A Wee Nip Never Hurt Anyone!

by Ted Zalac

A wee nip never hurt anyone, or did it? Let me begin by telling about an incident that happened to our youngest daughter Katie when she was six years old. We had a Cocker Spaniel pup named Winston who was about three to four months old at the time. Katie watched how we would bend down and hold a treat out for him, and he would jump and snatch it out of our hand. Since she was a lot shorter, we always told her to keep the treat out in front of her, away from her face. We would always supervise her when she fed treats to the puppy. One day she decided to give Winston a treat on her own. Well, Winston being an excitable pup jumped up to take the treat and pushed Katie’s hand containing the treat back toward her face. This became a dangerous situation because her hand with the treat was now by her face. Winston not only snatched the treat out of her hand, but one of his sharp puppy canines placed a deep gash across her nose that required 8 to 10 stitches to close. Today Katie is 18 years old and the slight scar is only noticeable upon very close inspection.

As a kind of continuation of my previous article regarding unacceptable behavior, there is also another stage pups go through. It is when they play nip or bite. Remember that puppies use their mouth when playing or exploring. They may also want to mouth or bite your hands during playtime or when you pet them. This mouthing or nipping will usually diminish as your puppy matures. Listed in this article will be some tips to help you get through this stage of your puppy’s life.

As the mother is raising her puppies, she is the one that initially sets the limits on a pup’s behavior, especially that of nipping or biting. Too hard a nip by the pup might result in a stern physical outburst from the mother. If it is a littermate that got too hard a nip, they may let out a yelp and cease playing with the offending pup. From these reactions by the mother and littermates, the pups learn how to behave with one another. Some new puppy owners may not realize that nipping or biting is unacceptable behavior. However, we must also remember that a certain amount of mouthing is desirable and acceptable in the early stages of their life. After all, this is how they explore the world around them and play with their littermates. Sometimes when pups play this way with their littermates, they are exhibiting a form of dominance over them. In addition, once they start this nipping and biting on us, they may be bringing us down to their level to try to exert their dominance over us. If they do not do this, then how can they be taught when enough is enough and we are the master and require a certain degree of acceptable behavior? Once we bring a pup home, we must teach them our limits: how to behave properly and follow our rules. Remember from my opening paragraph that a pup’s teeth can be razor sharp. If part of someone’s hand or finger is in their mouth and they bite down too hard, just pulling your hand or finger away can cause one nasty cut. It is up to you, the owner, to correct this unacceptable behavior.

There are some who, instead of applying a correction, advocate modifying a pup’s mouthing behavior by teaching them bite inhibition. Bite inhibition is a dog’s ability to control or inhibit the force of his mouthing. To teach bite inhibition, you encourage the pup to play with your hands. You continue playing until the pup bites really hard. Then you immediately give a loud, high-pitched yelp, remove your hand, and ignore the pup for 10 to 20 seconds. You then keep repeating this until the pup learns that gentle play continues and rough play stops. I like to teach them not to bite the hand that feeds them, but to give kisses on my hand and gently take a treat from me.

The first correction you can apply is when you are playing with your pup and he inadvertently grabs your hand with his mouth. You want to let out a very loud, high-pitched “OUCH.” This should cause them to let go of your hand and pull away from you. When they do this, praise them for it. Then return to what you were doing with your pup. Some pups may think this is a game and may ignore the “OUCH.” If this happens then you may want to give them a short time out. This time out could be in their crate or any area devoid of food, toys, and human contact. When you use the time out, you want to immediately say “Time Out,” pick them up, and put them in their time out area. This is only a short time out, usually no longer than 30 seconds. You may also use this time out if they like to nip at your ankles while you are walking.

A second correction method is the nose tap. When your pup decides to nip at you, immediately raise your index finger, tap him on the nose, and say in a stern voice, “No Bite.” Remember to never yell or scream at your pup, but do use a stern voice. The pup will eventually recognize the raised finger prior to the nose tap and later on, this sign can be used for other types of behavior correction. All you would have to do is get his attention and show him the raised finger.

Our present Cocker Spaniel, Dudley, is very calm and laid back. You could even take his food right out from under his nose without even a snarl. However, if giving him a treat (especially when the other furkids are around) he would probably take a few of your fingers with it. Nevertheless, one thing that gets his attention to this day is the raised finger. We raise our index finger in the air less than a foot away from the hand with the treat and he takes it ever so gently. Usually he is in the background waiting his turn for a treat that will be tossed to him. He has definitely mastered the “catch the flying treat” game.

A third method of correction is to use your fingertips to apply pressure on top of the muzzle or even use them to close the dog’s mouth. When you do this, say in a low growllike tone, “No!”

One additional way to break your pup of this nipping habit (especially if they try to nip at your hand while you are petting them) is to offer them a treat (such as peanut butter) in one hand while you are petting them with the other. Remember to alternate your hands when doing this. Alternatively, sometimes even a favorite chew toy would work just as well.

In summary, nipping or play biting is a natural stage puppies go through. Never use your hands or feet as playthings by waving them in your pup’s face to entice them to try to nip or bite. Sometimes little children will grab a pup at or wave their hands in a pup’s face, only to be on the receiving end of a sometimes nasty, accidental bite. Things like this happen in a split second. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to always supervise young children around the family pet whether they are a puppy or an adult, especially when there is food or a treat involved. Never reinforce unacceptable behavior, and even the slightest nip needs correction. Never yell at your pup, but do use a stern voice. Never, ever hit your pup. Have a commitment to train your pup and remember to use positive reinforcement for acceptable behavior. Make sure your pup gets plenty of exercise and has many of his favorite chew toys or chew treats. Enroll them in a formal training class to learn their good manners and acceptable behavior if you are unable to personally train them yourself. Above all, be consistent in your discipline. Do not say, “Well, that really wasn’t a hard nip,” and let them get away with it because that only reinforces this behavior. They do not understand that sometimes it is okay. They only understand that the behavior is either acceptable or it is not.

Give your Havs a hug and return to them the unconditional love they always give to us.

CREDIT: Published originally in Our Havanese magazine, reprinted with permission of the author and publisher.