Q&A | Ouch, it hurts! Or how to stop puppy biting

Do you remember the day you brought your puppy home? It’s always so sweet, isn’t it? The cuddly, silky, chunky, adorable puppy napping in his basket and carefully yet curiously sniffing his new home… But give him a few days and the little beastie is here to transform the “aww” moments into the “ouch!” ones more often then we’d ever imagined or wished for….

Puppy biting is one of the realities every dog parent has to deal with. It is a part of puppyhood. We cannot avoid it. Instead we have to face it, make it bearable and use as a starting learning point for our own benefit long-term. We also need to prevent the worst outcome that most people describe as aggression. On very positive side, it’s worth mentioning that cocker spaniels are one of the gun dog breeds that were used to flush and bring prey without killing it. As a result, these dogs are more likely to have a “soft bite” because of their genetic background, so your chances of achieving success are much higher than, say, for a parent of a terrier.

First of all, it’s important to establish the difference between puppy mouthing and puppy biting.

All puppies mouth as a part of their play with mum, siblings and anyone else who comes their way. Mouthing helps them to find their position within the family and explore the environment as a part of their learning process.

The best thing you can do is anticipate and avoid any situation when the hard mouthing or biting can happen. You need to understand your pup’s body language and pay a lot of attention to his behaviour 24/7, but once you get an idea – you will always know the how, when, what and why.

If the puppy is mouthing during a play, looking relaxed and happy, you can stroke him and immediately redirect his attention to a toy without making much fuss or encouraging a play to get puppy overexcited.

A chew or stuffed toy is a good choice because puppy can bite and lick it, which can help him relax and relieve possible teething discomfort. If your puppy is relatively calm, you can throw a ball for him to fetch – it will take his attention away from your hand, make him feel really good about learning a new command (so praise him when he brings the toy back) and relieve any possible teething discomfort by sinking his needle-sharp teeth into the trophy. Some puppies do well with soft toys or even old towers and t-shirt tied into oversized knots (big enough to be interesting and “bite’able”, but not too big or small because it needs to suit your puppy’s mouth)

If you sense a slightest tension in your pup’s body language, the puppy gets overexcited or the mouthing becomes painful, you have three options:

… hold the puppy firmly but gently, then carefully remove your hand out of his mouth with a “disappointing cue” such as “ops” or “uh-oh”. Personally, I don’t like the use of “no” because it’s a bit meaningless, and many of us end up using it way too often and pointlessly (from the dog’s point of view);

… you need to stop interacting with the pup, stand/sit still and avoid temptation to react, talk to or cuddle him;

… or you can do what his mum and other pups would – make a high pitch sound meaning that it hurts – and slowly and calmly walk away. It is important not to run away from the puppy or keep on screaming and run away in a manner of windmill with all your body parts moving and flopping around (which is what little kids often do)  because it will simply look like an irresistible game of chase, catch and bite!

You can also use the mouthing moment to let your dog know that it’s ok if your fingers are in or around his mouth. It will teach him that you can use fingers to examine his muzzle, inside and outside of his mouth, or clean teeth. It can be done as a part of a play when the puppy is in your lap, calm and content, and tries to have your finger in his mouth as a part of chill out time. It is up to you to decide when this “game” starts and ends.

Teaching your puppy the rules of mouthing and how to be gentle needs to begin from the day he first shows this behaviour. The longer you leave it, the worst it will become and the more difficult it will be to re-shape and stop. If you don’t act, the mouthing can signal the pup that it is totally ok to bite and eventually lead to serious consequences.

But puppies do bite, I hear you say. And yes, they do. The mouthing can become harder or turn into biting for several reasons.

Some puppies can use nipping and biting to seek attention or out of frustration because they aren’t getting what they want here and now. You need to stop this straight away and only react to the puppy if/when he stops, sits quietly and remains in a sitting position for a few seconds (you can build up from 5 to 30 seconds slowly). If he impolitely insists on rough play and biting because you are not paying attention or delivering treats and toys in a timely manner suggested by his royal highness – walk away calmly without saying a word.

Most puppies turn into little sharks during teething times because they really want to get those milk teeth out and because their gums really hurt. Giving him chew toys (I always choose rubber over nylon), soft unstuffed or extra strong toys, rope toys (make sure they are made of natural un-dyed cotton, ideally organic and always supervise!), suede toys, knotted towels and t-shirts in plentiful amounts can help a lot. Many puppies love destroying cardboard boxes, too. Stock up on toys like a kleptomaniac – and rotate them every few days to keep the pup interested. Don’t forget, once the puppy teeth are out, the grown-up set and gums still take time to settle, so don’t expect your junior to act as a responsible adult – he isn’t quite there yet. So toys and more toys, plus careful training are your allies.

A lot of puppies can also become nippy and aggressive when they are either overexcited or tired (puppies cry – puppies bite). I’ve written about it before, so Zoomies are so last year is the post for you.

Biting can also be your pup’s answer to fear or any moment or situation that makes him feel uncomfortable. Use socialisation, training and create calm environment to show him that life is generally pretty good, especially when you are a little cocker.

It is also important to remember to be gentle with the pup because he is very fragile and can be easily injured, not to shout him, or lock him in a spare room or crate as a way to punish him, work as a family involving everyone who ever plays with the little one, and most definitely teach your children the do’s and don’t’s of handling a young dog.

This stage will be over before you even realise. It just takes a little dedication and lots of patience to get through.

If you are looking for more information about English cockers and finding and raising a puppy, you may like my book Perfect cocker spaniel, which has a month by month puppy plan nestled nicely among the tips about breed, health, grooming, first aid, diet and training.

 

Image credit: cocker spaniel puppy by Switlana Symonenko (C) 123rf.com

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