Why do Puppies Bite, and What to Do About It

One of the most common problems I’m approached with as a dog trainer is this one:

“My puppy is so sweet.  I just love him!  But he bites me all the time.  He’s not being mean – he’s just playing.  But he needs to stop!”

I’ve met people who are covered with scratches and wounds all over their arms and legs from their puppies play-biting them.  Usually, my first thought is “OUCH!”

Why Do They Bite?

Puppy | Dog | Playing and biting

There’s a reason why this is such a common problem.  It’s because puppies play using their mouths!  When they’re with their litter, before they move in with you, they’re playing together by wrestling, chewing, and nipping at each other.  As they do this, they learn something called “bite inhibition.”

Essentially, bite inhibition is knowing that if they bite, that may cause pain, and cause your playmate to react in a not-so-favorable way.  Brothers and sisters may turn and nip them in return.  The play may stop.  If they bite the wrong dog too hard, they’ll likely get a more harsh correction – a lot of time, their mama will lay them out flat for biting inappropriately during play.  This is why puppies who have left their litters too early, or those who were single puppies, often have MORE biting issues.  It’s because they don’t learn bite inhibition from other dogs.

So, while they’ve learned from the beginning of their journey of having teeth that they need to be careful, they often still aren’t prepared to live with someone who has no fur, only skin.  A bite that may be appropriate for another fluffy puppy or dog is likely going to hurt your bare skin a whole lot more!

So What Do We Do About It?

Puppies | Biting | Nipping

There are a few key things to do when you’re addressing play biting in puppies.

  1. Firstly, recognize that it’s a normal behavior, and they’re not doing it because they’re mad at you, they hate you, or that you’re not a good mommy or daddy to them.  Dogs are dogs, and biting is a normal thing for puppies to do.  It’s simply something they haven’t learned to control with people just yet.
  2. Give them an outlet.  We don’t want your dog to be afraid to use his mouth indefinitely.  That’s not healthy, and it can really limit the kind of training and rewards you’ll be able to use in the future.  Giving plenty of opportunities for chewing, chasing, and tugging is essential!  Let them use their mouths in an APPROPRIATE way, and let them know that this is good with lots of praise and play.
  3. Correct them when they bite.  This is usually where I see things breaking down.  Owners don’t want to be mean to their puppies.  They don’t want to hurt them.  They only want to be positive.  Unfortunately, that’s not how dogs think, most of the time.  As I said above, if a puppy bites an older dog too hard, they’ll get put in their place pretty quickly.

The easiest way I’ve found to give a puppy a bite correction is to take the skin on their cheek firmly in your hand and say “No,” or “Off,” or whatever your word is.  Say it like you mean it.  Your puppy may turn and try to bite you again immediately, like a toddler who’s just been told not to hit his brother.  Repeat your correction each time he does it, and then try to redirect him to an appropriate way to play.

Correct, and Redirect. If you don’t redirect it to another play activity, your puppy may become stuck on the idea of “getting away with” biting you.  He’ll start to see if he can bite you fast enough and get away before you can catch him, so you do need to correct it, and then say “Let’s go find a toy!

Puppy biting is a pain, but it is pretty normal.  With consistency, opportunity for play, and maturity, your puppy will quit and become a joy to play with!

The Working Walk

Today, I want to touch on one of the quickest, most useful training tools I use with dogs.  I’ve decided to call it the Working Walk, because I’ve done it since I was about 10 and never had a name for it.

The short version is this: there are two kinds of walking with your dog.  The first kind is a regular walk.  Your dog stays on a loose leash as you both leisurely stroll down the road, both of you exploring the world together in peaceful harmony.  This is a great walk, but it can take awhile to get there because your success hinges on your dog keeping part of his attention on you as he is sniffing along, being aware of where you are walking so that he can keep his leash loose.  This is what we all hope for when we go for walks, and it is the Working Walk that will get you there.

The second type of walking is, you guessed it, the Working Walk.  This type of walking is done with the goal of having your dog keep his attention on you 100% of the time.  So your pace is quicker (it doesn’t have to be faster, but take smaller steps to help boost your energy), your energy is higher, you’re doing a lot more talking, and you’re throwing in a bunch of exercises to keep your dog guessing.  You’re using a lot of reinforcement, a lot of praise and talking, and you and your dog are working together with focus on each other.  If you are easily embarrassed by people watching you goof off with your dog, you may want to find a more private place to do this than your neighborhood park.  Just a thought.

