Puppies and Nipping, Oh My!
Puppies can bite and nip for a variety of reasons. An important thing to keep in mind in regards to nipping, is that puppies are born blind and deaf and their eyes do not begin to open until approximately 2 weeks of age. At this point, they only have their mouths to explore their surroundings. As the dog develops, they still use their mouths frequently day to day. Teaching bite inhibition is critical because as your pups teeth come in and they move into adulthood, bite strength will increase. The dog will need to learn to stop immediately if its teeth come into contact with your skin before potentially doing harm.
All puppies need to learn bite inhibition, which means that your dog learns to control the amount of force it exerts with its jaws. Dogs are not born with a soft bite instinct; it is learned through interaction with their litter mates. As the puppies interact with each other, they learn not to bite too hard, or their litter-mates will stop playing with them. In some cases, puppies born as a singleton pup, or removed from their litter too soon never learn to control the strength of their bite.
After we get them home, many puppies will continue to use their mouths to explore their surrounds, get attention and to solicit play from us and other animals.
As a result of this, many people will push the puppy away when they start to put their mouth on us. By pushing them away, we begin to inadvertently reward the dog for putting their mouths on us. There are many ways at address this nipping behavior however we want to look at the root cause of the dog putting their mouth on us:
Are they trying to get our attention?
Are they hungry?
Are they thirsty?
Are they tired?
Do they need to go to the bathroom?
Are they trying to play with us?
Once that is established we can look at how to change the behavior. Regardless of the cause, if the dog's mouth is on your skin, say 'ouch' (or mimic a yelping noise), get up and walk away from the dog ensuring they cannot follow you for at least 30 seconds. After that, see if you can establish if there was a necessity that was not met which led to the nipping. Repeat this routine every time the puppy puts their mouth on you. By removing ourselves from the situation (the puppy) we are teaching our pups that if their mouth comes into contact with our skin that the play session will end. We are taking away the thing that they want temporarily until the behavior subsides (sounds like that negative punishment thing we learned about, right?).
Because sometimes the puppy will nip because they are trying to play with us, it is good to rehearse this with the puppy in order to teach a 'soft mouth.' Start to play with your puppy, if they begin to use their mouth with you, trade them for a toy. If they continue to use their mouth, say 'ouch' (or mimic a yelping noise), get up and walk away from the dog ensuring they cannot follow you for at least 30 seconds. After that return, resume play and repeat.
For some puppies, walking away from them can cause them to chase and continue to nip. If you have a puppy who increases their nipping as you try to navigate away from them, then I would recommend standing up, making yourself like a tree, and freezing. This will completely end the game with the puppy and after a few seconds, they will walk away as they are no longer receiving a reaction from you.
If you need further assistance with teaching bite inhibition and help with getting your puppy to stop nipping please reach out.
In the meantime...