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For as long as you can remember, you've always loved Cocker spaniels; something about those gorgeous silky ears and large brown eyes. It was, therefore, a huge thrill when, as an adult, at long-last you were able to get your very own Cocker. However, you soon learned the hard way that the Cocker is a strong-willed dog that, married with a degree of anxiety about life, can lead to snappiness.
This didn't bother you too much, although at times it does make you a bit wary of the dog. However, things have changed recently with the arrival of a new baby. You aren't so much concerned for the present time as you are about what happens when the baby starts to crawl and then play with the dog. It leaves you with an uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach.
Fortunately, you are facing up to the situation now and have plenty of time to take things in hand.
Cocker spaniels can be mouthy dogs, who are sometimes prone to nipping or biting, especially when stressed.
In an ideal world, prevention is better than cure and by teaching a puppy to have a soft mouth future problems can be avoided. However, if you have missed this opportunity, even adult dogs can often be rehabilitated with some patience and know-how.
For those dogs that are aggressive or you feel out of your depth with, always seek professional help. Your vet can put you in touch with a certified animal behaviorist who can look at all the relevant factors to put a strategy in place to keep everyone safe.
Teaching a Cocker spaniel not to bite is as much about knowledge and timing as it is about equipment. By understanding what not to do, along with techniques for teaching self-control, it's possible to teach a puppy to have a soft mouth and reduce the risk of an adult dog biting.
To do this you need basic equipment and motivators such as:
- Pea-sized tasty treats
- A treat bag or pouch so those rewards are always handy
- Toys to distract the dog
- Tug toys or balls for remote play
The Soft Mouth Method
Understand the idea
Young dogs, and puppies in particular, can be trained to have a soft mouth and not bite down during play. This is done by yipping or crying when the puppy's teeth contact your skin. Then let your hand go limp. This is similar to what would happen if the puppy plays too rough with a litter mate, and helps him to understand biting is not appropriate and ends the fun.
Play with the puppy
Play with your pup, being especially vigilant for times when the puppy mouths your hand. This is usually not aggressive behavior, but just a young dog's way of investigating the world. However, teeth on skin is not appropriate under any circumstances and you need to teach him this.
React to teeth on skin
In the heat of play, if the puppy bites your hand or skin, you must yelp, yip, or make a high-pitched 'pain' noise. Then let your hand go limp and stop the game. The puppy will soon realize that biting too hard ends the game, and since the puppy wants to play, he'll be more careful to keep his teeth away from delicate human skin.
Turn your back
If you yelp and the puppy still keeps coming back for more and won't leave you be, then withdraw from the game completely. Either fold your arms and turn your back, or leave the room completely. Again, withdrawing attention and leaving the game is teaching him that fun stops when he plays too rough.
Watch for over-excitement
Some puppies get so over excited that they simply can't control themselves, which leads to mouthing and biting behavior. You need to teach these dogs some self control. This is best done by playing in 15 second bursts (time this on a watch or phone) and then stopping. Only resume the game once the puppy is calm. This way if the puppy bites during his play session, he is sufficiently calm to respond to your pain signals.
The Dos and Don'ts Method
Don't: Smack or punish the dog
Avoid punishing the dog for biting. This will only serve to get him more excited or to become fearful of you - neither of which is a desirable outcome. Instead, if the puppy is being particularly mouthy say "No!" in a firm voice and withdraw your attention.
Do: Play act
Now is not the time to be bashful or self-conscious. When the puppy mouths you, go for the full dramatic effect with an Oscar-worthy squeal of mock pain. The better you act up and whimper, the sooner the puppy gets the message.
Don't: Wag a finger at the dog
Some people advocate wagging a finger at the dog or even striking his nose with a finger. Again, this is counterproductive as the dog is liable to see the finger as a moving target and part of the game. Hence, you may encourage him to bite rather than inhibit him.
Do: Seek professional help
Biting is a complex topic and not one that always has a straightforward explanation. Be wary about making the problem worse and rather than experimenting, get the help of a professional, accredited dog behaviorist. They will watch how you and the dog interact, looking for trigger factors and what motivates the dog to bite. This enables them to design a protocol to help reduce the risk and rehabilitate the dog.
Don't: Be brave
It's important that you react to teeth against your skin. Don't be brave , thinking "That wasn't too bad", because if you don't react the puppy will think that level of contact is permitted. This is all very well, but if as an adult dog he uses the same amount of force with adult teeth, he could do serious harm. No matter how minor the mouthing, react as if you lost a finger, so the dog gets the message that dog teeth on human skin is a no-no.
The Teach Self-Control Method
Understand the idea
Adult dogs bite for many reasons (some of which it's essential to get professional, accredited help with). For some dogs, especially Cockers, it's a matter of being impulsive and carried away in the moment. You can help these dogs by teaching them some self-control, so that they redirect the impulse to bite into a more appropriate outlet such as playing with a toy or listening to your instructions.
Redirect to a toy
Cockers love having something to hold in their mouth, which just might be your hand. If this happens, redirect that instinct to hold by offering them a toy to carry. Offer them the toy and then praise them for taking it with an excited "Yes!"
Desensitize to pats
Some dogs are quite reactive when it comes to being touched. Their response to being fussed or petted is to mouth the hand doing the stroking, especially as a moving hand is an inviting target. Help reduce the dog's reactivity by offering small treats in the free hand, while stroking them. This occupies the dog's mouth and rewards him at the same time.
Avoid direct contact games
Take a look at how you engage the dog in play. If your rough-house the dog using your hands then this is tantamount to inviting him to grab your hands. For the mouthy Cocker, distance yourself by engaging in games such as "Fetch" or by using a tug-toy so that his teeth are at the other end of the game.
Beef up basic obedience
A dog that listens to his master is less likely to get himself into trouble. Engage in regular (several times a day) training sessions and strengthen basic commands such as 'sit', 'stay' and 'down'. This allows you to take control of most situations using your voice, and with the dog listening to you he's less like to lose control and bite.
By Pippa Elliott
Published: 01/03/2018, edited: 01/08/2021