Dr. Nichol’s Blog – Mouthy, Nippy, Chewy – Part 3


Fufu’s sharp teeth and nails had scratched and scraped his people enough times that they were reluctant to handle the little guy. It was painful for them. They needed the step-by-step of getting their wild child under control but first we had to set him up for success.

Treatment of behavior disorders can be a mixed bag. With the tough cases the best science sometimes brings only moderate improvement. Young Fufu’s jumping, mouthing, and nipping was a serious problem but he had a shot at making a real turnaround; he was still a kid and his people were committed. Melissa and Jeremy grasped the concept of bringing out the best in their young hellion.

There are sayings we all hear from well-meaning people, you know, folks who are quick to share their version of canine behavior wisdom. A few of these sayings are actually spot-on. Here’s one of my faves, “A tired dog is a happy dog.” Damn straight.

Physical and mental engagement has benefits: weight management, reduced anxiety, joint health, and long life. This can be a challenge for household dogs because few of them are gainfully employed. Unlike a human child Fufu did not spend his days in school, slog through his homework, and then take off for soccer practice. His pet parents didn’t notice; they were busy with their careers. Melissa and Jeremy arrived home tired, ready to put their feet up and wind down. Not Fufu. He was just getting started.

There were critical elements that absent in this boy’s life. Like all youngsters he needed to play with others of his ilk but there were no other puppies in the human domicile where he was stuck. Stuck? Fufu had little in the way of canine choices and activities. His people wanted nothing but the best for him but they were unaware that he was missing anything when, in fact, he was missing a lot. Ignorance can cause harm.

Dogs are a domestic species to be sure. They belong with us. The ‘but’ is that they have species-typical needs that are different than ours. Regardless of their age dogs are genetically programmed to engage in canine behaviors. If prevented from doing as they must they can manifest their frustration in ways their people find unpleasant. I told Melissa and Jeremy that Fufu would be a happier dog if he got good and tired – everyday.

Several years ago I’ve toured a boarding kennel that offered exercise for its canine lodgers. They’ll teach your dog to run on a treadmill. Hey, why not? It is exercise and, after a few miles in the “gym”, a dog is tired. Sadly, his brain is not.

Dogs’ brains are not built to survive by earning food for logging steps on a Fit Bit. They’ll eat from a bowl lovingly filled by their human but they are genetically hard-wired to forage and scavenge and on a good day to bring down a live creature. To make Fufu’s life canine-specific all his people needed to do was to import a colony of rabbits and for the holidays, drag home some ripe carrion, nicely aged from its time on the road side.

Melissa and Jeremy could have moved off the grid and set up housekeeping in a cave to allow Fufu to forage for his survival. Living the life of a real dog would have gone a long way in reducing his nutty behavior. I didn’t even try to negotiate this “ideal”. Instead I recommended a simulation of the Wild Kingdom: food dispensing toys and puzzles.

Some meant for canned food, others for dry, these gizmos challenge a dog to figure out how to extract bits of his sustenance. Rather than ever eating from a bowl Fufu would use his brain, his paws, lips, and teeth to work loose plenty of calories every day. Being treated like a dog allowed him to do what he was meant to do, even in a human home, and get good and tired while he was at it. Working to survive also made him a happier dog.

With Fufu significantly calmer Melissa and Jeremy found him to be less mouthy, nippy, and jumpy. He still needed a legitimate direction for his naturally playful self. Reminding them that any response to undesirable behavior would only serve to reinforce it I taught them to ignore anything pesky and then to redirect their young dog’s attention as soon as he chose a calmer mindset.

During my conversations with these good folks I came to learn that Jeremy and I shared a valuable part of our youths, although a couple of generations apart. We had each been Boy Scouts. Like me he had achieved the rank of Eagle. We both knew the value of being prepared. Rather than scrambling about when Fufu did the predictable – mouthing and nipping – his folks were going to be always ready.

