by VALERIA ROSSI – Trad. Mariafelicia Maione
Wait, we’re not talking about aggressive dogs biting their humans: but about dogs who play with their humans, chewing them like a ball or a bone.
Great fun for the puppy/young dog, not so much for the “bone” in question, who ends up full of holes (with the pup, because milk teeth are like as many needles) or bruises (with the young dog, already provided with his adult teeth).
I took inspiration for this article from a conversation on Facebook, with the owner of a seven months old Bernese (of course, she own “quite a big dog”!) facing this problem; but I often read on forums and the like about people with limbs constantly marked by their pets, and others saying “poor thing, he just wanna play! Let him be, he’s showing he loves you”.
Second part of that sentence is quite true: playing presumes some kind of affective relationship, and puppies often bite because of excitement at being with their human friend.
But I’m in doubt whether this means that we ought to accept to have our arms and legs (and sometimes our nose) always bleeding.
One of the first things to learn for a puppy entering our society should be that human DON’T bite or “chew” each other even in playing, because their skin is so much more thin than dogs’ one.
Puppies don’t know that: they don’t even use all of their strength in doing it, when they play biting… if they did, even a two months year old puppy, if not toy-size, could send us to the hospital.
Nope, puppies can weight they bite in a “playful” and “friendly” way: but they weight it according with what they learned from their mother and siblings, who rebelled and reacted against X force, hurtful for them.
Human skin begin to hurt at the third part of X force… but puppies weren’t told that, and they can’t understand that on their own. We need to explain.
I’ll rather have me using dogs’ language, as usual, than pretending them to understand mine. When it’s easy to do, at least.
So, lets’ start from here: have you ever seen two puppies playing “the hard way”?
If you did, we can start from coupling the common advices given to chewed owners with what happens in dog families.
Useless advice number 1: shout at him, slap him, cry aloud “NO!”
Between puppies, if one is barking or biting very hard, the other won’t stop: on the contrary, he works harder to “win” the battle. Playing fight isn’t a simple divertissement: fighting with their sibling and parents, puppies learn techniques of attack and defense they’ll need as adults, if they have to fight seriously against another dog or predator. So, when a puppy understands he’s about to lose, he’ll do anything in his might to fight “harder and tougher”, and when facing demonstrations of your strength (slaps, shouts, etc.) he reacts doing his very best. It is like, “When the going gets tough, the toughs get going”.
And if the puppy isn’t “tough” at all, blows and beatings would just frighten him, making him think that human can’t play without being mean and violent: and that’s something you DON’T want him to think.
Shouting “ENOUGH!”, “NO!” and the like, during fighting, are something similar to barking and growling from another dog: excitement sounds, that excite him. Whether he knows the meaning of those words, it doesn’t matter: if you shout “NO!” while he is excited, he’ll regard it just as another battling sound.
Useless advice number 2: ignore him, turn away, don’t pay attention to him, freeze.
This is what “gentle trainers” always advice their clients to do, based on something right (if you ignore something your dog is doing, he’ll stop doing it), but it’s rarely enough to help calming down someone who, biting you, it’s asking for your attention. And, what’s more, he’s in the mood to play.
When we freeze, what our pup is more likely to do is jumping on us, claiming that attention we’re denying him: because he wants to play, that’s it. And the thought that we’re mad at him because he bit us would never cross his mind.
Freezing, ignoring, turning away, it’s something that puppies playing fight NEVER do. But mothers, instead, they do it when playing with their children: sometimes they turn their head away when bothered too much. This is a hierarchical seniority signal (something like “I don’t care about you, little thing”), but I often see it in action when puppies ask for food (for example, patting the mother’s mouth with their own), rarely during plays. Mothers, in fact, know very well that an ignored child will bother you to death to claim attention. When mothers are tired of playing, they stand up and go away: this you can actually do… if you’re at home! Never in the park or in the dog area. You can’t leave the puppy alone in the street!
What’s more, when at large, after mum went away the puppy looks for other victims (usually a brother or sister), because he still wants to play. So, when the mother returns, he’s quieter. If we do the same thing at home, the puppy won’t have anyone else to release energy with, so when we return everything starts again: “Ohhh! You’re back! Now we can play!”. And he’ll jump on us bare teeth.
So… what we’re gonna do?
Easy: look at what puppies do when a sibling hurts him while playing, and he wants to tell him to calm down.
What does he do? He cries.
He says “YELP!”. And the other one, understanding he bit too hard, will stop or be “nicer”.
This leads to…
Useful advice number 1: do yelp!
Or something like “OUCH!” if imitating dog sounds embarrasses you. What’s important is it to emit a brief and very sharp sound, as similar as you can to what puppies emit when hurt (I think anyone heard that at least once).
Yelping, if convincing, always works: either the puppy understands and bites more gently, or he stops, puzzled, and looks at us like “Oops, sorry, did I hurt you?”
The key is, as soon as he drops your arm or hand or leg, you prize him, saying “good” and giving him a treat (or click-treat, if you use the clicker): partly to reinforce the message he was good to leave it, partly because you should maintain a bit of leadership and make him understand is you who controls both play time and resources.
But they’re two different things: yelping is for saying “ouch, this hurts!”; prizes are to say “by plying I’m teaching you something” (in this case, I’m teaching you how far you can go playing with humans).
But, yelping isn’t always enough: it’s very useful for emergencies, to stop the dog chewing us as bubble gums, but you should add…
Useful advice number 2: teach LEAVE IT
Because before “leaving” something you must “take” it, you can teach this command only when the pup has something in his mouth: I heartily advice you don’t wait for that “something” to be your limbs. So, play tugging with you pup (he loves it) and explain to him what “leave it” means with one among the hundreds of methods available.
Just a few ones:
a) Method of the two balls (the ones with a little rope, otherwise your dog would take the ball AND your hand); play tug for a while, then stop, say “leave it” and move the second ball around: the pup will leave the first ball, not interesting because it’s not moving, and be engaged with the second one. As soon as he leaves it, prize;
b) With the treat: same as above, but instead that a second ball, you show him a treat: best working with sweet-tooth dogs;
c) Method of “blind dog”: while the pup is engaged in pulling, stop pulling at your side, say softly “leave it” and, at the same time, put gently your hand on his eyes, as in patting him, but actually obstructing his vision. Some puppies don’t care and keep pulling as anything (better change method with them), but lots of them instantly drop the ball to move their head and see what’s happening. When the dog acts this way, prize.
You have thousands of different methods that you can use, the main idea is the same: puppies MUST know the meaning of “leave it” and they must learn it playing with something else than human body.
When they know the word, you can say “leave it” anytime you wish for him to stop biting you.
BEWARE, though: inhibit biting as a whole is a major mistake.
I met a Newfoundland so restrained that she refused even to take safe lines in her mouth: this means to completely pervert the nature of a dog, who has in his bite a powerful mean of expression and… the equivalent of our hands! Dogs can take anything just with their mouth: if we persuade him that using it he “displease us”, we create an inhibited dog, unable to enjoy life and ruined for every job or sport. That’s why we must use “leave it” together with yelping while teaching the pup: the pup must leave it when it’s no time for playful fights… but we must give him occasion to do it sometimes, having body contact with his mouth too, within our endurance limits.
REMARKS: the third photo in this article comes from the video – that all of you saw on YouTube, I presume – of the dog “attacking” the human when he says “Berlusconi!”, but doesn’t move a bit when he says “Bersani!” (if you miss it, take a look at www.youtube.com/watch?v=5TXZFR9ZNqM). This is a very good example of a dog understanding how hard he can bite while playing.