• Ciara Pollen MSci

Stop puppy mouthing like magic

It’s 8 o’clock. The lights are low, everyone’s had their dinner, and you’re settling down for the night. Suddenly, your puppy turns into a nippy over-excited monster - munching on ankles, stealing the TV remote, and bouncing off the walls.

Does this sound familiar?

The ‘witching hour’ is a common issue for puppy owners, and is frequently brought up in class, so you are very much not on your own in this. It’s very normal for puppies to get over-excited or over-tired around this time of day, and those feelings are vented through over-the-top behaviour like nipping and mouthing, jumping up, hyperactivity, and chewing.

It’s important to understand that your puppy isn’t trying to upset you and wreak havoc - they simply don’t know how else to deal with their feelings. It’s easy to get frustrated with them, but this issue doesn’t have to be stressful.

Rather than considering what you don’t want your dog to do, instead try considering what you do want him to do. For instance, we don’t want him to bite and mouth, and we don’t want him to constantly ask for attention when we would like to relax. But thinking about the problem in this way makes it very difficult to find a solution, and feels like quite an overwhelming challenge to overcome.

Instead, perhaps you want him to do some or all of the following:

  • Choose to play with and mouth his toys

  • Settle down when you aren’t paying him attention

  • Vent his energy and emotions into play or exercise

  • Ask ‘politely’ for attention or play

Once you have identified what you want, you can mark (saying “yes!” Or “good!” to let him know that whatever he is currently doing is what you want, and a treat is on the way) and reward each of those behaviours. Naturally this will encourage him to do these things more often, and do other behaviours less often as they don’t ‘work’ to get him a reward.

However it is also important to prevent him from making poor choices in the first place. For instance, before 8pm when he usually starts this behaviour, try:

  • Giving him a chew, kong, snuffle game, or activity toy to occupy him

  • Ensuring you have lots of appropriate toys and chews available for him to mouth on

  • Avoiding playing games like rough and tumble with your hands, as your puppy may get confused about what is and isn’t okay to play with and mouth (i.e. your hands!)

  • Putting a lightweight lead (houseline) on him so that you are able to give him a ‘time-out’ without getting nipped at or giving him attention

  • Putting him in a play pen or behind a baby gate with something fun to do, so that he is unable to mouth you

Remember alongside this to always encourage him to make better decisions. If he nips, offer him a toy instead. If he starts becoming restless, try engaging him in a food scatter game or offer him a chew. Also remember to continue rewarding all the nice behaviours that he does all the time. You may not even notice how good he is being for most of the day!

What you are likely to find is that he will be frustrated and try harder when you first employ these techniques, as the unwanted behaviours used to be successful. Just like when you try to use a motion-sensor tap and it doesn’t activate, you might try waving underneath it frantically for a few moments before you give up, realising it isn’t worth it. The same is true for your puppy. All of his behaviour occurs because he is looking for the easiest and shortest path to good things like fun, food, and comfort. Frequently rewarding what we like will show him this new path he can take, and reward him for making the choice to follow that path.

Also consider what your puppy finds rewarding and motivating, as it could be toys, food, sniffs, or even your attention. Make sure that if he is showing unwanted behaviours you aren’t accidentally rewarding them with eye-contact, talking, or touching, even if you think you’re telling him off. Unfortunately our dogs don’t understand English, so telling him “no” means he has still succeeded in getting what he wants – your attention.

So remember, whether you’re dealing with a witching hour puppy, a barking teen dog, or a lead-puller, consider these main things:

  1. Management: What can you do to prevent the behaviour?

  2. Enrichment: How can you provide your dog with appropriate outlets for the behaviour, and keep them physically and mentally stimulated?

  3. Communication: How can you show them what you’d like them to do in this situation? What are they trying to tell you with their behaviour?

Applying this formula will help you with almost every unwanted behaviour you might encounter.

Until next time, happy venturing!

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