If you have a puppy mouthing nipping and biting problem in spite of following the instructions of a trainer or online recommendations, here is the very likely reason why.
Almost every bit of information companion dog owners receive on the topic of puppy mouthing nipping and biting is wrong, doesn’t work and ironically lays the groundwork for future difficulties with the dog.
This information is almost always provided by dog trainers that believe in ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ dog training which in spite of claims to the contrary, has no science to support its use in non-highly controlled environments (think Orcas in an aquarium, rats in a laboratory maze, etc.).
‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ companion dog trainers recommend redirecting the puppy mouthing, nipping and biting (giving the dog a chew toy instead). Rewarding the puppy when it’s not mouthing nipping and biting with a treat and ignoring the puppy mouthing, nipping and biting which in itself seems an odd thing to ask of a companion dog owner.
If this fails, recommendations include, folding one’s arms to one’s chest, standing, turning one’s back, crying out in feigned or not so feigned pain.
Some suggest putting the puppy in a timeout, another ludicrous idea that has no equivalent in the wild. If mother dogs, wolves, coyotes put one of their young in a timeout, they’d come back to find blood, bones, and fur.
It needs to be said – ALL OF THESE SUGGESTIONS ARE WRONG, WRONG, WRONG! More importantly, the science says it’s wrong. It’s bad for the dog, it’s bad for companion dog owners, and it’s bad for dogs in general.
I was once given a case study to review by an ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ dog trainer intended for use to prove her worth in a dog trainers certification process. The dog was a Golden Retriever around ten weeks of age and the dog owner a single woman. The woman was covered in scabs from the puppy mouthing nipping and biting and her clothing was very much paying the price as well.
The trainer recommended that the woman do all of the above and all of the above it seems was required. The trainer was quite pleased that after four weeks the puppy’s mouthing, nipping and biting had (in her words) “extinguished.”
I had and have for any dog trainer recommending these strategies two questions.
1. In a real-world context, if the puppy’s mouthing, nipping and biting had been directed towards its mother how long would it have taken to “extinguish” the behavior? 30 days? Or, a total of 30 seconds? Most mother dogs will put up with a lot but when they’ve had enough, every pup in the litter knows. I have to wonder, have these trainers never seen a mother dog “inform” her pups that their nursing days are over?
2. If the dog’s owner, in this case, had one or more young children what are the chances that the dog would have ended up returned to the breeder or surrendered to a shelter? This is a very real byproduct of ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ companion dog training.
The ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ approach to companion dog training claims to be “science” based but in actuality ignores real science. It is an ideology, and at best a philosophy. (The same can be said of ‘Might Is Right’ dog training methods.)
This approach required a controlled environment, oodles of time and impeccable timing. None of which are typically at the disposable of the average companion dog owner or mother dog for that matter.
I have been unable to find a single scientific paper that supports the idea of ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ approach to teaching and learning in real-world environments. I have also been unable to find an ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ dog trainer that can show me research that supports ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ teaching and learning in real-world environments. The reason – none exists. Whereas, there are reams of scientific papers supporting the approach that evolution has universally selected as the best means for equipping youngsters with real-world, life skills. That approach in a nutshell essentially boils down to almost always positive with a dash of consequence added when required from someone perceived to be an authority figure known to love the subject.
In order to understand why the ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ approach to “extinguishing” puppy mouthing nipping and biting is all wrong and counterproductive, even dangerous (as it sets a dog up to not listen to their owner) we need to look at it not from the leprechauns and unicorns philosophy of ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ dog trainers but of some actual science.
Let’s start with some evolutionary biology. Why is it that puppies get a set of razor sharp teeth coming in around the time they become reasonably mobile which by no coincidence is followed by being informed by their mothers that nursing is over? They keep them for only a few months until they are replaced by adult teeth. Why sharp and why then? Nothing in their natural diet seems to suggest the need for tiny daggers. When they start eating solids, it’s pre-consumed and regurgitated for consumption.
Nature has a purpose for everything. Those teeth are razors so that when they interact with their mouths with their mother and littermates, they can’t fail but to get a reaction when those teeth come into contact with another living thing. The reaction they receive will in a general sense contribute to their learning to inhibit the vigor with which they use their mouths (bite inhibition).
In a much more direct sense, it adds to their education about the hierarchy between themselves and their mother and between themselves and their littermate. Grab a littermate too hard, and one of three reactions result. Another puppy mouthing nipping and biting response that is equal saying, “If you want to interact with me, don’t be so rough because it hurts. Another response, is, “You hurt me, I will hurt you more because I am the king/queen of this litter.” Lastly, “Ouch! That hurt, I will do whatever you say.”
