Downeast Dog News
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Help! My Puppy's a Land Shark!

By Don Hanson, BFRAP, CDBC, CPDT-KA | Mar 02, 2015

A common call we receive goes like this: “We have a new puppy. She’s 11 weeks old and has a lot of energy and is biting a lot as well as nipping at our ankles when we walk.  We have tried spanking her butt, tapping her nose, and holding her on her back while holding her mouth shut.  We continue to say, "no biting", but it doesn't seem to help. She actually seems to be getting worse with my spouse and children, and if anything, it is causing her to be more aggressive.” Don’t feel bad; you are not alone and I promise you, your puppy is not really a land shark in disguise.

Having a puppy biting and nipping at your heels can certainly be a very frustrating and painful experience and often takes some of the joy out of having a puppy in the first place; let’s face it, being bitten by those sharp little teeth hurts! That being said, the behavior, from the puppy’s perspective, is a very normal one and right on target with his developmental period.  Responding to this behavior physically was frequently recommended by dog trainers in the past, and unfortunately is too often still recommended by some trainers that have not kept up with the advances in the field of canine behavior.

Since typically, a puppy’s nipping behavior is repeated on a regular basis, he must find that behavior to be a rewarding one on some level.  In an effort to eliminate the “problem biting,” people often inadvertently reward the behavior.  In addition to the unintentional rewarding by humans, puppy biting is often a behavior that can be self-reinforcing.

Unfortunately, since we cannot ask the puppy why it finds the behavior rewarding, there is no way of having 100% certainty what the payoff is for each particular dog. However, if we look at typical canine instinctual behaviors, we can make an educated guess. Dogs, as predators, are attracted by movement and are hard-wired to pursue things that are moving away from them. A swaying pant leg, robe, or dress can appear to be a very stimulating toy, tauntingly inviting any puppy to “latch on.” Some breeds, such as the herding breeds, often have more of a genetic predisposition towards the biting of feet and ankles.

This instinctually triggered nipping behavior often starts as a form of play and quickly escalates. A puppy may learn that when he grabs an ankle, he can get a person to yelp, just like a squeaky toy, which he finds extremely fun. No matter what the initial cause of the behavior, paying attention to the puppy in any manner (looking, touching or speaking to him) may be construed as a reward and at least from his perspective, participating in the play.

Your puppy’s increased aggression when you physically reprimand the biting may also be perceived as “rough play” and tacit approval from you to magnify the response. If the puppy feels threatened, an escalation in aggression may be motivated by fear or anger and frustration. Attempts at correcting a puppy that causes it to respond in fear or anger may result in a dog with serious behavioral and fear issues in the future.

Remember the old adage, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”  Examine the circumstances and the environment in which the nipping behavior occurs. Consider time of day, what you are doing, what the puppy is doing immediately before the behavior, the puppy’s activity level (tired, over-tired, hyper), and what else is occurring in the environment. Many puppies will “act up” when they are bored and not getting enough exercise or conversely, they are over-stimulated and not getting enough sleep.  Look for triggers associated with the behavior so that they can be prevented in the future by managing the puppy and its environment. For example, if your puppy starts nipping when you want to end a play session, look at alternative ways to end play. A quick trip outside to “do its business,” followed by some down time in a crate would be one way that you could manage this behavior.

While prevention is one tool, we also need to ensure that the undesirable behavior is not being rewarded; this is often the most difficult part because it is our natural instinct to react. Put on some old worn out jeans and setup a situation where your puppy is likely to become a “land shark.” Make sure you have some tasty treats in your pockets to reward the behavior you like. When the puppy grabs at your pant leg, pretend you are a tree and stop. Do not look at, talk to, or touch your puppy. The very second the puppy lets go of your pant leg, quietly say “yes” to mark the behavior, and as long as your puppy is not biting, reach down and give him a treat.

If your puppy is one that likes to chase and nip at you from behind, perform the above exercise on leash, with the leash tethered to something secure like a large piece of furniture.  When you step out of range, your puppy will probably start barking in an attempt to gain attention. Continue to be a tree, ignoring the puppy until he stops barking and lunging on the leash. Quietly reach down and give the puppy a treat; alternatively you can play with the pup for a bit. If you choose to play, be ready to completely ignore your puppy again when the play escalates to the point where he is too rough.

If your puppy has an extremely reliable sit behavior, “extremely reliable” meaning that you can say “sit” once and only once and the dog will immediately respond on the first cue, then you could ask for a sit as a means of refocusing the dog. In this case by asking for a sit, you are using what is called a mutually exclusive behavior; a puppy cannot be sitting and “acting out” at the same time. This scenario illustrates how training for extremely reliable behaviors can be very useful.

Play biting and nipping is normal canine behavior for a puppy. It’s best to start working on this right at 8 weeks of age. If your puppy is 13 weeks of age or older and play biting is still a problem, contact a reward-based, force-free trainer for assistance.

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Don Hanson is the co-owner of the Green Acres Kennel Shop (greenacreskennel.com) in Bangor and the 2014 Association of Professional Dog Trainers’ Dr. Ian Dunbar Member of the Year. He is a Bach Foundation Registered Animal Practitioner, Certified Dog Behavior Consultant, Certified Professional Dog Trainer, and Associate Certified Cat Behavior Consultant. He produces and co- hosts a weekly radio show and podcast, The Woof Meow Show heard on The Voice of Maine  (103.9FM, 101.3FM, 1450AM & woofmeowshow.com) every Saturday at 7:30AM and Sunday at 8:30PM.