Taming the Shark, Part 1: Bite Exhibition

I have finally learned how to download photos from Betsy’s camera onto my computer, so now I have a slew of Barnum pics to share with you. I’m hoping to do a few “photo essay” blogs in the coming weeks.

If you read my last two posts, you know I’m using Sue Ailsby’s Level Training Book to train with Barnum. It’s really going well! The book doesn’t address things like toilet training, mouthing, and such. However, the Training Levels listserv refers all newcomers to Positive Petzine, which gave me more useful, concrete, step-by-step directions for using positive training to correct “puppy issues” than my extensive book, video, and bookmark collection had provided me with before. I recommend it!

See if you can guess, from the photo essay below, what major problem was the last puppy frontier we had not yet conquered?

Barnum chews bucket lid

"Mm, the lid to the bucket tastes as good as the bucket, itself."

Barnum chews hose.

"Now it's a hose -- AND a sprinkler -- all-in-one! See? I'm already so helpful...."

Barnum prepares to launch Shark Attack.

"I'm gonna get the arm! I'm gonna get it!"

Barnum bites Betsy.

"Got it!"

If you’re still not sure, here is a multiple-choice quiz.

The puppy behavior we had not successfully tackled by six months was:

A. Mouthing

B. Chewing inappropriate objects

C. Attacking people’s shoes (whether there was a foot in them or not)

D. Jumping up and biting people’s pants (whether there was a butt in them or not)

E. All of the above

Let’s just say that Barnum acquired the nickname, “The Shark” early in life, and it has stuck to him like a remora on a great white’s dorsal fin. (I’ll address the “chewing inappropriate objects” in another post, because it is sort of a separate issue. But it all leads to the Jaws-like atmosphere around here and the “taming the shark” efforts that are finally paying off.)

I won’t go into all the details of why we still had this mouthing problem except to say that someone did try to tell someone else in their household that that someone else was reinforcing the problem, and that that someone else said that she could not do what the first someone had read in her many puppy books was the way to correct the problem. [Ahem.]

[Note: In proofing this essay for me, someone inserted the following comment: Hey! I have legitimate physical reasons why stomping out of the room is a challenge! It’s especially hard when a puppy is hanging off your ear.]

Confused? In all fairness to both someones, so were we. One area of confusion was when we should switch from bite inhibition to bite prohibition.

For those not familiar with these terms: When you have a little puppy, you don’t just teach it never to bite or mouth. Instead, you start by teaching “bite inhibition.” Teaching bite inhibition means that you let the puppy mouth you, as long as it doesn’t hurt, because this teaches the puppy to have a soft mouth. If the pup does bite down too hard, you yelp and pull away and look wounded. If that doesn’t work (and after a while, believe me, with a rowdy Bouvier des Flandres, it doesn’t), then you’re supposed to get up and walk away. Then you come back and play again. The lesson is, “If you hurt me, you don’t get to play with me, but as long as you’re gentle, we’re cool.”

A dog with good bite inhibition who lands in a situation where he’s scared, hurt, over-excited, resource guarding, or otherwise has potential to bite, instead of using a full-force bite and inflicting serious damage, will just snap, snarl, nip, growl, etc. This can feel scary and upsetting to humans, but it will not send them to the emergency room (or the dog to be euthanized).

My first dog, Lady, who was probably some sort of Border Collie mix, showed terrific bite inhibition. She and I used to play a game where I would chase her, or she would chase me, and if she was chasing me, when she caught me, she would very, very gently hold my hand in her mouth for a moment. It was her way of saying, “Tag! I got you!”

It was quite beautiful and tender, actually.

But the proof of the pudding was when Lady had a bad eye infection, and I had to put ointment in her eye twice a day, every day, for a week. Holding her down and squeezing in the ointment was scary and very painful for her. She always whimpered when it went in. The second day, when her eye was at its worst, she growled and snapped at me when the ointment touched her eye, which shocked and upset me. She had never done anything like that before. However, she did not bite me, which she certainly could have, and inflicted serious damage because my face was right over her head. Instead, she just said, in dog language, “Ow! Stop! You’re hurting me!”

Jersey and Gadget, my previous service dogs, also had reliable bite inhibition. Obviously, I knew Barnum needed to learn that, too. This was my first time having the responsibility of teaching bite inhibition, because it’s something that has to be learned in puppyhood. All previous models came with it installed.

However, my interpretation of the timeline and bite force involved in teaching bite inhibition was not the same as Betsy’s. For one thing, what I consider “painful” and “too hard” are not the same as she. (She’s willing to put up with more than I am; I am more aware of all the people Barnum will have to come into contact with and behave perfectly around in his future role as service dog; and she also does not have a full-body chronic pain condition.)

I felt that by four months Barnum’s mouth should be very soft, and Betsy thought he should still be given some leeway. Also, she played with him on the floor, and she maintained that she couldn’t leap up and stride away the very instant an infraction occurred, the way the books all say is required to make the point. And I certainly was in no shape for leaping the first few months Barnum was here.

