Exuberant play or keeping you at bay?

IMG_0782Recently, I had a client email me this question:

How do I handle Ralphie “biting” our hands when we pet him? If I pull my hand away isn’t that what he wants? But if I keep petting him, then am I encouraging that behavior also?

In order to provide the best solution to this concern, I needed to gather some more information:

When you go to pet him, is he soliciting attention from you or are you approaching him? Does he back away, move his head away from your hand or otherwise try to avoid contact with you when you reach over to pet him? How he reacts to your approach and petting will determine what I suggest you do.

IMG_0653   Many puppies, for instance, become mouthy with their owners when playing and may bite as part of the IMG_0651play. These dogs are learning what is and is not appropriate use of their mouths with people when they get excited. In this case, since the dog is not trying to avoid the person’s touch, but is exuberantly playing. I recommend that as soon as the dog’s mouth makes contact with skin in what is considered to be inappropriate or excessive, then all attention to the dog stops. Stand up, turn your back on the dog and even exit the room for 5-10 seconds so that the dog learns that when he gets too rough, he loses his people. Adding a high-pitched yelp when the teeth hit the skin can tell the dog, “Ouch, dude! That hurt!” much like the puppy’s littermates would do if things got out of hand (Puppies will yelp and stop playing with the miscreant sibling, who generally will stop what he is doing and will come back to play more gently).
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     If, however, Ralphie is actively trying to avoid his person’s hand, and Mom keeps coming at him, he is likely feeling panicky and needs to clarify that he does not want to be petted. If she continues to pet Ralphie when he (at least in his view) has warned her how uncomfortable this is for him, then she might be encouraging him to escalate the biting so that it is abundantly clear that he does not want anyone to pet him. Instead of continuing her frontal approach, I recommend that she turn her profile towards Ralphie, move her hand down to her side, be quiet, and don’t look at him directly. When Ralphie feels less threatened, he may decide to approach her. If he does, she should allow him to make the first move to sniff her hand, and she should not move it up and over his head. This will likely scare him as dogs see a frontal approach as rude and/or threatening.
     I would also recommend counter conditioning to help Ralphie understand that his person’s approach and petting is a good, enjoyable thing to have happen. This entails pairing food with petting (and using something really wonderful, such as chicken) to help Ralphie change his emotional response from one of fear/dislike to anticipation and comfort. Because you do not want to overwhelm Ralphie in the process, counter-conditioning is best done with the help of an experienced trainer or behaviorist who can guide you successfully through the technique.
     Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that behavior is seldom simple and is always a combination of emotion, genetics, and learned responses. Therefore, the solution to any dog’s biting depends on the nature of the biting, why he is doing it, and is never made better by using force. Bullying causes fear in people, it does the same in dogs. Dominating, alpha rolling, or other forms of physical punishment will only serve to exacerbate the problem (See:  http://apositiveconnection.com/?p=2369 for more information on what happens with punishment based training methods). I recommend that if your dog has a mouthing issue, find yourself a positive reinforcement trainer with experience in counter-conditioning who can advise you on the best course of action.

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