Puppies can be oh-so-cute and cuddly when they're sleeping, but sometimes they can go completely bonkers. We like to call this, The Puppy Crazies. It usually happens in the early morning or the evening at the most inopportune times- when you're just waking up, right before your morning coffee, or at night right when you get home from work and all you want to do is put your feet up or make dinner. Your puppy may have other ideas that involve running around the house at break neck speeds with his tail tucked under him as he runs like the dickens and growls at imaginary animals. Or he's trying to bite your fav work pants and put yet another hole in the them. Or he's going after your hands and jumping up at you like you're a giant chew toy. For some people this can be downright terrifying. One time, I was called at 8:30 at night for an "emergency" session. I arrived at the house to find the new client warily eyeing her sweet 9 week old lab puppy that was quietly sitting in her crate like a little angel. Diane pointed at her and said that her puppy had been possessed by the devil and that she's terrified that her puppy is "aggressive" and will grow up to terrorize her household. Diane was so disturbed that she asked me if I could find a home for her puppy because she's so scared of her. I asked her to let Rosie out of her crate to see what was going on. The puppy gently trotted up to me and started licking my hand while wagging her entire bottom. I started petting her somewhat roughly and playing with her ears and tail. Sure enough she got more and more hyped up and started biting my hands and lunging for my sleeve. The good news, is that this is completely normal puppy behavior.
Think about a litter playing together. The puppies are constantly biting each other, wrestling and playing tug with toys or each other's body parts. This is how puppies learn bite inhibition and learn whether or not they are biting too hard. One time I had the pleasure of puppy sitting a litter and sat there and watched them for hours. They would eat, poo, pee, play, sleep and repeat. I was watching two puppies play together at one point, and one of them was bigger and more assertive than the other. They were playing nicely until the big puppy bit his sister hard on her tail, and she let out a high pitched yelp and immediately ran away from him. He trotted off after her, but she refused to make eye contact and didn't engage with him any longer. He went to go play with another puppy and was noticeably much softer in his play and never went for the tail again. The moral of this story is 1) we need to take a page out of their play book, 2) we need to teach our puppies how to play appropriately with humans, and 3) recognize when your puppy gets the "Crazies" and direct your puppy into positive play.
Back to Diane and Rosie, it turns out that her kids and husband had been playing with Rosie by using their hands and roughing up her fur, rolling her around on the ground, and letting her gnaw on their hands. It was cute at first, but the behavior had been increasing and everyone in the family was now scratched up and somewhat afraid of her. Also, every time Rosie latched onto a pant leg, she would get a huge response from the kids because they would scream and drag her through the house as she tugged and pulled. Rosie thought it was great fun! Here was the training game plan for Rosie:
1) First off, we had to teach the whole family how to play appropriately with Rosie to burn off her energy when she got the Puppy Crazies. This meant absolutely no playing with hands and always playing with a toy. We also had to teach Rosie how to "take it" and "leave it", and teach her how to play fetch. This way, the play could be controlled and if Rosie ever got to over excited or started to bite pant legs, hands or arms, the game could be immediately stopped. Another trick is to play where there is a baby gate and to step over the gate and ignore your puppy when he starts to get out of controlled. A three minute time out usually resets their energy levels.
2) We also worked on handling exercises to teach Rosie to stay calm when being petted and held. Have you ever seen a dog pet another dog or squeeze them to give them a hug? I didn't think so! It's a very unnatural new behavior for a puppy to experience and requires them to be comfortable with you being in their space and being vulnerable. When you have a good hold on them, they feel trapped and can't get away which triggers their fight or flight response. If they can't flee, they'll try to bite and the first time that someone lets go of them because of being bitten, they learn that that works for them and they'll try it again next time. The behavior is then positively reinforced and will only increase. Teach your puppy to love being handled and held by handling him when he's sleepy and by giving him lots of tiny pieces of treats or kibble as you hold him. If your puppy struggles and bites, calmly hold him until he relaxes. As soon as your puppy relaxes tell him "good" and then immediately release him so that he learns that calm behavior gives him what he wants. You can also make a game out of the handling exercises by touching a part of your puppy and if he stays calm and does not go for your hand, click and treat with the opposite hand. Do this with very few repetitions all throughout the day and your puppy will be ignoring your hand and looking forward to being touched.
3) When your puppy bites you try not to pull your hand away quickly. If you are constantly quickly pulling your hands away, your puppy will learn that biting gets you to stop petting him. The quick backwards movement also reinforces the puppy's desire to keep going after your hands. Teach your puppy that biting does not mean that hands go away or turn into tug toys. Instead, give your dog a signal that it hurts by making a loud pitch yelping sound, much like a puppy would. Then stop playing with your puppy and ignore him. Remove yourself from your puppy by stepping over a baby gate or going behind a closed door. Wait for at least five to ten minutes, and then once your puppy has calmed down you can try playing again. Ask your puppy to sit and then toss a toy for him to play with. Work on playing drop it and take it, by working with two toys of equal value at the same time. Toss a toy, let your puppy play with it and then say, "Drop it," and present the other toy that you've been hiding behind your back. As soon as your puppy drops the toy he was playing say, "Good drop it!" and then say "Take it" and let him play with the new toy. This game teaches your puppy to control his energy, release objects in his mouth and only take things in his mouth from your hand when you invite him to. You can also use this technique when your puppy is latched on to your pants. The key with grabbing clothing is to never pull back because this increases your dog's desire to tug. Stay calm, show your puppy a treat or toy and tell him to drop it (don't always show him a treat though because you might just accidentally reinforce the puppy's desire to grab your clothing, only do this the first few times your puppy does this). If you don't have something to distract your puppy from your leg, then gently and quickly remove your puppy's mouth from your clothing. The longer he hangs on, the more fun for him. Then redirect him to his toys. If your dog is extremely persistent, use a drag line (a leash that attaches to your puppy's harness that he drags around with him while you're home), so that you can quickly pick it up and restrain him from going for your clothing. Always redirect your puppy to his own toys or chew sticks to teach him that he can chew all he wants on those, but not on hands or clothing.
After a few days of positive play and no rough housing with hands, Rosie stopped lunging for hands and even started to initiate play with her family by bringing a toy over to them instead of jumping up and biting them. She absolutely loves to play fetch and will immediately drop anything in her mouth. She's very gentle and knows that putting her teeth on hands or clothing will immediately stop the game. Rosie is there to stay and everyone loves to cuddle with her.
There's a lot more to puppy biting and while this is an example of play biting, there are other forms of biting like resource guarding that need to be addressed by a professional immediately. Check back soon for tips on resource guarding. Names have been changed to protect the privacy of our clients.
Brittany : )