Puppies explore the world with their mouths.
It is completely normal for puppies to mouth just about everything, including us. And unfortunately for us, a puppy’s baby teeth are very sharp and painful - like little needles.
It helps, though, if we understand that they don't mean to be hurtful.
It doesn’t help the physical pain but it may allay some fears.
Some of my clients quickly jump to conclusions and fear they may have an aggression problem. But most of the time it is just completely normal mouthing.
Puppy Imprint Period
The period between 0 and 16 weeks is the most important period in your dog’s life. He will learn more during this short space of time than at any other time in his life. Everything we do during this important stage can positively or adversely affect how they view the world.
It is important we tread lightly. Mouthing is exploration through trial and error. It’s natural learning. We don’t want to do anything that could impede the way the dog learns later in life.
So what can we do?
As usual, the Canine Master way tries to use what is natural and instinctive to the dog.
Bite inhibition, sometimes referred to as a soft mouth, is where the animal learns to moderate the strength of its bite.
Please note that word: moderate. When I was growing up, if a dog put its mouth on a person, we would correct it. Any mouthing at all we would correct.
And what would happen with those dogs is that they never knew the power of their own bite.
That is just dangerous.
Obviously, it is an important lesson in the socialization of pets.
It is best the puppy learn about biting and not biting the way dogs have always learned…
With puppy playtime!
Socialization sessions like puppy playtime are when a puppy is around another puppy. They learn invaluable feedback on bite inhibition because the puppy naturally learns the power of its mouth.
Puppy Playtime Socialization - meaning the safe and supervised off-leash play between puppies under the age of 16 weeks - is the most important thing you can do for you puppy.
Dogs will learn more from puppy socialization than just about anything else.
If they are too hard with their mouth on another puppy, the other puppy will yelp! This naturally teaches your pup that their bite needs to be controlled if they wish to continue the play interaction.
If they don’t learn quickly and are insistent with their mouth making unwanted advances or excessively hard bites on another puppy, you may hear a growling noise, or a snap.
This is one puppy stepping up the feedback and telling the other – this is not okay with me, back your mouth off!
Puppies at this age are very moldable and hungry to learn the rules of their environment. There is no better way than with puppy play.
But what if there is no puppy playtime opportunity near you?
We can use these instinctual laws of puppy play in our own home.
Have you seen a puppy be introduced to a home with an older dog that already lives there? If so, you may have noticed that the older dog teaches the pup the boundaries of the house and of personal space.
Like a grumpy grandpa teaching junior not to play with his bald spot, the older dog naturally and gently (yet sternly) teaches the puppy the difference between a playful mouthing and a bite.
And if an elder dog can do it, so can we.
By applying the basic feedback structure of puppy playtime or elder dog correction, we can train pups naturally.
“OWWWWOWOWOW” - Verbal Feedback
We need to give the pup verbal feedback that their mouth is not welcome on us.
We can adjust the volume of the feedback based on the amount of pressure the dog is applying with its mouth. The louder the nip the louder the correction.
You can even yelp like a puppy, replicating the feedback from another dog at puppy playtime!
But feedback is only the first part.
An equal provides feedback, a leader or elder can and should provide correction.
After giving feedback, it’s important we redirect them toward an appropriate place to mouth.
Redirect the puppy onto something like a squeaky toy, tug toy, or bone. Something that will be more fun for the pup to mouth and us.
Your pup doesn’t start off understanding the word “No” or “Off”, but they instinctively do know that a guttural tone means STOP! So telling them something is not okay but with a growly “uh-uh” will be much more effective.
Then we will redirect them toward a toy.
Feedback. Redirection. That is wrong, this is what you should do instead.
If feedback and redirection don’t work and your pup continues to mouth, you can use a spray water bottle set on stream as an aversive.
Be sure to only have clean water in the bottle.
When your pup is mouthing, mark the inappropriate behavior with a word such as “enough” and spray the top of your dog’s head and ears. Do not spray them in the face. If you squirt them in the face, they will think it’s a game.
Be consistent. If you say the word “enough”, you must go and get your water bottle and spray the dog. The action follows the feedback. The pup is much more likely to learn this way.
You can also use a negative reinforcement by removing attention.
Pick your pup up and put him in his crate for a time out. The crate is not a punishment but rather a pause or time out. After trying to discourage mouthing without a lot of success using other techniques, this break in routine can be a helpful reset.
It’s important to praise your dog’s learning.
It’s very important to not just give the verbal correction “uh-uh” or “enough” but to also praise the dog when they learn and release their mouth.
Say “GOOOOOOD” as they are removing their mouth from you. Timing is key. Praise immediately as the dog is releasing the pressure from you.
Puppies explore with their mouths. Learning proper bite inhibition is a vital step in proper dog development. It can affect every interaction the dog has.
Give these techniques a try and let me know how they work for you and your pup.
See, feedback is important.