Adrienne is a certified professional dog trainer, dog behavior consultant and former veterinarian assistant for an AAHA animal hospital.
How mother dogs discipline their puppies is something that many dog owners wonder about.
You may have stumbled on videos of mother dogs correcting their puppies and many people commenting admit to adopting similar methods with their puppies.
As tempting as it may be to want to adopt a mother dog's methods, because "mother dogs know best," think again.
Dogs know for a fact that we aren't dogs, and our physical corrections may do more harm than actual good.
Why Do Mother Dogs Correct Their Puppies?
Around the time puppies begin being weaned (starting at 3 weeks), the mother dog will also wean them gradually from her presence.
As puppies become more mobile and start exploring their surroundings, mother dogs will therefore watch over them from a distance.
This is also a time when puppies may start pushing a bit their boundaries, sometimes in irritating ways (from the mother dog's perspective, that is).
A puppy, for instance, may insist on wanting to nurse, when the pup should have been weaned by now from milk to solid foods, or a puppy may insist on biting her legs as she's walking or maybe biting her ears when she's napping.
Dealing with multiple puppies wanting to nurse and play with her body parts starts getting old very soon, and the mother dog can only take so much!
Things may get especially irritating once puppies start getting their needle-sharp baby teeth and any attempts to nurse or play turn into a painful ordeal.
This is a wonderfully orchestrated event, perfectly timed by Mother Nature. With the pups hurting the mother dog when nursing, her reluctance to nurse strategically triggers the pups to search for alternate foods, such as the tempting puppy gruel and mush offered by the breeder (which works as an intermediate source of nourishment before graduating to solid foods).
How Do Mother Dog Discipline Their Puppies?
Most mother dogs will primarily discipline their puppies by moving away or using a simple snarl or growl. A deep guttural growl or sharp bark quickly informs the puppy that the interaction is not appreciated and to stop whatever he is doing or even thinking of doing.
The growl acts like a warning, a way of telling the puppy to "stop or else...." Through trial and error, puppies learn quickly that, ignoring the growl, will cause the mother dog to escalate into snapping at them.
Most puppies, therefore, learn to heed the warning and will stop whatever they are doing in their tracks.
In some cases, when puppies are at a distance, all the mother dog needs to do is to raise her lip exposing her pearly whites and puppies get the message that she wants to be left alone and not be pounced on all the time.
Mother dogs, therefore, use their growls, snarks, body postures and sometimes physical reprimands (inhibited nips) to communicate with her puppies without hurting them. This firm yet overall gentle education goes a long way in teaching the puppies the canine version of "stop it."
Can Mother Dogs Hurt Their Puppies?
Many people watching the interactions between mother dogs and their puppies, may perceive the mother dog's behavior towards her puppies as scary.
The mother dog's corrections indeed happen lightning fast, and you may see her flashing her teeth side-to-side nearby the puppy. Some mother dogs may "muzzle punch" their puppies, using their closed teeth or mouth to bump or push the puppy away.
In some other cases, a mother dog may even nip the puppy, however, when she does so, it often entails grabbing a bit of skin over the puppy's back. Mother dogs purposely choose the areas where there is loose skin nipping with an inhibited bite (soft mouth) so as not to hurt the puppy.
Sometimes, you may see a mother dog "muzzle grab" with her open mouth, but that's not really biting, it's simply just an inhibited grab to get her point across.
What's Normal and What's Not?
In general, normal mother dogs will never use their teeth to intently harm their puppies. Even when they carry their pups around, they do so very gently, carrying them in their mouth with care.
Normal mother dogs will also not grab pups by the scruff and purposely shake them (scruff shake) as a form of discipline nor will they alpha roll their offspring. Rather, pups voluntarily roll over to show the inguinal area as an appeasement signal.
However, there can exceptions to the rule. Some dogs make poor mothers or they may be put into situations that trigger abnormal reactions. It can be the mother dog is too young and inexperienced, feeling ill or the puppy is suffering from an ailment that we humans cannot detect.
If you fear that the mother dog may harm her puppies, please separate them. If the puppies are not weaned, you will need to take over providing them milk by bottle feeding them. Consult with your vet to rule out medical issues.
How Do Puppies React to This Discipline?
Puppies may react differently to their mother dog's discipline, depending on their individual temperament and how they are corrected.
A puppy may just leave or the puppy may feel like he must "owe an apology to mom" and will therefore flop over his back and maybe even dribble a little pee.
This form of inguinal presentation in puppies is natural and reminiscent of when the mother dog used to clean them. The mother dog (or any other dog) will typically sniff the puppy and walk away.
In an article on Dog Star Daily, Ian Dunbar claims that the puppy who voluntarily flops over and emits a trickle of pee must be saying something along the lines of, "Yo! Sniff this urine. See, I'm just a young puppy and don't know any better. Please don't harm me. I didn't mean to jump on your tail and bite your ears. He! He! He!"
