How to Stop a German Shepherd Puppy From Biting (Bite Inhibition Games)
If you are blessed with a German Shepherd puppy, you may at times feel at your wits' end when it comes to those constant nipping behaviors. Don't feel bad—you are not alone. This breed is indeed notorious for nipping, and those sharp puppy teeth hurt! If your arms are covered with bruises, scratches and teeth marks, you surely are upset about it and are looking for a way to decrease the nipping and finally allow those wounds to heal.
Why Do German Shepherd Puppies Bite So Much?
So what makes German Shepherd puppies in particular so nippy? There are a few possibilities.
Note: The last two reasons depend highly on the context of your particular puppy.
They have a strong prey drive.
For starters, many have a very strong prey drive, so they are very attracted to movement. If you watch your puppy in the yard, you may notice how readily he captures the slightest movement of some critter in the grass. His big ears will twitch to capture the faintest sounds, and his body will be ready to pounce into action in a split second.
Balls, small critters, and unfortunately, your arms, legs, ankles and pant-legs will soon become targets of his prey drive and turn into objects for a fun game. And to make things worse, any movement you make to move your hand away when your pup comes to nip will further increase this drive and damage to your skin. That explains all those "teeth scratches" you have on your arms!
They're a herding breed.
On top of that, this is a herding breed, so the pups like to chase and gather moving things and they often accomplish this by using their mouths (a behavior known as gripping in herding lingo).
In the old days, the herding style of German Shepherds encompassed for a good part what was known as boundary patrol, or flock containment. These dogs had to ensure the sheep were properly contained and the rebellious sheep were controlled by gripping the top of the neck, the ribs or just above the hocks.
Breeder and herding expert Ellen Nickelsberg explains how puppy herding trials are conducted and how puppies are selected based on gripping style which may range between damaging and less damaging bites, full-mouth bites and puppies who bite and hold on. These preliminary tests are done when the pups are very young.
They're exploring and testing their environments.
All puppies, however, go through a stage where they will explore the world with their mouths. Puppy nipping is completely normal behavior most puppies go through. It's similar to the mouthing period babies go through when teething. However, in German Shepherds, the behavior may be more pronounced and more intense than in some other breeds of puppies.
As seen, for a good reason, many like to call their German Shepherd puppies "land sharks." Often, the nipping is a manifestation of a dog getting overstimulated and losing control of his bite force. Sometimes, German shepherd puppies will get more and more nippy when they are cranky and in need of nap. It is ultimately up to the owner to teach proper bite inhibition through consistent rules.
They were raised in a poor environment.
In some cases, the excessive nipping may be an indication of a puppy raised in a very poor breeding environment, where the puppy didn't get a chance to learn the ABCs of bite inhibition with his littermates and mom and the breeders did little about it. Some of the worst cases of poor bite inhibition are often seen in puppies removed too early from the litter or singletons. In some cases, the biting may be genetic, due to a poor temperament and weak nerves.
They were bred for looks rather than temperament.
It's unfortunate that nowadays there are more and more cases of German Shepherds bred poorly. I am no longer surprised to see enormous German Shepherds, much taller than the standard warrants. Often, I see many relinquished to shelters because they were bred poorly, with the breeders focusing more on looks than temperament. This would certainly really be a disappointment for Max von Stephanitz if he was still alive as he worked so hard to get that versatile, well-tempered perfect German Shepherd specimen.
A Word About Bite-Inhibition Methods
Following are some games I have used with success with German Shepherd pups. Before playing these games with your pup, I want to emphasize the importance of using only positive, reward-based methods. This is a breed that is known for being fearless, that often won't back down when challenged. The German Shepherd was bred to persist and not give up when faced with rebellious sheep. Because of its courage, this breed is often used for police work.
According to the American Kennel Club standard, "the breed has a distinct personality marked by direct and fearless, but not hostile, expression, self-confidence and a certain aloofness that does not lend itself to immediate and indiscriminate friendships. The dog must be approachable, quietly standing its ground and showing confidence and willingness to meet overtures without itself making them." Yet, this breed is also very sensitive.
If the puppy nips, it may be tempting to use coercion-based methods such as squeezing the dog's muzzle tightly or roughly taking him by the scruff and pinning him down to show him "who's boss". This is known as an alpha roll, and it is something that should never be done unless you want to end up with a puppy that goes from playful nipping to defensive nipping.
Also, consider that coercion-based methods will negatively affect the dog/dog owner bond. The puppy will increase the nipping behavior as now the puppy will nip more, but now to defend himself from rough and inappropriate handling.
This is the best way to train a puppy that hands are bad and worth keeping away from their bodies! It may lead to puppies who nip when you need to check their paws, nip when you want to brush their coat and nip when you need to check their ears or teeth.
Fortunately, there are many better ways to teach proper bite inhibition to these pups. In the picture above, you can see a nippy German Shepherd nipping my arm before undergoing training and developing more "finesse." This was his stereotyped response to any type of touch.
Ironically, this pup's owner was advised by a veterinarian to alpha roll the puppy every time he was biting. This is outdated advice that is no longer recommended by most modern dog trainers. As mentioned, this only leads to trouble, and this is why this puppy was in need of help and the owner was desperate as she couldn't touch him or enjoy petting him without getting teeth marks.
