Why I’m re-thinking my puppy nipping advice


As with many things in my dog world, a confluence of experiences has led me to re-think puppy biting. Two of those are an 8-month old JRT that I’m working with at the moment, who is a horrendous landshark, and an 11-month old labrador who is giving quite hard bites to his retriever friend during play. Another two are two young dogs at the refuge, one a seven-month old husky and the other a young pointer cross, who haven’t learned to play nicely with their friends or with humans. Couple that with having had a fair few puppies here in foster, what I do with kittens to help them get over a bitey stage, and a video of a malinois puppy in a park clearly having the time of her life biting her owner’s trousers…. and then a facebook thread that really defined it for me.

But it’s that video of the 8-week old malinois that got me. You know I have a soft spot for them.

The man was doing all the things I would have advised – say “ow!”, walk away (but he was completely unable to in that case, with his puppy on a lead in a park). To be fair, whilst I was laughing a bit, there was nothing inherently “wrong” with what he was doing  – other than the fact he maybe shouldn’t have had a malinois if he didn’t have a bag of 50 tricks up his sleeve to stop them turning into landsharks.  It’s all advice I’ve handed out glibly in the past. Maybe saying “this breed” or “that breed” is too challenging for most owners to teach bite inhibition to isn’t working and we really should be asking why our methods of teaching puppies what to bite and what not to needs a bit of consideration instead of glibly-given well-meant advice about yelping and withdrawing.

Traditional wisdom says that puppies learn from their litter-mates and that their siblings’ yelping is the thing that helps them moderate their bite. And I think there is a lot to be said for that. Should we biped apes also yelp or have a word we say to signal the end of play, then walk off?

Is that working for us?

It’s certainly advice that’s handed out ALL the time.

BUT… but…

Is that really true, or is it just something we say that may be true and we don’t really know how it functions – it just seems to? Is it functioning as well as we think it is?

Do puppies and their mums really yelp and interrupt play?

Does this moderate bite behaviour?

Does it moderate bite behaviour in the way we think it does?

And if it does, is it valid that we should use the same methods?

Those are all very big questions that need asking, and they’re questions I’ve been asking myself. Experience seems to be taking me down a different path. Also, when I really reflected on it and started processing those thoughts, I didn’t like the answers, reasons and justifications I was finding.

Because I’ve had litters of pups here who did very little biting at all. How do they learn bite inhibition if they never do it?

And I’ve had puppies here who I’ve had to split up because the risk of injury is huge. One puppy pinned and bit her brother so hard that he squealed for a good minute before his siblings came in and it ended as an all-out gang war.

And why does my lovely Heston have such great bite inhibition if he only grew up with only one sibling for his first six weeks, and no mum to correct him? How, in those two weeks of being truly mobile before he came to me, did he learn an inhibited bite? Certainly, he never, ever made either Molly or Tilly squeal. They never told him off. Though he bit me by accident a few times in play, it really was an accident. I can say categorically that no squealing happened under my roof.

Traditional wisdom would say that Heston would have poor bite skills. Yet he has had five contact ritualised fights with three dogs in among the hundreds of dogs he has met and lived with, and never put a tooth on them. Not even when one of them was my bitey foster beauceron who had been boisterous when he shouldn’t have been and there was 80kg of black fur flying over a bit of doorway bouncing.

He played primarily with adult dogs from week 6 to week 16. The only other puppies he met was his brother and sister, and they never had yelpy fights. But he never hurt those adult dogs. They never yelped. He never got pinned or barked at. How did he grow up with such precision biting and great inhibition even in anger or fear?

Let’s look at the first line in the argument for yelping and disengaging as a teaching method.

Puppies learn to moderate their bite by their siblings yelping and disengaging.

First, is this true?

For the first weakness in the line of argument that supports us doing the same is that a) this happens and b) this happens for the purpose we say it does.

