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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Tuesday's Training TIP: BITE INHIBITION

After Andy's play session with FLD Gus the other day, I noticed a trail of blood dripping down his forearm.  What happened?  "Oh, Gus got me," he replied.

Two bouts of blood clots caused Andy to forever be on blood-thinners, and it doesn't take much for him to let loose with the red stuff.  Not for his sake alone do I need to "nip" FLD Gus's nipping in the bud! 

Nipping is natural.  Puppies nip to play and to explore all the new and interesting things in their world.  When strangers approach FLD Gus, stick their hands into his mouth, and say (when I gently ask them to take their hand away), "Oh, it's okay, he's just a puppy.  I don't mind," I so often want to scream No, it is NOT okay!

Puppies do NOT "grow out" of biting, they grow "into" biting.  What might seem cute now, when FLD Gus still smells of puppy-breath, will NOT be so cute when he is 65 pounds of exuberant Lab!

Puppies need to learn "bite inhibition."  They need to know when their bite is too strong and how to control themselves.  It is my job as a puppy-raiser to assure that FLD Gus complies!


Simulating the behavior of the mother dog and the litter-mate puppies is the best method to get a nippy puppy to pay attention and restrain this unwanted behavior.

When puppies are with their mother and litter-mates, they learn bite inhibition from her and each other.  If you've ever watched a litter of puppies playing and yipping, you've seen this process in action.  They bite and wrestle constantly, and even go after their mother.  When they bite too hard, the bitten puppy (or mother) will give a YIP and back away from the play.

The mother may grab a particularly "bitey" puppy by the scruff of the neck and give him a shake, or even hold him down with her paw until he stops squirming, and then refuse to continue play.  It doesn't take long for the biter to figure out that he has to "play nice."  He may still "mouth," but he learns to control his nipping.  In other words, he learns bite inhibition.


  • "Scruff" Correction
This technique works well with a very young puppy.  When FLD Gus was seven or eight weeks old, I responded to his nipping much like his mother.  I gave him a "scruff" correction and sternly said NO.   Gus would sit back, stunned, his over-zealous teeth-attack put on "pause."  
Grabbing the "scruff."
Here are two pictures of my trainer-friend, Katie, with a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel puppy, demonstrating the proper way to administer a scruff correction.
Katie grasps a handful of "neck" and gives a quick, short snap; a swift up and down motion as if slapping a wrist.
Katie demos a scruff correction.
  • "Holding" Correction
As FLD Gus gained physical coordination, the scruff correction became less effective.  Because nipping usually accompanies excitement, "holding" Gus until he settles not only addresses his mouthy-ness, it helps to calm him down.  
This picture of Katie shows the correct holding position.  She "contains" the puppy between her knees; one hand cradles the chest and body while the other hand holds the mouth closed.  Hold the puppy like this until he quits squirming and his eyes stop darting around.  Be patient; sometimes this may take more than one minute!  Often Gus will let out a big SIGH--that's when I know I can release him.
Katie demos the proper "hold" correction.
  • "OUCH!"
When FLD Gus puts his teeth on me, I respond with a loud OUCH just like his mother or litter-mates would do.  If he doesn't back off, I remove myself from however I've been interacting with him, also in the same manner of his puppy-family.

  • Redirect the puppy's nipping behavior.  When FLD Gus comes at me with his mouth in land-shark openness, I have a Nylabone, Kong, or other appropriate toy to "shove" into his mouth.  Chew THIS I say, and continue play with the toy, not my hands, arms, or clothing.

  • Stop playing or petting the puppy and remove yourself from interaction with the puppy.  When someone asks to pet FLD Gus, I often allow petting if he sits calmly.  But first I say, Okay, but please take your hand away if he tries to put his mouth on you, or if he gets up from his sit.  I also advise that they pet Gus's side or back to avoid his mouth.  If Gus cannot control himself, I tell the person, You can see that he isn't behaving, so it's best if you don't pet him right now.  Thanks for asking--that's the absolute right thing for you to do!
The key to successfully teaching a puppy bite inhibition is CONSISTENCY.  The repercussions listed above need to happen to FLD Gus EVERY TIME he uses his mouth inappropriately.
We've had Gus just over four weeks now, and he IS improving, especially with me.  This morning, I was able to pet and "snuggle" with him without ANY teeth interference!  Progress.


  1. Yes we prefer to use the last three methods, as there is no chance of doing it wrong, or to harshly and accidentaly hurting the puppy. Its been a long while since I heard the scruff shake advocated as a "correction" technique! hm..

  2. That's true. I've found the scruff "correction" very effective when the puppy is very young--and yes, one has to be careful not to overdo it. In my experience, after about nine weeks other methods work better.

    As a side note, Leader Dogs does not teach the scruff "correction," this is something I've used with my training clients and my own puppies.