Conventional advice regarding puppy mouthing, nipping, biting, and jumping behaviors rarely has the promised impact. Learn why the pseudo-scientific, “redirect with a toy,” “ignore bad behavior, reward good behavior,” etc., are bad ideas, and discover why conveying a clear “No!” is important not only in successfully discouraging the behavior but also in positively impacting the training of life skills like “Stay,” “Come,” and “Heel” – No Matter What. All without bribing with toys or treats, or resulting to “might is right”.
When It's Starting To Become Obvious That Puppy Mouthing, Nipping, Biting, and Jumping Advice Is Wrong (And Maybe Even Making Things Worse)
The All-Positive Trap
If you’ve been scouring the Internet looking for solutions to your puppy’s relentless mouthing, nipping, biting, and jumping and were advised that all you had to do was be “all-positive” and redirect your puppy’s attention to a chew toy or turn your back on your puppy, or ignore your puppy, or time-out your puppy, or pretend to be hurt by crying out (pretend?), you quickly discovered when it had little or no meaningful impact what’s often the first in a long line of nonsense on the Internet when it comes to companion puppy and dog training advice.
For many, more often than not, the aforementioned misguided advice regarding puppy mouthing, nipping, biting, and jumping actually escalates the behavior. Worse still, what puppy owners following this sort of mistaken advice don’t realize is that it lays the groundwork for not being taken seriously when you’re trying to teach your puppy actual life skills like “Come, Stay, and Heel – No Matter What.”
Companion dog trainers that recommend the aforementioned nonsense regarding addressing puppy mouthing, nipping, biting, and jumping up are adhering to a mistaken companion dog training ideology that is typically self-described by various marketing catchphrases such as ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free/Never Say No/R+…’, treat, treat, treat.
Science Based? Well, Sort Of
Another common misleading claim is when these “redirect with a toy” trainers say they’re “science-based.” For many companion dog trainers, the world of behavioral science, at best, starts and stops with B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning. And all too often, ill-advised cherry-picked aspects of operant conditioning. the companion puppy and dog training world seems to be largely unaware that there are vast swaths of other areas of study (ethology, evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, anthropology, etc.) that have many useful things to say about, amongst other things, how higher-order social species life skills are learned and taught.
They typically fail to acknowledge how much their approach and results depend on a highly controlled environment. Think Orcas in an aquarium, rats in a laboratory maze, and dogs in an obedience ring versus out in the real-life environments their loving authority figures must cope with when teaching actual life skills. Consider the dogs you see in competitive obedience. They are, more often than not, trained in this manner. Impressive on the surface; however, once the dog and handler leave the “theatre” where the “play” called obedience was “performed,” try removing the leash and treats. Not many would successfully be able to get their dogs to their cars.
Also worth mentioning keep in mind that this ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free/Never Say No/R+…’, treat, treat, treat approach may have proven effective in coaxing Orcas captive in an aquarium to do some impressive tricks; however, it has been spectacularly ineffective on convincing Orcas to not kill their trainers from time to time. A virtually unheard-of behavior when Orcas are in their natural environment and are near swimmers, divers, kayakers, etc.
Long story short, there’s nothing the matter with your puppy. There’s nothing the matter with you. The problem is with the approach. Whatever they want to call it, “All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free/Never Say No/R+…,” this is an approach to behavior that not a single higher-order social species on the planet embraces to teach their youngsters life skills.
Consequences of Bad Advice
Giving bad advice to companion puppy owners regarding a puppy’s mouthing, nipping, biting, and jumping can have some pretty serious consequences.
Dogs trained in the unnatural approach of ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free/Never Say No/R+…’, treat, treat, treat will still be profoundly loved and will love their owners, but they end up doing so poorly in life skill obedience (“Stay,” “Come,” and “Heel”) that they live a lifestyle a far cry from what their owners had imagined when they decided to live life with a dog. Instead of learning early in life that their owners aren’t roommates but are loving authority figures, they end up thinking, “Come” means, “If you have a minute, check your daytimer.” “Stay” means, “Don’t move until I’m out of treats.” walking with their dog is starting to make one of their arms longer than the other. These “trick” versions of “Stay,” “Come,” and “Heel” impact the dog’s access to their owner’s life, both at home and when a reliably obedient dog might otherwise accompany their owner. It is more of a “house arrest” lifestyle than their actual potential if their owners hadn’t been led astray by pseudo-science.
Here is a word-for-word quote from someone with a normal 9-week-old Rottweiler puppy,
“She is not responding to correction. (correction as in redirection, not actual correction) She rag-dolled my 5-year-old child on the shoulder. She’s constantly herding people. When you yelp to let her know her bites hurt, instead of releasing, she goes harder. She picks up her food bowl and shakes it. My daughter is now scared of the dog.”
Outcome: The dog returned to the breeder.
This is a not uncommon outcome. Some dogs do end up returned to the breeder. However, some are surrendered to rescues.
I was once given a case study to review by a dog trainer intended for submission to prove her worth in a dog training ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ certification process. The dog in her case study was a Golden Retriever, initially around ten weeks of age, and the dog owner was a single woman.
Images showed the woman was covered in scabs from the puppy mouthing, nipping, and biting and that her clothing paid a similar price. Overall, it is an experience shared by many puppy owners.
The trainer indicated that she had recommended that the woman do all of the ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ strategies (redirect with a toy, time outs, crying out in pain, etc.) The trainer proudly indicated after only four weeks, the puppy’s mouthing, nipping, and biting had (in her words) “extinguished.”
