Posted: Jan. 27, 2012, 3:45 p.m. EST
Nipping a bad habit before it becomes a problem.
By Steven Appelbaum
Nipping is a challenge many puppy owners face. By nipping I mean when a dog nibbles painfully on an owner’s hands and feet as a way of greeting or play. While this seems cute at times, it can get old fast—those needle-sharp puppy teeth can hurt.
In addition, some dogs never outgrow it and continue to engage in this behavior well into adulthood. The good news is this behavior can be addressed with patience and a bit of understanding.
Dogs nip for several reasons. Puppies under the age of 6 months are in a natural exploratory period similar to that of a 2-year-old child. Yet unlike a child, they don’t have hands, meaning everything goes in their mouths. Dogs are social animals and use their mouths when they play and interact with one another. So it is normal for them to want to do the same thing with their owners.
Several owners may encourage nipping when they play excitable rough games with their dogs. Play biting is often tolerated during these games as long as it isn’t too rough; unfortunately, this gives a dog an inconsistent message in which it is basically taught that nipping is okay—except sometimes when it isn’t.
Since nipping is primarily a social interaction behavior it is crucial that an owner’s interactions do not encourage the wrong response.
Your staff can offer several suggestions to help customers stop dog nipping issues.
Owners should stop all rough, excitable games, including petting a dog in a rough or fast fashion. They should learn to pet their dogs slowly and calmly, and avoid excitable greetings. While many puppies will want to bite even if none of the above interactions take place, rough excitable games and greetings serve to exacerbate the nipping behavior.
Dogs need to be taught to chew on proper items—chews and chew toys—or to play with interactive toys. There are numerous existing and new products that fit the bill, including offerings from Nylabone, Rolf C. Hagen (USA) Corp., Kong, BusterCube, JW Pet Co., Petstages and many more.
When a dog nips at hands, an owner should immediately say, “eh eh” or “ow” in a firm tone, pull their hands away and stop any interaction until the dog stops nipping. Some dogs will cease in a few seconds, while others will take 20 seconds or longer.
If a dog hasn’t stopped after 30 seconds, the owner should simply walk out of the room for a minute or two. Upon return, the owner should wait for a non-nippy greeting, such as sniffing hands and feet, licking, sitting and waiting to be petted, etc.
When a dog engages in any acceptable greeting behavior, advise the owner to calmly praise and pet the dog. Food can be used to make the reward more positive, although some dogs will become more excited by food and thus more inclined to nip.
Clicker training can be used to help dogs quickly learn desired behavior. To facilitate this, the owner should use the clicker after the dog greets him or her properly, and then reward it with a pat or food.
Some dogs have predictable “wild” times. These might occur when a dog is first let in the house, or when it first sees and greets its owner. It might occur when the owner sits down after dinner to read and relax.
To help with these behavior outbreaks, your staff can recommend the use of Bitter Apple or Bitter Break. Owners can simply apply the spray to their hands just prior to a time when they believe a wild period will occur.
The spray is not to be used in lieu of the other training methods already suggested. It is simply a supplement and will help the dog learn that hands don’t taste good and thus shouldn’t be used as a chew toy.
Lastly, crates or exercise pens can be used if a dog becomes too wild and nippy. An overly excitable dog can be placed in a crate with appropriate chew toys until it calms down. Only then should the owner let it out and try the greeting again.
It is important your staff lets owners know that this behavior can take some time to eliminate and training sessions can be trying at times. Below is an example of how this typically works.
The owner’s puppy Truffles is always overjoyed to see her owner and starts nipping and gnawing on his hands. He says “eh eh!” and moves his hands out of Truffles reach. After 10 seconds, he puts his hands down and Truffles nips again. The owner repeats the “eh eh” and moves his hands away.
By the fourth time when he puts his hands near Truffles she licks them. The owner praises Truffles, who immediately starts nipping again and the whole process has to be repeated.
This can go on for several days or weeks before Truffles finally understands what is and is not appropriate play and greeting behavior.
Steven Appelbaum is the president of Animal Behavior College, a vocational institution devoted to helping animal lovers succeed in animal careers. Appelbaum has been a professional animal trainer for 30 years. He is the author of the book “The ABC Practical Guide to Dog Training,” and is a freelance writer, lecturer and consultant.
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