A 6 foot leash attached to a dog’s collar can be dragged around wherever he goes. We call it a drag line for rather obvious reasons. A light weight carabineer on each dog parent’s belt would also come in handy. Finally, an appealing chew toy in each person’s pocket and a few more on the floor would make it possible for you-know-who to make good choices.

With the teachers and the student suitably accessorized, and the latter happily tired, we lit the rocket. Like any good classroom the instructors were also the leaders. Keeping a half an eye on their goofy puppy, Melissa and Jeremy were ready to ignore the wrong behaviors and to quietly reinforce the calmer alternative. They were also prepared to redirect Fufu’s wildness to an appropriate outlet – a handy chew toy.

It went something like this: Fufu gets that look in his eye, you know, that “let’s rumble” glint that only belongs in the school yard but never in the classroom. At the first hint of pending mayhem the person completely ignores, steps on the drag line (to avoid having to dive for it), picks it up, and derails the scenario by marching with purpose into another room.

Complete ignoring is powerful and can make a real difference quickly if the nonsense in the dog’s brain hasn’t ramped-up too high. When a quick glance back at a totally ignored dog (who is so fully ignored that he “doesn’t exist”) indicates a somewhat calmer, softer body posture the leader should quietly say, “Good boy, Fufu” and then with a flourish pull a toy out of his/her pocket. Squatting down and offering a bit of play with their fine young barbarian would be the ultimate reinforcer for the kid abandoning his previously nefarious intent. They were instructed to repeat hundreds of times.

So why the carabineer on the belt? Gee, how much of every waking moment did Melissa and Jeremy want to invest in smoothing-off Fufu’s rough edges? There were times, and on some days all of the time, when simply having their boy tethered to their belt would make it easier to derail his shenanigans early, create distance from the would-be crime scene (molested pet parent), and reinforce his improved emotional state with play that did not involve a human body part.

Another great advantage of tethering Fufu to a leader was that they could actually sit and live their lives. A comfy pad and a loaded food toy would make it convenient for Fufu to engage in primal foraging within arm’s reach.

So what about all those other chew toys littering the floor? Whenever Melissa or Jeremy redirected Fufu to the toy from their pocket the little guy could keep it for as long as he wanted. To be prepared for the next nascent crime (there would be another) they would pick up a toy from the floor and carry it like a talisman, ready for the next opportunity to bring out the best in their puppy.

A final word: This structure is well-founded in current learning theory and it works, but not overnight. Repetition is key. Punishment is quicker but is prone to go very wrong.

Fufu didn’t rough-up his human leaders because he was evil. He started his nippy, mouthy, jumpy behavior because in the beginning he didn’t know what else to do. His people could have managed his nonsense by hitting, yelling, jerking on a leash, or even with electric shock (this actually happens). But intimidating Fufu could never nurture the loving bond that he and his people wanted to build.

Nobody had any business trying to stop Fufu’s natural puppy playfulness and his need to chew. So we gave him the means to scavenge and the guidance to earn good things from his leaders so he could function like a real dog. He learned that being a wild and crazy guy was a great part of life when it was directed toward his dog toys. And, of course, he caught on well because he was happier. He worked hard every day procuring his own groceries from food-dispensing toys and puzzles. He had no use for a dog food bowl.

And just in case some well-intentioned “dog person” suggested whacking Fufu on the nose to correct his mouthing and nipping I made a human connection. Children who are hit in the face for being mouthy tend rebel even worse. A few withdraw and become isolated. Kindness is much healthier. It feels better for everybody.

I hope you’ve found this information helpful. You’re welcome to share this blog with any of your dog-loving friends. Each week I share a short video, a podcast, or a blog to help bring out the best in pets and their people. You can sign up at no charge on my website www.drjeffnichol.com. And when you do, I’ll send you my free at-home pet first aid and CPR guide. I’m Dr. Jeff Nichol.

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