Question 1 For The Trainer
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, considering that any three or four-week-old puppy nursing vigorously with a mouthful of razor blades has the potential to lacerate its mother’s “nursing apparatus” enough to put future nursing in jeopardy, would it take mom four weeks to convey, “It’s not that I don’t love you, but right now, I’m not asking you, I’m telling you”. Even outside of nursing, most mother dogs will put up with a lot, but when they’ve had enough, every pup in the litter knows. Have these trainers never seen a mother dog “inform” her pups that their nursing days are over?
Question 2 For The Trainer
If this dog’s owner had one or more young children, how many weeks into the four weeks of “training” would it have been before the average mother of young children was forced to return the pup to the breeder or surrender to a shelter?
Ironically, what the above trainer attributed to successfully “extinguishing after 30 days” wasn’t really “evidence” that the approach worked. Experienced puppy trainers know that almost all puppies where it isn’t correctly addressed outgrow the majority of mouthing, nipping, and biting somewhere between 30 and 90 days. For them, the mission of 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 life-skill obedience becomes much harder for the companion dog owners to teach.
Evolutionary Biology Provides Hints
Mother dogs obviously can’t sit down with their puppies to talk about their feelings or provide encouragement to “Use your words next time.” When a pup uses its teeth too roughly when engaging with its mother, this is the catalyst for the first lesson that all puppies learn from their mothers. That lesson is that mother dogs use tone and body language not only to indicate love but also to warn their puppies that they’re not asking; they’re telling, “No!” Puppies that ignore the warnings are subjected to some level of physical discipline in keeping with the puppy’s development, further motivating the pup to at all times consider their mother’s tone and body language.
What Should You Do About Your Puppy's Mouthing, Nipping, Biting and Jumping?
Your goal is to convey to your puppy that “You’re not bad, you’re puppy isn’t bad, but mouthing, nipping, biting, or jumping is bad”. That means you respond to this unwanted behavior with a consequence conveying, “I’m not asking you; I’m telling you.” I advise clients to apply the consequence three times in a row for each application. Don’t confuse this with sending a “Might is right” message. That is another approach to dog training that should be avoided. “Might is right” can very easily convey to a puppy that you are indeed bad, lose confidence, and become submissive.
There are various ways to send an “I’m not asking you, I’m telling you” message to a puppy without undermining confidence or trust. I don’t make specific recommendations without meeting the owner and puppy directly, or on occasions where that isn’t possible, review some video examples of what the current situation is. The reason for this is which approach you choose depends on how long your puppy has been subjected to the redirection, etc. nonsense, its age, its personality, and your handling ability. etc.
I also like to make sure that the pup’s unwanted behavior isn’t being exacerbated by insufficient mental and physical stimulation, too infrequent feedings (or nutritiously inferior food), all of which can be influenced both by the puppy’s current age and breed genetics.
Scaremongering And Ignoring Real-Life
There are those that embrace the ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free/Never Say No/R+…’, treat, treat, treat ideology that alleges that force and abuse are indistinguishable. I’ve often wondered how many trainers who say they are force-free have raised a child. I don’t know about them, but I think most mothers and fathers would agree that of the years between birth and adulthood, the first third is the most physically exhausting. Try changing a cranky baby’s diaper, or cram them into a snow-suit, or a car seat. That’s an example of a useful application of force.
As the child’s cognitive ability matures, we begin removing consequences for certain behaviors. Where would we be without that particular tool in our toolbags? If applying a consequence, and that consequence is the removal of a valued privilege, like access to video games or a smartphone, try and convince that youngster you’re not applying force. It may be psychological, rather than physical, but to them, at least based on the drama that follows, there is apparently little difference. Mother dogs, can’t sit down with their pups and talk about their feelings, so when the tone and body language don’t work, the pup may find itself pinned down by a mother’s paw, or nipped, etc.
All higher-order social species have loving authority figures in their lives, teaching them in an age-appropriate manner life skills that, upon occasion, require sending a message of “I’m not asking, I’m telling you,” and, failing that, a meaningful consequence. Regardless of the species, dogs, wolves, apes, or human beings, if we didn’t have people in our lives who cared about how we turned out, at least in the human realm, most of us would be dead or in jail. In the animal kingdom, most would simply be dead.
Discipline is just a tool. It is a tool that, when wielded wisely, mitigates the much more painful lessons that life will otherwise provide.
There is nothing to fear from the tools themselves. The problems arise when there is a fool at the end of the tool.
Long story short, pick your puppy trainer wisely. It’s an unregulated industry.
Finding a Trainer To Help With Your Puppy
I wrote an article on how to separate the wheat from the chaff when you’re ready to look for a companion puppy or dog trainer. Questions You Should Ask Before Hiring A Dog Trainer (Especially If They’ve Given Themselves A Fancy Title – by John Wade)
I also created an eBook, “What Are The Different (and best) Puppy and Dog Training Methods”, Keep in mind, it’s not a DIY guide on how to train a puppy or dog. It’s an overview of the different approaches you will encounter in a search for a puppy or dog trainer and how to separate the science from the pseudo-science. Similar to the article above but in greater detail.
If you’re in the London, Ontario region, click on the button below to review my extremely thorough Puppy Right Paw Forward Life Skills Program.
– John “Ask The Dog Guy” Wade