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Nipping, Chewing and Rough Play

Puppies, like children, explore their world by putting things in their mouth. They use their mouth to play with littermates, toys and their surroundings. Unfortunately, when you are playing with or petting your new puppy he will assume that he can do the same to your fingers. This is normal and not generally a sign of aggressive behavior. Puppies are teething until around six months of age and this contributes to their need to chew. Chewing facilitates teething and makes their gums feel better. Puppies are highly motivated by instinct to chew on anything and everything around. Your puppy won’t magically "outgrow" this behavior. In order to suppress it or stop it, you must try to interest your puppy in a more acceptable, alternate behavior. Your goal is to redirect your puppy's need to “mouth” objects onto the appropriate chew toys.

You should provide your puppy with a number of appropriate toys. Knotted rope bones, Nylabones, Kong toys, toys that make noise or dispense treats when rolled are all good choices. Some plush and/or squeaky toys are appropriate if your dog is not a hard chewer. Rotate your puppy’s toys every 3 or 4 days so that he does not get bored. Experiment with different types of toys to see what your puppy likes best. Watch your puppy closely when you give him a new toy to make sure he can’t tear it up into small pieces, which he might eat.

Try freezing a wet washcloth for your puppy to chew on when he’s teething. If you should happen to catch your puppy in the act of chewing on an inappropriate object, interrupt him with a loud noise (not something that will scare him) and immediately replace the item with an acceptable chew toy. Praise him profusely when he takes the chew toy in his mouth.

To minimize your puppy’s chewing opportunities you should puppy-proof your house. Pick up the trash or tuck it inside a cabinet. Try keeping it outside on the porch or buy locking containers. Be sure the kids pick up all toys and don’t leave dirty clothes (especially socks and underwear!), shoes, magazines, remote controls or other small items lying around where your puppy can reach them. Use a commercial product like "Bitter Apple" to coat furniture and other items that may be tempting for your puppy to chew on. Don’t confuse your puppy by giving him your old shoes or articles of clothing to chew on. He cannot distinguish one shoe or article of clothing from another. If you do this, you should just open your closet and let him choose because as far as he’s concerned anything that smells like you should be fair game!

Above all, use your crate to confine the puppy when there is no one available to supervise his time in the house. If you are busy but want him with you, tether him to a door or to yourself with a six-foot lead attached to his adjustable harness. Don’t tether him by a collar as puppies can get excited or scared and hurt themselves by pulling against the confinement or by taking off running only to be jerked up short by the end of the lead. Close doors or use baby gates to limit the puppy’s access to other areas of the house. Never give your puppy the opportunity to sneak off and get into mischief. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!

You want to teach your puppy that should he happen to have a hand or fingers in his mouth, he must be gentle. Every time your puppy puts his mouth on any part of your anatomy you must immediately redirect his chewing onto an acceptable object. You can minimize your puppy’s offenses and keep him from intimidating small children by offering him a knotted rope bone or a nylabone (specifically designed for teething puppies) every time you want to pet him. You need to remember to keep these items readily available when it’s the puppy’s playtime.

Offer the chew toy with one hand as you reach out to pet him behind the ears or down the back. Don’t go over the puppy’s head when you reach to pet him as this will distract him from the chew toy. This exercise will help your puppy learn that attention from people is fun and rewarding. At the same time it will keep his mouth busy so that he doesn’t learn to chew on humans when he’s being petted. Be sure you alternate hands while doing this exercise and remember that you will have to start with short sessions to keep your puppy from getting excited and starting to nip.

Sometimes providing alternate chew items is not enough and you will have to teach your puppy that nipping results in punishment (unpleasant consequences). Punishment can include walking away and ignoring him after letting him know that he went too far or it can extend to physically unpleasant consequences. To show him that nipping stops his fun and results in the halt of petting and social interaction with you, look him in the eye and yell "OUCH!" (You want him to think you have been severely injured!), immediately turn your back and ignore him. If you have to, put him in his crate for a time out.

You must ignore him until he is calm. At that point you can try the chew bone/petting exercise again. If the chew toy and ignoring him are not sufficient, you can use your thumb and forefinger to loosely grasp the puppy’s lower jaw when he mouths you. You don’t want to hurt him, just hang on enough that he realizes he is no longer in control and can’t get his mouth away. After a few seconds, release him. Offer your hand again. Praise and reward him if he doesn’t mouth you or repeat holding his jaw if he does. Remember that you are not going to solve this problem overnight. It will take many repetitions and your puppy is going to backslide for what seems like forever, but with consistency and patience, you will win the war.

