Teaching your dog to use his jaws gently
No matter how well-socialised a dog is there may come a time when he or she is pushed too far and cannot help but respond by using his or her teeth. For instance, if you trip on the carpet and fall with your full weight on your sleeping dog, may get such a fright that he automatically lashes out at whatever is “attacking” him before he even has a chance to realise that it is you. Accidents happen and a dog may have its tail slammed in the door, it may receive a crack on the head with a bat while the kids are playing cricket and it may have its paw stomped on by someone in spike heels. How do we ensure that when our dogs legitimately feel the need to use their teeth they cause a minimum of damage?
Play with other dogs:
Bite inhibition refers to the self-control a dog exerts over the use of its teeth and jaws. The most natural way for pups to learn bite inhibition is by playing with other dogs. When a puppy bites another pup too hard, the pup that is bitten will yelp, which will usually startle the biting puppy and cause him to stop playing for a second. If a puppy bites an older dog too hard during play, he is likely to be told off by the older dog. This is usually in the form of a lightening quick snap or growl which does not harm the puppy at all physically, but lets him know in no uncertain terms that what he did was not acceptable! (Please note that we are NOT dogs and should not try to imitate this behaviour in training our pups!)
To allow for the development of bite inhibition puppies should not be removed from the litter before 8 weeks of age and should have opportunity to play with other puppies in puppy class as well as with tolerant older dogs.
Your dog should be able to take food from your hand without biting your fingers. Many dogs snap and grab at food, because people tend to throw the food at them and quickly snatch their hands away. Such dogs believe that they have to be really quick to get the food and are so focused on catching it that they have no idea of the power behind their jaws.
In order to teach a dog to take food gently, you have to be gentle yourself. All movements should be deliberate, slow and calm. A treat should be placed in the palm of your hand and enclosed by making a fist. Allow the dog to sniff the hand and search out the treat. As the nose starts to snuffle at your curled fingers, open your hand and allow the dog to take the treat from your palm. This method of hand-feeding encourages the dog to almost suck up the treat rather than snatch it with its teeth.
Take it, Leave it!
Another method of developing self-control when it comes to the use of teeth and jaws, is to teach the dog the verbal cues “take it” and “leave it”. Both cues are taught by repeating a very simple exercise and even puppies learn very quickly what is expected of them.
Fill your pocket with bite-size treats (dry cubes will do) and sit on the floor with your pup or get comfortable in a chair if your dog is bigger. Enclose a treat in your fist and hold it out to your dog. The natural thing for your dog to do is to begin sniffing your hand and trying to get under your fingers to access the treat. Keeping your hand firmly closed so that there is no chance of your dog succeeding in getting the food, repeat the phrase “leave it” in a normal voice (do not shout!). Most dogs will continue to try and work the treat out from your hand for a bit, but after a while (usually sooner than you think) the dog will realise that it is not succeeding and will stop and pull its head back slightly to reassess the situation and to try to think what to try next. As soon as your dog does this, open your hand and say “take it”. Repeat this exercise over and over again – you will notice that with each repetition your dog will give up attempting to get the food sooner and will start to wait for you to open your hand and say “take it” instead. Very quickly your dog will not even attempt to take the food when you say “leave it!” Not only is your dog learning two new verbal cues, he is also learning that in order to get a treat he has to leave the treat alone! This sounds a bit confusing, but in practise the dog gets the idea very quickly. Ultimately the dog learns self-control. He learns to wait patiently for what he wants and not to snatch at it.
Once your dog is good at leaving boring old cubes, you will need to change to more exciting treats, as the smell of biltong or cheese may cause him to forget everything he has just learned. By patiently repeating the exercise with the new rewards, your dog will quickly realise that he is expected to be patient no matter how tasty (or smelly) the treat is!
The “leave it” cue does not only apply to food, but can be used when dealing with toys and chews as well. It can also come in very handy when your dog is about to pick up something nasty or grab the cat!
Ouch – Too bad!
One of the most common complaints from puppy owners is that their hands and arms get chewed to pieces by needle sharp teeth. Puppies do have very sharp milk teeth, but they also have no power behind their jaws and can do very little real damage to healthy skin. Many owners believe that they must stop their pups chewing them completely in order for them not to bite when they are adults. However, chewing is normal playful puppy behaviour and has nothing to do with aggression in adult dogs. As was mentioned earlier, play-biting enables pups to learn how to use their jaws gently. Puppies that have no opportunity to use their jaws playfully never get to test the power of their jaws and cannot tell the difference between a hard bite and a soft one.
Although pups learn bite-inhibition from playing with other dogs, they should also learn it while playing with us. In order for your pup to learn this from you, you will have to allow him to chew you a little while you are playing with him. Reasonably firm chewing should be tolerated, but as soon as a bite is painful you must stop the interaction immediately. Say “ouch” or “too bad” and calmly withdraw your hand or arm and if necessary stand up and move away. Your dog will then learn that rough play results in the game coming to an end and his playmate going away. It is important that you do this consistently so that your puppy makes the connection between his behaviour and its consequences.
Over time you should raise your standards so that only the very gentlest of chewing is tolerated. It is a good idea to phase out all chewing on people by the time the pup’s adult teeth begin to emerge at about four months of age. Simply encourage him to chew his toys rather than you. Remember to have lots of chew toys available while your puppy is teething!
If your puppy bites your feet or trousers there are several additional things to do:
Avoid wearing flowing clothing that will attract your pup for a couple of weeks to break the habit.
Stand still at the start of any chasing or biting!
If your puppy does not lose interest, say “too bad”, walk to the nearest door, go through, close the door and leave your puppy alone for 30-60 seconds. If you are consistent your puppy will start to realise that if he bites your feet, he loses your company!
Substitute a tug toy for your trousers!