Delightful Doggies, safety, Training & Behavior

Biting versus nipping: Is my puppy being aggressive?

It’s National Dog Bite Prevention Week, and I thought I’d take the opportunity to talk about the differences between aggressive biting and normal puppy mouthing and nipping, as it seems there can be some confusion for people in these realms, as well as how to address and teach puppies proper bite inhibition.

Throughout my career training dogs, I’ve had inquiries come in from new puppy parents concerned about their puppy’s mouthing, even going as far as to say their puppy is being aggressive. It is very unusual for young puppies to display aggressive behaviors; when I hear these complaints, one of my first questions to the person is, “Have you talked about this with your vet?” Aggressive displays at a young age always send off the alarm that there could be an underlying medical reason; however, in most cases, they’re actually experiencing normal puppy mouthing and nipping, and just need a little guidance to understand and deal with it.

Puppies are a lot like human babies—they put EVERYTHING into their mouths! It’s how they investigate the world, relieve boredom and teething pain, and learn how to actually inhibit their bite. Puppies are also very new to the world and do not have self-control so when they are aroused, excited and playful, it is very normal for them to get nippy. They will find your hands, limbs and clothing with those little sharp teeth, too! Sometimes they may even seem to be relentless, which is why some view their puppy as potentially aggressive.

Chew on this, Desmond! :)
Chew on this, Desmond! 🙂

It’s important for puppies to learn bite inhibition—VERY important. If your puppy learns this and is well-socialized, he will be set up for a life of success with little risk of biting others. Patience is key as puppies do teeth and it takes time for them to learn to control their impulses. A common mistake people make is pushing the dog away–using your hands like that is indicating to the dog, from their perspective, that you WANT to play, so do not use that as it will only work against you. Here are some tips for dealing with those adorable “puppy piranhas.”

  • Have PLENTY of alternatives for your dog to chew. When you get your new puppy, besides having food bowls, beds, crates, leashes and such, make sure you have myriad approved chew items. Dental chews, bully sticks and other all-natural animal-based chews (we tend to stay away from rawhide), Kongs and other treat-dispensing/fillable items, and a variety of tug toys of appropriate sizes can be your life saver! Remember to always supervise first, and never leave items alone with your puppy that could be a choking hazard (such as rope toys). Frozen Kongs can be a very wonderful alternative as the cold can help soothe the mouths of those puppies who are teething. You cannot have too many of these, and use them often to prevent and redirect your puppy’s teeth from inappropriate to appropriate outlets.
  • Teach your puppy to be gentle. You will not be able to prevent each time your dog puts his mouth on you, and it’s not a bad thing to have soft mouthing occur, as this helps teach proper bite inhibition. However, if you’re getting teeth—remove your hand or whatever those teeth are on, and redirect to an appropriate chew toy! If I’m handling a puppy and they are mouthing at me gently, that’s fine, but once I feel those teeth, I end that situation. If I’m consistent, the puppy will learn that a soft mouth is okay, but a hard mouth is not! I don’t squeal or make any noise, but I make sure I have a treat, toy or chew at hand to substitute for my hand or whatever the puppy may be mouthing, especially if the puppy is very excited, as it can be hard for them to turn their excitement off. Then I can trade my shirt for an appropriate chew item, for instance. Having an alternative ready is important.
  • Teach calm behavior. In addition to having clear signals about what is appropriate and not, teaching your dog to be calm when your hand approaches or around other triggers that may excite and cause him to nip at you or your clothing is important. For instance, if my pants are very loose and my puppy wants to chase and nip at them, I will have lots of treats on me and walk very slowly, rewarding my puppy for not nipping as they walk beside/around me. In this way, they’ll learn that it’s much better to be calmly walking with me while I have those pants on, rather than to nip and possibly tear them. Over time I will increase how quickly I am walking, and therefore increase the excitement level. If the puppy gets too excited, then I need to lower my criteria and be less exciting so I can get the behavior I want and reinforce it, and build from there. I love this video from Emily Larlham that teaches such techniques.
  • Use crates, Xpens and other management. Crate training and using gates, Xpens, etc., to help manage your puppy and teach them how to find that “off” switch are also important. These should never be used in a punitive way, but if you’re busy and your dog has had adequate activity and you don’t want to deal with the nipping, you can place your dog in one of these areas with a safe chew alternative to prevent them from nipping at you, and to help them calm on their own. I view this as very similar to human children–going to your room for a break to unwind!
  • Teaching settle behavior. Doing mat work is invaluable, and I teach this to a lot of clients very often. The mat itself is a cue to relax, and if you do this effectively, can be a tool you can take with you anywhere to help foster calm and focus. A simple door mat suffices; a non-slip backing and flat top will be best, and it doesn’t have to be extremely large (even if you own a Great Dane). It’s not meant to be a bed, but when the mat is there, the dog should be reinforced for first stepping on it and focusing on it, not you, then for sitting, lying down, and then being even more relaxed, like rocking onto the hip, having a calm tail, softer eyes, resting the chin. If you time treats to mark these behaviors, your dog will get it, and learn a good default settle on the mat. There are many protocols out there for teaching going to the mat, etc., but one of my very favorites is that of Nan Arthur, who wrote a great book called Chill Out Fido; I also love this video from Emily Larlham on capturing calmness in dogs.

