Nine tips to train your puppy not to nip
Your cute little puppy nips? To some extent, that’s par for the course. But you need to know how to train them out of this habit before they become a big strong dog and it turns into a major issue. Having been through the process with my labradoodle puppy Commodore, who seems to explore and express everything with his mouth, I have suggestions on what to try, and when to step it up.
Up front, a disclaimer: I’m not a dog behaviouralist, and the only qualification I have is experience with dogs in my family from a young age (theirs and mine). None of my suggestions are harmful to your dog, but if you feel the situation is out of control or going too far, do consult your vet or a member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers or the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors. If there is any snarling (showing teeth), aggressive growling or nasty snapping please do not hesitate to seek professional help.
I always recommend taking your dog to puppy socialisation and training classes as soon as their vaccinations are complete, too – a less formal situation where you and the dog can learn together.
Preliminaries – distinguishing between nipping and mouthing
First off, you should be aware of the difference between mouthing and nipping. It’s natural for puppies to mouth, it means exploring their environment with their tongues, lips and teeth, and in this way you might be gently chewed – along with anything else they find! Particularly until and through the teething period, you can expect this behaviour. (Puppies lose their “milk” teeth from around the age of three months, and should have all their adult teeth by around eight months. Not every owner knows this, and then they worry when their puppy spits out teeth!)
The key thing to note is whether the puppy is pulling their punches. That is, are they biting as hard as they can? If so, I would seek expert help sooner rather than later. But if they are gently mouthing / chewing at some times, but nipping at others, and particularly if when they nip they still don’t bite as hard as they could, then they can be taught where and when each behaviour is inappropriate.
Mouthing, but gently
To ease mouthing, I would recommend that you teach the command “gently”. The way I do this is by offering a treat in my hand, and saying “gently” – if the dog pulls towards it keenly I close my hand to cover the treat, saying “ah-ah!” This is repeated until the dog takes the treat slowly and softly in its lips, when I say “Good dog GENTLY!” and produce another treat from my other hand or a pocket which is given quickly and freely as a reward. Similarly if the dog takes a treat very gently at another time – whether or not you asked it to – I again say “Good boy GENTLY!” with lots of praise. Once the dog has got the concept (and will only take the treat carefully and softly on the gently command) then you can begin to use the word in other contexts. So when my dog is mouthing, if he chews my hand a little roughly I can say “gently…” and if they back off, they get praise – if they carry on chewing hard, say “ah-ah!” and carefully but firmly take my hand away, putting it behind my back so they can’t resume chewing. Anyway, that’s something that I recommend establishing from as early an age as possible.
While mouthing should reduce with age, my Commodore is now 8 months old and still does it from time to time – one of his tricks when I have been away from him for a few hours is to sit with me, take my hand in his mouth, and gently hold it to stop me from leaving. Of course I can walk away if I want to, but he likes to quietly make the point that he wants me to be with him for a while. It’s cute, and harmless (as he is very gentle), so we allow it. But nipping would be out of the question.
Nipping – solving the problem
Tip 1: Watch for patterns of behaviour – anticipate the nipping before it starts
Some books say that puppies nip to try and establish their dominance. While you shouldn’t let him get away with this behaviour, I find that sometimes there are other causes. For example, with my puppy Commodore, nipping would happen when he was over tired, and couldn’t express himself. It would be like a toddler who needed a nap! He was frustrated, it seemed to be “I want something but I don’t know what!” In fact, when he stopped playing nicely and started nipping, we knew he needed a break. We would put him in his crate and say “time out” and within seconds he would be asleep… ready to be our lovely little puppy again when he woke up. So, my first tip is to watch for patterns of behaviour. Some dogs go a little bit crazy when they are working up to having a poo! Keep a diary if you need to, because there is often a reason that you can intercept and work with. Ideally in time you’ll be able to anticipate a nipping bout, and feed him, take him outdoors, or pop him in bed for a nap before he gets wound up – whatever is relevant to the cause.
Tip 2: Say “Ow!” – teach him that he is too rough
You need to let your puppy know when he is hurting you. In the litter he will have used his mouth to play with his siblings, and his mum will have used a nip to put him in his place if necessary. He doesn’t know that your skin is more breakable than his furry playmates! Those sharp puppy needle-teeth can easily draw blood, so the first thing to do is make clear when he has pushed his luck too far. When he nips, immediately say “ow!” in a high pitched voice, drop any toys you are playing with, stop moving or interacting, and avoid his eye contact. Ideally, your puppy will give you a confused look of “oh, something is wrong, what happened there?” and will grow to learn that his biting is not acceptable, and playtime ends. You can resume play a few seconds later, when he’s got the message – count to five or ten and then carry on – but say “ow” and stop every single time he nips, even if it was accidental in play. Commodore quickly learnt where the boundary lay, even though he liked to push it when he was little – he has always been a bit rougher with my husband than me, whether he was being good or overstepping the mark. This shows that he can control his behaviour.
Tip 3: Divert him – teach him what he IS allowed to bite
Puppy is excited, playing, and getting a bit nippy? When you see his mouth coming, stuff a toy in it! Don’t let him go so far as biting you, have some big soft toys or a rubber safe-stick ready and if he looks like he wants to get stuck in, put them between you and him. Once he is chewing on the toy, say “good boy with your Kong” or whichever words you choose. He might look a bit surprised at first, but when puppy learns that he gets praise for chewing his toy, and that you will play with him while he does it, he will hopefully find it more satisfying than nipping more generally.
