“Words carry a lot of weight in this world, from how we say them to what we say with them, but it is through our actions that we bring things into being. This is what we mean when we say to one another that actions speak louder than words. In many cases, what we say doesn’t necessarily line up with what we are doing, and it is here that it becomes clear that it’s easier to talk about doing something than it is to actually do something. At the same time, it’s easy to keep doing something that we don’t necessarily acknowledge ourselves doing verbally. It’s good for all of us to take a look every once and a while to make sure there is alignment between what we say and what we do.”
This quote, from an article I read recently (Daily OM: November 6, 2012, Actions Speak Louder than Words:Aligning Actions and Wordsby Madisyn Taylor) reminded me very much of some of the issues I have been helping dog owners get through. Many of the problems I see with a dog’s performance of what appears to be the simplest of tasks is not that the dog is stupid or doesn’t understand; rather, like the quote describes, it’s where there’s a misalignment between what was said and what was done in reaction to the dog’s attempt to comply with our request. Let’s look at one of the most common examples I’m asked to correct in puppies to make this point more clear.
An owner calls to say the young puppy they took home is now nipping on their heels, and the more they correct the puppy the worse it becomes. At first, you might want to say, “Well, it’s obvious that puppy has a mean streak and is out to get those people.” When you break it down, this is more likely what happens: The puppy leaves its litter just as it begins to learn that if you bite your littermates’ ears too hard they cry and playing stops; or if you bite your mom too hard she will growl at first, then if you persist, she will turn and grab your muzzle and press hard enough to get your attention. This is the natural way pups learn what we term Bite Inhibition. The pup that stays with the litter and mom will learn these lessons and will be respectful of others. When we take a littermate away at 8 weeks, we humans now have to step up and take on the responsibility of teaching Bite Inhibition. To do this though, we need to be sure there is consistency between what we say and what we do. More often than not, this is where people fail with their puppies.
To be successful in teaching the puppy not to nip, you need to begin by recognizing all the needs of the puppy that make up this behavior. Puppies will experience teething and the pains associated with it up to 7 months of age. They will have about half their full complement of 42 teeth when you bring them home from the breeder at 8 weeks, so realize that a lot is going on with them right from the moment you get them. It is also important to understand this is a time when pups are learning about what is and is not socially acceptable behavior. Don’t assume they know this. They don’t. Puppies learn just like children do what constitutes good manners and what will get them in trouble. Here are some of my tips for teaching pups to keep the teeth off human skin:
- I avoid rough play. It’s dangerous for a young puppy to begin with, as you can easily damage joints unwittingly or bruise the pup without realizing it. But more importantly, you are setting up your pup for failure if you do. Puppies will react to rough play by attacking you and grabbing at your hands or legs. This is exactly what you don’t want. Instead, teach your pup simple engaging games with simple rules. I list a few at the end of this post.
- I have plenty of toys available. When a pup is teething, the cheapest thing you can do is to have a pile of inexpensive toys around for them to chew up. They all chew toys. What I want the pup to learn is they can chew their toys and only their toys. I can’t imagine their frustration at wanting to chew and not having anything that is acceptable to chew available to them. This is the situation where I generally get the phone call reporting, “My dog just chewed my [expensive shoes, Oriental rug, new sofa, television, wall, cabinet… fill in the blank].” We keep bins of toys in all the areas of the house where the pups are allowed. They learn very quickly that these are the things they are allowed to play with and nothing else. Amazingly, they honor the rule that all things other than the items in the bins are “mine” and will not bother them. The other point of having all these toys is to have them handy to offer to the pup when he comes after your ankles or starts to chew on your hands. Simply distract him with a toy and engage in play with him when he grabs it instead of you. If you are consistent, he will go after and eventually even offer a toy to you to get you to play with him rather than jumping after your hands or grabbing your pants leg.
- I am careful of body language. This is especially important for children to learn when they are around a puppy. Many kids will want to lift their hands up, so naturally the puppy jumps up after the hands. Keep your hands still and by your sides as you talk to the puppy. To get him to learn not to jump when he comes up to a person, take your pup to a busy place like the grocery store. Make sure he is hungry and on a leash, and you have a bag of treats. As people walk by to go into the store, most will want to pet your cute puppy. When they ask say, “Sure you can pet the puppy but have him sit first and then give him a treat.” You’ll be surprised: After about 20 people, your puppy will figure out that the proper way to greet the “two-legged ones” is to sit and look cute and they will maybe give you a treat. Yum! A couple of visits and you have a trained puppy. I’ve also seen many people use body language that invites a puppy to come after them. They will get down on the floor and bow to the puppy, then wonder why the pup runs and jumps or bites them. That is a posture that dogs use to invite play. No wonder you get nipped.
- I am consistent with any correction. If you correct the pup for nipping, whatever you do you need to be consistent. How do you know if you are consistent? If the pup continues to nip for more than 2 days, then you are not being consistent in your message to him. I often see people who have problems with their nipping puppy not giving the same correction or response when the pup nips at them. They complain: Why doesn’t he get it? Often, they don’t believe me when I say they are not consistent. The best way to find out is have someone video you interacting with your nipping puppy and show the video to an experienced trainer for an evaluation.
- I make sure the puppy has a good outlet for all his energy. Often, excessive nipping can be linked to inadequate exercise and interaction with other people or dogs. Pups have short attention spans, and they need a lot of stimulation to wear them out so they can sleep well. Too much exercise will exhaust them and make them cranky and nipping will increase; the right amount will tire them out but not overdo it and they will be more relaxed and play with a calmer attitude. You can easily see the difference and will know how to adjust for your dog. I have to say here that I often see people getting too active a dog for their lifestyle, so if you are reading this and have not yet purchased a puppy, please consider this point carefully. They are puppies for a long time before you get to the point of the older, slower, settled dog lying by the fireplace hearth for most of the day and content to walk around the block once a week.
I guess my thoughts on all this are to get that puppy into obedience school as soon as possible and continue to go to classes for at least the first year of your pup’s life. Dogs learn through repetition, consistency, and our love and praise for a job well done. Consecutive obedience classes will allow you as a handler to develop your skills as well as give your dog the chance to learn how to be a model dog in a human world. I really think they all want to be good, so we owe it to them to offer the best chances for them to do well. Happy training, everyone.