Aggressive biting is very different from normal puppy mouthing and nipping. Most aggression I have seen, and most bite cases I have worked on, stem from fear or the inability to control impulses coupled with never having learned appropriate bite inhibition. Fearful dogs usually show other signs of discomfort before they escalate to a bite and it’s important to learn how to read body language; this is a great guide on learning more about signs to understand.

If you truly believe your dog is being aggressive, or shows signs of fear, anxiety and overarousal/inability to control their impulses, you should consult a professional well-versed in using desensitization and counterconditioning protocols and teaching calm using positive, rewards-based methods. You should NEVER punish the dog, restrain him forcefully or roll him, or grab the muzzle or scruff. These are confrontational methods that will confuse and possibly upset the dog and make things worse. The earlier you intervene, the greater your chances of long-term success. There is no substitute for getting help from a caring, knowledgeable trainer/dog behavior consultant!

Let us know how we can help,
Owner, Delightful Doggies

Delightful Doggies, Training & Behavior

Misconceptions and proper help for fearful and reactive dogs

A great deal of my business centers around dogs who are fearful, and therefore reactive or possibly aggressive. Some express their fear through barking and lunging, or even growling and snapping or worse. Others appear more typical for what people would expect out of a fearful dog: cowering, turning their head or body away, or trying to hide, for example.

While it’s true that fearful dogs are likely to cower and try to get away (the “flight” response), the “fight” response dogs are often labeled as aggressive or corrected for what they do. They’re “bad;” they act inappropriately through their lunging, barking, baring of teeth and more. These dogs tend to embarrass their owners more, and the scene they cause can make people think they are in need of a good, firm hand.

In my experience, these dogs that are on the offense are doing so because it is the best DEFENSE. It is a great way to make space, and it usually works, as people or others are more likely to move away when a dog is offering such behaviors, and it is therefore reinforced.

A lot of clients with these dogs try different approaches to solve the problem. They may pull at their dog, or give a leash correction, or they may try to hold or restrain their dogs, adding to the tension. These methods may work to repress a behavior for the immediate short-term, but they are not going to give the dog what he needs to truly resolve the problem for the long-term. Others may ask for too much self-control, like sitting and looking at them. While admirable, the dog is not in a thinking state of mind to be able to comply, and it only adds to the frustration and stress for both the owner and dog.

Clients will give me a puzzled look when one of my first pieces of homework for these dogs is to get a very high-value food (real people foods like bits of deli or boiled meat without additives/flavors, cheese, etc., tend to be most economical and effective) whenever the dog notices the other person, dog, etc., (the “trigger” for the “bad” behavior). I tell them to be generous and do it as SOON as the dog notices the trigger.

“But even if he’s barking?”

“Yes, even if he’s barking.”

Of course, the end game is to end the barking or lunging or whatever is happening, but the crucial part in the beginning is to make these triggers THE BEST THINGS EVER. I always want clients to make space to keep the dog in a place where he is less likely to react, and that is what we always work toward, but in the beginning, I want these dogs to “snap out” of their emotional responses. If it rains hot dogs every time a dog sees that other dog, then he’s going to start seeing dogs as something very wonderful, and will associate this if the client is very committed to the technique.

I also explain this in a way that is hopefully easier for humans to understand: If you are afraid of snakes, for instance—someone pushing you into a pile of them to just “get over it” usually doesn’t work, and makes you more stressed and actually makes your fear stronger. We want to try and keep distance and make things easier for the dog. This may mean taking shorter walks in less popular areas to lessen the chance of encounters as opposed to going to Wash Park on a weekend, or it may mean walking away as needed to help give the dog more space before he feels the need to react in the way we don’t want him to. Or it may mean limiting his ability to go outside and bark at the fence, or placing a curtain or other visual barrier at a window, and so forth. This will ensure he doesn’t get more practice reacting wherever he is likely to react.