The distinct smell of the pup's urine along with the puppy's size, appeasing posture, vocalizations and overall infantile looks, helps remind other dogs that he's just a puppy and therefore should not be considered a threat.
Why You Should Not Use Aversive Tools
You may sometimes stumble upon individuals stating that the use of choke collars or prong collars is humane because they simply mimic what mother dogs do to their puppies with their teeth to correct them.
However, this is a bad comparison for several reasons. Firstly, mother dogs have accurate control of their jaw force and placement of their teeth which is different from a human deliberately giving a collar correction.
Mother dogs also won't use their teeth to punish as we would do with a prong or choke collar; rather, they use their teeth as a means to move the pups away or carry them from place to place since they can't use their hands as we do.
On top of this, the mother dog is also a source of security, warmth and nourishment and can never be compared to a correction-based collar placed on a dog's neck which may tighten, pinch or shock unexpectedly at any given moment.
Finally, choke, prong and shock collars have been really found to potentially cause physical and emotional harm to our dogs.
When the dog pulls forward, or the owner pulls backward on the leash, collars end up tightening around the dog's neck putting pressure against the trachea, which can potentially cause tracheal damage.
In addition, recent studies have shown that these tools can increase a dog's pressure within the eyes, causing problems in dogs prone to glaucoma, warn board-certified veterinary behaviorists Dr. Debra Horwitz and Gary Landsberg in an article for VCA Animal Hospitals.
A Word About Head Halters
Even head halters have been compared to the way mother dogs discipline their puppies. Some people say that when dogs wear a head halter and the strap puts pressure across the dog's nose, this mimics the mother dog's action of putting her mouth over her puppy's muzzle.
Again this comparison doesn't make much sense. A head halter causes different sensations and the strap nearby the eyes is bothersome to most dogs.
Most dogs struggle to wear a head halter, especially if they weren't introduced gradually by creating positive associations.
While the above-mentioned assertions make the head halter sound like a magical tool that works simply because it mimics the mother dog's action, in reality, the mechanics behind why head halters work are far from being mystical.
Head halters mostly work because, by controlling the dog's head, it is possible to gain better leverage over the dog's body, and some dogs become subdued because it puts them into a frozen state, just as it happens when dogs are not comfortable wearing a harness.
The Problems With Using Aversive Methods
You may also stumble upon folks stating that scruff shakes, alpha rolls, and muzzle grabs are humane and effective because they simply mimic what mother dogs do naturally to their puppies to correct them.
However, even this comparison has many flaws. Firstly, dogs know for a fact that we aren't dogs. We don't urine mark on vertical surfaces, nor do we roll on cow manure or go sniffing other dogs' behinds!
Secondly, we have a human brain and can put it to good use. Studies have shown us the risk of physical correction doing more harm than good. More on this is covered here: the best training method according to research.
In this article about training, you can read a story of how a vet recommended alpha rolls to stop a pup from nipping, only making matters much, much worse. Fortunately, this pup came to see me before too much damage was done. The pup needed to learn that hands were a predictor of good things and not something to fear and bite defensively.
So skip the scruff shakes, muzzle grabs and forget all about the "alpha roll," which is the action of grabbing a dog, rolling him over and forcibly holding him down.
These methods are not only outdated but cause dogs emotional harm and can turn out to even be downright dangerous.
"The act of holding a dog down forcibly as a correction is generally called the "dominance down." It is inappropriate, ethologically absurd, and completely counterproductive when interacting with dogs. In a nutshell — don’t do it. Ever," says board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Lisa Radosta in an article for PetMD.
The Importance of Continuing Education
All puppies benefit from staying with their littermates and mom at least until they are at least 8 weeks.
We have literature on this proving that early separation from mothers can lead to stress and stress-associated behaviors in dogs (Tiira et al, 2012).
There may be some exceptions though where pups benefit from longer stays. For instance. Maltese puppy development is slower and pups should stay with their littermates and mom for at least 12 weeks. Make sure to research well the ideal age to bring your puppy home.
The Benefit of Continuing Education
During the puppy's first 8 weeks with their littermates and mom, puppies are learning important life lessons such as the ABCs of bite inhibition.
If puppies play too rough with a littermate, their littermate will squeal and withdraw from play. Soon, the rough puppy learns, that, in order to play, he will have to play more gently and bite down less. This teaches the pup the ABCs of bite inhibition.
Other important lessons include learning how to be a dog. The mother dog's gentle guidance and discipline, therefore, help puppies learn how to read body language, respect boundaries and display proper social signals.
- VCA Animal Hospital Collar and Harness Options for Training Your Dog By Debra Horwitz,& Gary Landsberg
- Semyonova, A. (2009). The 100 Silliest Things People Say about Dogs. United Kingdom: Hastings.
- PetMD: A Vet Explains Why Dominance Doesn’t Work in Dog Training
- Tiira K, Lohi H. Reliability and validity of a questionnaire survey in canine anxiety research. Appl Anim Behav Sci. 2014; 155: 82–92.
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.
© 2022 Adrienne Farricelli