Tristan and Susan working on their RN.
Tristan and Susan working on their RN.

When you are doing the Working Walk, your goal is for your dog to respond quickly, immediately, and joyfully to all of your mini-exercises that you throw at him.  This should be a fun game that the two of you play together, and it really is fun.  It’s like an unchoreographed dance routine that the two of you improvise with. Here are some exercises that you can use with your dog:

  1. Quick Abouts

Quick abouts are just what they sound like.  A quick about turn (or a 180 degree turn).  When you see that your dog is not paying appropriate attention, say his name, and quickly turn and go the other way!  Give him praise and reinforcement when he comes back to heel position on your left side.  You can do this one as many times as you want to, and your dog will probably never get bored.  I’ve had dogs who love it so much, they hit the end of the leash and immediately do a Quick About all on their own.  Keys to remember with this:

  • Don’t wait for your dog! If you do a quick about, and then stand there and wait for him to come with you, you’re missing the point of the exercise.
  • Be exciting when you turn.  I’ll often say “Whoops!” and turn.  When they hear that high pitched word, they flip around to come with me after only one or two repetitions.

2. Back Aways (Or Call Fronts, or Comefore.  They’re all the same thing.)

Back Aways are again, just what they sound like.  While you are walking with your dog, say “Dog, Come!” and take a few steps backwards.  Don’t turn around, just back up.  Have the dog come and sit in front of you.  Think Quick! while you do this.  The whole exercise should take just a few seconds.  If you’re having trouble getting your dog to sit right in front of you, use a treat to lure them right up close to your legs (or ankles, or belly.  Any size dog can do this!), bring the treat upwards, and their little bottoms should hit the ground as their noses go up to follow the treat.  Keys to remember with this:

  • Be quick! The faster and more exciting you make this exercise, the better it’s going to go for you.
  • This is another great one to use when your dog’s attention is wandering.  Call his name, tell him to come, have him sit in front, and reward!

Dallas Fort Worth obedience training

3.  Circles Left and Right

While you’re walking, change it up by walking in a small circle to the left or two the right.  These circles serve a few functions.  The first is to, yet again, get your dog’s attention.  The second is to teach your dog to move with you, or out of your way.  If your dog is walking on your left side, when you do a Circle Left, he will need to get back out of your way, otherwise you will step on him.  When I do this, I say, “Get Back.”  When you do a Circle Right, your dog will need to hurry to catch up with you.  I say, “Get it, get it, get it!” (I’m not sure why, but it’s very exciting, so it serves its purpose).  The third function is to teach your dog change of pace.  To go to the left, on the inside, the dog must slow down.  To go to the right, on the outside, the dog must speed up.  Keys to remember:

  • Talk to your dog! Help him understand with your voice and words what he needs to be doing.  Does he need to slow down and back up?  Or does he need to speed up and hurry around?
  • Use treats.  I will lure a dog around me when he’s on the outside, to help him hurry.  I also use food to push him back to the inside so he doesn’t get stepped on.

There are dozens more exercises that you can throw into your Working Walk.  It’s like the Turkey Soup of dog training: Just throw in whatever you have in the fridge.  If your dog knows sit, down, stay, throw those in as well!  Anything that your dog knows is fair game when you’re doing a Working Walk.

Do remember, though, that this is hard work, and it requires a lot of brain power.  A Working Walk should only last 5-10 minutes before taking a rest or doing a different activity.

Happy training, friends!

Tips to Housebreaking Your Dog

Unless your dog is an outside dog all the time, housebreaking is probably one of the very first things that we want to work on.  Nobody likes a house that smells like a dog’s toilet, not even the dog!  Regardless of whether you are training your new 8 week old puppy, or you are helping your older dog learn the skill, here are five quick tips to keep in mind:

Crates can be your friend!  

