Things I wish every person considering a new puppy or dog knew? Part 4
Updated: Jun 1
Okay. We have discussed choosing the right puppy/dog through an understanding of breed and breed tendencies, how to choose a knowledgeable, ethical breeder, the most important things we need to do for our puppies/dogs (help them feel safe), why we do not want to use punishment and/or dominance-based methods and approaches to teach our dogs, potty/house training, as well as the problems the use of crates/kennels can cause. For part 4, let’s look at one of the single most common concerns I am called for with puppies…excessive puppy nipping.
First, it is critical to understand that your puppy is not being bad or naughty, puppy nipping is normal. It is critical to know this so that you have realistic expectations of your puppy. The wonderful Andrew Hale, a Certified Dog Behaviourist in South Devon, UK (do follow his Dog Centred Care Facebook Group: the emotional experience of dogs and their caregivers as well as his Dog Centred Care YouTube channel...they are fabulous!), tells us that behaviour can be an expression of need (connection, safety, and relief). This is key when we look at puppy nipping. So if we examine the needs of puppies, there are actually several things we can consider and do to help reduce the frequency and intensity of puppy nipping, keeping in mind that there will absolutely be nipping for a time.
Our puppies are teething and, just like a human baby, they are seeking relief for their gums.
They have left their canine social pack (family), with whom they romped and played numerous times a day, and this play happens primarily with their teeth. Now that their siblings are nowhere to be found, their human family members become the target of this innate social need for connection.
Many people are unaware of the amount of sleep puppies actually require (16 to 20 hours per 24-hour cycle) and when they do not get sufficient sleep, the nipping behaviour tends to really intensify. There are certain times of the day when it seems far worse than others. Typically, this is mid-morning and in the evening after dinner. These times are referred to as frenetic random activity periods, also known as F.R.A.P.S.. These are periods of excessive neuronal activity in the brain and they often manifest as the “zoomies” and a seemingly frenetic, fast running and jumping on furniture accompanied by a puppy very intent on wanting to interact with us through play biting, which does not seem very playful and often breaks the skin with their needle sharp little baby teeth.
Stress, fear, and anxiety due to unmet social needs (a lack of physical closeness, proximity, and connection) or not feeling deeply safe within the new environment and social pack they have found themselves in.
Let’s take a closer look at these reasons and the things we can do to support ourselves and our puppies…
Teething - ensure your puppy has LOTS of edible chew options (not toys) to regularly relieve their gums on. I like to use odour-free bully sticks stuffed through a Westpaw toy so they cannot swallow the little ends, Yak cheese sticks, etc. There are many great options. (Chewing is also one of the more calming/relaxing activities for our puppies and dogs and we should be offering them an opportunity to do this at least once a day for their entire lives).
Canine social play - If they do not have any similar aged, social puppy friends to have regular play dates with, then a great addition to you and your puppy’s life is the “Karl Hack” brought to us from the wonderful Kim Brophey of L.E.G.S., whom I mentioned in Part 1 of this series. Karl is a life-sized stuffed dog that can fill in as a daily play partner for your puppy. The company Melissa and Doug sell a line of these in numerous breeds and sizes and they are quite durable in comparison to most and stand up quite well to those needle sharp tiny puppy teeth (although they may need the odd stitching repair here and there). Here is an example https://www.melissaanddoug.com/products/jack-russell-terrier-dog-giant-stuffed-animal. If you are interested in knowing how to use the “Karl Hack”, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send you the pdf for the Karl Hack!