Plus, he viewed my chair (depending on which direction it was going), as either a potential menace to be avoided, or a quickly retreating prey-like object to be chased. In fact, when Betsy, my PCAs, or my guests did try to turn their backs and stride away, Barnum delighted in jumping up to bite their butts, leaping onto their feet to attack their shoelaces, and otherwise continuing this glorious game.

I blame Ian Dunbar (Why not? He’s not here to defend himself; I don’t have to live with him; and his book was woefully inadequate for my puppy-raising needs). I forced Betsy to read his book, practically to memorize it. Dunbar really hammers on and on and on (in a repetitive, redundant, and repetitious way) about the importance of bite inhibition. I think this contributed a lot to Betsy’s concern that bite inhibition was fully installed before we taught him to stop biting at all, AKA bite prohibition.

This is when you teach your dog that humans are (as Dunbar says — probably the best quote in the book), “soft and ouchy.” You convince them that even barely grazing your hand with their tooth hurts you so so so much, omigod! How could big, bad, savage puppy have done this to his loving momma? Ow ow ow!

Family photo: Betsy, Sharon, Jaws

Family photo: Betsy, Sharon, and Jaws... I mean, Barnum.

Yes, we love him. We love his natural exuberance, but there are limits. I finally decided that enough was enough. One of my PCAs had had her former dog phobia rekindled in a big way by Barnum mouthing her hands and biting her butt and hanging onto her pants as she tried to work. Another, who adores Barnum but who has skin like tissue paper, was sporting horrific-looking gashes just because Barnum’s teeth had grazed her arm or hand. (So, really, she is a litmus test for our success at bite inhibition: if she’s not bleeding, we’re succeeding.)

This is quite serious. I have received a local cultural council grant to take Barnum to the elementary school, where I will show my video of Gadget performing service-dog skills, talk to the kids about life with a SD and SD training, have Barnum show off whatever he’s learned up to that point, and get in some good socialization and training for Barnum. (Nothing like a mob of children to work on distraction and self-control issues!) As things stood, I imagined a classroom full of sweet little children running up to pat the nice doggy — and having Barnum playfully bite ears and lips, grab and chew ponytails and braids, and rip adorable little outfits. The children would scream and run, sobbing hysterically, which Barnum would interpret as a wonderful addition to the chase/catch/tug game he was starting, and I’d hand the teachers the business card of the lawyer I’d hired for this inevitable lawsuit.

No way!

I turned into Sharon the Enforcer. (A not-infrequent role for me.) Henceforth, I decreed, any time Barnum put his mouth on any skin, clothing, or shoes (that a person was wearing), that person must immediately turn away and walk out the nearest door, where they would count to twenty. If we couldn’t leap away in a split-second, so be it; he would get the picture in time. Any other person in the vicinity must also march away, so that Barnum would be left alone with nobody to mouth.

I didn’t limit the prohibition to full-on mouthing. Also off-limits was any tooth-to-skin or tooth-to-clothing contact, no matter how insubstantial, as well as Barnum making moves toward mouthing, even if he didn’t actually make contact.

For those situations when he was likely to attempt to chase and/or hang on to shoes or pants, I set up training sessions: I leashed him to the ramp railing. We would pet him, and I would click/treat for not mouthing during particularly tempting moments, such as when someone was petting his head or face or sitting on the ground or riling him up with play. For just calmly accepting more sedate petting, I offered heartfelt praise. If Barnum went for a hand or sneaker, we would turn our backs and walk out of leash range, giving him ten to twenty seconds to chill out. Then we would return with lavish praise and petting again.

The first day that I put the kibosh on mouthing, I had to turn around and zoom to my room several times in a half hour. Barnum would follow me happily, but when I shut my door with him outside and me inside, he was truly puzzled and distressed. He sat outside my door, barking and crying. I have another rule (See? I am the Enforcer; bratty behavior does not get rewarded — in dogs or children). Thus, I’d wait till he was quiet; then I’d come out, a friendly smile on my face, ready to offer more praise and love. I’d usually find Barnum sitting quietly — confused, concerned, and eager to please.

Honestly, I think Barnum learned more about not mouthing in that first half-hour of boundary setting than he had before or since. After that foundation was laid, the rest has just been teaching him that the same rules apply to other people (Betsy, PCAs, and guests) and to other situations: indoors and outdoors; with people sitting, standing, or lying down; moving fast or slow; and to anything a person might be wearing or carrying. I’ve also been playing tug with him every day, usually a few times a day, to give him practice with “give” (dopping the toy), and to interrupt the game any time he even accidentally lets a tooth touch my skin.

One particularly memorable moment, the first day he was confronted with this puzzling new behavior, Betsy was sitting on the floor with him, my PCA was petting him from a standing position, and I was sitting in my chair, praising all involved. Barnum swung his head to mouth my PCA’s sleeve, and we all instantly scattered in every direction. It was like someone had dropped a pebble into a bowl of guppies. Barnum was the pebble, sitting in the middle of the bowl, looking around, thinking, “Where did everyone go?”