Your puppy is sometimes going to demand attention. Remember that you are supposed to be the one in charge and that he must learn that you set the rules and make the decisions. It is your responsibility, however, to make sure that your puppy is getting adequate physical exercise. Putting the puppy out in the yard by himself to play is not adequate. Most puppies will do their business, explore a little bit and then sit by the door waiting to join the pack again. Your puppy needs to go for walks as often as possible and he needs to interact with humans by playing a game of fetch or what ever game you both enjoy. Your puppy needs lots of "people time." He cannot learn the rules of your house if he’s outside or locked in a crate all the time. He can only become trustworthy by spending time loose (figuratively speaking) in the house while you are there to teach him how to behave.

One of the ways puppies demand attention is by jumping up on you. Jumping up is not necessarily a bad thing if you instigate the behavior, but a dog that indiscriminately jumps on people is a nuisance and this behavior can be a stepping- stone to acting out aggressively with strangers and family members. A dog with a dominant personality or a problem with aggression can view jumping up on humans, especially children, as a sign of his dominance over those individuals. You should never allow your dog to jump on anyone until his place as the lowest member of the pack is firmly established. Don’t forget that getting bad attention by jumping up (being pushed away, kneed in the chest or someone stepping on the back toes) is a reward in itself. To teach your puppy not to jump up you are going to use one of the same principles as with chewing.

When the puppy jumps up, cross your arms over your chest and turn your back to him as you say ”Off!” Stay turned away until all of his feet are on the ground. Once his feet are on the ground, praise and pet him and give him a treat. If he should try to jump up again as you praise him, repeat the exercise. Try to keep your praise low-key so that you are not encouraging him to get excited, which can lead to him wanting to jump up. A trick to this is to teach your puppy from the beginning that he must “sit pretty” for attention. Basically this just means that he must sit quietly for attention. Once your puppy realizes that he gets no attention for jumping up, he’ll stop jumping. Once you’ve taught him that he must come to you and “sit pretty” for attention, be sure that he doesn’t get ignored when he is waiting politely to be petted.

I do not recommend playing "tug-of-war" or wrestling games with your puppy as this behavior encourages your puppy to challenge you. Grabbing, growling, lunging and refusing to release an object you have your hands on are inappropriate behaviors and can lead to serious problems down the road. Think about the types of games you play with your puppy and never encourage out-of-control behavior or games that make you adversaries.

You should not expect children below 10 years of age to be able to contribute significantly to the training of your new puppy. Kids can help feed, water and take the puppy for walks, but they tend to lose interest quickly if the TV is on or they have friends over. The puppy can be long gone and destroying the house before the children even realize he left the room. Children also are not usually capable of disciplining a puppy consistently. They may do really well the first couple of times the puppy does the wrong thing, but after the twentieth time they tend to give up and either let the puppy get away with the behavior or they get frustrated and punish the puppy incorrectly. You should never leave children under ten and a young puppy alone. Parents should supervise all interactions between their children and dogs. Simple situations between a child and a small puppy can quickly escalate into serious conflicts.

A child who is nipped by a puppy may try to push the puppy away with their hands and the puppy will interpret this as playing. The puppy will be encouraged to nip, chew and jump on the child again and before you know it the child is knocked down, injured, traumatized and forever scared of dogs. On the puppy’s side, he is now afraid of small children because the parents rushed into save the child, who was screaming hysterically, they immediately blamed the puppy, yelled and intimidated him and possibly even resorted to physical punishment. The entire family now has a terrible experience to overcome and it could have been prevented if the puppy had been properly supervised by adults.

To finish up, never discipline or punish a dog or puppy unless you catch them “in the act.” Animals will associate punishment with whatever they were doing at the moment they were punished. A puppy cannot connect the punishment to the act of chewing on the dining room chair 20 minutes ago. A puppy is not thinking about what he did 20 minutes ago when he has that "guilty look." He is merely showing submissive postures because he senses your anger and he feels threatened. Your body posture, facial expression and tone of voice combine to make the puppy feel threatened so he runs away or cowers. Punishment never works when delivered after-the-fact and may actually encourage other undesirable behaviors.


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Last revised: January 06, 2006