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.
The Advice You’ve Been Getting Is Probably Wrong (And Making Things Worse)
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.
It is no coincidence that 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.). If you ever find any let me know, I’ve searched for years and asked the disciples of ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ to provide without any success.
‘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. 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. They address behavior and move on.
ALL OF THESE SUGGESTIONS ARE WRONG, WRONG, WRONG!
Legitimate behavior science says it’s wrong. What species on this planet now or ever have embraced ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ philosophies as a means to educate their offspring? What they actually do is indeed almost always positive but there is a strong dose of reality as to who is the teacher and who is the student in place along with an occasional, “I wasn’t asking you, I was telling you.” thrown in when lesser, “I said, No.” strategies fail to hit the mark. Evolution selected this and discarded the ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ philosophy for a reason.
It’s terrible for the dog, it’s awful for companion dog owners, and it’s bad for dogs in general. And yet what you find above is what almost every veterinarian, veterinary technician and dog trainer will offer using their voices as authorities as recommendations.
How has something that at best originated as nothing more than a well-meaning philosophical outlook turned into an ideology with significant potential to damage dogs found legitimacy in what are supposed to be disciplines grounded in critical thought? Good question and one partially addressed in ‘John Wade’s Guide To: What Are The Different (and best) Puppy and Dog Training Methods?’
Here is a word for word quote from someone with what is likely nothing more than a high-drive 9 week old Rottweiler puppy, “She is not responding to correction. (correction as described above, not actual correction) Rag dolled my 5 yr old by the shoulder. Herding people. When you yelp to let her know her bites hurt, instead of release she goes harder. (Hence the rag-dolling as a genuine correction was replaced by what is a form of agitation training that plays right into the breed’s genetics and builds aggression.) Picks up her food bowl shakes it.”
Outcome: another casualty of ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ ideology – “My daughter is now scared of the dog.” Dog returned to the breeder.
The above is a more dramatic outcome. What is more typical is that the consequences don’t manifest until the dog leaves puppyhood and enters adulthood. Some dogs do end up returned to the breeder. Some surrendered to rescues. Some like the dog above might very well end up euthanized. More common is an entire continent of companion dogs that are profoundly loved and love their owners but live a lifestyle more similar to that of house arrest than what their owners had in mind when they decided to add a dog to their lives.
There has been a dramatic drop in what passes for “trained.” ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ has dropped the standard so low that companion dog owners have now become convinced by ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ dog trainers that the best they can expect is a house arrest level of obedience.
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. Not a crazy puppy, just a higher than average energetic, intelligent puppy.
The trainer recommended that the woman do all of the ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ strategies mentioned. 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.
- 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?
- 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. (As seen under the subheading ‘Consequences’ above.)
What the trainer above attributed to successfully extinguishing after 30 days was no 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.
It is no surprise that 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, and so they pursue the illusory dealer/addict relationship rather than an authentic teacher/student relationship.
Companion dog owners desperate for solutions in some cases, unfortunately, resort instead to ‘Might Is Right’ training approaches.
Where The ‘Science’ Falls Off The Rails
The ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ approach to companion dog training claims to be “science-based,” and to a certain extent, it is. However, the experiment constructs (complete control of environment) that made the results possible were critical as without them the results can’t be reliably replicated. This is no doubt why no higher social species use ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free.’
To recommend ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ in the context of companion dog training as a scientifically valid approach without acknowledging its significant real-life application limitations is intellectually dishonest. To reframe legitimate scientific research to legitimize a philosophy, especially when there are such significant consequences is unethical. (The same can be said of ‘Might Is Right’ dog training methods which also often cherry-pick scientific results to justify their philosophy.)
Bottom line, an ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ approach requires a controlled environment, heaps 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 down the road) we need to look at it not from the pseudo-science ideology of ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ dog trainers but of some actual science.
Evolutionary Biology Tells Us What We Should Be Doing and Why
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 if they don’t lighten up on the jaw pressure 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 litter mates, they can’t fail but to get a reaction when those teeth come into play whether nursing or playing. The feedback 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.
- A response in kind or higher, “If you want to interact with me, don’t be so rough because it hurts.
- “You hurt me, I will now hurt you more because I want you to remember that I am the king/queen of this litter.”
- Ouch! That hurt, I will now and in the future listen to you and do whatever you say.”
Guess which they receive from their mothers?
I assure you, mother dogs don’t sit down with their puppies to talk about their feelings or provide encouragement to “Use your words next time.” Using their mouths too roughly is, in fact, the precipitator of the first of many powerful lessons that every puppy will learn from their mothers involving authenticate aggressive tone and body language and sometimes even physical discipline. ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ dog trainers believing they know better than eons of motherhood are telling companion dog owners to do just the opposite and causing all sorts of short and long-term problems.
There are also reams of irrefutable scientific research from other disciplines 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.
Impact on Hierarchy
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 inside their social circle.
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. Note: I’m not talking about exaggerated concepts of alpha, pack leader, dominant vs. submissive. I am referring to who will ultimately be the teacher and who will be the student.
Stress On Dog and Dog Owner
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).
Fully Balanced Approach
So what should you do instead about puppy mouthing nipping and biting? Directly speaking and 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 discipline a puppy without undermining confidence or trust. 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 an 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 fully 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. There’s also a link below to a free guide on how to find the right training and trainers.
Keep in mind that consequence or discipline is not the sole addition required to getting through clearly to a puppy as might be suggested by those that believe in the ‘Might Is Right’ approach to dog training. That is why I refer to a Fully Balanced Approach. Good training looks at the full picture. The wider the scope, the less need for discipline.
In the fully balanced context of parenting or teacher/student, discipline in whatever form is something that is the exception rather than the rule. However, it exists and it exists for a reason. Without its judicious application by people that cared about how we turned out most of us would be dead or in jail. Discipline is 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.
’All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ companion dog trainers often propagandize the inclusion of discipline as abuse. Abuse is abuse. If someone training dogs is unable to distinguish between appropriately physically controlling or disciplining a puppy or dog and abuse it is wise that they refrain, but they have no business training dogs or advising others on how to train a dog.
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.
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 later in life.
Finding Better Training Guidance
Companion dog owners looking for sound guidance on how to prepare their puppies for a full life may find it challenging. There are four approaches to companion dog training (with arguably some overlap) typically available.
- ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’
- ‘Might Is Right’
- Partially Balanced
- Fully Balanced
I’ve put together a short eBook guide to assist in your search for a knowledgable, science-based, experienced dog training. I recommend reading it before listening to an amateur dog trainer, veterinarian, vet tech, or rescue regarding companion puppy or dog training or behavior problems.
Some of what you read in the booklet will be a repetition of what you’ve read so far but with more detail than what you’ve found above. Much of what you learn will likely surprise you. I think it will help you in providing your puppy for the best possible future.
If (as is often the case) you can’t find anything other than amateur dog trainers you’ll find my very reasonably priced (with free followup during COVID) Virtual+’ – Training Companion Puppy Or Dog Sessions will dot the i’s and cross the t’s far more thoroughly than you’d think. Send me an email if you’d like some detailed information. ()
John ‘Ask The Dog Guy’ Wade
Embracing Science and Common Sense