Now I don’t doubt that puppies yelp. I’ve seen it. I know some litters who’ve been shouting balls of yelping hot messes by six weeks, and some litters who’ve not uttered a peep, nor engaged in the kind of biting that would lead to a yelp. JP Scott and John Fuller are the “go-to” guide with their 1950s and 1960s work about socialisation. Scott was first and foremost a behavioural geneticist, as was John Fuller. They worked at Bar Harbor in the Jackson Laboratories. The laboratories were 30 years into a career of genetic research, and Scott and Fuller’s work was conducted over many generations of breeding. That they used dogs to explore how behaviour is inherited is kind of coincidental. They took five breeds, raised them in a variety of situations and raised them and their crossbreeds in a variety of situations. It is the biggest single piece of research on socialisation and it has given canine science its understanding of sensitive periods, canine development and genetically-driven behaviours.

Their work allows us to understand a bit more about bite behaviours and play.

They said:

“Playful fighting appears early in the transition period (from 3 weeks). At first the young puppies seem to be acting in slow motion, clumsily pawing and mouthing their litter mates without producing any real damage. As they grow older their teeth become longer, and a puppy which gets hold of a sensitive spot, such as the ear, may be answered by a yelp of pain.”

They noted that development is different for different breeds, with terriers in their study being more developmentally advanced at a younger age. The cocker spaniels and shelties were quite a long way behind. Some crossbreeds developed fastest of all. Two things happen around Day 21 and 22: a startle response and first teeth start coming in. Play fighting undergoes a massive increase at this time as well, and by day 27, most breeds and crossbreeds were play-fighting. There are some other interesting observations about reactions to shock and food, and a suggestion that younger puppies (3 weeks – 6 weeks) are in some way protected from the psychological impact of pain.

Does this mean they can bite at a young age and not have psychological fallout maybe? But what’s the implication for doing it when that bubble of protection from emotional fallout is over?

As they age, we get to the really interesting bit. The socialisation period. Observations suggested that motherly growling and puppy yelping was more to do with their attempts to continue nursing. This certainly fits with the litters I’ve had here and those we’ve raised at the refuge. Mum is increasingly less tolerant of puppies’ attempts to nurse and she’ll growl in their face. Not to do with play fighting, then.

Some of the bitey play-fighting is perhaps about breed, and Scott and Fuller’s work makes that clear. No prizes for guessing that the yelpiest, most bitey bunches of my fosters were bully mixes or terriers.

You can see a litter of Golden retrievers here (first video on Youtube when I searched puppies playing in litter):

Now there’s some vocalising and whining – and some mouthing. I don’t think the vocalising and whining is actually directed at a biter. Focus on one or two pups and their mouthing, and see how it stops. I can see four or five times when the puppy targeted just turns away. Here, fellow, this is my rump. I saw that – leaning away and turning to give a rump a few times following a bite.

But maybe they’re too young to be yelping and their teeth are not painful enough? Maybe they’re yelping all the other 1398 minutes of the day?

It’s possible.

Here’s some older beagle pups.

Lots of vocalisation, mostly related to the barrier. Maybe they too are doing their bite-yelp learning in the other 1392 minutes of the day. As for the other vocalisation, Scott and Fuller note that confining or separating a puppy can elicit all kinds of vocalisation:

“A puppy left alone in a strange place yelps loudly and continuously, producing the maximum number of vocalizations when it is 6 to 7 weeks old”

There’s lots of distress vocalisation on the beagle video (it’s the first non-musical Youtube video I got when I searched 5 week old puppies playing in litter) but you see some play too, including bites. But these are not puppies who are teaching each other bite inhibition through the strength of their bites. Are they too old or too young then or do we just not see it in this clip? Several of those play incidents involving bite are unreciprocated and the other puppy just walks off. Now I don’t know about you, but I guess that means the bite already didn’t hurt in play at 5 weeks of age. You do get a lot of ‘grrr grr grrr’ practice growls though. I suspect that a lot of the distress is the fact of the person videoing on the other side of the barrier, or maybe mum.

More beagles with playing. Lots of airsnaps and grr-grring, but no yelping.

And some GSDs playing too…

Then I went looking for more of these supposed yelps, but despite a good hour of various videos (many with music over them – grrr!) I found very few. Not a surprise. Who’d upload a video of their puppies squealing on Youtube? Mind you, plenty of people upload videos of their dogs and kids engaged in all kinds of uncomfortable play, so I’m sure it’s not the only reason I found so few.

It comes back to that lovely conditional that Scott and Fuller use. Puppies may yelp.

