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  • Bonnie Sallans

Kids and Dogs: Tantrums with Teeth!

3 puppies at play
Nordiclight Alaskan Malamutes: The puppies are coming! *

Puppies are coming to my house! Next week in fact. Meanwhile, I am puppy-proofing. Because puppies like to chew!

But you can't get rid of all your furniture, nor lock your puppy up in a crate 24/7. I get asked, often, what to do about it: the compulsive chewing and nipping, mouthing, toothsome puppy who destroys everything in his path including your hands?

Puppies chew. That is a fact of puppy life. New puppy owners despair. They try "everything". Nothing "helps."

Perhaps that is because goin at it piecemeal fails to give us the one thing needed to make any strategy effective: that is an understanding of what is really going on with the dog. Let's take a look at why the puppy is doing what he is doing, then maybe we can turn the whole puppy-chewing deal into a training opportunity rather than a terrifying spectacle featuring Puppy-Zilla ravaging your home, not to mention your hands and shirt sleeves.

The most meaningful and effective thing you can do to start with is commit to observation. Watch your dog. See if you can figure out why he is doing what he is doing. What needs are being met by this behavior, however dysfunctional it may be? While you're watching bear in mind what the puppy is actually experiencing, as follows:

Three things are going on in the puppy-chewing months.

TEETHING: The first thing to be aware of is teething. As a puppy loses his milk teeth and the adult teeth erupt, his gums hurt. His mouth is sore, just like a that of a child undergoing teething. Puppy "teething" can start as early as 12 weeks, when the milk teeth start falling out, and goes on to about 8 months or so, when the final adult teeth have come in.

EXPLORING: Next we need to remember is that young puppies explore the world with their mouths,. How many times do we have to say to young children, "look with your eyes, not with your hands?" With puppies substitute mouth and teeth. Puppies bite down on stuff to see what will happen.

COMMUNICATION & SOCIALIZATION: The third thing to consider is that one of the things your puppy is exploring with his mouth is his relationship to others. They find out at the get go that they can use their teeth to get their way and begin early figuring out just what they can get away with, just as an infant begins by screaming and crying to get her needs met. The child then moves to develop language that can either be demanding, or couched in terms of politeness to get what they want and, as their minds become more complex, they move to either being direct in expressing their needs, or manipulative. Dogs do the same, but their "language" is all in their body. That language can includes their mouth and teeth, if you let it including their mouth if you let it. Nipping and later biting can become the equivalent in this construction of screaming, crying, and throwing a temper tantrum.

The distinction that makes the difference in all of this is that polite and thoughtful interaction with others requires self control. Self control is what we teach our children as we ask them to keep their hands off things that aren't theirs, to express their needs in words that include please and thank you. We even expect physical discomfort, at a certain age, to be born with some degree of stoicism.

But we don't start there. We start by meeting our children's needs. When we are sure they are not truly in want and unable to restrain themselves we teach them how to tell us what they need, what they want. Finally, as their attention span grows along with their confidence that their needs will be met eventually, we ask them to be patient, to learn how to ask for what they want, and to consider the impact on others of their ask.

Dogs are not children. They do not use verbal language. They do not require complex strategies by which to negotiate the subtleties of social relationships. So where does this leave you as you raise your puppy?

It leaves you watching your dog. Observation is the key: I offer the following strategies.

First: make sure your dog's basic needs are met. Is she getting good exercise, fun play time, potty time, regular meals? Check these boxes off each time before proceeding to asking for self control. Then observe.

Observe: If your puppy is drooling, he is probably hurting. For physical pain, I offer ice cubs, frozen kongs filled with frozen carrots, and just plain ice. Anything that satisfies the compulsion to press down on swollen gums to relieve the inflammation.

Observe: Mouthing, that is your dog is your dog grabbing at your hands? This dog wants attention, play. You are not always available for play and your hands are not chew toys. So be ready to meet his need with substitutes. Carry chew toy in your pockets. Not treats, toys. He takes your hand, hand him a toy. Say Toys, not Hands. Good dog. Keep it simple. Your dog will learn to ask for play by coming to you with a toy. If it's not play time, he will have learned that if you ignore him, he can satisfy his need for play himself with his own toys.

Observe: Compulsive grabbing, nipping and holding onto your hands or shirt sleeves even when toys are offered means your dog is out of control. He is for one reason or another overstimulated. If your dog has had time to do business, and had good exercise, then crate with an appropriate toy. Continue to watch. When he is quiet ignore him. When he falls asleep, take a nap.

Crating is not punishment. A crate is a place where your puppy can only access what she is allowed to chew while over stimulated. Crating gives her the opportunity to chew what she is allowed to chew until she has regained self control. This helps the puppy grow into a dog who will remove herself from challenging or annoying situations, rather than acting out aggressively when irritated. When stressed or bored she will come to seek a quiet place rather than relying on others to distract her.

Bottom line: observation is the first step. Redirecting behavior is the next. Watch. Learn your dog's ask. By this you become able to anticipate the need, substitute a toy if play is needed, ice if soothing is needed, going out to pee if it's time for that, rest (crating) if quiet time is needed. By the time the teething phase is over your dog will have some measure of self control. He will know how to meet his own needs and meanwhile, you will have learned to recognize when he is asking you for help without having to engage in attention getting destructive behavior.

Finally do be patient. This will pass. From the age of 12 weeks to 8 months, that's roughly the time period we're dealing with. Then they grow up. It only takes about a year. Not so long in the larger scheme of things. If you use this formative time to teach and to learn you'll both have done something marvelous. Your pup will have learned self control; you will have learned to "read" your pup. You will both know you can count on each other when needed, and to give each other space when required. You will have grown into each other together and be ready for a lifetime of joy, a dog's lifetime anyway.

Please note: This really is not kid's stuff. Supervise all interactions between your dog and children. If a child is not old enough to understand and implement all of the above, you need to be there. If your puppy is biting your kids, remove them from each other. Children need to learn to keep their hands off a puppy's mouth just as a puppy needs to learn to keep his mouth off the children. A child is not a chew toy. And a puppy is not a child's distraction.

Good luck with all! I'm picking up two new puppies of my own in exactly six days! I'll let you all know how it is going then, and re-read this myself just for the reminder: Be Patient! It is easy to counsel patience. Much harder to enact! But experience tells me, the primary purpose of a dog's life is to remind us that perfect outcomes are not the goal. Rather the joy of being together while we do it is. A dog's life, however short, offers an abundance of joy. When I a most frustrated with a young dog, I sometimes look into her eyes, see beyond the diabolical urge to drive me crazy to the old dog she will become and beyond that. Then I am reminded to hold that squirming body with those gnawing jaws close, and even as I guide and discipline, celebrate the joy.

Let the fun begin!

Adult dog, chewing a bone.
Nordiclight's Arnavik Benny

Benny, at six months of age tried to eat a coffee table.

Here he is eleven years later, enjoying a bone:

"Does an old man have any advice for puppies? "Yup," he says. "Bones are definitely better than tables."

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