Guess which they receive from their mothers? I assure you they don’t sit down and talk about their feelings and have their mother encourage them to “Use your words next time.” It is, in fact, the first experience that every dog has in its life with an aggressive tone and body language and sometimes physical discipline.
More importantly for this article, guess how the response from littermate influences which puppy gets the best nursing position, possession of a treat or a toy, etc. It’s part of the mechanism that helps a puppy learn who is the teacher and who is the student.
The ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ dog training approach to puppy mouthing nipping and biting sets companion dog owners up to have their puppies believe that hierarchically speaking their owners are the ones that should be listening to them. This a horrible message to send.
What the trainer above attributed to successfully extinguishing after 30 days was not evidence at all that the approach worked. Experienced trainers know that almost all puppies outgrow the mouthing, nipping and biting in that general timeline (30 days) as typically the mission as to who’s in charge has been accomplished. In the case of puppies “trained” in this way, they’ve learned who is the teacher (them) and who is the student (their owners) and as a result real-world current and future obedience becomes much harder for the companion dog owners to teach. Ironically, this is where the ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ dog trainers have to more heavily “buy” a dog’s attention with treats to get them to do anything. Without authority, they have nothing left. That’s not exactly true, it is also, unfortunately, opens the door for ‘Might Is Right’ training approached. With the former (‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’) what passes for companion dog obedience trainer with these trainers was at one time known to real trainers as tricks not obedience.
In many cases, this ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ approach results in excessive stress in both the dog and owner. The dog thinks they’re the teacher, but so does the companion dog owner and so they butt heads frequently and entirely unnecessarily. Companion dog owners feel like they’re working uphill all the time because they are.
So what should you do instead about puppy mouthing nipping and biting? Simply speaking, political correctness aside; provide a consequence in keeping with the puppy’s confidence level and temperament. In other words, discipline the puppy.There are many ways to do so without undermining a dog’s confidence. Don’t believe that nonsense coming from ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ dog trainers. Done correctly, you won’t wreck your dog’s self-esteem. I do advise refraining from involving anyone that does not live with the puppy on a day to day basis for about 30 days. Once the puppy understands that using its mouth on immediate family is wrong, you can teach them the same around guests. Leaving guests until later keeps them from potentially (unlikely but best to be careful) developing negative connotations regarding guests.
There’s no need for ‘Might Is Right’ training either. If you’re unsure how to send your puppy, a firm but fair “No” message find a balanced trainer to show you. If you’re not in my appointment area or can’t find someone that isn’t ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ in yours you can book a Skype consult with me. Alternatively purchase my ebook The Beautiful Balance, Dog Training with Nature’s Template. http://store.askthedogguy.com/the-beautiful-balance-dog-training-with-natures/
I mentioned evolutionary biology as science that supports the rationale outlined in this article as it pertains to why teeth are sharp. There are also irrefutably reams of science that support the idea of a negative consequence altering behavior for the better. If you’re interested look for research in the scientific disciplines of biology, ethology, psychology, psychiatry and many more. The literature is consistent and none supports ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ in real-world contexts.
Keep in mind that consequence or discipline is not the sole influence as might be suggested by those that believe in the ‘Might Is Right’ approach to dog training. It is something that is the exception rather than the rule but without it, most of us would be dead or in jail. It’s just a tool. There is nothing to fear from tools themselves. The problems arise when there is a fool at the end of the tool.
Discipline is not abuse, as ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ companion dog trainers so often propagandize. Abuse is abuse. Discipline/consequence is a component in the tool bag carried by every good parent, teacher, and mentor. It is a tool when wielded wisely mitigates the much more painful lessons that life will provide without the encouragement and discipline provided by parents of every higher-order social species.
Generally speaking, the idea is not to let life be the one dishing out the consequence as life’s lessons are typically more painful. Dogs that don’t learn who is the teacher and who is the student (and to inhibit the use of their mouths) are far more likely to think things like Come means, “If you have a minute, could you check your daytimer and try to squeeze me in.” ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ mask this by using food to replace a proper teacher/student relationship. These dogs develop more behavior problems and are far more likely to end up in shelters and euthanized.
In the real world of raising a youngster, discipline, when necessary, is supposed to come from those that love us. While it may make things uncomfortable for a moment, coming from those that love us, it keeps our confidence intact over the long haul while we’re learning to exercise our suck it up muscles so we can enjoy more freedoms in life.