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Puppy Biting and why 'Ouch' doesn't work

26/09/2022 - Puppy Training Advice

As anyone who has spent any amount of time around a puppy recently will be able to tell you – puppies BITE! As cute as they are, puppies are often little menaces and if you’re feeling a little overwhelmed and unsure about what to do with the adorable Tasmanian devil you’ve invited into your home then rest assured, you are not alone! Unfortunately, as a puppy owner looking for advice and guidance, there is a huge minefield of bad ideas out there to navigate. We are here to dispel one all-too-common myth about puppy biting – saying “ouch!”

What is the “ouch!” myth?
We’re sure many of you will be very familiar with this common piece of advice! The concept is based on the idea that puppies in a litter will yelp to tell each other when they’re biting too hard and that this is how our dogs begin to develop “bite inhibition” (awareness and control over how hard they are biting). People then seek to emulate this by loudly shouting “ouch!” when their puppy nips them too hard, to teach them what is or isn’t okay. Often, people are told to actively encourage their puppies to mouth them until they give them a proper chomp, so they’re able to react to it.

Why is this method problematic?
There are a few reasons why we don’t recommend using this method:
It’s based on false science.
We know now that puppies do not develop bite inhibition in this way – in a comprehensive study by Sarah Whitehead, they observed puppies and found that not once did they stop biting one another after the other yelped. In fact, making a high-pitched, squeaky noise may excite your puppy and cause them to bite even more! 
It can be scary!
What about those who swear by this method, having used it successfully? How can that be the case, if it isn’t true? Well, because startling our dogs may well stop them from biting. If we yell loudly enough, we can effectively frighten our dogs enough that they stop whatever they were doing. However, this can be incredibly damaging to our relationship with our dogs and can cause other problems such as fear of handling or hands. We also know that increased stress levels can make general biting behaviour worse, too.
It doesn’t teach the puppy what to do instead.
All behaviour has a function – puppies are biting for a reason and it is always better if we can meet their needs by offering alternatives and showing them what to do instead. Whether our puppy is overtired and struggling to regulate their emotions, overexcited and still learning how to handle themselves, teething or simply exploring, there is always a better way to work through the issue that simply scaring them into stopping.
It can damage our dogs’ confidence.
Training our dogs not to do things by using something aversive – such as a loud, startling noise in this instance – can have a detrimental impact on their confidence. When we train using positive reinforcement, we set our dogs up to be successful and reward them when they get it right – this promotes confidence as our dogs learn that trying to figure out what we’d like them to do pays off really well! Punishing our dogs for making mistakes can cause them to stop wanting to try at all, in case they get it wrong and something unpleasant happens.
It requires us to set them up to fail.
As we’ve just mentioned, when we use positive reinforcement we always set our dogs up to be successful. This means we make it as easy as we can for them to make the right choice so we can then reinforce that! This is the most ethical, effective way to teach our dogs new things and it’s also the most fun – for us and our dogs. Simply waiting until our dogs bite us to yelp at them couldn’t be further from this method, as it relies on the dog getting it wrong so we can “correct” them. 

What’s the Truth?
It’s important to know that biting is a completely normal behaviour for dogs – this doesn’t mean we should simply ignore it and not worry! We of course want and need our dogs to learn how to behave and what is and isn’t acceptable to bite and chew - this is one of the most important life lessons for our dogs to learn in order to live safely with humans. Fortunately, as this is a completely normal behaviour, we don’t need to panic or resort to any kind of nastiness to stop it. A few things to remember about biting are:
  • All dogs bite! While they might seem possessed at times, your puppy IS normal!
  • How much puppies bite will vary, depending on breed and the individual. So don’t worry if your puppy seems worse than your friends – this doesn’t mean they’re “bad” or abnormal.
  • Your puppies routine – for example, their sleep pattern and diet – will all have an impact on their biting.
What SHOULD we do to teach our puppies to stop biting?
The number one rule when dealing with puppy biting is consistency, followed closely by patience! We know that this is a trying time to any puppy parent but trust that your dog will get through this phase – with your guidance they will grow into well-mannered dogs who are fun to live with! If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed, do talk to your trainer about the problems you are dealing with as they will be able to talk through your situation and give specific advice to help you and your dog. In the meantime, our top tips for puppy biting are:
  • Redirect your dog by offering them something more appropriate, such as a dog toy, when they are getting mouthy. Be sure to reward them with praise of a game of tug if they select a toy themselves!
  • Make a note of when your dog tends to be the most unmanageable – they may be getting tired and need a nap 20-30 minutes before the witching hour, or if they tend to regularly become hyperactive shortly after a meal then perhaps they need to switch to a different type of food. 
  • Start training as early as possible, as this will help you to give your puppy plenty of mental enrichment which can help to reduce biting and frustration. It will also help you and your dog to communicate effectively, giving you lots of ways to show your dog what you’d prefer they did instead of biting you!
  • Offer a variety of different things for your dog to bite – an array of differently textured toys and chews are great for satisfying the natural need to bite and chew. Particularly if your puppy is teething, they will hugely appreciate this. You can even offer cold chews to help with any pain they’re experiencing, by popping rubber toys or carrots in the freezer for them!

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