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  • Bonnie Sallans

Kids and Dogs: Tantrums with Teeth!

Updated: Mar 29, 2023

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

Puppies are coming! Next week in fact. Meanwhile, I am puppy-proofing. Because puppies like to chew, compulsively. New puppy owners despair. That cute puppy they brought home in their arms has become a compulsvie toothsome monster, chewing, nipping, mouthing, a meance to civilized living. What do to?

Puppies chew. That is a fact of puppy life. What can we do? I begin by puppy proofing, clearing the area where the puppies will inhabit of anything that, if they chew it, will hurt them or break my heart. But that is only a first step. Before my puppies come home I will make sure I have a crate, or rather, two crates. If I can't supervise, can't be watching, ready to correct the chewing behavior, I crate. That way the dog learns that nothing in my house is a chew toy, except of course, his chew toys. But puppy proofing and crate training are only part of the solution. Why? Because no matter how careful you are not to leave your favourite running shoes within reach, a puppy will find something to chew. Why? And how do we stop it? Good questions. Let's start with why. There are very good reasons for puppies to chew. Three things are going on when that sweet puppy starts grabbing on and won't let go.

The first of these is TEETHING. It hurts. A puppy can start losing his milk teeth as early as 12 weeks of age. New teeth erupt, cutting their way through the gum line and it hurts. Your puppy is driven to seek relief from pain that is intense and unavoidable. This can goes on until all the adult teeth have appeared, usually finishing up around the age of 8 months. Mark that on your calendar. 12 weeks to 8 months. Be ready. Have safe stuff handy for them to chew. Supervise while they do it as there is no such thing as a "safe" chew toy. It helps if the toy is cold. When you can't watch, crate. This avoids damage. But be sure to provide lots of supervised chew time. They seek relief in chewing because chewing provides relief. Having acceptable chew options available hleps them learn to make good choices when the impulse comes upon them. But some dogs continue to mouth and chew well after that 20 week window. There is more to the impulse than pain relief.

Puppies EXPLORE. The world is all before them, and they explore it with their mouths, just as children explore with their hands. Touching, feeling, sensing: it is perfectly natural for a young child to reach out and touch that about which they are curious. Same with dogs, but they use their mouths. I rembmer telling my own toddler so many times, "Look with your eyes, not with your hands." With puppies, if it would help tubstitute mouth and teeth. Puppies bite down on stuff to see what will happen. Be aware. When your puppy discovers something new, be ready the instant he goes from sniffing to mouthing to remove it from his mouth, quietly, gently and substitue a chew toy. This includes your hands, arms and feet. Then watch. Do not remove the desired object from view. Simply keep replacing it with a chew toy if the dog goes back to it. This eaches them to make good choices. You can tell them when they get it right. "Good choice. Good dog." Say nothing when they get it wrong. Just replace the object with a toy. Then praise: "Good choice. Good dog." This redirects the impulse.

COMMUNICATION & SOCIALIZATION: This is the third part of the puzzle. The puppy uses his teeth not only to explore his material environment, but also to understand his relationship to others. We've all seen that child in the supermarket crying and wailing to get his own way. Similarly, a puppy will use his teeth to test boundaries and define his position in relation to others.

Watch puppies play together: they chew on each other constantly. When they are weaned and come into your home, they continue the behavior with you -your hands, your feet, and objects - your prized first edition of Goethe's Werther, or your baseball cap. An infant begins life with a wail. It's life depends on getting a response. As they develop and learn language, the discover other ways of getting their needs met. Depending on how they are treated, they will learn language that demands and insists, that hardly more subtle than a baby's cry, or they learn to couch their requests in terms of politenss, of consideration for others. As their minds become more complex, a child leans the boundaries, what they are entitled to expect and what they are not, and how to use language to etiher be direct in expressing their needs, or manipulative, engaging in behaviors that get others to respond without regard for boundaries. Dogs do the same, but the "language" they evolve is physical. It is all in the body and it includes their teeth. Unless your dog is taught otherwise, puppy mouthing and nipping becomes grabbing and biting, the equivalent of a child screaming, crying, and throwing a temper tantrum and later in life engaging in physical violence to get what they want.

The key element here, even as it is when we are talking about teething pain and exploration is self control Self control is what we exert when we have a headache, but instead of screaming at our work place colleagues, reach for a Tylenol, or excuse ourselves and go home for a nap. Self control is what we exercise when we want to touch and hold someting that is beautiful that belongs to someone else, but instead we mearly experess admiration and keep our hands to ourselves. Self control is what is involved in waiting our turn and asking for what we need with words like "please" and "thank you" instead of plunging into the birthday cake with both hands running off with it, swallowing as we go.