While your dog is learning the ropes of living inside your home, what his potty and play schedule is, and where he needs to take care of business, it’s your job as his trainer to make it EASY for him to understand.  By giving your dog free reign of the house when you are not there to monitor him, you leave him open to making mistakes that may set your training back, and may put some spots in your carpet.

Instead, having a properly sized, clean, and comfortable crate or pen for your dog to stay in while you are away will help him learn to hold it until he can make it outside.  Dogs, even puppies, are far less likely to soil a small area like a crate or pen than they are to go in a large room or the whole house.

Designate a particular area for potty time.

Dogs respond most strongly to scents.  If you have an area where your dog, or other dogs, have pottied recently, that is the area where your dog is most likely to go as well.  For some folks, this area is their whole backyard.  For others, it is a small, designated area.  Still others walk their dogs along the street or in the park.  Having a particular place for your dog to potty will help them to understand that home is not an appropriate area to go in.

Fun stuff happens after outside potty time!

Make sure your dog gets a reward for going potty!  Whether it’s a treat, a game of tag around the yard, throwing a toy, or whatever the two of you enjoy, do not make going outside a blah chore.  So many times, people will say that their dog will go out, never potty, and then come right back in and squat on the rug.  Perhaps it is because the dog knows that once he has gone outside, all of his fun time will be over.

So…make sure to have a celebration time when your dog goes out there!

It doesn’t hurt to point out your dog’s “mistakes.”

Some trainers will tell you not to acknowledge your dog’s indoor accidents, and just to clean them up.  Others will tell you to yell at the dog and put his face in it.  I prefer an approach that is in between these two.

I will bring the dog to his accident, and point it out to him.  I will say, “No, this goes outside.”  I won’t yell, or lose my cool.  Instead, I am disappointed and matter of fact.  If the dog has had a bowel movement, I will show it to him, pick it up with a bag, and take it out to the designated potty area.

Look at things from your dog’s perspective.

When you find that your dog is having trouble understanding the concept of housebreaking, it helps to stop, take a step back, and think about how your dog must be experiencing things.  If, right after he goes potty outside, all of his fun stops and he has to come back in, why in the world should he potty outside?  That’s like a death sentence for his fun time!  So instead, he will play around outside until you pull him in, and then potty in the house.

If he is refusing to potty outside and you bring him in and put him back in his crate for a few minutes, then let him outside again and he goes potty and then gets playtime, the dog will begin to connect the benefit of pottying outside and playing, and then being loose in the house with you again afterward.

Old dogs, young dogs, all dogs can be housebroken.  Sometimes it takes a lot of patience, creativity, and consistency.  Sometimes it seems that their mothers already taught them by the time you came along.  Either way, it is a key to having a happy, healthy, well mannered dog.

Questions?  Thoughts?  Feel free to leave those comments here!

Benefits of Cognitive Training

Most of what dog trainers do is based on behavioral principals.  Starting with B.F. Skinner’s rats, as well as Pavlov’s dogs, we have crafted and focused our techniques based on these principles:

  1. Learning is achieved through consequences.
  2. Reflexive behaviors can be conditioned to happen in response to a stimulus.

This is why we provide treats, toys and praise when a dog does something we like (so they will repeat it!), and why we provide a correction, stern “No!” or removal of fun things when the dog does something we dislike (so they will NOT repeat it).  It’s true, this stuff works.  And it works really well!  Dogs learn a great deal of behaviors through these principles, and all dog trainers use them in some form or fashion.

However, what sets SATS apart from the pack is that we don’t just use behavioral principles.  We also use cognitive principles.  We don’t just want a dog to perform a behavior.  We want a dog to understand the behavior’s components, and how to achieve that on his own.  We want to give the dog ownership of his choices, and then reward (or correct, depending on his choice) that choice.  I feel like sometimes, we limit our dogs’ potential by sticking to behavioral work, and not exploring the understanding side of things.

Using the cognitive understanding of the behaviors I am trying to teach, I can train a dog to walk on a loose leash in a matter of minutes.  Jumping on or off of a person in three trials flat, and then simply generalizing to new situations.  Here is a session of a dog being taught the difference between the sidewalk, “Stoop,” and the street, “Straat,” using the SATS technique: Name and Explain.

In this video, there are so many great things happening.

