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Dog Training Tips for Chewing Mouthing & Nipping

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Dear Inquisitive Canine:

I recently purchased a Maltese/Pekingese mix. He is only 13 weeks old, but his biting habits are getting worse. No one can sit without him biting their feet or attacking their shoes. I have tried putting him in his crate after saying “no” to him. But nothing seems to deter him. Do you have any suggestions?

— Kathy

Dear Kathy:

Ah, yes, bees gotta sting, birds gotta fly and dogs gotta … mouth, chew and chomp! What a great question! Thank you for taking the essential steps in finding a solution for precluding those “Jaws” interactions with your puppy’s sharp, needle-like teeth. Isn’t it amazing how something that small can cause that much pain and discomfort?

I have a few suggestions to help you teach your dog how to use his mouth appropriately, including when, where and how. As a certified professional dog trainer, I like to first address why it’s important to provide dogs with appropriate outlets for chewing and mouthing. Then we will explore specific training exercises that are similar to the lessons I teach my private dog training clients and in my dog and puppy training classes.

Biting, chewing and mouthing are all normal behaviors for dogs, especially puppies since they will be teething over the next few months. Dogs throughout their lives use their mouths for exploring their world and all that’s in it. (It’s similar to how us humans use our hands for everything). Dogs also use their mouths for eating, play and passing the time away — chewing is just gosh-darn fun! In addition to play and activities, our beloved canines also use their mouths to indicate when he or she is stressed, or isn’t happy with something, someone, or a specific situation.

Regarding training exercises and a management plan, I’ve divided the following information into sections that cover the above topics, including chewing, mouthing and biting:

  • When it comes to chewing, it’s vital to set your dog up for success. You can teach and reward the behaviors you want by doing the following: Provide acceptable and rewarding chew items that your dog enjoys, especially when you have company and might not have enough time to interact with your dog. Chew bones (check with your vet to make sure items are safe for teeth), interactive food toys and other dog friendly (and safe) toys should be available for your dog at all times.
  • Reward your dog for making the right choices. You’ll also want to place emphasis in teaching your dog that chewing on those allowable items is the right choice. This means that you’ll want to reward him with extra treats, petting and praise whenever he is chewing on those items — at least initially, until you observe him in action choosing his doggy items and ignoring forbidden articles. Once he’s doing that, you can acknowledge with good ol’ praise. However, I’d reward with a treat on occasion just to provide extra positive reinforcement. After all, it never hurts to say “Thank you!”

You’ll want to experiment with different chew items until you determine your dog’s favorites. Just because we think our dogs should like something doesn’t mean he or she will. Observe and go from there. Then you’ll know what to stock up on.

  • Mouthing and allowable interaction through play activities: Tug and fetch are fun games as well as great outlets for extra energy. To help create rewarding times together, make sure toys are large enough for both your hands and his mouth to be on. If it’s too small, he might end up mouthing your hand. Reward your dog for playing nicely with both continued play and attention from you, along with a treat now and again. This extra bonus really boosts the message that he is making the right choice.
  • A positive way to teach “bite inhibition”: As a trainer, I have one specific rule for tug should jaws misfire — teeth hit skin, game is over! Similar to “hitting below the belt” and being “timed out,” our dogs need to learn it’s uncool for his or her teeth to come into contact with our skin no matter how tough or delicate hands are. If this should happen, you can certainly give a “time out” and stop playing. This type of penalty is one way for us to teach dogs “bite inhibition,” which is when he or she learns about controlling the intensity of his or her jaw pressure.

He will recognize, “Hmm, when my teeth hit her hand she just walked away. But as long as I kept my mouth away from her hand and on the toy, then we kept playing. I think I’ll do that from now on!” You’ll just want to make sure that these intermissions are only about 20 – 30 seconds. Afterward, you will want to resume play, ensuring you provide your dog the opportunity to make the right choice.

Another great way to provide your dog with activities in which he can use his mouth and learn about bite inhibition is through dog play. Puppy classes, puppy socials, puppy daycare and setting him up on “play dates” with other dogs of his size and temperament are ideal settings for him to learn how to use his mouth. Just make sure you are either there monitoring play, or that the instructors are maintaining a safe and friendly environment. For more on what to look for in dog play, click here to read a Dear Inquisitive Canine column on safe and friendly dog play behavior.

  • Determine if it’s play or if he or she is uncomfortable and/or unhappy: A dog that snaps or bites during times when he or she is not in a playful mood can often be sending a message that he or she is uncomfortable about something. It could be a health issue or something or someone in the environment that is causing your dog to feel apprehensive. If this is the case, you’ll want to investigate further, and even consider consulting with your veterinarian (for health-related issues) and a professional trainer such as myself for behavioral concerns.

As fun as it is for your dog to want to play with your feet, you’re not a human squeaky toy, so it’s great planning on your part that you want to take the time to teach him to make better choices.

With a little patience and understanding, taking the time to train your puppy to understand what you want combined with managing his environment when you’re not training, you’re sure to end up with a canine companion with the mouth that’s as soft and gentle as the rest of him.

— Dear Inquisitive Canine was written by Joan Mayer and her trusty sidekick, Poncho. (Archived columns can be read here and on Noozhawk). Joan is a certified professional dog trainer and human-canine relationship coach. Poncho is a 10-pound mutt that knows a lot about canine and human behavior. Their column is known for its simple common-sense approach to dog training and behavior, as well as its entertaining insight into implementing proven techniques that reward both owner and dog. Joan is also the founder of The Inquisitive Canine, where her love-of-dog training approach highlights the importance of understanding canine behavior. If you or your dog have questions about behavior, training or life with each other, e-mail them directly.

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