But we don't start there and we don't ask children to start there. We begin by simply meeting the needs of the wailing infant. The infant becomes a toddler learning that her needs will be met. As she gains confidence, she is able to udnerstand "wait." As her attention spans gows, she beomces capable of comprehending the difference between need and want. Only then do we begin asking her to be patient, to delay if not defer gratification, and to consider the impact on others of their ask.

Dogs are not children. They do not use verbal language. But they are social creatures and they have their own strategies for navigating social connection.

So where does this leave you as you raise your puppy? It leaves you watching your dog. Observation and active supervision are the foundation of any successful training strategy in any context.

What are you looking for?

If your puppy is DROOLING, he is probably hurting. Offer relief: frozen kongs filled with frozen carrots or even just ice cubes. Ice reduces inflammation. Chewing gives relief. Does your puppy grab your hands? We call that MOUTHING. She wants your attention. It is an invitation to play. This is charming and entertaining in a tiny puppy with soft milk teeth. Not so much fun in a large adult dog whose teeth are designed to crush the bones of it's prey. Your hands and feet are not chew toys. Make that clear during puppy days and your adult dog will learn to play with you without using his teeth. Meet the puppy's need to play with age appropriate exercise in the degree that is right for his age. Carry acceptable alternatives to your hands, your gloves, your running shoes in your pockets. Keep a chew toy handy When your puppy takes your hand or something else you don't want in his mouth, say nothing, just remoe it and substitue the toy. Praise quietly, "Good dog. Good choice."

Do not give treats at this juncture or you will have a dog who grabs your hand to get a cookie. SImply give him the toy. Keep it simple and quiet and evenutally your dog will come to you with a toy when he wants to play. If you are free to play, you will both have fun. If you are not, he will settle with the toy and have fun without you.

Observe: COMPULSIVE GRABBING, NIPPING, HOLDING on to your hands or shirt sleeves despite the above training means that your dog is not exercsing self-control. She may be overstimulated. SHe needs rest. Crate her. She may have other needs. Ask yourself, has she been outside to do business? Has she had adequate exercise? Is there someting in the environment that is stimulating her - another dog or a cat, a squirrel, a child running? If your dogs needs have been met, if she has had exercise and time to do business, then what your dog needs at this point is to get control of herself. How do we effect hat? CRATE.

Crating is not punishment. A crate is safe and quite place where your puppy can learn to calm himself down, come to his senses and remember self control. They are capable. Thye just, like children, forget. Most adult dogs who are crate trained actively seek the crate all on their own when there is an excess of stimulation in theiir enviroment. Crating a puppy who is over reactive leads to a dog who will remove herself from challenging or annoying situations, rather than acting out aggressively to remove the threat or relying on others to distract her when bored.

The strategy then, in a nutshell: OBSERVE - Watch your puppy.

REDIRECT - Watch to discover what you dog is asking for, then go there. Is he drooling? Give him ice. Is he mouthing, grabbing your hands or feet ? Take him out to pee, If you've done that, give him a toy and play for few minutes. If you've done that, crate him. Is he spinning wildly, jumping on you, throwing himself about the room? Take him out for exercise. If you've done that, look for a squirrel in your living room. WHether you find one or not, crate your dog. He needs to calm himself down. Get this right at least half the time (even the most experienced trainer never gets it right all the time) and by the time your puppy has a full set of adult teeth, he will understand that self control is required, and he will know how to do it. Meanwhile, you will have learned how to read your dog.

One last word: Patience. Teething will pass. Crazy behavior will pas. 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. Use the time to teach your pup self control. Use the time to teach yourself his language. WHen ou are done you will both know you can count on each other and a lifetime of joy sharing that bond.

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 where it's at. The joy of getting there is the win: watching, being "with", being together: that is where the memories that make every dog's life an etenal gift rside. When I a most frustrated with a young dog, I remind myself to look her in the eys, see beyond the puppy crazy that can sometimes seem almost diabolical to the patient old dog she will become. I remind myself to see beyond even that, to the day I will have only the memories. And then, as I hold tight to that squirming body armed with those needle sharp puppy teeth, I celebrate the joy.

Shall we get started? Six sleeps till I go get my puppies! Counting down!!!

Adult dog, chewing a bone.
Nordiclight's Arnavik Benny 2010 - 2021

11 year old Benny, enjoying a bone.

"Good choice. Good dog."


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