Saturday, April 25, 2009


So Daisy happily left this morning with new owner, Lauren. A sad day for me though as she was such a pleasure to have around, and was making me quite popular in the block because of her happy spirit and wiggly backside! It's been five hours and I miss her like mad. It's one of the cons to fostering – having to give them up, and I don't think I'll ever get used to them going. But each dog teaches me something new about dogs, and about me. One of the many things I learned from Daisy is the importance of not inhibiting a puppy's biting habits. Daisy loved to nibble on fingers, and at eight months, she had adult teeth so could nibble quite hard! The biggest fear of a dog owner is having a dog that turns out to be aggressive. So they try to prevent puppy biting believing if they don't, then the puppy will grow up to think biting is correct and will sink his or her teeth into postmen, neighbours, other dogs or children. Such thinking is understandable, but is incorrect. Indeed, preventing a puppy from biting can lead to a dog that bites in later life. Lolly was foster dog number 6, a five-year old Shepherd mix. That's her in the photo. At first glance, Lolly was an extremely calm dog. She ate gently from your hand so was popular with children and their parents. She never jumped up, never chewed furniture, and would stand obediently by you to be petted. What Lolly could not do, however, was bite anything. She would not chew toys, would not fetch balls, would never play tug of war. Lolly had been so severely reprimanded for biting as a puppy, that she would not even bite her food. Lolly licked her dinner up.
So Lolly was far from calm. She was completely confused. Lolly would bark uncontrollably at moving objects such as trucks, vans, bikes, or skateboards. In New York city you can imagine how stressful taking her on walks could be! With other dogs she was unpredictable. She generally did not want to play with them, but would be the first to run into a dog fight to try and sink her teeth into a neck. In one sad case Lolly actually caused damage to a small dog while at a boarders. While I adored Lolly for all her foibles, it took more than three months before someone else felt that way. Now she lives in Connecticut with a loving family and is beginning to fetch balls.
So how does Lolly's behaviour connect to the fact she had not been allowed to bite as a puppy? As we are all aware, dogs used to hunt for food, and pull their prey down by biting.  By sinking their jaws into prey, dogs relieved all the tension that had built up during the hunt. So when dogs feel emotion, be that excitement or fear, then their natural instinct is to sink their teeth into something to relieve the stress that emotion causes. If you have seen a dog gnawing on a bone or chewing on their favourite toy, you will have noticed the glazed look of sheer bliss not dissimilar to how humans appear when getting a relaxing massage. 
While evolution has changed the dog from a human hunting companion to a pet, it has not taken away their desire to relieve stress by chewing and biting.  If they are not allowed to do so, where does all that stress go? In Lolly's case, it went inside and ended up in unpredictable outbursts of biting, snapping or barking. Had she known she could relieve that tension through chewing on a ball, or pulling a tug toy then she would have been able to be calmer in times of heightened emotion, and would have known when she should use her teeth and when she shouldn't. 
I'm always amazed by owners that shout at their dogs, but the training books out there are so confusing and often aggressive in their methods, that I can understand why owners think it the right course of action. I've seen some terrible advice for preventing puppy bites such as shaking the puppy by its collar, shouting No! at the puppy, pushing in the puppy's cheeks so it bites itself, holding the puppy's muzzle.. Would anyone expect a child to grow up to be normal if they were treated so sternly?
With puppies, patience is the key, and hopefully after my ten days with Daisy I've learned to be more patient. If you bring your puppy up calmly and with love, with plenty of play time and toys for stimulus, then it will not matter if they bite on your fingers for a few months. They honestly will grow out of it. Just replace your fingers with a toy if it bothers you, or let them nibble you and if they nibble too hard, yelp Owww! Puppies are learning what they can and cannot bite and how hard they can use their teeth. Through biting they bond with their group, and begin to understand their surroundings. They like to explore with their mouths! Let them do it! An excellent resource on puppy biting is a blog by trainer Lee Charles Kelley, my dog mentor! Here is a link to his blog on puppy biting and what to do about it. 


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