Then, if we expose the dog to these triggers gradually, and make them very valuable, we are going to lessen stress and set up the dog—and person—for success.

Jackson LAT
Jackson (R) is getting meatballs for being calm around Hidalgo during a training session. This means Jackson REALLY LOVES seeing other dogs, and can offer this calmness.

“Oh Benji, see that dog over there?” (Benji looks over at the trigger as you look over at the trigger. Then feed food continuously as he looks at the trigger. Trigger goes away = food ends. Repeat many times.) When that stranger, other dog, or whatever goes away, the hot dogs go away, which is so sad! 🙂

Even if the dog reacts, if I go a little over threshold, I will feed. I may try to turn and run away with the dog in a light-hearted way and then feed for him moving away, or sometimes I will drop treats on the ground as I’m moving away to have the dog find the food by sniffing it out. This can interrupt and stop the behavior, give him a way to hopefully calm himself as sniffing can help dogs calm down, and will help him feel better about what has happened—instead of giving a jerk on the leash which can make him feel worse. Making space to ensure the behavior doesn’t happen is very important, but if I flub up, I want the dog to have a positive experience, and hopefully refocus on me by following a treat line away from the trigger.

With these kinds of dogs, the key is ALWAYS addressing the emotional state first. By doing this, we can help the dog calm down, and then learn what is appropriate. Being mindful of the threshold and level of stress is also key. Going over threshold every time will certainly not help either, which is why getting training help is so crucial for owners to have success.

So please, don’t think that when your dog is afraid of something, or doing something “bad” that it is because he is needing “correction.” Very likely the dog just needs a good plan to make that thing the best thing in the world, and once that is the case, he can give you his best!

We highly recommend reaching out to us if you are experiencing problems with a reactive, fearful dog. We have a great track record for success, and would love to help you!
Owner, Delightful Doggies

Special Message, Training & Behavior

The Cesar Millan pig killer show: my response

I have struggled, ever since this story broke, to come up with my own response. It has been one of the most difficult things ever, to come up with the right words and response to this, as it stirs a lot of emotions and outrage for me. Many of my colleagues have done great jobs in their own right, and I have read many of these great pieces, such as Lisa Mullinax and Annie Phenix with Dogster. I have to echo their sentiments and the facts they present. There are so many aspects to this case, but I guess what I’d like to concentrate on is what I would do with a dog like Simon.

First, I will admit that a pig killing dog is not something I’ve personally crossed, as there aren’t many pigs in the city of Denver, where I live and work. Most of the dogs I work with are those with aggression and/or reactivity toward other dogs or people, and most of them are either fearful or are in physical pain, or a combination of both. I work behavior modification clients with a certified TTouch practitioner, Courtney Kirman. I do this because I find those methods complementary to the training we do, as it can help them feel more aware of their physical state, and help them feel better and more calm.

In fact, this is what I would first do with Simon: evaluate his physical health first! When was his last vet exam, and what were the results? What does his gait look like? Is he showing signs of being stressed or anxious–when and where? There are many things I use to help to try and figure out what may be at the root of the problem in this regard. When you have a headache or pull a back muscle, for example, it can cause you to have a “shorter fuse.” Not feeling well physically is an important factor, and I also want to ensure the dog I’m working with feels his or her best to maximize the ability to teach him or her what I want her to do, and make it a positive experience.

Once I’ve covered that base, I would also implement a gradual, under-threshold desensitization and counterconditioning (DS/CC) protocol for Simon. This means I would work with him at his own level of comfort and pace to ensure he gets used to noticing pigs: seeing them, hearing them and smelling them, and making it a very wonderful–in fact, THE MOST WONDERFUL–thing EVER! Once he views them as something wonderful and is in a “happier” state of mind, he will be able to make the right choices to behave around them.

Since Simon is a known killer of pigs, this will take some time. The more severe the response, the more work it will generally take to get a more relaxed emotional response. Killing pigs is something to not take lightly! I would also acclimate Simon to a basket muzzle; this way, he can be fed treats, pant and drink water if needed, but not be able to bite anyone or anything. Until he is conditioned on this muzzle, I would always work my DS/CC with him on leash outside the pig pen, so he cannot get to the pig(s) at all.

