When Does Puppy Nipping Cross The Line Into Biting
I recently worked with a client who had gotten a puppy 2 weeks prior to our meeting. The puppy was 6 weeks old when he brought him home and immediately he had concerns that his new family member’s biting was not normal.
Within a week, he had called me for emergency help.
It is hard to imagine an 8 week old puppy having “aggression issues” but unfortunately some of them do. These are the puppies and the clients I worry about the most as these puppies age. Without a sincere and dedicated change in their lifestyle these puppies are hardwired for aggression issues and problems that could lead them to shelters, to biting someone, and toward ultimate euthanasia.
Puppies Can Be Aggressive??
I am sure I will get some backlash for publicly admitting that tiny puppies can have “aggression issues” because most people think that “puppies are puppies and if you just use the correct puppy training methods you will never have to worry about aggression in your dog.
However, as much as I would like to adhere to that philosophy it just isn’t true, and it isn’t fair for the owners that inadvertently end up with these pups. Some puppies have an abnormal amount of aggression, anger and a tendency toward “biting” not “nipping” but actual BITING.
I worry about and I feel bad for both the puppy and his confused and saddened owner, who is doing all that he can to curb the behavior NOW.
The first thing to realize, thankfully, is that these puppies are abnormal and therefore there aren’t a TON of them out there. But they do exist! I have videos of 6 week old puppies trying to inflict the hardest bite possible on me when they are angry or guarding an object.
Puppies explore their environment with their teeth and most puppies go through normal nipping stages. This tooth play is how puppies play with each other. Puppies don’t have hands and feet so they explore and play with each other with their sharp little teeth. Some puppies even inadvertently break their owner’s skin while nipping and biting and most often this is normal and simply a problem of impulse control and learning to keep their little chompers to themselves!
In most cases, nipping is a factor in rough play or trying to engage their owners in a game because they are wound up or bored. Nipping can also occur as a product of prey drive; meaning things that move fast past them (the cat, your pant leg) incur a bite.
Many puppies from police dog lines are known for jumping up and biting their owners in the thigh when they see their owners run or walk past and from this type of herding dog and these types of genetics this behavior can be completely normal! Genetics are a powerful factor!
When a young puppy clearly lashes out in pure rage and aggravation this is not normal puppy behavior.
The puppy I was working with would BITE for a number of reasons. The first was that he was terribly food aggressive if anything, inanimate objects included, came close to his food bowl he would strike with a fierceness usually reserved for adult dog behavior and if that object happened to be his owner he would be off seeking yet another band aid for his wound. This type of puppy possessiveness is not normal.
Likewise, while training him if I did not deliver the treat to him in what he considered a quick enough manner he would bite. He was using no impulse control, and going from 0-100 in a matter of seconds. The bite was not due to his guarding the treat or inadvertently being too rough with me, he would lash out and BITE me for not doing what he wanted.
Not surprising he didn’t like to be physically manipulated or touched unless it was on his terms and if his rules were broken, he would leave you with an open wound. These were not mistake bites or nips these were serious bites meant to make an impression and keep him from having to endure something that he didn’t want.
Most puppies learn or are born with some kind of impulse control, learning to control themselves and their desires to some small degree. Usually momma dog is critical in teaching this impulse control at an early age because she doesn’t want to get bitten and tugged on as her babies grow. She also keeps her puppies from picking on one another in an excessive manner. She will put an immediate stop to a severe bully in her litter by giving the bully a quick and effective bite.
Most puppies will concede dominance or power and submit to the bigger animal (stop biting and nipping) as a means to survival.
Part of this puppy’s problem is that I believe he was separated from his mom too soon so he didn’t learn this early impulse control from her.
The other problem I believe is genetics. I believe strongly in nature vs. nurture. Now, don’t get me wrong I know that nurture is a HUGE part of behavior and that bad experiences can lead to bad behavior later in life. But, I have seen dogs that were starved almost to death that would never consider being food or resource aggressive and I have seen dogs that have been beaten and abused that would never think about biting a person.
Just like not all abused children grow up to be sociopaths and not all sociopaths were abused.
When probing his owner deeper for more information on this particular pup, I asked what his mother was like when he went to pick him up.
“She had to be locked up in a bedroom because she doesn’t like people and can be really mean”.
