Puppy Play Biting Leads to Marks on Hands and Arms

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By Dr.Sophia Yin, DVM, CAAB, M.S. Animal Science (1966-2014)

Posted May 13, 2009


4 month old Havanese pup wreaks havoc on owners arms

4 month old Havanese pup wreaks havoc on owners arms

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

Updated 06/21

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8 responses to “Puppy Play Biting Leads to Marks on Hands and Arms

  1. Hi Dr. Yin:

    I use all of these in my puppy classes as well as one more for puppies that won’t redirect to a toy, time out. I have owners put a baby gate up and be in the room with the puppy. When the puppy begins to mouth them, I have them interrupt with the “ouch” and offer a toy instead. If the pup takes the toy, “good dog”. If the pup chooses to ignore the toy and go back to mouthing, then the owners take the toy and leave by stepping over the baby gate and going where the puppy can’t see them. After a count to 10, and as long as the pup isn’t barking, they return and offer to play again with the toy. It takes a little forethought because you have to set it up, but most pups catch on quickly.

    Thank You,
    Staci Lemke, RVT, CPDT-KA
    Manners For Mutts Dog Training

  2. We Have tried all of this including saying no and squirting with water. Our puppy is just 4 months old and 34 pounds. When we stand like a tree he’ll jump grab your clothes and tear them when he jumps down. There is no way that we can leave a room, he just won’t stop jumping or biting your heels. What else can we try? He bites my mother the most.
    When we say ouch the more he bites and jumps.

    1. Try time outs. Say “No!” or “ahh!” and then move the puppy/dog to an are where they can see others play but can’t participate. I usually leave my pup there for 15 seconds before letting him out, and then if he approaches in a good way (coming up and sitting or just not jumping or biting) then i reward him with a treat. Otherwise its back to the time out for another 15 seconds. They eventually learn, even if it takes 30 times in one sitting

  3. it

    It looks like treating a puppy with very small treats is the best way to get a response. However, my question is do we wind up overfeeding the puppy if you continue the trainging for 15 or 20 minutes at a time.

    1. The key is to start of treating often the to ease off. However, if you are using small treats, you are not likely to be over feeding the dog. If so, just cut back a bit on his feed.

  4. Hi Dr Yin,
    What if my pup seems to be biting my foot/ankle even after saying ouch and can’t really stand like a tree coz it hurts? Please advise
    Thank you

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