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

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Do your pets crack under holiday pressure? You can ask me anything or just listen in during my Facebook Live event, called “Pet Angst: Naughty or Nice?” at 6 PM on Wednesday, December 19. Go to Facebook.com/drjeffnichol. Invite your friends. Together we’ll reach peace on earth.

Taking a puppy into your life is a little like adopting a toddler. They’re fun and smiley a lot of the time but then they nip and mouth your hands and chew up your stuff. I know these things; I’ve raised children and dogs. You have to take action. You’re the boss. Let there be no doubt – you are the big banana, the head honcho, the top dog. I get it. So what do you do?

Fufu (ah, yes, that is his real name) was just 7 weeks old when he made his grand entry into the home of Melissa and Jeremy. They loved this little rapscallion immediately but he was a chewer, nipper, and a hand mouther almost from the get-go. And pretty soon there was marital discord. One spouse didn’t know what to do but the other one did. That person had watched TV and consulted the Internet.

Melissa and Jeremy were a busy 2-career young couple. When they first encountered Fufu and his siblings it was you-know-who that put himself front and center. He was immediately delighted to meet his future family, an omen they interpreted as love at first sight. Doesn’t that sound romantic? It happens somewhere every day.

Fufu, a young and restless German short haired pointer, may not have been the best fit for his new people. These dogs come genetically programmed, right out of the box, for action. It’s true that each litter has a variety of personalities but breed and temperament matter. Fufu was not a shrinking violet; he was the captain of chaos.

For a high-status assertive young hellion, jumping and nipping at his people’s hands as they moved about their apartment made perfect sense. This behavior drove Melissa and Jeremy crazy. They wanted to put the kibosh on Fufu’s nonsense 10 minutes ago. My first job was to explain why this was happening and that it did not portend a future of aggression. Fufu was never going to be Cujo.

There were actually legitimate reasons for Fufu to experience his new life orally. He’s a dog. These creatures don’t have opposable thumbs and their fingers are rather short and stubby. So, unlike human toddlers who see things with their hands puppies naturally check out textures and poke and prod their environments with their teeth. Fufu’s big problem wasn’t that he indulged in these nefarious acts occasionally. Unless he was asleep he perpetrated mayhem almost continuously. Melissa and Jeremy were only a few days into life with Fufu and they were already frazzled.

Fufu was far from flawless in part because he wasn’t set up to succeed. Among his major disadvantages was that he left home too early. Had he stayed with his family of origin a bit longer, maybe 5-7 weeks longer, he would have learned the concept of boundaries.

We understand a good deal about the early development of the canine brain. For example, from age 3-8 weeks puppies are taught by their mothers and their littermates how to interact with others of their ilk. During an overlapping period, from 5-12 weeks, they are ready to learn how to get along appropriately with our species. And from 10-12 weeks and again from 16-20 weeks of age they start exploring new environments. Puppies who don’t get these exposures during the appropriate time windows can be prone to behavior disorders later like aggression, defensiveness, and fear. The correct life experiences at the right times are important.

There is some debate among researchers regarding the best age for adopting a puppy. Under normal conditions, when the mother is interacting with her brood (playing and sleeping together), sometime between 8 and 10 weeks is recommended. These moms have had plenty of time to encourage proper engagement and put the brakes on the rough stuff.

Other credentialed experts might argue that free-living canine social groups have already worked out this answer. Long after theses pups are weaned from nursing they continue to learn by observing adult behaviors in their group, occasionally getting a little roughed-up by their elders for breaking canine social mores. Nature is ready for young dogs to completely leave the nest when they’re about 14-16 weeks old.

My opinion? Well, I thought you’d never ask. I didn’t conduct these studies; my research involved geriatric dog brains. But experience, and my take on the research, has taught me that as long as puppies have plenty of gentle human handling, from lots of different folks of different descriptions, starting at 5 weeks or earlier, allowing the litter to stay with mom until age 12-14 weeks is best.

There are differences among individuals in the same litter. Fufu, in particular, might have been a late bloomer. He could have benefitted from more canine parental guidance and a longer period of healthy sibling rivalry. Had he been left with his brothers and sisters longer he would have gained valuable maturity. If this confident fellow had ventured into Melissa’s and Jeremy’s home as a somewhat older and wiser puppy he might not have confused them with playmates. All that mouthing and nipping of hands was a clear indication that at the tender age of 7 weeks Fufu just didn’t get it.

Despite their lack of formal education on puppy social development some pet parents can reason out the causes of pesky, pushy, puppy performance. One member of Fufu’s pet parent duo was clear on this concept but the other believed that dogs of all ages somehow strive to take over the world. That if the person does not dominate them early, often, and with great clarity the dog will forever call the shots. This is more than ill-informed; it’s so wrong that it can turn a puppy’s simple ignorance into owner-directed defensive aggression. Harsh treatment is not an effective teacher. Instead of nurturing man’s or woman’s best friend you can end up with a fractured relationship and ultimately an incarcerated puppy with a rap sheet. Studies have shown that dogs who are punished are more likely to be surrendered to shelters.

Fufu’s behavior was not acceptable. He was pulling on Superman’s cape when he showed a lack of proper respect for his new pet parents. It was a challenging problem but certainly a manageable one. Tune in next week for chapter 2. We addressed Fufu’s errant ways not with a sword but with a light.

Do your pets crack under holiday pressure? You can ask me anything or just listen in during my Facebook Live event, called “Pet Angst: Naughty or Nice?” at 6 PM on Wednesday, December 19. Go to Facebook.com/drjeffnichol. Invite your friends. Together we’ll reach peace on earth.

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.