Puppies: There Will Be Teeth

Never fear! Koinonia is still here! Although boarding and training has been quiet the past few weeks, I have remained busy conducting field research. What, precisely, has been the nature of this "field research"? Living with a puppy!  Meet Eclair. Eclair is a service dog candidate from Service Dogs, Inc. I picked her up as a 14 week-old on August 14th, and we should have her for the next year or so assuming all goes as planned.

Black lab puppy sitting looking up at the camera

Since founding Koinonia in 2014, I've worked with a number of families who've reached out for help with their puppy. Four weeks of living with Eclair has given me the opportunity to practice what I preach. The next few blog posts will be a Puppy Series coming out of the experience; it's where you'll find the nitty-gritty on one professional trainer's experience raising a puppy.

**Note: this series will be more op-ed style than the typical Koinonia blog.**

Let's start with some first-hand, real-life, survival-mode perspective on puppy nibbling. Teeth on skin or clothes is one of the BIG topics with puppy-families--especially when kids are in the home.
I'm just going to throw it out there: if you have no tolerance for teeth on skin or clothes, don't get a puppy. (Note we're not talking about aggressive biting here--which is a weighty behavior problem that requires a careful attitude.) 
Puppy nibbling is painful (yes, even for me), and it is irritating. And it is part of having a puppy. We work to reduce it, but we also adjust our expectations to realize that it will happen for many weeks--and maybe even months--after bringing the new pup home

If it were simply a matter of knowing and practicing certain techniques, then a trainer should glide through puppy-hood unscathed, right?  My arms and hands attest to the fact that doing it "right" doesn't completely stop puppy nibbling. While you're holding a toy for the pup to chew, her mouth may slip and nick your hand instead. Or, she may be in a mood and uninterested in anything other than human flesh. A fun game of tug can turn painful when she jumps to readjust her grip and grabs your hand instead of the toy.
This (and more) has happened to me with Eclair. She normally keeps her teeth on the toys I gently "force feed" her, but my hands do still have little nicks here and there. Puppies like to play and the more they play, the more excited they get, and the more excited they get, the more they use their mouths to play.    

Red scratches courtesy of a client's dog. Not aggression! Just a normal part of being around young dogs.

Red scratches courtesy of a client's dog. Not aggression! Just a normal part of being around young dogs.

Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is this: if you have a puppy, you will have teeth on your skin and clothes. A reward-based trainer can help you minimize and manage the nibbling, but we cannot eliminate it (some trainers would even say we do not want to eliminate it). Mouthing and chewing is a very normal, very frequent part of a puppy's behavior repertoire. Requiring or forcing them to forgo it would be like asking us to stop breathing. Not only is chewing a normal dog behavior, but it's also a means of pain relief for puppies who are teething. 

Got kids? Managing and minimizing puppy nibbling is tough enough for an adult let alone a child. I'm not saying you should never get a puppy if you have kiddos. I am saying it is ALOT of work (and we haven't even talked about housetraining, chewing, isolation training, barking, or the other behavioral, mental and physical needs of a puppy).
If you do have kids and are considering a puppy, plan to actively supervise them anytime they are interacting with each other so you can provide feedback and instruction to both parties. Family Paws Parent Education is a great resource for making kids and puppies successful.

Here, I hold a long rope toy for Eclair to play with. This is a perfectly acceptable way to interact with your puppy and it keeps them from learning bad habits!

Here, I hold a long rope toy for Eclair to play with. This is a perfectly acceptable way to interact with your puppy and it keeps them from learning bad habits!

One of the very best methods for managing puppy nibbling is to gently "force feed" a toy anytime you want to play with or pet the puppy: hold it next to her mouth so that it's very easy for her to grab it; continue to hold onto the toy while she gnaws away. She will put her teeth on something; you have a choice about where! Using an extra-long toy helps reduce accidental nicks by keeping your hands further from her mouth.
Sitting in a chair while you play is another wonderful technique--especially for medium to large breed puppies, OR for kids with puppies of any size. If I sit on the floor with Eclair, her excitement levels goes up and she climbs all over me---to be fair, though, I inadvertently encouraged that behavior by petting her when she did it. With more of my body is accessible to her, it's easier for her to go for flesh and it's harder for me to get up and remove the temptation. The chair adds helpful distance between her mouth and my body.

Meet your puppy's chewing persistence by consistently "force feeding" toys and providing plenty of legal chew items, and the teething phase will be a lot less painful!