It’s a may, not a must or a will. May. As in, they might. It’s possible.

So in answer to my first question, puppies may yelp when bitten. But it’s not a given or an essential part of the learning curve.

But learning theory tells us that either classical associations or operant learning are reliant, at least at the beginning, on a high ratio of ‘this then that’. Over 90% for classical conditioning, and a fixed ratio of reward for operant. Can a puppy who is getting spasmodic feedback at best about his bite strength really be using that spasmodic feedback to influence their learning?

It’s a question. I don’t know the answer. I suspect I know, but I don’t have any data. I’d think the link between yelping and learning is too infrequent to be the major contributing factor to why a puppy learns to bite its siblings more gently. Plus, those goldens are already, at four weeks, showing bite inhibition.

Maybe the problem comes later in development?

Scott and Fuller noticed a problem emerging around 7 weeks, one I noticed myself with a couple of litters…

“At about 7 weeks of age (the time when final weaning from the breast begins and mothers begin to threaten their offspring), puppies left with their mothers begin to attack each other in groups. The animal against whom the attack is directed is sometimes a small and weak individual, but it also may be a large and aggressive one. In most breeds this “ganging up” is temporary and playful.”

That sounds normal. Except for their notes about the fox terriers, one of the five breeds of dog in the trial.

“In the fox terrier breed, however, such group attacks are persistent and become so serious that the victim has to be removed in order to prevent serious injury”

Now that suggests something about bites. It suggests that for some breeds, groups or individuals, biting increases, not decreases.

That’s something to think about.

Biting has been reinforced and it has increased.

We might want to go as far as saying that biting is – dare I say it? – pleasurable or rewarding.

So from all of this…

Do puppies yelp? Why of course they do. Maybe less than we’d think though.

Is the purpose of yelping to communicate the end of play? Nope. Highly doubtful. I yelp because it hurt. It’s not to tell you that it hurt but because it caused pain. It’s not some feedback-loop where I’ll let you try again. Does the other puppy learn from it? Maybe. I’d suspect it’s the end of play that they learn from, which may or may not be related to biting or bite strength. Sometimes when one of my terrier pups hurt the other, all hell would break loose and it would end in an aggressive retaliation. Is that something we might want to try just because puppies do it? Aggressive retaliation definitely says, “bro, you bit me too hard!”

So just because puppies yelp doesn’t automatically translate that it’s a code to help their siblings modify their bite. Some puppies don’t learn to modify their attacks with their siblings and bites spill over to aggression that is so severe that groups have to be separated. But nothing says those puppies go on to have a hard mouth with humans.

Whether or not puppies yelping and finishing play relates to learning about bite inhibition is a notion I’m not entirely sold on.

And even if it were, it raises ethical issues for me.

 

Can we really take our cues from how puppies and their mums behave with each other? Since the yelp and disengage comes right from the ‘this is how dogs behave with each other’ school of thought. That is, if you accept the premise that a) puppies do this with each other frequently enough to learn from it and b) it is designed to aid the other puppy modify its bite.

My problem is that I don’t like that school of thought about mimicking canine behaviour. It starts with yelping like puppies and ends with justifying Cesar Millan and alpha rolls. And even if puppies were to yelp and disengage (which I don’t think all do, and certainly not as frequently as they’d need to for some sustained learning) then should we be copying that? That’s the school of thought that gives us “scruff your dog because the mother dog does” or even “spit in their mouths because the mother dog does”. I kid you not. It’s the justification for prong collars, and the ‘pinch’ of a mother’s jaw in punishment. It’s the justification for all sorts of human attempts to communicate with dogs in “their” language. Why is it that we don’t mimic the pro-social things dogs do with each other, but we want to mimic those that are punishers? I don’t get it.

Now I’m not equating yelping with prong collars, but the logic is the same. Dogs communicate this way, so I’ll use this method to communicate also.

And whilst you might be happy with that, it doesn’t sit well with me. I don’t growl or airsnap at my dogs, hump them, lick their penises or sniff their arses. I don’t lick their wee and do Hannibal Lector face, nor do I wag at them with a pretend tail. I thought positive dog training had come further than this.

