I was in an independent bookstore this weekend and the owner was there with a precious 3-month old Australian Cattle Dog. He was delightful; happy, wagging his tail and wanting to meet everyone. He trotted along behind his owner chewing and pulling on his blue nylon leash as though he wanted to start a game.
I said, “What a wonderful age,” and she quickly replied, “Oh yeah, you can have him!” Fortunately, she was joking and she went on to say how much joy this puppy was bringing to her life. “But,” she said, “my hands look like pin cushions. I can’t get him to stop nipping and biting us.”
Here’s the scoop on nipping. Much of this is a developmental issue, but with some planning and consistency, you can manage the behavior. One of the most important lessons your puppy should have learned from his canine “mother,” his dam, is bite inhibition. Bite inhibition is when a puppy learns not to bite too hard. If he does this to his dam while nursing, she will let him know it’s not acceptable. And so will his littermates when he plays with them.
When your puppy nips you, loudly say, “OUCH!” This will let him know that biting is not okay. Do not jerk your hand away from a puppy who bites; you can damage his teeth and tear your skin.
Think about what behaviorists call “differentially reinforcing an alternative behavior.” You may need to have enough safe chew toys around that your living room looks like a dinosaur dig for a while, or you might need to carry an acceptable chew toy. When the puppy starts to nip, immediately give him an acceptable chew toy.
Teach the puppy to respond to the word, “Easy.” If he is so wound up that he is out of control, remove yourself from the activity. Your puppy will soon learn if he breaks the rules, the game is over.
Think about your children and other family members if nipping is an ongoing problem. Is anyone reinforcing this with rough-housing games? If so, you’ll need to provide the humans in your household with training.
Finally, consider attending an AKC S.T.A.R. Puppy class where you and your pup will both learn new skills. See http://www.akc.org/starpuppy
Citizen Canine readers, do any of you have any favorite tips for handling a nipping/biting puppy?