Puppy Biting

One of the most interesting professions and one that pays extremely well is that of dog trainer/handler/psychiatrist. A large number of pedigreed dogs that people take into their homes are brought up so badly that they become problems.

The family never blames itself – though, in every single case that we have investigated, it is the human’s fault. It is always the dog that suffers. It is tied up for the rest of his life, he is thrown out into the street where it starves to death, it is thrown into a shelter where it dies of a broken heart, or it is killed. If the family had simply gone to a dog trainer, he would have shown them where the problem lay and worked with both the family and the dog to bring about an understanding. There are thousands of trainers all over the world. In India, there are less than 20 – and the demand is for much more.

Anyway, till young people realise how lucrative and rewarding this profession is , let me try to answer one of the most common questions I am asked “I have a puppy and it is bites, growls, snarls,nips etc. What can I do to change its behaviour?”

To get control of your pup's biting, it helps to understand why puppies bite in the first place. Biting and mouthing are normal behavior for puppies. Dogs don't have hands so they investigate objects and their environment with their mouths. To a curious puppy, everything about this big world is new and exciting. He learns as he goes along. You can almost hear his thought processes as he discovers something he's never seen before: "Hmmm...what's this? [chomping on it] Something to eat? No? [Tossing it around] Can I play with it? Maybe! Can I make it squeak?"

Playing is also a normal learning behavior for puppies, especially play-fighting. Play-fighting with littermates and other animals develops reflexes, coordination and physical skill. It also helps them develop social skills and teaches them how to interact positively within their canine society, their "pack." And it's great fun for them. Sometimes their fighting and "attacks" on us appear frighteningly fierce but to them, it's just a game. Much like a group of kids playing make-believe games and pretending to be grown-ups, puppies have their own games and pretend to be "grown-ups," too!

A dog's ability to control the force of his biting is called "bite inhibition." It's a critically important skill that every puppy needs to learn, the earlier the better. At first, they don't know their own strength nor how sharp their little teeth really are. Puppies learn to control the force of their biting from the reactions of their mothers and littermates during play and especially play-fighting.

We can teach puppies about bite inhibition, too. A puppy is much too busy learning how to be a dog to take time to understand our human words and ways. That takes time and maturity. Mother dogs' methods, however, are very effective, obviously because they speak to their pups in the language they understand best !Lets copy a mother dog's actions.

Take a look at a mother dog disciplining her brood. When a playful puppy bites the mother hard enough to hurt, she squeals in shocked indignation. The puppy, surprised at her reaction, usually hesitates a moment, unsure of himself, then tries to bite again. The mother yelps even louder this time and whirls on the puppy, growling, showing her teeth and scowling at him fiercely. Then she turns her back on him and storms away, completely ignoring him and any further attempts to get her to play. A smart puppy picks up her clear message quickly: "if you can't play gently, I won't play with you at all!"

If the puppy persists or doesn't take the hint, the mother doesn't fool around. With a menacing growl and using her teeth, she grabs him by the scruff of his neck and gives him a shake. If he sasses back, she gives him another little shake, tougher this time. She doesn't let go of the pup till he's acknowledged her authority by relaxing his body, laying his ears back and keeping still for a moment. The mother disciplines especially obnoxious puppies by knocking them over with her online pokies paw and pinning them to the ground, growling angrily and pinching them with her teeth. The puppies shriek but they're not really hurt. She doesn't let them up again until they relax and lie still. After the correction, the puppy shakes his fur back into place and goes off in search of a playmate with a better sense of humour.

Sometimes the mother picks out certain puppies for a little "extra" correction two or three times a day. She'd roll them over, pin them down for no apparent reason, growling at them if they didn't lie quietly. The puppies she chooses are the most outgoing and dominant in the litter. She gave them regular reminders of her authority and the behavior she expected from them.

The next time your puppy bites you, scream "OW!" in a high-pitched voice. Exaggerate a little. Then refuse to play with him or pay attention to him for a few minutes. If he doesn't get the message, give him a little scruff shake and scold him in a low-toned, threatening voice. Sound meaner than you really are. For puppies that just won't quit or seem to get wilder with every correction, flip them over on their backs, scold them in that same low, scary voice and gently but firmly, hold them in that position until they stop struggling.

We sometimes give puppies the wrong message about biting by some of the games we play with them. Wrestling and tug of war can encourage a puppy to bite and make it hard for him to distinguish when it's okay to use his teeth and when it's not. To make it easier for your puppy to learn good manners, avoid these games.

Puppies learn bite inhibition and authority between five and eight weeks of age through play with their mothers and littermates. This is an especially good reason not to get very young puppies. Puppies acquired earlier need to be taught these important things by their owners. They might require a little more intense use of the mother’s methods than puppies that stayed with their litters longer. Puppies that receive little or no training in bite inhibition, either from their mothers or their people, may grow up to develop behaviour problems.

Next week I will tell you how to avoid dog bites in general.

Maneka Gandhi

*Proper wildlife rehabilitation is an extremely biologically and ecologically responsible attitude toward all living things.*