While you can teach an old dog new tricks, it’s a lot easier to teach a puppy -- if your pup learns that attacking people is acceptable behavior, he’ll keep on doing it into adulthood. Teaching your puppy not to attack is critical to avoiding a lifetime of naughty behavior, and by understanding why puppies do it, you can more easily nip this problem in the bud.
Why Puppies Bite
Puppies are curious little animals, and they want to explore and learn as much about their surroundings as possible -- and they do it with their mouths. Your puppy’s mouth is his best tool for exploring the world around him, and that means he wants to wrap his gums around everything from his favorite toy to your favorite sweater, or even your fingers. Puppies also use their mouths to play with each other, so what appears to be fighting may actually be nothing more than a harmless game. If you don’t teach your puppy limits, though, his play biting can get out of hand. Just like he would with other dogs and pups, he depends on you to tell him when he’s crossed the line between fun and pain.
Discouraging Bad Behavior
Whether or not you train your puppy, he’s going to learn. This means that if you train him not to attack, he learns not to do it, but if you don’t train him, he learns that attacking is acceptable. The trick is to discourage bad behavior whenever you see it -- every single time. For example, when two puppies play fight and the game becomes too aggressive, one puppy may yelp in pain, showing the other one that he shouldn’t play so rough. If you’re playing with your puppy and he bites, give a yelp and stop the game -- you may even walk away and ignore him for a few minutes, to teach him that attacking leads to a negative consequence. Similarly, if your puppy insists on rough play like tackling, give him a stern response, then ignore him. This teaches him that his attack behavior leads to the opposite of the result he wanted, and over time, he’ll stop doing it.
Look on the Positive Side
Positive reinforcement can be just as effective as discouraging attack behavior, so always reward your puppy when he does something right. For example, if you come home and he resists the urge to tackle, reward him with the attention he craves. If your puppy makes it through a play session without trying to nip your fingers, shower him with praise, and/or reward him with a small treat. This combination of discouraging attack behavior and rewarding good behavior conditions your puppy to behave.
Don’t Get Defensive
When your puppy tries to attack, one of the worst things you can do is become physically aggressive in response. Smacking, slapping or even tapping your puppy for biting or tackling is not an effective method of training, and can actually have negative consequences that last a lifetime. Your puppy may learn to fear you, especially your hands, or may even become aggressive in response. Answering physically aggressive behavior with physically aggressive behavior won’t get you anywhere, and may permanently compromise the quality of your relationship with your pet.
Tom Ryan is a freelance writer, editor and English tutor. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in English writing, and has also worked as an arts and entertainment reporter with "The Pitt News" and a public relations and advertising copywriter with the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.