TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. - After losing our 13-year-old dog earlier this year, we recently got a puppy. The little terror is a 14-week-old Lab named Oscar who is chewing up everything in our house, including us! Our arms are covered with teeth marks and sometimes he gets so wound up it's hard to get him off of us. He loves food and nips at our hands if we try to give him a treat. We've tried holding his mouth shut, but it seems to amp him up more. How can we teach Oscar not to bite us?
- Oscar's Chew Toys
Dear Chew Toys,
There are so many important things to teach a young pup so he can grow into a well socialized dog with confidence and good manners, but one of the most important is how hard to use his mouth. In the dog behavior world, we call this "bite inhibition." Bite inhibition means a dog can control how hard he bites and this must be learned early in life. Adult dogs who create punctures when they bite did not learn this skill. Punishing a puppy for biting too hard doesn't teach him what he should be doing and can result in a dog who is fearful of human hands.
Up until about 6 months of age, pups are losing baby teeth and getting their adult ones in. Teething results in a need to chew so your first assignment is to get several good chew toys and keep them around the house so you can easily grab one to divert his chewing away from you. Frozen stuffed Kong toys are an excellent way to redirect the chewing to something productive. For especially diligent chewers, I recommend feeding all (or most) of their daily kibble using frozen Kongs. To make a frozen Kong, soak some kibble in water until it is very mushy. Plug the smaller hole with something soft and then fill the Kong with the mush. Smear a little peanut butter across the larger hole and then freeze the Kong. This is an effective way to make Oscar work for his food, is cold on his sore gums and satisfies his need to chew.
Pups do need to interact with people so they can learn to use a soft mouth. If you are playing with him and he bites too hard, calmly say "Ouch" then immediately stand up and walk away. If he chases after you, put him behind a baby gate and give him an opportunity to calm down with a time out. After a few minutes, let him out to try and play again but be prepared to quickly impose another time out if he is still wild. Each time the play stops and attention is removed, you are taking away a reward. If you are consistent, he will realize that his biting makes the fun stop.
Here are a few other exercises that will help Oscar learn to use a softer mouth:
1. Put a treat in your hand and close your fingers to make a fist. Wait until he uses a soft mouth and then open your hand so he can get the treat.
2. Put a little peanut butter on the palm of your hand and hold your fingers and thumb in an "O" so he has to use his tongue to lick it out.
3. Teach him impulse control by holding the treat out and quickly pulling the treat back if he comes at you like a shark. Continue to pull the treat back until he approaches with more self control. You can introduce a cue like "Easy" so he knows ahead of time to use a soft mouth.
- Carla Brown, CPDT is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and owner of The Savvy Dog Training and Education Center in Truckee. If you have a pet topic/issue you would like to see covered in the Ask the Trainer column, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org