So that put paid to the ‘puppies do it to each other’ logic of the argument for me. You might feel differently, I know, especially if you’ve found it to be effective.

Now let’s talk about the human-canine learning loop. Is it effective learning? If so, how does it work?

It took me back to learning theory. Sorry. This is going to get a bit technical. I apologise.

It’s all about consequences, this yelping and disengaging business. The consequence is that a noise is made, play stops and the other party disengages. We’re not talking antecedents and reflexive behaviours, bells and salivation. We’re talking behaviours and consequences.

That’s the realm of Skinner.

Press red lever, get reward. Press yellow lever, get shock.

In other words, play nice and play continues. Play badly and play ends. It’s the puppy’s choice.

That got me thinking about training methods, ethics, emotional fallout….

We know behaviour does two things: increase (or maintain) or decrease.

That’s it. It doesn’t get simpler than that.

Either biting gets more or biting gets less.

A yelp or sound and a disengage is intended to make the biting diminish. I’m not using it to encourage good play to continue, except as a by-product of learning that play stops if you nip me, puppy.

That belongs to the ‘punisher’ side of learning. Something aversive is applied which makes the behaviour decrease. Or good stuff stops which also intends to make behaviour decrease.

We know that if behaviour decreases, then it’s got to be aversive. It has to be, otherwise behaviour wouldn’t decrease. Call it what you want: unpleasant, disagreeable, bad… whatever word you use for a ‘punisher’, that’s what this behaviour is doing.

Some people are going to say that a ‘yelp’ is a No-Reward Marker. Like a click marks a good behaviour, the yelp marks a bad behaviour.

Except I don’t think it is.

In fact, I was surprised to see an article about yelping and disengaging on Karen Pryor’s clicker training site, to be honest.

A marker is a signal that was once neutral but has come to be a way to communicate to an animal that what they are doing right at that moment is exactly what you want. It’s also known as an ‘event marker’. Clicker trainers like the precision and the neutrality of the click and we all know that a click always and always absolutely has to be paired with a reward. Another name for a marker is a bridging stimulus, which signals ‘good stuff’ or ‘bad stuff’ is coming. A click, or a yes, or a good is a signal that something will happen that’s reinforcing to the dog – play, petting, food and so on. Some people use negative ones too as a warning. The beep before electric shock is one example.

Now a no-reward marker (NRM) is, in the words of Karen Pryor’s Clicker Training site, ‘a signal that says ‘no, that’s not what I want, try again.’

Fair enough.

I don’t use no-reward markers in training because they can be frustrating, can provoke aggression and they can hinder learning. There’s only really one study about NRMs, Rotenberg (2015) who concluded that using them wasn’t as effective at helping dogs learn as just ignoring mistakes was.

That’s right. No-reward markers are pretty useless and they hinder learning.

If you like Kathy Sdao, and I do, listen to her talking about using NRM over speakers with dolphins. She doesn’t like them either.

A no-reward marker should be neutral, like a click is for marking a behaviour. It’s like the beep on a shock collar. You could equally have a different kind of noise or a meaningless word like “snip” as a NRM. You don’t need a yelp or a no or an ow. Many people use No as a no-reward marker, but that doesn’t sit well with me.

No, ow, yelping… they’re not neutral sounds.

They’re laden with emotion.

For example, I do a lot of marker training with Lidy the mali at the shelter. She is super-savvy and very operant. I use ‘nice’ or ‘yes’, and it’s so precise. I made the mistake of flipping from practising holds with object in one session to practising nose targets with objects on the next. That was stupid of me and I got a bit of biting and picking up the object. Lidy didn’t know what I wanted her to do. By marking just before she picked the object up, she quickly cottoned on to the fact I was asking for a touch not a hold. So precise. Over time, yes means great things and I can get away with the occasional marker without a reward, but ‘yes’ or ‘nice’ are meaningless to Lidy, and so if I stop rewarding, they’ll lose the association much more quickly than you’d expect.

Markers are supposed to be neutral.

Now I said ‘no’ to her the other day, and I said ‘Let go!’ – she’d grabbed something she shouldn’t have. Wow, did that take a lot out of our trust account! The look on her face! It really said, “Bitch, make me!” Needless to say, I didn’t get what she’d taken. I said “Out!” and she dropped it straight away and I said “yes!” and gave her some ham.

