Force-free Methods to Stop Your Puppy from Nipping

This puppy nips when he's touched.
This puppy nips when he's touched.

If your puppy is a land shark, you may be wondering what you can do to minimize the chances of getting nipped at all day. It's unfortunate that many people think that nipping is a behavior that must be corrected through punishment. You may have heard about keeping the pup's mouth tightly closed or grabbing the pup and putting him on his back to show him "who is the boss." Unfortunately, these methods do more harm than good often turning an innocent behavior into a defensive one.

The Truth About Nipping

If you watch a group of puppies interact, you will notice how for the most part, the pups will use their mouths. This is simply pure play, the pups through play learn hunting skills, bite inhibition and good social skills. When a puppy gets too rough, the other pup will often squeal and withdraw from the game giving the other pup a "time-out." After some time, the rough puppy learns that in order to play, he must be attentive in being less rough and learn to inhibit the pressure of his bite.

For some odd reason, when pups nip owners, they are often believed to do so because they are naughty, or worse, trying to rule the roost because of some creepy intent to become dominant. So the owners feel justified to use methods such as holding the muzzle tight, tapping the nose or alpha rolling the pup to "put the pup back in his place." What happens next is that the puppy may start resenting being handled in any way and will nip in defense. Correction after correction, the pup learns that human hands are bad and need to be bit to keep them away. Luckily, there are better ways! The following are some force-free games that can help your pup learn how to inhibit his bite, love being handled, and learn that hands are not chew toys.

A treat is awaiting this pup on the floor as he passes by.

1) The Car Wash Game

I came up with this game causally one day when I was sitting on the floor with a nippy puppy. This game is meant to get the dog desensitized to touch and that great things happen every time he is touched. To play this game follow these steps:

  1. Lie down on the floor with your legs stretched out.
  2. With your dog on the left, lure him with a treat to walk over your legs and toss it to your right side.
  3. As he passes by to get the treat, touch his body as if he was a car going through a car wash
  4. He should then get his treat.

I touch the pup's feet and immediately give a treat

2) The Touch Game

Many puppies will try to nip when you try to pet them. I had owners confess to me that they haven't been able to pet their puppy for months! To make your dog love being touched, try the touch game.

  1. Find out what parts your pup doesn't like you touch, leave these for last.
  2. Start touching him where he seems to be less likely to nip
  3. Touch briefly say "good boy" and then immediately give a treat.
  4. Gradually, build up on this by touching for more prolonged periods of times and with more intensity and then finally petting those areas he doesn't like much always giving a treat right after. Pat his head, give a treat, lift his paw, give a treat, touch is ears, give a treat, open his mouth, give a treat.With time, your pup should learn that every time he is touched, he gets a treat and he'll look forward to it more and more!

This pup is rewarded for nose targets to my hand

3) The Target Game

In this game, your dog will learn that hands are not toys, and that alternate behaviors to nipping such as making nose contact with your hand makes good things happen.

  1. Keep your hand open with the palm facing your dog.
  2. The moment your dog comes sniff your open hand, say "good boy" and give a treat.
  3. Continue several times.
  4. When your dog gets good at this, add the cue "target" right before you offer your hand so your dog does it on command.

The pup brings the ball and I show a treat to get him to drop it

4) A Game of Fetch

Fetch games work well for pups who will start nipping to get you to play as they teach the dog to play with toys and not pant legs or arms. This game will keep your pup busy so he can learn an alternate game other than nipping. It also keeps your pup exercised while teaching him to drop it too!

  1. Move a ball around to get your pup's interest and then toss the ball
  2. Wait for your puppy to pick it up and then call his name
  3. When he's by you with the ball in his mouth, show a treat
  4. In order to get the treat, your dog will drop the ball
  5. As he eats the treat, get the ball, wait for him to finish eating and toss again
  6. When dropping the ball becomes fluent say "drop it"or "give" just before you show the treat
  7. Repeat several time, but stop showing the treat, say drop it or give and the moment he drops the ball, give the treat.

This pup has learned that dropping the tug toy earns him a treat

5) A Game of Tug

If your pup nips at your shirt, pant legs and ankles, he most likely is loving it because he is getting a free game of tug! And the more you move, the more he has fun! By playing tug-of war, you are teaching your puppy to focus on toys more than hands.

  1. Get a tug toy and wriggle it around so to get your pup interested in it
  2. Grab the other side of the tug toy and gently play tug
  3. At some point,stop tugging and show a treat
  4. When your pup drops the tug to get the treat say "yes!" or click your clicker
  5. Give the treat and start playing tug again
  6. Once your dog gets good at dropping the tug toy add the cue "give" or drop it"
  7. Repeat several time, but stop showing the treat, say drop it or give and the moment he drops the tug toy, give the treat.

What To Do If Your Puppy Nips?

So what should you do if your puppy nips at you? As tempted as you may feel to correct him, consider that physical corrections will only teach your dog to not like having hands near him. Instead, you can squeal like a puppy and say a sharp "ouch!" withdrawing from the game. While this works with some pups, consider though that some other pups may get more aroused when you yelp in pain. You will have to work on finding which vocalization works best. Or you if you are playing any of the above games, you can always withdraw from the game and leave the room. Your pup will soon learn that rough plays means that you will leave and he will no longer get any treats.

As seen, there are several force-free ways you can train your puppy not to nip. Hand feeding your puppy can also teach him how to take treats gently.These methods offer a win-win situation: not only your pup learns how to inhibit his bite but he also learns that touch is good and that he can still play, but without focusing too much on hands and by using a more gentle mouth.

Adrienne Farricelli, all rights reserved, do not copy.

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