Humans LOVE stroking dogs, especially puppies! They look gorgeous and touching their soft fur feels dreamy … to us! But much of the time, the puppy (or dog) doesn’t necessarily want to be touched. After all, its not natural behaviour for them; when do you ever see one dog go up to another and fuss it the way humans do to dogs?
So, your dear little puppy, whilst probably wanting your ‘company’, may not always want your ‘contact’ ie you petting them. Things get trickier still because Humans dont speak ‘Dog’ and dogs … well they dont speak at all. Here’s an example:
What might the following canine gestures have in common?
Wide eyes; Ears back, Lip licking, Yawning, Head turns, Paw lift, Wriggling.
They are all behaviours that your puppy uses to ‘communicate’.
If some or all of the above behaviours are happening together, your pup may be telling you he isn’t comfortable with what you’re doing. Unfortunately, most humans miss these gestures. But! Guess what the one gesture humans always respond to is?
Yep! When our puppy bites! Their razor sharp teeth on our flesh hurts, ouch! So, very quickly we inadvertently teach our pup that they can make ‘petting’ (or other unwanted activities) stop by starting to mouth us! There is no malice in this; the dog simply does it because it works.
The 3 Second Rule
Here’s a quick test you can do with your pup:
Try stroking your puppy for 3 seconds and then take your hands off completely. Watch carefully and see how many behaviours your puppy shows. Do your puppy’s eyes widen? Does their head turn? Do they wriggle? Does your pup move away? These all probably signal that your puppy – at this particular moment – does not want to be stroked/petted etc. They love you, but dont want to be petted right now, thank you. Trainer Grisha Stewart has a useful video on this – click to watch.
Stop Play Biting
An easy way to reduce puppy mouthing is to touch your puppy less. Or at the very least give your puppy a choice in the interaction by using the “3 Second Game”. When you start giving your dog or puppy choices and you notice the subtle signals they use, you may find your puppy ‘magically’ becomes calmer. Choices ease frustration and that in itself creates more calm.
10 Things Your Dog Wishes You Knew
Animal Behaviourist & Trainer, Chirag Patel gave a talk at the BCSPCA called “10 Things Your Dog Wishes You Knew”. Click here for the video – scroll to 20 mins for the start of his talk and to 51 mins for the bit on mouthing/biting. It’s well worth listening to if you want to understand your dog better.
Dogs can ‘whisper’ too
As you’ll learn from Chirag’s talk, dogs can ‘whisper’ eg the dog that turns its head away from a child (or adult!) trying to approach it, may be saying, “I’m not keen on this, please could you stop?”
Kendall Sheppard, a veterinary behaviourist and author of “The Canine Commandments”, suggests there is a “Canine Ladder of Aggression”, see above infographic . It explains that dogs rarely (if ever) bite for ‘no reason’. Usually dogs give plenty of signals that they feel anxious or uncomfortable with the situation.
- The behaviours at the bottom of the ladder are like the dog whispering.
- As you go up the ladder the dog is saying ‘pleeease stop’.
- The next escalation point may be to ‘shout’.
- And if that doesn’t work – teeth may get involved!
‘It happened out of the blue’
The ladder shows that dogs usually give lots of warning signals before a snap; it rarely happens ‘out of the blue’. The problem is that humans struggle to see (or respond to) the subtle signals … but we do notice a growl. Look how far up the ladder the growl is though. Think how stressed your dog is by the time he escalates to that point?
And worse still, consider the consequences of punishing your dog for growling? Its as though you’re saying “don’t give me a warning that you’re at breaking point.” So, you may find that next time he doesn’t – and goes straight to bite. Inadvertently, we can end up training our dog that shouting and screaming (ie growl, bite), gets people to ‘listen’ and makes the unwanted/scary thing go away. The result? A dog labelled ‘unpredictable’ or having a ‘short fuse’. When actually, the dog used to give lots of warning behaviours … but we didn’t listen.
Teach Your Pup They Dont Need To ‘Shout’
Advice: Try to notice your dog’s ‘whispers’ so they dont need to escalate their behaviour or put teeth on human skin. If in doubt, STOP. And if necessary get your dog out of the situation (better safe than sorry).
For more information about how dogs use gestures to communicate sometimes called “calming signals” click here.