Sleep - Puppies and dogs are polyphasic sleepers. What this means is, they achieve their total amount of required sleep in multiple periods through a 24 hour day. The bulk of it will be overnight. The remainder needs to happen in pockets throughout the day. As I mentioned above, puppies require anywhere between 16 to 20 hours of total sleep in a 24 hour period. What you should see during the day for puppies 2 to 5 months, is that they are awake for two hours and then nap for 2 hours. Once they reach 6 months, they will generally be awake for 2 hours and need to nap for 1 hour. This is not something to use as a measurement to “make” your puppy adhere to, just a metric to get a sense if your puppy may not be getting enough sleep, since a lack of sleep can most definitely contribute to excessive puppy nippy. A lack of sleep will see the daily periods of F.R.A.P.S. (see above) become overly intense (think “over-tired toddler”). Too noisy and busy of a home environment (kids coming and going, waking the puppy up to play with it, construction in or around the home, other barking dogs, loud music/TV) can all negatively impact a puppy’s ability to get the required amount of sleep. In addition to these factors, dogs being a social species, need to feel connected and deeply safe in order to get proper deep sleep. As I mentioned in Part 3 of this series, making our puppies sleep at night in a kennel by themselves in an area away from the rest of the family, causes stress, fear, anxiety and early developmental trauma. Just like science now knows that we do not want to let our human babies cry it out by themselves in the crib, we want our puppies to feel safe and connected and to be able to smell, see and/or feel us nearby. A quiet environment, feeling safe and not alone, playtime with their puppy friend or Karl, a little exploration in the yard and a good relaxing chew item are pretty much guaranteed to see our puppies napping in a short time, which will go a long way to help reduce the intensity and frequency of puppy nipping.
Stress, fear, and anxiety – There can be several things that contribute to these. As mentioned above, a lack of social connection, being made to sleep alone, and being kept out of areas where the family generally hangs out, will cause deep trauma and insecure connections. When the puppy is finally allowed to be around their family, we see a desperate plea for social connection that often manifests as intense puppy nipping. This can be alleviated by finding ways to have the puppy with us as much as possible, while providing them with activities to fulfill their innate needs such as chewing an edible chew, exploring objects places in the yard, the Karl Hack, engaging in short, gentle games of tug with appropriate long toys and folding in our hands and turning away when they ignore the toy and insist on going for our hands, and immediately re-presenting the toy for engagement when they back away from us. Sometimes a puppy has come from a breeding situation or early life situation, as is sometimes seen in rescue situations, where the puppy has already been deeply traumatized and they need weeks or months, or even longer to feel deeply safe in the world and with their new caregivers. For example, I have been working with clients who found a puppy advertised on Kijiji and when they went to see it at the “so-called breeders”, it was being kept in a cardboard box, covered in urine and feces, at the estimated age of 6 to 7 months. This poor pup presented with intense puppy nipping. It was also recently diagnosed with a very painful developmental bone condition and pain can also be a contributor to stress and anxiety and lead to excessive nipping and other behaviours such as excessive digging, so getting to the vet and getting on top of pain, is extremely important. On this note, many people erroneously think that they need to exercise their puppies more to tire them out in order to avoid the crazy nippy times. This can actually make things worse and cause long-term physical damage, in particular in puppies. Puppy’s joints and muscles are not fully developed and things like long periods of dog play at a dog park or daycare, jogging with our puppies, putting them on treadmills, excessive ball throwing, etc, are proven to cause long-term damage. Recent studies show that 40% of all dogs by one year of age, have arthritis due to inappropriate and too much exercise for their age. Puppies typically only need 10 minutes of jumping around play and 10 to 15 minute walks, depending on age. Overactivity will also stimulate their sympathetic nervous systems and not allow them to regulate and relax, which often leads to…excessive puppy nipping. In addition, as previously discussed in this blog series, training/teaching approaches that utilize consequences the puppy perceives as scary or that cause pain, even when well-intentioned by kind-hearted people, cause early developmental trauma due to a lack of the puppy feeling deeply safe and will fracture the trust the puppy has in the primary caregiver/s and leads to stress, fear, and anxiety. We can see these insecure attachments show up as excessive nipping due to displacement anxiety or the opposite, avoidance, and a complete lack of desire to interact with their human family.
So as I stated at the beginning of this segment, puppy nipping is a normal part of a puppy’s ethogram, but when it is excessive there are factors to be aware of that can cause it to become excessive and go on well past the normal age at which it dissipates (generally 5 months of age).
Carol Neil of Soul2Soul Dog
CPDT-KA, Fear Free Certified Trainer, Family Dog Mediator