Five Games to Train Puppies Bite Inhibition
1. Basic Handling (a.k.a. The Car Wash Game©)
It may look like some German Shepherd pups don't have a natural liking to being touched. Not too long ago in my Yellow Creek Training Center, I had a German Shepherd owner tell me "I haven't been able to pet my puppy for months!" When you touch them, they may basically try to nip your hand.
This may be based on fear, or simply the pup may be trying to play. It could just be though they're just not used to it. In any case, you can work on making touch something positive that your pup will look forward to. This game was invented by me casually one day as I was sitting on the floor with a very nippy German shepherd. It somewhat mimics your puppy going through a car wash with you giving him a nice " scrub" as he walks by.
- Sit on the floor and extend your legs.
- Arm yourself with tasty treats and a clicker. (If your dog is not clicker trained, you can just say "yes" to mark the wanted behavior.)
- With your pup on your left side, toss a treat over the right side, so that your puppy must walk across your body to get the treat.
- As he passes across your body to get the treat, pet him briefly on his sides and then click(or say yes) a second before he gets the treat.
- Then repeat the same from the opposite side, tossing the treat from right side towards the left, repeating the touching and clicking.
- As the pup gets used to getting touched, you can raise the bar and increase the level of touch, you can start from the neck, touch the sides and then the tail as he passes by.
- Leave the head for last as most dogs aren't too eager to be touched on top of the head.
- Go gradually. If at any time, your pup tries to nip, you are going too fast in the process and need to go back a few steps by touching less intensely.
2. Gentleness Pays
A puppy that needs to learn good bite inhibition needs to learn how to take treats gently. Don't waste giving your puppy kibble all at once from the bowl! Those are many lost training opportunities! Reserve a part of your pup's meal to train how to take food gently from your hands. Do this every day.
To teach polite mouthing manners, get a handful of treats and keep them in your closed fist. If your dog bites your hand say "no bite" (or give a negative marker if you prefer or make a yelping sound—see note below about this ) and don't release the treat. When your dog gives up nipping and licks your hand, tell him what a good boy he is and release the treats. For more on how to train your dog to take treats gently, read my article on training a dog to take treats gently.
Is yelping a good way to stop my puppy from biting me?
While you may have heard about the common practice of yelping like a puppy and stopping the game, this method doesn't work with all puppies. In some puppies with strong prey drives, the yelping may arouse them even more.
So you must ask yourself, is my yelping in pain increasing or decreasing the behavior? If it is increasing and doesn't reduce, your yelping is likely positive reinforcement, meaning that the nipping behavior will continue and you are further fueling it.
This is the most likely scenario if after your yelp, the puppy doesn't stop, but actually is more aroused and comes back to more biting and with more intensity. If it is actually decreasing over time, what you're doing is likely working and you must continue what you are doing. Be aware though of extinction bursts.
3. Hand Targeting
If your puppy tends to come mouth at you when you are lying by the sofa, you may find training him an alternate behavior to replace the nipping helpful. In this case, try to play hand target. This way, your puppy won't focus anymore on nipping the hand but in targeting it. Here is how to play it:
- Extend your hand with the palm open.
- The moment your dog sniffs the hand without nipping, click (or say yes) and give a treat.
- Repeat several times.
- As your dog gets fluid, add the cue "target" and continue clicking and treating.
- Ad challenges by placing your hand higher, at distance, lower etc.
Tip: Don't move your hand too fast when presenting it as a target. Doing so may increase arousal and make your hands look like a toy again, which is not what you want; especially in the initial stages of training.
Fetch is another great game you can train your puppy so he can get his focus away from your hand and focused on a ball. This is quite easy to train and I usually have it trained in half a day or so. If your dog is predisposed to fetch, it will come naturally, otherwise, you can try to train it through backchaining.
- Toss the ball.
- Call your dog towards you.
- When he's by you, show a treat.
- In order to get the treat, your dog will drop the ball.
- Get the ball and toss it again.
- When dropping the ball becomes fluent, add the cue "drop it or give".
- Wean the treats gradually, as the new reinforcement should be tossing the ball over and over again.
5. Tug of War
The game tug-of-war is a subject of controversy. In my experience, when taught in a constructive and structured manner, it's a fun way to keep a dog's mind out of nipping. This is a great way to re-direct from hands to toy and release some pent-up energy. Here's how to teach it.
- Get a tug toy and wriggle it to get your dog interested in it.
- Grab the other side of the toy and pull.
- At some point, freeze and show a treat.
- When your dog drops the other side to get the treat, say "good' or click.
- Give the treat.
- Repeat several times.
- Once your dog gets good at dropping the tug toy, add the cue "give" or "drop it".
- Reward your dog by starting another round of tug.
As seen, there are many ways to help your pup learn proper bite inhibition the force-free way. If your puppy continues to nip or acts aggressively, don't hesitate to find a trainer near you employing positive-based methods and state-of-the art techniques based on science. A good resource is the Pet Professional Guild.
Is your German Shepherd puppy nippy?
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2013 Adrienne Farricelli