Because our words have tone and tone expresses emotion. It’s why animal trainers like clickers and why I like ‘yes!’ (because I can go “yeeesssssss!” when she really gets it, and I’ve always got my mouth with me).

So if you’re going to use a no-reward marker, don’t pick a word that conveys emotion. Pick something meaningless like “try again”.

But therein lies the rub.

A NRM is about trying again, about keeping going, about perseverance until you get it right.

Yelping or saying ouch then disengaging is not giving a dog a chance to keep going.

So it’s not a no-reward marker. It may well be a warning that good stuff will end, like a threat before a time out. And that’s most likely what that yelp should be. If you’re using an NRM, then you should give the opportunity to try again, not stop the play completely. Even a shock collar gives a warning for the behaviour to change.

So if the yelp is not a warning and it’s not an NRM, what are we using it for? We might as well just leave and have a temporary time out.

My problem with time outs is that they are frustrating. You’re stopping the good stuff. You’re also doing it with a young animal who is aroused. Arousal doesn’t tend to dissipate so easily when you’re frustrated. In fact, it just makes you more aroused and more frustrated. Just a thought, but is there a connection between frustration and arousal and dogs who bite you as you leave? I’m not saying time-out training is growing monster dogs, but what are we teaching our dogs if we walk away and they’re feeling bitey? I’ve had a good few stories of bites in the butt that mark that perfect combination of frustration and arousal.

So the time-out may come with emotional fallout, especially for a young puppy who hasn’t learned much about impulse control yet.

On the flip side of that ‘P’ quadrant, the absence could also be a punisher. Remember Scott and Fuller’s comment about distress vocalisations in young puppies? Plenty of puppies think that the group splitting up is distressing.

It leaves me, whichever way I cut and slice it, firmly in the ‘P’ section of the quadrant, along with its nasty side-effects and fallout.

I hate that. Not a quadrant I like to operate in unless I absolutely have exhausted reinforcement first.

And a yelp and a disengage/temporary time-out are often proposed first before any other intervention!

Of course, you want to decrease biting and bite strength. That leaves you on the Punishment side of the quadrant.

You have to rephrase it if you want to increase stuff, like increasing soft bites, increasing no biting and increasing non-human/animal biting.

Then you can use your R+ methods… all that good stuff.

The quickest way to replace an unwanted behaviour is to build up a wanted behaviour, like biting a toy. That satisfies the bite urge perfectly. I’d use caution here. John Rogerson says don’t teach tug if you haven’t got a perfect ‘drop’, and I second that wholeheartedly. Do you know what I do prefer? A bit of chase and bite. The first parts of retrieve.

Do you know why? Chasing a ball or a toy gets the bitey young landshark AWAY from you. It’s a perfectly incompatible behaviour. Can’t bite if you’re on the other side of the room. It also helps with retrieves, practising that chase and bite. It satisfies the bitey urge in ways that absence and ouches do not. You can use this with a toy or with food even, if you haven’t got a great ‘drop!’ behaviour.

Some people are going to say that if you redirect a dog onto a toy – either in tug or in chase – you are rewarding the biting. Do you know what? The same argument could be made about ALL behaviours where the dog is doing something inappropriate and you ask it to do something else which you then reward. Don’t bite me, bite this. Don’t jump on me, give me a sit. Don’t bark, carry a toy. It’s not entirely ludicrous. If you only ever use a tug toy or play chase when your dog is biting you, then your dog may superstitiously end up thinking that it needs to bite to get the reward. Kathy Sdao talks also about how she accidentally trained dogs to think they must jump up before a sit. I’m sure she’s joking – she is far too good a trainer to make such an error, but it is a small concern nonetheless.

There is a very simple solution if you share this concern about following biting with a toy.

Don’t connect the alternative or incompatible behaviour with biting. Don’t make the bite a perfect predictor of a toy.

If 90% of chase, fetch or tug relates to non-bitey situations, you’ll never be in a situation where the dog thinks it has to do A in order for B. If you’re often chasing, fetching or tugging, why would you think you need to bite first if those things only accidentally coincide 5% of the time?