I’m very proud of us. Obviously, this training is not as fun as the positive clicker training, where I’m shaping and rewarding desirable behaviors, instead of extinguishing an undesirable one through a process that is both quite tiring for me and sometimes somewhat stressful for him. However, Barnum is showing his usual great bounce back and has learned that just because the fun stops or I withdraw my attention for a few seconds, it doesn’t mean that the game won’t restart or I won’t be lavishing him with affection as soon as the time-out’s over.

I give Barnum a lot of credit. He learned very quickly that mouthing would get him nowhere. Often, I have seen him wanting quite desperately to do the forbidden, but holding himself back: He watches a PCA’s shoelaces very intently as she walks by, but he doesn’t pounce. He wants to grab my arm when I am tick-checking his ear, but instead he licks me gently. (You can practically see him thinking, “Okay, sublimate, sublimate, sublimate. . . .”) Slowly, my PCA of the paper-thin skin feels safe in lowering her hands to swing at her sides. Slowly, the PCA who used to fear dogs (whom Gadget seemed to have cured with his sweet and gentle nature), is again smiling when she willingly pets Barnum.

Today, I took Barnum to play with Bug, a neighbor dog he hadn’t seen in a few months. My neighbor had never met him before. Like the other owners of Gadget’s dog friends, my neighbor used to say, morosely, “I don’t think Gadget likes me.”

This was because Gadget basically ignored her when he went to visit Bug.

“No,” I would say, “It’s a Bouv thing.”

Then I’d explain about how Bouviers typically don’t have much interest in people unless they are their people. Especially if there are other dogs around — who has time for people? Feh. Even I was not interesting to Gadget (and now to Barnum — although Jersey was another story) when there were other dogs to be met.

However, because Barnum is still a pup, and because we super-socialized him to people by having him meet, and get treats from, 100 people in his first two months home, he is far more actively interested in people than Gadget or Jersey ever were. Thus, when Barnum and Bug were finished playing, Barnum went waggling right over to my neighbor.

She knelt down and petted his head and hugged him. I was holding my breath — just a bit — because if she’d done this two weeks ago, Barnum would have mouthed her in a serious way! Instead, he just wagged and smiled, and then gave her face a good washing.

“Oh,” she laughed, “I haven’t had kisses in a long time!” Apparently Bug was not an extremely demonstrative dog, either.

She was very pleased. I was very pleased. Thank Dog! I can stop looking for a lawyer. . . .

Gooooo, Team Barnum!

As always, we welcome your comments.

-Sharon, Barnum (still a tiny bit sharky), and the Muse of Gadget (who was not standoffish, just dignified)

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4 Responses to “Taming the Shark, Part 1: Bite Exhibition”


  1. 1 Laura July 14, 2010 at 7:19 pm

    Yeah!!!! Good puppy! 🙂 Good owner! I have found that some of the totally undesirable mouthing behavior abates after about 8-9 months of age, I reserve that to pups without disabilities like our little deaf Yuki. I am actually thinking that I may try some of your techniques to get her to stop grabbing my pantleg when she doesn’t want me to ‘go’ somewhere.
    I am so happy to hear that things are going well, young pups are exhausting. it has been a challange with Yuki because of her aggressive nature and her deafness. But we are finding ways to communicate with her via ASL, dog signals and body language. She even just learned to ‘shake paws’ for a treat, although most times she can’t decide which paw to lift! LOL

  2. 2 Sharon Wachsler July 15, 2010 at 1:34 am

    Hey Laura,
    I’m glad you’re making progress with Yuki.
    Yeah, I forgot to say specifically what in Positive Petzine was helpful to me, but it was the idea of leashing him to a pole (or in my case, the ramp), and then having people move out of range when the mouthing started. It seems really obvious now, but I kept telling people to “get up and leave” in the house, which didn’t work most of the time because he would just dive after their shoelaces or pants. With him leashed, he is unable to continue. The suggestion was for a dog who jumps (and actually Barnum rarely jumps, usually only when we are playing with a toy, and he is jumping for the toy — working on that), but I realized it was the answer to the shoelace attacking I’d been looking for. Aidan, the editor, will respond directly to your questions, too, if you don’t find exactly what you’re looking for.

  3. 3 Laura July 16, 2010 at 5:10 pm

    Thanks 🙂 BTW Yuki’s nickname is Velociraptor (sp)! LOL

  4. 4 newleafawakenings July 18, 2010 at 10:49 am

    Congrats on your success – I have been working this method for many years with clients and once they get the hang of it and use it consistantly – the dogs catch on very quickly.

    One of the drawbacks of the “OUCH” method can be the arousal of prey drive – high pitched sqeaky noises may work well for some breeds and younger pups – but in older pups can really amp up the game.

    You’re doing a great job and I look forward to reading about more of your success.


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