Outside the pen, I would be clicking a clicker every time Simon looks at a pig (or I could use a marker word, like saying YES) and follow it with the most wonderful thing ever to him, which may be boiled chicken, or bits of hot dog, deli meat or cheese. I would do this repetitively, and for a short amount of time. This technique is known as the Look At That or the Engage – Disengage game, and is a great way for a dog to learn how to acknowledge something scary or very exciting without displaying signs of over arousal, fear or aggression.

If he shows any signs of stress or aggression, I would make note of that and make more space, and perhaps take a break. It’s important to know the limits; I may make mistakes, particularly in the beginning, of getting too close or training too long, but if I pay attention to Simon’s body language and make those connections, then I can modify my plan to make it less stressful.

For instance, if I was doing this with Simon at a distance of 10 feet from the pig pen, and had been doing it for five minutes–let’s say he had been doing fine until the last 30 seconds, showing slight signs of stress like sniffing and looking away while licking his lips–then I’d resume training later at being 10 feet away for only 3 minutes, so he would be less likely to be stressed, and have a positive training experience.

It’s key to keep the dog from practicing any aggressive, reactive behaviors, and from as much stress as possible. No one can learn when they’re stressed–behavior modification is MUCH harder if there is a lot of stress–and it will not make for a positive experience. If I go too far too fast, like sticking him into the pen without any safety measures like a muzzle or leash on him, it can lead to disaster. It is always better to go a bit more slowly and to ALWAYS consider safety. I would not let him anywhere near the pen until he was acclimated to a muzzle, and without a leash. In fact, as I said earlier, the leash would be used outside the pen as well so we could maintain the right distance we need for DS/CC.

As time goes by, I’d be able to get a little bit closer and go a little longer with training, but it would all be dependent on Simon and the signs he’s giving me. If he’s doing well, I can gradually increase my criteria for him. But I must be careful and not get greedy, and no one likes for things to be harder and harder all the time. It’s best to stop while you’re ahead, especially if you’re blessed with a great accomplishment. Perhaps I’m up to five feet away and Simon is able to look at the pig(s) but then look back at me right away–then I’d click and jackpot with lots of food! The better the response, the better the reward, teaching him how to make the right choices. Our video of Lucy’s story goes through what we have done with dogs like this, who react aggressively to other dogs.

Lucy learned how to be calm instead of aggressive around other dogs in our behavior modification sessions
Lucy learned how to be calm instead of aggressive around other dogs in our behavior modification sessions

This is a simplified version of a plan–there are many other components to what I would do as well outside of DS/CC, like teaching other incompatible behaviors, doing impulse control work, etc.–but it does give insight into how I approach such situations. Our dogs are so smart, and willing to please us, that we shouldn’t sell them short and force them into situations that can backfire. We should always set them up for success and reward them for what is good. That way we can build trust and a dog that is confident and respectful.

And for the record, if you want to know my opinion on Cesar Millan–you can refer to this earlier piece of mine. I might also add, I consider pretty much all reality TV as total unreality. 🙂

Thank you,
Owner, Delightful Doggies

Clients, Delightful Doggies, Training & Behavior

Dog-dog aggression: Lucy’s story

It’s a common problem, especially for dogs when they’re on leash: displaying reactivity/aggression toward other dogs.

Lucy always had some issues with accepting other dogs, both on and off-leash, but it was getting worse so her parents called us for help. They didn’t want her or another dog to get hurt and weren’t sure how to make it better.

After an initial questionnaire and consult process, we put together a plan for Lucy and her parents that included desensitization and counterconditioning at the forefront: by pairing strange dogs with a delicious, motivating food (in Lucy’s case, cheese), we helped her feel BETTER about seeing other dogs. Once she felt better, she started to actually look forward to seeing other dogs, and at that point, we were able to successfully introduce her to our five approved Delightful Doggies doggy assistants! You can see the process in our video:

We’ve helped many dogs with similar issues, without the use of any force, fear or intimidation. Contact us today so we can help you too!

Thank you,
Owner, Delightful Doggies

Delightful Doggies, Training & Behavior

A thousand shades of grey

Regardless of the terms we use, i.e., “reactive” over “aggressive,” we still label our dogs and have expectations of them. Life is not black or white, or easy to place into boxes. The shades of grey concept Kay Laurence puts forth here is a good one. Remember it when you’re working with your dog. We’re all “reactive” creatures, remember… 🙂