When puppies play with each other, they use their mouths. Therefore, puppies usually want to bite or “mouth” hands during play or when being petted. This behavior is rarely aggressive and, therefore, not intended to cause harm. Because puppies are highly motivated to exhibit this type of behavior, attempts to suppress it or stop it are unlikely to be successful unless you give your puppy an alternative behavior. The goals of working with this normal puppy behavior are to redirect your puppy’s desire to put something in her mouth, such as an acceptable chew toy, and to teach her that putting her teeth on skin is never acceptable.
Encourage Acceptable Behavior
Redirect your puppy’s chewing toward acceptable objects by offering her a small rawhide chew bone or other type of chew toy whenever she places her mouth on skin and when you pet her. This technique can be especially effective when children want to play with or pet the puppy. As you or the child reach out to scratch her with one hand, offer the chew bone with the other. This will not only help your puppy learn that people and petting are wonderful, but will also keep her mouth busy while she’s being petted. Alternate which hand does the petting and which one has the chew bone. At first, you may need to pet or scratch your puppy for short periods of time since the longer she’s petted, the more likely she is to get excited and start to nip.
Discourage Unacceptable Behavior
You must also teach your puppy that putting her mouth on skin is unacceptable and that nipping results in unpleasant consequences for her. Teach your puppy that nipping “turns off” all attention and social interaction with you. As soon as you feel her teeth on your skin, yelp “OUCH” in a high-pitched voice, then ignore her for a few seconds. If she continues to place her teeth on your skin, leave the room. You may need to have her tethered by a leash while you play, so when you leave she can’t follow. After 10- 15 seconds, return to your puppy and try the chew toy and petting method again. It will take many repetitions for your puppy to understand what’s expected. NOTE: Never leave your puppy unattended while she is tethered as she may get tangled in her leash and injure herself. When leaving the room, stand at a good distance from your puppy where you can still see her but she may not be able to see you. You may also try wearing cotton gloves coated with a substance that has an unpleasant taste, such as Bitter Apple. Your puppy will learn that “hands in the mouth taste bad”. For this method to work however, she must experience this bad taste every time she nips your hand. The possible disadvantage to this method is that your puppy may learn that “hands with gloves taste bad and those without gloves don’t”. Remember that these methods will probably be ineffective unless you work hard to teach your puppy the right behavior by offering her an acceptable chew toy.
When your puppy jumps up on you, she wants attention. When you turn your back, push her away, knee her in the chest, or step on her hind toes, she’s getting your attention! This becomes a rewarding behavior and therefore the puppy will continue to jump because even negative attention is attention. From your puppy’s point of view, negative attention is better than no attention at all.
So, when your puppy jumps up:
- Fold your arms in front of you, stand still, and ignore the jumping behavior.
- Continue to ignore her until all four of her feet are on the ground, then quietly praise her and give her a treat. If she knows the “sit” command, give her the command when all four feet are on the ground, then quietly praise her and give her a treat while she’s in the sitting position.
- If she jumps up again when you begin to praise her, simply stand up straight, folding your arms and remain still, then repeat step two, above. Remember to keep your praise low key.
- Try to have every person she meets follow these same steps.
When your puppy realizes that she gets the attention she craves only when she stops jumping on you and sits (if she knows the command), she’ll stop jumping up. Remember, once you’ve taught her to come and sit quietly for attention, you must reward that behavior. Be careful not to ignore her when she comes and sits politely, waiting for your attention.
What Not To Do
Attempts to tap, slap, or hit your puppy in the face for nipping or jumping up are guaranteed to backfire. Several things may happen, depending on your puppy’s temperament and the severity of the correction:
- She could become “hand shy” and cringe or cower whenever a hand comes toward her face.
- She could become afraid of you and refuse to come to you or approach you at all.
- She could respond in a defensive manner and attempt to bite you to defend herself.
- She could interpret a mild slap as an invitation to play, causing her to become more excited and even more likely to nip or jump.
A Note about Children and Puppies
It’s very difficult for children under 8 or 9 years old to practice the kind of behavior modification outlined here. Children’s first reaction to being nipped, mouthed, or jumped up on by a puppy is to push the puppy away with their hands and arms. This will be interpreted by the puppy as play and will probably cause the puppy to nip, mouth, or jump even more. Puppies should never be left alone with children under 10 years old and parents should monitor closely all interactions between their children and puppies.