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A puppy is so much fun--when your Doberman plays he's all legs and floppy ears. It gives you such joy to see him lolloping over in that gangly way for a game of tug. But later the gloss has gone out of the games because he's becoming increasingly rough. He just doesn't seem to know his own strength, growling and shaking his head, but most worryingly sometimes nipping your clothing or even your hand.
You've tried shouting at him to stop, but this only makes him more excited. Likewise, you smacked his rump but in a bizarre reaction, he redoubled his efforts at attacking your T-shirt. While this isn't a serious concern right now, what does worry you is that this behavior will continue into adulthood and he might accidentally hurt someone.
You know this behavior needs nipping in the bud... but how?
Puppies investigate most things with their mouths, it's what they do. Thus, it's natural for a puppy to put anything and everything into his mouth, including your hand or skin. While a playful nip from a puppy isn't especially painful, the worrying thing is that it can set a precedent if the puppy isn't corrected. Then as an adult dog with much more powerful jaws, he may think it's OK to nip... and become labeled as aggressive.
Therefore it's crucial to teach a puppy not to bite or 'bite inhibition'. This makes it second nature for him to never put his teeth on human skin, and makes for a much more reliable adult dog.
Training a Doberman puppy not to bite requires knowledge of dog psychology and good timing, rather than needing specific equipment. You may find it helpful to have treats handy, to reward the dog when he calms down. However, this isn't always necessary as resuming a game of tug or playing with a toy is often reward enough in itself.
The Calm Play Method
Understand the idea
Play is an important part of a puppy's development. Not only is it an outlet for energy but he develops social skills during play. However, it's also a time when many pups get over excited and in the heat of the moment are likely to confuse their owner with a toy and play bite. While this is not a disaster with a small pup, if he is not corrected he may believe this is acceptable behavior. An important way to reduce play biting is to teach the dog self-control by having him calm down when getting too rambunctious.
Have a plan in place
Have a watch handy so that you can time 15 seconds. Pick a toy that the puppy likes-- a tug type toy is ideal as your hands aren't directly in contact with the puppy. Also, know what to do if the pup ignores the request to quiet down. The best strategy is to leave the room completely (see the 'Teaching Bite Inhibition' method).
Play in 15 second bursts
Engage the puppy's attention with the toy (this shouldn't be too difficult!). Move the toy and he'll be keen to chase after it and grab hold. Try to hit the right level of engagement between making the toy appealing but without making the puppy over-excited and giddy. Play for 15 seconds and then stop.
Wait for puppy to calm down
Now wait for the puppy to calm down, and only start the game again once he is calmly sitting. When he does this say "Good" in a happy voice, and restart the game. If the puppy keeps mobbing you for the toy then fold your arms, ignore the puppy and turn your back. If he still persists then end the game by leaving the room. Return only when he's calm. By restarting the game his good behavior gets a reward
Play in bursts
Repeat the pattern above. By playing for 15 seconds and then having the pup stop, you are teaching him to have self-control and calm down. Again, if he bites or mouths you then the game stops immediately and only resumes when he's calm. As he gets better at this, slowly extend the amount of time he's allowed to play before the game stops. Try 20 seconds, and after several sessions, try 25 seconds. That way the puppy learns that while he plays nicely the game continues. By playing in controlled bursts he also avoids getting to a fever pitch of excitement where he loses control and bites.
The Do's and Don'ts Method
Don't: Strike or punish the puppy
If the puppy bites you, never smack or strike him. This will only serve to further excite him, and he may take your moving hand as an invitation to pounce again.
Do: Say "NO" in a firm voice
The puppy may need feedback that what he is doing with his mouth his wrong. It can be effective to say a firm "No!" as he goes to bite. Then if he backs down, say "Yes" in a happy voice. This instructs him on the right and wrong way to act, and helps him learn.
Don't: Leave a puppy unattended with children
A puppy's teeth are sharp as needles. There is a real risk of excited children getting a puppy hyped up, at which point he may lose self-control and nip. It isn't fair to put him in this position and risk being labelled as aggressive through no fault of his own.
Do: Work on basic obedience
Basic obedience training helps teach the puppy to listen to you and provides an outlet for mental energy. Never underestimate the value in short, but regular training sessions with a puppy in order to teach him to behave. Even a puppy aged 8 weeks or more can start learning rudimentary commands such as 'sit'.
Do: Call in the experts
If you have a problem with your Doberman puppy being over-mouthy, then do ask for help from a certified animal behaviorist. It's never too late to teach a puppy the right way to behave, but this window of opportunity grows less as he gets older and his ability to learn slows up. So seek help sooner rather than later.
The Teach Bite Inhibition Method
Understand the idea
Puppies learn not to bite through how their litter mates react during play. If a pup bites his brother, the pup responds with scream or squeal, giving the feedback that the bite was too hard. The first puppy didn't mean any harm and mainly wants the game to continue, so he learns to moderate his mouthiness so that it is gentle and doesn't interrupt the game. Owners can also teach bite inhibition, by mimicking the reaction of a litter mate.
Don't be bashful
Your puppy doesn't speak English so be prepared to teach him with sounds and actions. This means squealing when the puppy's mouth makes contact with your skin. This may be alarming to other people in the room who may fear you have been badly injured. It's worth fore-warning them that you are only play acting in order to teach the dog to have a soft mouth.
Act at every opportunity
A puppy is most likely to learn when he's not over-excited. Thus, if he's having a cuddle and casually puts your hand in his mouth, then squeal as if he's hurt you. Whimper and look hurt, perhaps even must a tear or two. The idea is to have him think "My, these humans are delicate, I'd better keep my mouth well away." Then when the pup is an adult dog, he will have a very gentle mouth.
Be mindful during play
When playing with the puppy, be mindful of when he play bites and be sure to squeal. However, if the puppy is over-excited, then he may not register your cry. If this is the case, then work on the 'Calm Play' method, and play in shorter bursts so the pup doesn't get over excited and stop listening.
Let your hand go dead
When puppy bites and you squeal, let your hand go dead. Don't pull it away, as this may trigger the pup to chase it. A limp hand is less fun to play with, so pup is more likely to register that the game stopped when he got too rough.
The nuclear option
Puppy wants to play. If he isn't listening and takes your squeals as a super-interesting twist to the game, then end the game by getting up and walking away. Leave the room if necessary. Only by learning play stops when he's too rough, will the message strike home.
By Pippa Elliott
Published: 02/09/2018, edited: 01/08/2021