Q: What can I do about a 1-year-old standard poodle who bites my clothes when she’s excited? She goes for my hands too but is very gentle and never actually bites. She gets along great with all dogs and kids but I’d like to get her to stop.
A: Hello Richard, thanks for writing in with a great question! Sounds like you’ve got quite the playful pup, but I totally understand your wanting to stop her ‘biting your clothes’ behavior!Many large breed poodles are very mouthy, but what we have to remember here is that nipping and biting like that is very normal canine behavior, just not something we like, so we have to teach the dog that this type of playing is unacceptable. It’s also a behavior we should be happy for, as we want our puppies to bite and use their mouths, so that they can learn to have ‘soft’ mouths!
If your dog was still living with her litter mates, they would engage with a lot of this type of play. When dogs play this type of game together, the rules are very clear cut, and most dogs do not cross the unwritten boundaries. If they do, then the other dogs simply stops playing with them, so long as things haven’t escalated out of control. The other dogs would teach the newcomers the rules of the game very quickly. And since playing with others is what the pup wants most of all, she is very willing to learn. Most puppies learn to inhibit their bite around 4 months of age, while with their litter mates and mother. But since we often take them away from their mothers and litter mates before this crucial step is learned, we must assume that responsibility.
The important thing to remember in regards to stopping, or retraining this behavior is to not scold, spank or reprimand the dog. These actions often make the person feel better, but it doesn’t solve the problem, and often leaves the dog unsure of what is wrong. This will also quickly erode any sense of trust there was between you and your pet.
What we have to teach mouthy dogs is ‘bite inhibition’, which is a soft, controlled, inhibited bite, without much force at all. You say she already exhibits this when mouthing your hands which is great, as it shows that she does have a good bite inhibition. She knows how to control the force of her bite, and that biting too hard is not acceptable.
Where things can get tricky is, regarding letting your dog get mouthy with you at all. I don’t believe that all mouthy behavior is bad. I actually like to encourage it, so that it can be controlled, and enforced often. But some people don’t advocate it all. You will have to decide yourself the level of mouth play that is acceptable to you, and that you can control your dog and her level of mouthy play with you when you need or want to.
Most dogs who get enough dog on dog playtime, learn this very quickly. But if your dog does not have the option to play with other dogs as often as she’d like, then you do not have to resort to acting like her litter mates would, to teach her how to have a soft mouth. You just can’t do it, as you’re not a dog.
Some people might suggest yelping like a hurt puppy when your dog is mouthing you in an inappropriate manner. If this works, and the biting behavior actually decreases, then by all means use it. But I find that most people don’t master the “Ouch!” yelp well enough for it to actually work.
What does work though, is Negative Punishment. I know that is sounds horrible, but believe me, it’s not! All Negative Punishment means is removing something of high value from the dog. removing what the dog wants most of all, to elicit a certain behavior, or to stop a behavior. Spanking, jerking, hitting or yelling would fall under the Positive Punishment category, as that’s where you add something as a punishment, be it a correction, a hit, or whatever. So Negative Punishment isn’t nearly as negative as it sounds, and is often the best course of action in dealing with this type of behavior, coupled with positive reinforcement.
A different, but very effective approach would be to say ouch (in a normal tone of voice) at the exact moment when the dog bites too hard, and then remove yourself from the room. By saying ouch at the exact time of the undesired behavior, (and leaving the room) you are marking the unwanted behavior. Marking a behavior will help the dog understand that the behavior gets him a time out, or the loss of what she wants most, which is playing with you.
Notice that I mentioned to say the word ‘ouch’ when the dog bites too hard, or bites an object that is forbidden (clothes). This is the only time you should use it, as we don’t want to teach the dog not to use her mouth at all, as this would be teaching her bite prohibition. What we want to teach her is to inhibit her bite.
When it comes to a time out, be careful not to make them last too long. Any time out, whether it be you leaving the room (and closing the door so the dog cannot follow you), or putting the dog into their crate, should never be more than 10 seconds. time outs that are longer than that can become too excessive, and will not teach the desired results.
At all other times, you should also be teaching the dog what she is allowed to play mouthy with, as her stuffed toy, her tug rope, or some other chew toy. Play with her toys with her often, and praise her for playing well with them and you.
The goal here will be to teach her that biting you or your clothes earns her a time out, and time away from what she wants most, and that playing mouthy games are meant to be enjoyed with toys of your choosing. Another great tool would be teaching the ‘off’ command, so that when you say ‘off’, your dog lets go of the toy.
With perfect timing, patience and consistency, you will be able to teach your dog the acceptable times when she can use her mouth to play, and that it shouldn’t be with your hands or clothes.
Good luck and happy training!