Another thing kicks in. Matching law. This is the science that says when we’re presented with two choices, we choose that which is most reinforcing or least punishing. If you make chase or tug more reinforcing than biting, you are onto a winner.

So I don’t behave like a dog, I don’t use dog-style punishers.

I use incompatible or alternative behaviours.

And it works.

There have been times when biting has been more fun than chasing a ball or playing tug. We’re talking about predispositions to pleasurable behaviours here, and biting feels like lots of fun. Don’t judge your dog for enjoying fighting or playing at fighting. Boxing matches aren’t much more than a ritualised way for us to enjoy hurting each other or watching others get hurt. Most sports satisfy some primitive primate need in us to battle in ritualised ways, even chess. We humans shouldn’t be judgey about dogs who enjoy scratching some ancient behavioural itch.

 

There are dogs who really do need to learn that biting is not socially acceptable, though, who are happily redirecting onto a toy where human biting is concerned, but biting their friends WAY too hard.

That’s where the other advice comes in about socialising the puppy with other puppies is often given with the expectation that the other puppies can teach bite inhibition and bite strength, as if it’s some kind of canine bushido.

I kind of agree, but I also know dogs. Some puppies’ biting increases with others, meaning it is reinforcing – dare I say something unscientific like pleasurableThey are learning that hard biting is so much fun and that people and dogs squeal and that’s a lot of fun as well, and that then they panic and try to escape, and that’s fun as well. It all sets off the automatic modal predatory behavioural patterns that are a ‘click whirr’ as an almost instinctive pattern kicks in and the conscious brain switches off. Have you met a terrier and their favourite tug toy?!

In other words, some puppies might be all samurai manners and the rules of engagement… but others are dirty little cage fighters who get off on biting ears off and think nothing of giving you a rump bite if you won’t engage. Others still are trapped in some other part of the sequence like my beauceron foster and his love of chase, where he is always the chaser and never the chasee. Not every puppy comes equipped with the full set of Canine Bushido rules, that’s for sure. Someone had definitely torn out the pages in Effel’s copy when it came to role reversal. And he wasn’t a dog who got off on biting.

What’s it doing to those other puppies – who are still learning Dog Bushido themselves – to be practising their Katas when a young Hannibal the Cannibal is in the room?

The truth is that puppies can and do play rougher than adult dogs ever do. But I don’t think it does them any favours to spend most of their time with other puppies who enjoy hurting each other or who are still at the beginner end of the behaviour spectrum.

Think about it.

If you grew up with lots of children as your friends, and little adult supervision, you may well grow up not really understanding why you don’t pinch people or give them skin burns. The adult world is different from the world of children – and if the only adults you meet are your mum and your siblings, you’re up for a dysfunctional view of the world from the start.

Not only that, if good puppies have to be responsible for teaching bad puppies, something is wrong with that picture. Why entrust something important to beginners? It could end badly for those good puppies happily doing their yellow belts with fun-time fox terriers if some pup comes to class with a very stabby set of knuckle dusters and a nunchaku.

I don’t think puppies playing with other puppies is entirely the answer to bite inhibition.

I think it has a role to play, but I think that exposure to adult dogs and adult dog behaviour is vital too.

Take the wonderful puppies belonging to a friend. Neither had a particularly advantageous start to life. They were born in foreign countries, shipped miles to a better life, and one in particular has had a run-in with a dog at some point before she arrived that has damaged her eye. She spent the first two weeks back and forward at the vets. She has some lead frustration – it is her fundamental right to meet all dogs, in her opinion – which is massively improved through some particularly expert and sympathetic socialising. That socialising has been with lots and lots of unfamiliar adult dogs and with an older sibling who was already rock solid.

Whilst their meeting here with my adult dogs was noisy and muddy and humpy (oh Heston!) a puppy who is brusque sometimes in meetings and plays hard understood that you don’t bounce Tilly or Amigo or Flika, and that Heston doesn’t mind it if you grab his mane and bop him in the nose or tell him off for humping your sister. Puppies don’t have those social skills yet, just as human children don’t, and if all they meet are other puppies, then they aren’t able to pick up those nice dog manners or the nuances of behaviour that older dogs have. What I liked most was how she completely ignored my oldies who don’t appreciate bouncing. Not a one of them had to tell her off.

