"Ouch! She's like the Tasmanian Devil!" Sarah cries while trying to explain how much her new puppy, Liana, bites her hands, legs, feet, arms, kids, shoes, Prada handbag ... "It never ends!"
Liana is a 9-week-old yellow Lab with tons of energy. She runs all over the house in a really bouncy way with her tail wagging like a helicopter blade in motion. She has been "an explosion of goofiness," Sarah says. And, of course, when Liana is around people, she nips and nips and nips and nips and NIPS.
Sarah couldn't take it anymore, so she turned to a dog trainer for help. The trainer told her to pull on Liana's whiskers every time she bites so that she learns what it feels like to inflict pain on others and, thus, stop doing it herself.
When Sarah tried it, Liana yelped, pulled away, and her tail tucked. The biting did stop a bit, so Sarah did it again. But the more she does it now, the less energy Liana seems to have. She's not as goofy as she was. And, she stays by herself more than she did before.
"Maybe she's just getting older... so it's normal that she's a little less puppyish?" Sarah asks us. "But I don't know," she continues. "Liana also backs away now when I go to hand her treats, and she flinches anytime someone tries to pat her on the head. I'm worried the whisker pulling is really hurting her."
Let's help Sarah figure out what's going on by answering our three questions:
What is the dog’s body language?(List what the dog looks and sounds like.) At first she's bouncing all over the place, has a waggy tail, is an "explosion of goofiness." Then, when her whiskers are pulled, she yelps, backs away, and her tail tucks. Liana is increasingly less goofy, energetic, and social, and she now pulls away when offered treats by hand or when petted overhead.
What is going on? (Describe the context.) Liana is a 9-week-old puppy, whose whiskers get pulled when she bites.
Let's dig in.
If you visit the Puppies page in All About Dogs, you'll see that biting is something puppies do... a lot! They're getting to know this crazy new world they find themselves in, and they use their mouths to do it. And they haven't learned yet how to play bite without hurting someone — this is the time to teach them.
But is Liana just being mouthy and play biting? We need to look at her body language to make sure.
A quick stroll through the Body Language Gallerywill show you that we've got a couple of different emotions going on. At first, Liana lines up with the images of happy dogs:
But after Sarah starts pulling Liana's whiskers, Liana's body language shifts to "distressed."
Reading more on the Puppies page, you'll see that at 9-weeks old, Liana is going through the "socialization period," which is a window of time when dogs learn about what's good, bad, safe, and scary in life. Good experiences with new people, places, and things teach puppies that those things are safe and enjoyable. Conversely, bad experiences teach them to fear things. In fact, puppies are so impressionable at this age, that one bad experience can sour them against something for life.
As we know from the How Dogs Learnpage in All About Dogs, one way dogs learn is by associations. Here's the thought process Liana might be going through:
"When Mom's Hand comes near my face, she pulls on my whiskers, which really HURTS!!! So, I've learned that hands coming near my face are SCARY!" This would explain why Liana is no longer taking treats by hand and is also flinching when people reach in to pet her.
What's the answer?
Sarah's gut was correct in telling her that something was wrong by the change in Liana's behavior. By following the advice of the trainer to hurt Liana when she bit, Liana learned to fear her and other people.
So what should Sarah do to teach Liana — without scaring her — to stop biting everyone and everything?
Take away the thing Liana wants (playtime with Sarah) the second she bites down hard — every time. Rather than giving Liana pain from her whiskers being pulled, which is both inhumane and likely to cause Liana to become afraid, she simply gives Liana a little time-out. It will likely take many repetitions of "Liana bites hard, so Sarah gets up and leaves" for Liana to figure out that she needs to stop biting hard. But if Sarah sticks with the plan and gives Liana a time-out every time, Liana will learn to soften up her bite. Visit the Puppies page for more details.
One more point: Fearis extremely easy to acquire and a million times harder to get rid of. Things like giving Liana eye drops to treat an infection or a toddler waving his hands in her face, could scare Liana to the point where she bites. This is the exact opposite result than Sarah was hoping for.
It's going to take a great deal of patience and empathy now to help Liana feel comfortable with people reaching in towards her face again, and Liana will likely have to work with a qualified trainer or veterinary behaviorist to get it done.
If your puppy is showing signs of fear, or if you are having difficulty teaching her to bite with less force, please visit our How to Choose a Dog Trainer page to get some help.