  1. The teaching of opposing concepts (sidewalk vs. street).
  2. The handler is using the Intermediate Bridge (ggggggg sound) to let the dog know when he is correct, and when he has made a mistake.
  3. The dog is being given the opportunity to be correct, or incorrect.
  4. The dog is making a conscious connection between those words and the concepts of street and sidewalk, and it can be observed.

Dogs understand a whole lot more than we assume, or give them credit for.  We can observe this over and over again if we give them the chance.  As trainers, handlers, and owners, we can get outstanding and FAST results by using cognitive techniques AS WELL AS behavioral ones.

Happy training!

Clarity in Training

Ti on Day 1 of the Board and Train program, practicing Place.
Ti on Day 1 of the Board and Train program, practicing Place.

What with the new baby on the way, I am testing out my SATS based 3 Week Board and Train program on Ti, my youngest dog.  Along with typical manners behaviors, such as Place, Easy, Wait, Leave it, and so on, Ti is also going to be working on more formalized Novice Obedience exercises.

Before you ever begin working on a new skill with your dog, it is so important to have clear in your mind exactly what your goal is for that dog on that day.  For example, on Day 1, my goals for Ti were:

  1. Introduce Stationary Targets.
  2. Introduce sending to Place.
  3. Practice Place with moderate distractions for a duration of 15-20 minutes.

Without those goals in mind, I would just be messing around with Ti, playing and having fun with her as I usually do during training, but not working toward mastery of any new skills.

Often, when I am working with a new animal (dogs and horses, generally), the very first thing that I do is write out a life plan for that animal.  This plan includes basic daily husbandry tasks that the animal must cooperate with, as well as a more and more advanced look at what behaviors the animal will need to master in their specific area of expertise and interest.  Here is an example of two behaviors from my original Life Plan for Dream, my older pasture buddy horse:

  1. Going independently to and from pasture and stall.
  • Stationary Targeting
  • Names of pastures and stalls
  1. Haltering and leading.
  • Targeting body parts (cheeks, muzzle, chin, ears, eyes.)
  • On/Off of nose (with halter)
  • On/Off of ears (with halter)
  • Walk/Whoa with no lead
  • Walk/Whoa with lead

Can you see how detailed each goal is?  Each overall goal has the individual behaviors that will comprise the whole behavior.  I do this task analysis with each thing the animals must know to be successful in their environment.  I highly suggest, when we begin training your dog, to have some ideas for behaviors that you would like to see, so that we can break it down for you into workable steps!

Pregnancy Announcement!

A few months ago, I found out that I am pregnant with my first baby!  This is so exciting, and what a wonderful addition he will be to our home!  In all the flurry of activity, plans, hopes, doubts, and dreams, I am also thinking about my household and what this will mean for my dogs.

I have four dogs in my home, three of whom are over 10 years old.  When I am planning what changes need to be made to how things run, it is so important for me to keep in mind that these old guys may be stiff and sore, and that they mostly like to enjoy sleep time.  This means that I am going to be imposing some rules for Little One pretty early on.

  1. Do NOT disturb sleeping dogs.
  2. We DON’T push or pull on dogs.
  3. When dogs leave, we do NOT follow or chase them.

These are important for dogs of all ages, but particularly for the older guys who have already been through it all, the last thing they need is a little grabber following them around.

In addition, there are some things that my dogs, especially my young one, Ti, need to be super solid on before I bring home a baby.

  1. Off.  No jumping, leaping, or splatting small children to the floor.  I need Ti to be very clear about the expectations that all 4 feet should be on the floor at all times.
  2. Place.  When dogs are told to go to their beds, they need to go there and stay there.  That will keep them out from under tiny feet, and will also give them a spot to go if they need to get away from little hands.
  3. Leave It.  I can just picture my infant cuddling with his stuffy in his bassinet and my dog trotting by and swiping it away!  The expectation needs to be that if a human (and make sure the baby counts as a human!) has something, it is not for swiping.

Having a new baby in the home is going to be a wonderful change for our family, and I can’t wait to see how everyone settles in when that day in July finally comes!

Have you brought a new baby into your home?  What did your dog think of it?  How did you help everyone cope?