By Sophia Yin, DVM May 13, 2009
QUESTION: My Havanese puppy loves to nip my heels and the backs of my legs. When I stand like a tree, he pulls my jeans or nips my legs and then stops. I praise him and give him a treat when he sits and stops pulling at my jeans or nipping my legs. However, no sooner do I move again, he repeats his behavior. He also likes to nip my hands and arms. I am trying to teach him to kiss me instead of nip me but that is not working so well either. When he kisses me, I reward and when he nips, I say “No kiss” and move my tongue out for him to remember what a kiss is. I have lots of patience but OUCHEEEEE with those sharp little teeth. Thank you for your help in advance. Carol
ANSWER: Carol, you have the right idea in that you are removing the reward—your attention— for the nipping behavior. The part that you want to add, even before going into the full-blown “stand still like a tree” program is to first train a replacement behavior, such as “sit calmly so I can get you a toy to chew on instead.”
How to Turn the Automatic Sit into a Game
First, remember to avoid saying Fido’s name. If you need to get his attention, make a smooching sound instead. Start with a hungry pup either on a leash or in a small room devoid of distractions. Let him see that you have the treat so that he knows what he can earn, and then just hold the food (such as kibble that you’ve allotted from his meal) hidden in your hand. Wait patiently and quietly and eventually he’ll sit. Quick! Get a treat down to him, all the way to his mouth while he’s still sitting so he knows sitting was good. Then give him a few more rewards before he has a chance to get up.
Next, walk away a few steps while hiding the treat in your hand and repeat this exercise.
As soon as he sits and simultaneously looks at your face, send the treat express-delivery before he stands up. Practice this 10 times in a row and when he clearly has the idea that sit is good, up the excitement by running around. Run 5-10 steps in a straight line. Then stop and wait for him to sit. The goal is that he’s now learning that it’s fun to run around but it’s as fun to stop and sit in front of you to get a treat. Practice this 20-30 times per session in several sessions throughout the day and now you have a fun game for Fido to play that involves running around but also being polite.
This method works best on young puppies, but can also work on adult dogs that are sensitive to your tone of voice or already have a clue. It mimics the learning that should have occurred back in the litter when the pups roughhoused with their siblings and learned that a sudden yelp in pain from a playmate marks immediate cessation of play. Humans can parrot this “yip” when they feel tooth on skin by emitting a loud, sharp, but surprised, “Ouch!” the way you would if you unexpectedly stubbed your toe. The pup should startle and suddenly release. If they’ve learned the automatic sit, they will then sit.
Immediately give a treat and go into the automatic sit game. Or praise the pup and then swiftly shove an appropriate chew toy in his direction. If he starts nipping again, repeat the exercise. Once he learns the routine, you can switch from the word “Ouch” to the word “Out.” Now “out” is your new cue word for Fido to release things from his mouth. Remember to always follow with a toy or treat.
Method 2: Make Like a Tree
For dogs who could care less about a loud sounding “Ouch” or owners who just can’t say the word sharply, try plan two—the tree technique–which is the technique you’re already using. Every time Fido nibbles immediately stand up silently and make like a tree. Hold perfectly still and even look away so that he can clearly see that you’re ignoring him. The minute she sits or freezes for an instant, give him several sequential treats and play the automatic sit game. Or reward him and then give him a more appropriate toy to chew. Your puppy will quickly learn that his interactive human chew toys turn into a boring tree when nipped, but that sitting makes you fun to play with again.
Practice these techniques consistently and many times every day and within several days to a little over a week you’ll see a huge difference in your pup’s nippy play.
See Lucy the Australian Cattle Dog learning to sit on her first day home