So… is the answer to puppy biting more time with other puppies?

Perhaps it would be better spent with some fabulous older dogs who can disengage gently.

This is Heston with Lisa. I’d had to separate her from her brother as his squealing was not only not working, but it was also turning into something fun. She was 8 weeks old in this video.

Now as you can see, Heston nicely self-handicaps to allow Lisa full access to him, and contrary to one person’s comments on a Facebook thread, his paw at the end is not a pin or a grab or a punch. It’s not discipline. It’s just a very gentle ‘enough’ that she can get out of without problem and then he stands up and they disengage. No yelping. You can see she’s learning mouth control. You can hear those full clacks of teeth that show she’s not got full control of her jaw yet.

Adult dogs play like this where puppies may not. That yelping wasn’t working at all with Lisa’s brother. She did need to learn how to play and when no means no, but her brother wasn’t helping. All he was doing was bringing out the inner bully and teaching her that it feels mighty fine to hurt other dogs.

So, in answer to the original statement, I don’t yelp, yip or say ouch and then disengage. I am not a dog.

I don’t even know if puppies really do learn bite inhibition and manners in that way.

I don’t like the school of thought that we should do as dogs do.

I also don’t like using punishers with dogs, especially with ones who are weeks old and perhaps not quite as switched on to operant learning as we might think. You might understand you can sit for a biscuit, but there’s a whole lot more to learn.

I don’t think yelping is an effective warning and it’s not a no-reward marker. A no-reward marker says, “try again” not “stop”. Teaching better behaviours through redirecting to a previously taught object like a toy is great, and beginning retrieves might satisfy other urges whilst meaning that your puppy is physically unable to shark you.

I don’t think you can easily cause a puppy to superstitiously learn that they need to bite to get a toy unless you are on a 1:1 ratio of always following biting with a toy, and never using that toy at another time.

I don’t think puppies socialising with other puppies will cure biting. I think it could have fallout for those who know the rules. Why should nice puppies put up with a biter who gets reinforced by doing so? All we’re doing is reinforcing bullying and breeding problems for the future.

I do think we should teach a puppy a better behaviour than biting, or to bite things that are appropriate. I’m with John Rogerson once more (and you wouldn’t believe how infrequently that happens!) in that I don’t think dogs should put teeth on humans or really on other dogs. I don’t mind a bit of mane-pulling or mouth-wrestling, but I don’t want to see teeth on the skin of any live creature, thank you very much. Body slamming, jaw sparring, leg wrestling, hip checking and over-aroused games of chase are one thing, but teeth are entirely another.

We should be reinforcing incompatible or alternative behaviours long before we start using punishers, especially with 8 week old puppies. It’s unethical to start in the P side of the quadrant when you haven’t tried out the R side.

Puppies should also hang around a lot of expert older dogs who might not be masters of Canine Bushido, but who play by the rules. That’s not because those Bushido Masters are going to teach through punishment, yelping or disengagement, but because they know how to end things gracefully. I most love how Heston realises that Lisa is getting overstimulated and disengages before it gets worse. That’s pretty cool for a dog found in a box at one day of age, who only knew one sibling until he was six weeks old, and a terrier puppy found in a box with her brother at six weeks old. You don’t need puppy parties, and we shouldn’t be trusting puppies to teach each other about good behaviour. We need the experts of good behaviour to teach that, and by their very nature, those dogs are not puppies.

Anyway, that’s my long and waffly take on why I won’t be yelping or saying ow ever again, or letting puppies hang around exclusively with other puppies. I know it’s controversial. It shouldn’t be as controversial a view as it is in the force-free world; I simply think many of us have taken this piece of advice and run with it without thinking about it too deeply.

You may of course disagree and think that ouches and brief time-outs are the best method ever for teaching bite inhibition. The truth is that we’ve only anecdote to go off. But having spent a little time reflecting on it, I’m sure you understand why I feel as I do. You may even find this advice on other parts of my website – I’ll be updating if I find them, I promise. I don’t think, having really thought it through, that I can go back to giving the advice about yelping and disengaging anymore.