I believe when you breed aggressive dogs, you often get aggressive puppies. This isn’t always true, just like not all guide dog puppies that have been bred to be social are social, but the odds are greater that social dogs have social puppies and aggressive dogs can have aggressive puppies! Aggressive dogs should NEVER be bred!
Hopefully people will read this before they consider taking a puppy from an aggressive adult dog breeding and that prospective owners will demand to meet at least one of the parents of their pup, or find a puppy from a shelter that temperament tests puppies! This will keep many people from the heartbreak and toil that can ensue.
The Good News!
Most of these puppies if caught young enough are trainable with consistent and strict behavior modification, positive reinforcement, and socialization.
The Bad News:
It is a lot of work and you cannot fall back on your laurels and expect the behaviors to go away!
Most of these puppies need a lifetime of training and direct control from their owners or they can begin to slide back to their old ways and their desire to control their environment can emerge with a vengeance.
What NOT to do?
Don’t use your size or strength to control or bully your puppy.
I would never recommend alpha rolls, complex or negative training collars, hanging or any nasty types of punishment.
The last theory I want to hold fast to is the old dominance theory; that would tell me to physically win all battles with a puppy like this and never “show weakness”.
As a trainer if I tell my clients to use these theories, what happens when the dog is 150 pounds and decides to finally fight back and may maul their owner? Aggression incites aggression and even if you don’t see it right away you can deal with some pent up and hostile emotions when your dog gets big enough to physically challenge you.
Smart people learn to use positive reinforcement tools and their superior human mind and problem solving skills to teach their puppies appropriate behaviors and impulse control in order to get what they want in life.
I will again reiterate the fact that giving advice to owners with severely aggressive dogs or puppies is irresponsible of me because I cannot see the puppy, get the necessary background, or see the individual to help them assess the best course possible for them and their dog. If you have a very aggressive dog I suggest you find a professional that can come to you or you can meet with physically that will be able to help you.
But, I will tell you some of what I told the owner of this young puppy!
This puppy needs to work for his meals. First, all food should come from his father’s hands, no more dog bowl to lord over at breakfast and dinner time. This will help the puppy associate food and LIFE with his dad, and hopefully he will see how important his owner is to his survival.
Obedience starts NOW! Understanding that he is still a baby and has a short attention span is crucial but having him adhere to rules immediately begins to teach him some impulse control! He needs to live with a leash on so his owner can control him.
No longer will he get what he wants by using his teeth or his intimidation factor! When dad feels teeth on him, he needs to get up and move away. Bullies use their teeth to control the situation, when you take that tool away the puppy has to learn how to use his MIND and control himself and his behavior in order to get what he wants.
When he learns to take treats nicely from dad’s hands (I still have healing scratches from 10 days ago from the temper tantrums of this puppy), he will begin teaching the pup to handle unwanted touch by giving him treats when he allows being touched and manipulated.
Amazingly this puppy is social, so he will continue to socialize him but he will constantly watch his puppy for signs of anger (dilated pupils, freezing, staring) and he will give people biscuits to give to him before they touch and interact with him. When other people pet the pup, his dad will get down with his puppy and give him treats for good behavior. This step would not be recommended for puppies that are fearful or who do not want to be social with other people!
As this puppy ages his dad will be obstinate about utilizing control and gaining more control by doing basic things like making this dog do sit stays, down stays, waiting to be fed (once he starts eating from a bowl again), and other types of impulse control training.
Thankfully this puppy is very young and I believe that eventually if his dad is up for the job, this can be an almost normal adult dog.
However, if he lets down his guard, I believe this puppy could be a dangerous adult dog.
Ultimately I feel bad for this owner. He wanted a puppy, but he didn’t necessarily want a puppy that would require this kind of work or would inflict this kind of pain not only on his body but also on his heart because he is also worried about his puppy’s future.
He is a good man, and I believe he is taking the right steps and tools to correct negative behaviors as early as he can.
This is why I always say “Sometimes good people get aggressive dogs” and so I never judge or place blame. The last thing this man needs is someone blaming him for a puppy that is abnormally aggressive when he is doing his best to do right by his new family member!
Never claim to know a full situation or place blame, this doesn’t do anyone any good. Puppy Nipping and Biting isn’t always an easy thing to fix so keep in mind that only action changes behavior!