Play Biting Hurts Too

Michael Baugh, CPDT-KA, CDBC

You don’t need a dog trainer to tell you this, but I will anyway.  Getting bitten by a dog hurts, and putting the word “play” or “puppy” in front of it doesn’t make it hurt any less.  It does, however, say a lot about the intention behind the bite.  We sometimes call that the function of the bite.  It’s basically what the dog is getting for his biting effort.  Knowing that can help us stop the problem.

Dogs who bite out of anger or fear usually get relief when they bite.  Whatever it was they were angry at or afraid of, goes away.  If they were upset by an activity (being groomed for instance), the bite stops the activity at least for a little while.  The function of biting is to stop something, or make something go away.  These can be tricky cases for behavior consultants because part of the solution is to help the dog like the thing or activity that currently makes him bite.  (More on that another time).

Dogs and puppies who bite while playing are trying to get something going.  They don’t want you to go away; and they don’t want an activity to end.  Instead, they want your attention, your full attention, now.  The function of biting is to start something, or get something.  It works too, doesn’t it?  We may spend hours ignoring our dog, but the minute he grabs hold of our pant leg look what happens.  He’s now the center of attention.  We stop everything to attend to our little shark.

By the time I get called in on these cases, the dog in question is usually pretty good at getting people’s attention by biting.  I like to look for what gets the dog started on his biting rampage.  Sometimes it’s just the site of a person.  Other times it’s a fun game that gets out of control.  I also like to look at what happens immediately after the dog bites.  Most of the time the dog gets a whole lot of attention.  Remember, even scolding is attention.  In either case, we’re actually teaching the dog to bite more.

What can we do about it?  The answer is, a lot.  First, steel up your nerves and take a deep breath.  Biting in general is very impersonal.  It’s just a behavior that yields a result.  We can influence what starts the biting.  If you know what activity gets your dog going, avoid it for the time being.  (Example: if wrestling with your dog gets him started on biting, stop that activity).  We also have control over many of the consequences of biting.  If your dog is biting for attention, withhold that attention.  I recommend taking the process a step further.  The opposite of attention isn’t ignoring; it’s ending social contact altogether.  Put the dog in his crate for a short time out.  He’ll learn quickly that his teeth don’t get him what he wants, which is you.

We can and should also teach our dog good manners, proactively.  We don’t want to spend our whole relationship with our dog reacting to his biting.  Instead, show him what really gets your attention.  In my household, sitting, attentive watching and coming when called get my attention every time.  Tricks do too.  I especially like it when my dog, Stella, rests her chin on my knee.  Too cute.  Shower your dog with attention for those good behaviors, and always be on the lookout for your dog doing something right.

(originally published in Houston Dog Blog)

Just Say Yes!

It’s a joke among us dog lovers.  “My dog thinks his name is No.”  We might as well just admit it; we spend a whole lot of time and energy telling our dogs “no.”  We say “no” to this and “no” to that.  After a while “no” means so many things that it ends up meaning nothing at all to our dogs.  It just communicates that mom or dad is in a crummy mood, and that’s no fun.

I prefer to replace unwanted behaviors with good behaviors.  “Sit” is an easy one because most of us have already started teaching it.  How about every time your dog sits on cue you say “Yes” and give him a piece of his kibble (or a yummy healthful treat)?  This is cool, too.  Every time your dog comes to you when you call him, say “Yes!” and throw his ball for a good game of fetch.  Here’s another good one.  Whenever  your dog looks at you when you say “watch me,” say “Yes!” and treat him.  Do the “watch me” game while walking and see how nicely he walks beside you!

You won’t be using food training your dog forever, or very long at all for that matter.  Still, “Yes” training really turns your relationship with your dog in a whole new direction.  Instead of yelling “no” all the time, now you can give your dog very meaningful directions.  When he jumps up to greet someone, don’t say “no,” say “sit.”  Problem resolved.  Is your dog harassing the cat?  Forget “no,” say “Come” instead.  Now he’s with you, not the cat.  If your dog is pulling on the leash, stop for “watch me,” then put the game in motion again.  Now we’re moving in the right direction.


(originally published in Houston Dog Blog)

Freedom to Learn

Michael Baugh, CPDT-KA, CDBC

Give this a try when you’re training your dog.  Leave room for him to make mistakes.  Experimenting with failing can actually help your dog learn.  It also leads to more creative thinking.

The classic example is the dog who jumps up to greet you.  Lots of trainers recommend turning your back and ignoring the dog.  That very clearly teaches the dog what doesn’t work.  Jumping doesn’t earn him any attention.  That’s half the equation, though.  You’ll notice that most dogs will experiment with an alternate behavior.  Some will run get a toy and bring it to you.  Others might try offering you a “sit.”  Pretty much all of them will at least put all four paws back on the ground, if for no other reason than to take a rest.  Perfect!  Let your dog know that does work for him.  Shower him with calm gentle praise, or maybe even a nice bit of food if you have it handy.  He is learning.  In fact, he employed his own “doggie creativity” and tried out a new behavior other than jumping, and it worked.

There’s an added side effect that comes along with this newfound freedom. Your dog will be more likely to watch you for feedback when he tries new behavior.  Does this work?  What about this? That tightens your bond with your dog and enhances your relationship.  The most striking example of this approach is the Karen Pryor training game, 101 things to do with a box.  It requires creative thinking and allows plenty of room for low-stress failure.  Peta Clarke, a wild animal trainer in Australia, also demonstrates vividly how this works with fearful animals in her short video, The Power of Choice.  I also have a short video of Stellla learning “down” using this free approach.

Of course, there are some behavior problems that require we give our dogs more active direction.  We wouldn’t, for example, let our dog pee everywhere until he finds the right spot and earns our praise.   That would be silly.  Sometimes, though, it’s exactly the right approach.  Let your dog learn to fail, then learn to win.  Wait until you see just how creative he can get, and just how fun training can be.

(originally published in Houston Dog Blog)