Puppy Playful Biting and Prey Drive
What do prey drive and puppy nipping have to do with each other? Everything!
The strongest drive a dog has is the prey drive. If it moves, they go after it. Dogs are predators and their survival depended on seeing a bunny and chasing it down for their food. In the domestication of dogs we must understand that domesticating them hasn’t taken away their instincts.
The instinct to fetch a ball, hunt down a bird, tree a raccoon, chase a frisbee, follow a falling leaf, herd sheep, track a scent, hunt varmints (love those little terrier breeds), chase each other while biting each others legs then falling into a tumbling wrestling match and go after our pant legs as we walk or playfully bite us when we’re interacting with them is the instinctive prey drive in all it’s glory. Our job is to teach them what’s appropriate and what’s not.
While we have so much fun with them in all these aspects we don’t realize that our own body language and energy is actually perpetuating playful biting in our puppy’s as well as not meeting their needs with dog to dog play time, exercise and a training program, every day until they hit their age of maturity which is somewhere between the ages of 11/2 – 3 yrs of age.
What most people do when their dog is nipping them is to get reactive by either pushing them away, yelling at them, holding their mouths closed, hitting them, flicking them under their chin and any number of other things I shudder to think about. Think about this for a moment. When a puppy is playful biting they are engaging you to interact with them. Puppy’s love a good game of chase, tug-o-war and wrestling so when you push and retract your hand the puppy sees the movement of your hand as prey and they go after it for more fun. If you yell at or hit your dog you will create a fearful dog and a fearful dog is likely to become aggressive as an adult dog.
The key here is to RESPOND not REACT. Reacting is what your pup is after so we need to learn to respond with appropriate body language and energy while teaching them how we want them to behave. Remember, they don’t understand the difference between the movement of your legs/hands or a ball that you toss just like they don’t understand the difference between the ball they bring you to throw and you gladly oblige them or the shoe they bring for fetch and you yell at them. It’s all the same in their world and it’s up to us to teach what’s OK in our world and what isn’t by responding with appropriate body language and energy not reacting.
What to do?
Disengage, by shutting down your body language and energy completely and ignore the dog. This means no eye contact, no movement at all, be still. Say NO or OUCH. Stay quiet for at least 15 seconds or more if need be. Make a fist if he’s biting your hand, stop moving if he’s biting your pant leg, STOP everything. When the puppy stops, redirect the energy into something familiar like SIT at which time you can quietly praise the puppy while offering a toy for a replacement. If he starts again, repeat until he stops. If he doesn’t you must look to what part of your communication was ineffective and try again.
Learning to respond not react means that you are becoming more aware of your own body language/energy and you are understanding what your puppy’s body language and needs are so that you are able to teach the puppy what behaviors you want and don’t want. This kind of communication is where real training starts.
I've been studying dog body language for almost 40 years. My lifelong interest in helping people train their dogs began at the age of nine after reading a LIFE magazine article about Dr. Jane Goodall. Goodall's work observing chimpanzees fired my own devotion to animals into a full-blown passion. From that early age, I keenly observed the creatures around me and how people interacted with them. Years later, my zeal schooled by a degree in Animal Science and sharpened by working as a Veterinary Technician, I came to understand that my true calling was educating people how to better understand and train their dog. The Dog Decoder smartphone app is my latest endeavor in this education of humane education and safety between humans and dogs.