typical response is to stop and try to figure out what just happened. This moment of slight confusion is a great learning moment. As soon as your dog has stopped and started thinking, say “thank you” and return your attention to your dog. Now, invite your puppy to play with something like a tug toy with you. Make it a super fun game, more fun than chewing on your hand or clothes would have been.
So the lesson for the pup is this: If your teeth hit skin or clothing, the game is over. If you want to play with me, we need to use an intermediary toy. When we play with toys, it’s game on. So if you want to play, this is how you do it.
But What if the Puppy Doesn't Stop When You Turn Away?
In that case, I would stand up and take a step away from the pup. Again, when the pup stops biting on you, re-engage the dog with a toy as before.
If your puppy pursues you, remove yourself from the situation. That usually means going over a gate or behind the door so that your dog does not have access to you. Once you have added some enforced distance between you and your pup, wait a few seconds so that your puppy can disengage, and then come back and be engage with a toy.
If your pup gets to the point where it just cannot calm down, then it’s time for it to go into a safe space where it is not being triggered by your presence.
I recommend you always have a safe space for your pup other than the kennel. It would be an actual puppy playpen, or it could be a gated off room (such as a kitchen). Whatever it happens to be, it’s important that you already have a positive association built into it. In other words, in your dog’s mind, this is a good place to be, not a bad one.
Part of the struggle is that your very presence is triggering your dog. So place your puppy in the playroom with some sort of a calming treat. One option might toss an ice cube or two on the floor for them to bat around like a hockey puck. Another option might be to offer a frozen Kong. (Take a Kong toy, put a finger-full of peanut butter, plain Greek yogurt, canned cheese, or 100% pumpkin, and then freeze it for later.) Another option which is a new favorite of mine is what I call a “lickety-bowl”. I have to thank Monica of K9s in Action Dog Training for this one.
To make a lickety-bowl, get some soft dog food. Mush it up in some water to make it like a thin milkshake. Then pour it in a small slow feeder bowl, or something that is size appropriate for your dog. Then freeze it. When you give it to your pup, place a bit of canned cheese mushed around in spots on top to encourage licking. This will last considerably longer than the previous options. In fact, I had one client tell me that a lickety-bowl kept her puppy busy for an hour and a half so she could ride her exercise bike and get other things done. (Yes, an hour and a half break. She was very excited, to say the least.)
More Regular Calm Time
Your puppy does not always need to be running, jumping, and playing when it’s awake. In fact, it is in your pup’s best interest to have regularly scheduled calming-down times.
If your pup is always on the go, go, go while it’s awake, that arousal level will become its baseline. That will make it even harder for the puppy to calm down.
If you schedule regular calming times—where the dog has a calming activity, such as a frozen Kong, licktey-bowl, or long-lasting chew—then that will help your puppy’s baseline lower, and with a lower baseline your pup will be able to calm down easier when it gets overly aroused.
Puppies are Hard
It’s true. Having a puppy in the household can lead to a lot of frustration because of the chaos they bring. On top of that, the way you handle issues that arise will directly affect who they become as adults, so you want to make sure you are doing it right.
If you would like to work with me to reduce the stress levels in your house and set your family up for success, then get in touch. Here’s the page to my puppy services.
If you are considering working with me, remember I offer a free 30-minute phone conversation to listen to your story and determine how I can help you best.
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Hi! I’m Bo McGuffee, owner of Puppy Tutor Dog Training. My mission is to make human dog training accessible and affordable. If you are looking for an alternative to the more aggressive training styles out there, then you’ve found the perfect dog trainer for you and your dog.