Dog on the Couch

2017-04-06 06:03

I HAVE a large cross-breed dog named Ben. He is a lovely pet except for his habit of nipping when he wants his own way. Is there anything I can do to stop this? Thanks.


Because the causes and treatment of this problem can be complicated, my best advice is to have the dog assessed by an accredited behaviourist.

The reasons for dogs nipping or ‘mouthing’ are many and varied. Among other things, age, breed and lifestyle are all possible factors. Dogs explore their surroundings and communicate with their mouths much like children. They need to learn what is permissible to ‘sample’ and what isn’t, what is safe or not, and also how much pressure to exert. Puppies will be reprimanded by their mother if they hurt her with their teeth while feeding. Puppies use their mouths to discover new textures and objects, and when they explore and play with other puppies they learn how to inhibit their bite.

These initial eight weeks of life with the mother and litter-mates is crucial for learning these basics.

After this initial learning, the responsibility for teaching further appropriate mouthing should be taught by the family dogs, if any, in their new home, and by their human guardians. Consistent and force-free methods must be implemented at an early stage. A habit of biting and nipping on human skin can and obviously must be discouraged. This can be trained by offering an alternative chew toy and also by keeping the targeted limp still and going limp. Any reaction such as shouting or hitting will likely reinforce the nipping behaviour. Any reaction to the nipping behaviour will be taken by the dog to mean that the nipping has achieved the desired effect. In other words, the behaviour will be rewarded and thereby reinforced.

‘Mouthy’ behaviour is often seen in stressed dogs, because tension is released through the mouth. This is particularly the case in what is termed “arousal biting”. Signs of over-excitement at the prospect of a walk, such as grabbing your hand, trouser leg or leash, are suggestive of a stressed animal that is bored. Behaviour modification should be implemented, including finding avenues to stimulate the dog to eliminate the cause of this attention-seeking behaviour and avoiding the likelihood of someone getting injured.

Mouthy behaviour may also erupt during the dog’s teenage years, much like human behaviour issues in teenage delinquents. It’s not generally recognised that this is an important stage of development in which ‘rewiring’ of the brain takes place.

With this in mind, when and if problems arise during this stage you should patiently re-institute reward-based training to help your dog through to adulthood.

Mouthy behaviour can also result from too rough human-play while the puppy is young and “cute” and allowed to mouth-wrestle. Playing a game of tug where the puppy is taught to avoid skin and relinquish the toy on request is a good way to teach self-control and bite-inhibition.

Dogs may also mouth as a way of guarding possessions and also of retaliating if hurt or scared. This needs specialised early help.

Mouthing is both a natural and potentially hazardous behaviour and I would strongly advise you to get help from an accredited behaviourist so that the problem can be correctly diagnosed and a re-training programme started.

Susan Henderson© (Accredited Animal Behaviourist ABCSA)

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