Friday, July 30, 2010

Play Biting In Puppies

Play biting is a completely normal puppy behavior. Every time I work with a client or class for puppy obedience, I am almost immediately inundated with "How do we stop the biting?!"
First off, it is important to understand why they do it. Now, I'm not always one to focus on the "why" as much as the end goal and training it in, but in this case it does help.
Puppies are not born with an understanding of bite inhibition. That is something that is taught very early on, beginning with their mother and litter mates. That's why puppy play always appears so rough. You'll hear a lot of yelping and snarls. It is a hotbed of learning canine body language, vocalizations, and bit inhibition.
Now, you've brought home your new pup and after a couple of days they are feeling more comfortable with the family and soon the rough play biting begins. And we all know those little suckers have teeth like little razors! So... what do you do?
The first instinct is to just make it stop and teach them to never bite or put their mouth to human body parts. This is understandable, but a mistake in the long run.
If we teach a pup to NEVER bite, that's a pup that will potentially never learn to control the strength of their bite... which can be disastrous later in life. A great example is a dog that has been injured. I can say from personal experience, that I am so thankful that I taught my dogs inhibition early on. A couple of years ago, my older dog, Thomas, was seriously injured while staying at my parents' home for the afternoon. I raced to their house to get him to the vet. My first instinct after seeing how bloody and hurt he was was to pick him up and whisk him to the car. Dumb! As soon as I tried to hoist him, he yowled in agony and swung his head around as if to bite at me... thankfully he only gave a warning. I attribute this to his having been taught what is appropriate and what isn't.
With pups, and even young dogs that may have just never had much work done with them, I recommend lots of play! When the pup bites, IF it is uncomfortable, let out a loud "OUCH!" This will startle them. Quickly offer an acceptable object to bite at (plushy, Kong, Nylabone, etc.) and praise when they go after that. If the play biting is gentle, I typically stop playing/moving until they let go, and then play resumes while they are gentle and biting the toys. NEVER smack or hit the pup for biting! Again, it may be instinctual, but it can lead to a dog being head shy, becoming aggressive and trying to bite again, etc. For many ears, the thing that was recommended was to clamp the pup's muzzle shut while saying "No bite!" into their face. Two problems: 1) Dog can't breathe well with the muzzle clamped shut so they begin to panic 2) Most will snap at you again as soon as you release because this action makes absolutely NO sense to them. So you've just set them up to fail and to get punished again.
If you adhere to the technique involving play and simply yelling "ouch!"/redirecting the bite to an acceptable object, you will get results. Over time, the biting will become mouthing and then will wean off. No sweat! I have had the few pups that required a "time out", (a blog on how do give a dog a time out and how long it should last to come!). When correctly, it can really drive the idea home for the more obstinate pup/juvenile.
I hope that this helps get you started! But to recap:
1) Lots of play!!
2) When biting hurts, yell "OUCH!" to break their concentration
3) Redirect the biting to an acceptable object (Kong, plushy, Nylabone, etc.)
4) PRAISE PRAISE PRAISE the biting of the acceptable stuff!
5) Remember, it's just as important to know what you want them to do in place of the bad behavior as it is to stop the behavior itself! Provide TONS of things to preoccupy their natural need to bite/chew!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Can An Old Dog Learn New Tricks?

I hear this question time and time again, usually in the form of: "Can they still learn?", "Is it too late to teach them?", etc. Time and time again I answer: "Dogs are never too old to learn, assuming there's nothing neurologically that would inhibit them."
What I really want to ask is: "Are YOU too old to learn?" You see, when most people come to me with this question, it is usually because they have put up with some behaviors, or settled with mediocre obedience/interaction for years and are finally wondering why other people seem to have amazing working/companion dogs. So the answer to the question does not lie entirely on the dog's capability.
To start though, because I am sure that if you are reading this, you have wondered whether your own dog is too old to be trained. Please don't take offense to my previous thought, it is merely an observation from my own experiences and it also is a great starting point to turn things around for the owner. In short, dogs, like us, are never too old to learn... unless senility has set in or some other disease. It is simply a matter of understanding that the dog has had numerous years to "get away" with certain things, or had few expectations put on them and that has become the norm... the routine. Dogs tend to be creatures of habit and they can get very comfortable very quickly. So... remember the old adage: "If you don't use it, you lose it!"
The important things to remember in taking on the task of training an older dog is that you simply must make it enjoyable and at least somewhat exciting! For many dogs, this is easily achieved because they relish the extra attention and interaction that they receive. Be creative! Make teaching come when called a game of chase or hide and seek (my personal favorite with my boys)! You will find that they will eat it up and learn very quickly when there are games and super rewards to be had!
Now... the tougher question I posed earlier: "Are you too old to learn?" My guess is NO! You just haven't been "using it!". There are a whole host of opportunities and resources for you to learn the tools you need for success and to have an amazing dog! The simple fact is that in clinical trials, positive methods are THE most effective way to train. I can speak from personal experience, that when I was first interested in training a dog of mine... in retrospect, I knew next to nothing about canine behavior! But I had a voracious appetite to read what I could and learn tools to improve my middle aged problem child! Then it donned on me: all too often we finish our schooling, find careers, and become soo specialized that we in essence forget how to learn or become to lazy to choose to actively learn! Please, please, please... do yourself and your dog a favor if you are in this position. CHOOSE to learn and to grow! CHOOSE to be the person your dog thinks you are! The reward will be soo much more than an obedient dog. In my case, that dog continues to be my inspiration as to just how capable not only an older dog can be with the right methods... but how capable we can be if we aren't content to let our minds go stale on learning.