Tip 4: Walk away
One thing that upsets a puppy is being denied attention. So if you’ve tried the first few tips for a couple of weeks but there has been no let up, it’s time to step up a gear. Instead of merely stopping play for a few seconds, completely blank your dog. I would get up, leave the room, and turn to face the wall in the hallway. Of course puppy will follow you out, they want you to engage with them! By facing the wall they are unable to make eye contact, they cannot get your attention, and they are effectively punished for the behaviour. Make this quite a long time out, perhaps start with 30 seconds or a minute. If puppy bites your behind to try and get you to interact while you are ignoring them, you will have to go into another room (such as the bathroom) and close the door. If your dog frets or whines, this means the tactic is working, and being denied your attention is having an impact. Don’t give in!
Do not try to move or manhandle the dog when using this technique – you want to remove interaction instantly when nipped, so it has to be you who leaves, not the other way around.
Tip 5: Don’t give attention for biting – no drama.
It’s quite common that we inadvertently reward bad behaviour, by ignoring puppy when he is being quiet or well behaved, but turning to shout at him or interrupt him when he is naughty or barking. That’s natural to some extent, even though you may try to avoid it. However, it really came home to me when I saw Commodore nipping my husband. He’d shout, or stand up, or some other action which to a dog can seem quite dramatic.
Look, I know it hurts to be nipped by those needle-teeth. It’s hard not to shriek, or to want to push the puppy away or even to just run out of the room. But this attention is feeding the puppy – he is learning “if I bite, I get a reaction!” So resolve to stay as calm as you can – if you get wound up simply leave the puppy (if he is in a safe place – or put him in his crate without speaking), walk away and chill out. My rule is simple: No drama, ever. Stay calm and set the mood. Puppy will be safe while you take a breather.
If you think your puppy is nipping for the drama and excitement that results, or that they are doing it when over stimulated and are unable to settle themselves to come out of that frenzy, then there are exercises that you can work on in order to teach them to learn how to calm down. However, this may need the advice of a dog behaviouralist.
Tip 6: Watch your hands!
Another lesson learnt from observation – watch what your hands are doing. It’s most likely them which your puppy is nipping, or at least drawn to. If he goes to bite you, carefully but firmly remove your hands from him – behind your back, or sit on them. Many people pull their hands away and try to lift them out of the dog’s reach. To the puppy, you are teasing it by moving the target – what a fun game! So don’t wave, don’t flap, just remove your hands from the situation as best you can, until the dog is calm again. Also, if the dog is wound up (whether nipping in play or frustration) do not touch them. Sometimes Commodore will start to settle down, but going to stroke him just brings hands back into play again, and being touched when he is excited can be too stimulating. By all means speak calmly to the dog, but avoid direct eye contact and only touch it once you are sure it has relaxed and the moment has completely passed.
Of course, sometimes you need to use your hands, for example if you need to put your puppy in his crate to chill out, or to remove him from the room. In that case, if he is going through a phase of nipping, I suggest you regularly clip a house line to his collar (letting it trail around behind him, although make sure to check on him so he doesn’t get caught on anything). That way when you need to move him, you can pick up the line to lead him away, without having to put your hands on his body or near his mouth. Again, look out for behaviour patterns – Commodore used to be good in the morning, but by afternoon I’d be glad of the house line, so it would be clipped on at lunchtime as a matter of course. In fact, he seemed to know it went on because he was naughty. Once, he brought me the house line just before he started misbehaving – perhaps he knew he couldn’t help himself on that day!
Tip 7: Teach other means of expression
For some puppies nipping can be as a result of frustration – no other way to express how they feel or what they want. So, teach them other methods. Train your dog to give a paw on command – later on, you can tell them “use your paw” when they are playing with a puzzle, or in other situations. It stops them from instinctively using their mouths to try and manipulate everything in their environment. (If you are worried that they will then paw incessantly for attention, teach and reward “paw off” as well.)
Another command which is useful to teach is “show me” (for example “what do you want? Show me”). My last dog would bark, and then I’d encourage him to show me what he was after. It could be more food, being let outside, or an out of reach toy. You don’t have to give them what they are after, but do reward for the successful “show” so it isn’t futile for them – make sure they get what they are after when it is safe and reasonable to do so. I taught “show me” by osmosis – my dog would naturally lead me to what it wanted, and then cottoned on to what I was asking in order to do it with purpose on command.
You can also train your dog to “bring me a toy” so if they look a bit bored and like they might be tempted to nip this is a way to engage them and interact before they get to that stage. Bringing you a toy for a tug or chew game is much better than being tugged or chewed on yourself!
Tip 8: Teach “stop biting”
Since Commodore was around six months old, I told him “stop biting”. I have to spit the words out separately in order to get his attention, if he is particularly excited. He now understands, and at the age of eight months I have now progressed this to “sit. Listen” (waiting until I have his attention) “Stop – Biting. IF you keep BITING you will go OUTSIDE in the HALL.” It only took a few iterations of this – with nipping being punished by being put in the hall, told “Bad dog, NO BITING”, and left alone for a short time – before he got the idea. Generally now he will back down when told “stop biting”, and if he is so stimulated that he can’t calm down, a short time out in the hall is good for both of us in any case.
Tip 9: Be persistent and consistent
I would suggest you try each stage for at least a week at a time, and ensure every member of your household is consistent. Take it in turns to step back and watch each other to see what happens in a biting situation – I found this an enlightening way to learn, and understand what my dog was seeing.
If you still aren’t making any headway, or are unhappy about your dog’s nipping, please see a professional. There is absolutely no shame in needing help – I’ve consulted a trainer about various different issues in the past and I’m sure I will again in the future.
However, as your puppy learns what is acceptable, and grows older and more sensible, hopefully nipping will become a thing of the past.
Let me know you get on, or if you have any other tips to share, in the comments below.