Must Speak Dog
(Disclaimer) This was written to address behaviors people typically encounter with a puppy and how to handle them in a pack leader type fashion. It is not an article meant to indicate my views on obedience type training. This is just how to deal with the nipping, jumping, and mouthing that can escalate into bigger problems.
Do you love when your puppy jumps up and grabs your clothing with his teeth? Do you get a thrill every time he mouths your hand too hard and actually breaks skin? Do you long for the sound of your puppy growling when you try to take a bone from him? Are your children excited when puppy snaps at them when they try to pet him? If these situations are not ones you want to occur more than once or twice, you need to prepare yourself to understand your puppy, and you need to learn to speak dog. If you do not, the sweet little puppy you adopted will very quickly learn he can do as he pleases. The following information is shared from years of experience. We have found that in the vast majority of cases, issues with a puppy end up being issues with communication and training, not temperamental or personality issues. We are not intending for this information to support being harsh or abusive towards a puppy, but to support being firm in a way that puppy will understand. We want families to understand there is a difference between a dominant puppy and a puppy that is lacking in appropriate boundaries and discipline/training. Please note that there are many varied training styles and methods, and every trainer has their own beliefs regarding how a puppy should be trained or corrected. Our correction methods will many times mimic what a puppy would experience from an older dog to be respected by the younger of a pack, and the trainer you work with may or may not support our views.
Too many times we hear that families believe they have an “alpha” puppy, when the truth of the matter is the problem isn’t with the puppy, the problem is with the people. Families need to understand that all puppies will mouth things, including you. All puppies will likely nip and jump, or growl or snap. Whether or not they do this more than once or twice is up to you. If they continue the behavior, it doesn’t mean the puppy is an alpha puppy, it most likely means your correction has not been adequate enough to teach puppy the behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. If he has gotten away with unacceptable behavior more than once or twice, the behavior can and will escalate into a bigger problem, and yes, a sweet little puppy can become a terror very quickly. Again, this does not mean the puppy is alpha, it means you, the owner, has been too lenient and allowed problem behaviors to continue. It is a rare dog that does not respond to correction and training when done appropriately.
Do you understand how dogs communicate? They use body language, physical contact and sound. This is what they know and understand, and this is what you need to understand to communicate with your puppy in the initial correction of unwanted behaviors. A simple “no” will usually not suffice to make a puppy stop mouthing your hands or nipping your clothes. Saying “no” will not keep your puppy from growling at your child. To communicate in the manner that your puppy will understand, sometimes using physical correction is the best way to handle the situation. Don’t be afraid to “speak” to your puppy in the way he is designed to understand. It is better for you to find an effective way to correct normal, but inappropriate puppy behaviors than it is to let puppy get away with them. You will seriously regret not being “alpha” enough yourself to teach puppy what you will tolerate and what you will not.
Puppies are incredibly smart. No one has to tell them that your child doesn’t hold the same authority or power or ability as an adult. They feel this intuitively. They will not respond to correction from your child like they will an adult, so please don’t expect your puppy to take your child seriously. You need to be the one to do the correction and training. You need to supervise activity between a child and a puppy. The most common problems we hear about are ones involving children. There are two reasons for this. One, children usually will handle puppies in ways the puppy does not like to be handled. Two, puppies don’t see children as authority figures. When a puppy continually mouths, nips, growls or has another inappropriate behavior toward a child, it is not because puppy is dominant, aggressive or alpha. It is because puppy is doing what they do naturally and trying to establish pack order. If you are allowing your puppy to be with your children unsupervised and problems occur, it is not the puppy’s fault, it is yours. You need to help your puppy and child by being close and being aware of what is going on, so you can step in and correct when necessary.
Sweet little puppy growled at my child when he came close and she was chewing on a bone. (Perfect correction & training opportunity. Growling does not mean the puppy is aggressive. Growling means the puppy is communicating her displeasure in the way that dogs were designed to communicate.) I immediately went over to puppy and reached for the bone. Puppy growled. I swiftly yet carefully smacked her muzzle. She yipped. I took the bone. I offered the bone back to puppy, she lunged for it. I swiftly smacked her muzzle again. She yipped. I offered the bone again. She very carefully took the bone from my hand while watching my face closely. I let puppy chew on the bone for a few minutes, then reached for the bone again. She growled, and the process started over again. The third time I reached for the bone, puppy sat up and moved backwards away from the bone. Progress. I took the bone. I praised puppy exuberantly. I gave puppy the bone. Throughout that day and the following days, I purposefully put puppy in this situation so I could reinforce the wanted behavior. I had my child do the same thing. After that initial correction session, there hasn’t been one growl from puppy when we attempt to take food or a bone from her. She was provided correction with enough intensity to show her the behavior was not acceptable and would cause her discomfort if she continued it. Please note I say “discomfort”, not pain. The intention is not to smack in an abusive manner, but to correct in a manner that mimics dog to dog correction.
Sweet little puppy jumped up and nipped at my shirt. She jumped up and nipped again, and got my hand. I grabbed the book off the table next to me and when puppy jumped up to nip again, I held the book so puppy jumped into the book with her head, which scared her but did not hurt her. Puppy quickly moved away from me, but watched me closely and kept close. She didn’t hate me or feel anger. I told her through physical correction I wouldn’t tolerate jumping up and nipping and that she’d experience discomfort if she did it. After a few minutes, I invited puppy over and asked her to sit, then gave her lots of pets and love. When I was done, she jumped up in excitement again and nipped, and I had the book ready and once again she felt the book on her head as she jumped into it. The next time I invited puppy back for a love and I was done petting her, she started to jump up again, then thought twice and sat back down. Lots of praise for puppy this time, and then to distract her from the same routine, I gave her a toy to play with and off she went.
Sweet little puppy was on my lap when she decided she wanted to get mouthy with my hands. As soon as her teeth connected with my hand again, I grabbed her muzzle and held it closed very firmly with a firm shake and strong eye contact. I held this position until she started squirming and was uncomfortable. I let go. Puppy went for my hands again, and once again I quickly grabbed her muzzle with more force this time and held it closed while giving quick shakes to her muzzle. This happened a third time, and I repeated with even more force and a low growl this time. When I released puppy’s muzzle, she licked my hands and started using her paws to paw at the air and play with me instead of her teeth on my hands.
The above are examples of how correction and training can work. There are situations when the same type of correction should be not enforced. For example, if a puppy growls, is it a growl trying to communicate displeasure and attempting to control the situation, or is the puppy growling in fear? If the growl is in fear, reassurance needs to be offered instead of physical correction. You could make the problem worse with physical correction if a growl is indicating fear. Discerning every situation is critical in order to know how to respond, correct or train.
If you are not able to discern what is going on, and correct problem behaviors on your own, and are experiencing the same problems repeatedly, you need to seek help. If the behaviors continue for too long, you can end up with a puppy that does develop issues. This is usually not the puppy’s fault. In the vast majority of cases it is an issue with the people for not understanding how to effectively communicate with their puppy. If you do not get the results you expect, get help, and get it sooner than later. Do you speak dog? If not, it’s time to learn. If you want a positive and rewarding relationship with your puppy, you must speak dog!
Written by Rochelle Sundholm