Yelping doesn’t always stop puppy biting. Many new puppy owners are often advised by dog trainers and experienced dog owners to yelp to stop a puppy from biting. These puppy owners are obviously frustrated though when they notice that yelping doesn’t stop puppy biting as hoped. While this technique may help with some pups, it doesn’t always work with others. Unfortunately, many puppy owners feel compelled to try other methods when yelping doesn’t work and often these methods involve confrontational techniques such as tapping the pup on the nose which may cause more problems down the road.
Why do Puppies Bite?
Biting (or more correctly, nipping and mouthing) is a normal behavior in puppies. Puppies use their mouths to explore and play because they don’t have the dexterous fingers and hands as we do.
If we watch puppies interact, we will see how they are constantly nipping each other in play. Puppies find legs, floppy ears and tails irresistible to play with because they move and provide loads of interactive fun.
Play in many animals encompasses rehearsing behaviors that will later on turn handy in life. In dogs, many play behaviors mimic hunting. We can see the stalking, the chasing, the pouncing, the grabbing.
Movement triggers predatory drive and therefore a puppy moving away and running will be readily chased. A moving tail will be readily nipped. The forward moving legs will be quite an attraction too, and many puppy owners may witness those funny episodes of a pup trying to walk while another pup is latched on to a leg with a crocodile hold.
Deprived from a littermate to focus on, it is natural for puppies to want to play with their humans in the same way they play among each other. Fingers, arms and legs soon become their favorite tug-toys to interact with. And the more they move, the better.
Withdrawing a hand from a pup’s mouth therefore attracts the pup more than going limp and motionless as a lamppost. No puppies are interested in interacting with lampposts after all (other than perhaps to pee on as the pups mature and learn to urine mark!). Why are lampposts otherwise so boring? Because they are inert and pretty inconspicuousobjects.
Yelping to Stop Puppy Biting
The purpose of yelping to stop puppy biting is adopted from what puppies do in the litter. When the puppies in the litter start playing, they do not have perfect control of their bites, especially when they are revved up and excited.
Should a puppy bite another puppy too hard, the puppy reacts by emitting a high-pitched yelp and withdrawing temporarily from play. The scenario may repeat several times and with different pups.
Yelp after yelp, the rough biting pup learns a valuable lesson: rough play makes his favorite playmates withdraw from play and the yelp is a vocal marker that predictably announces such withdrawal.
The yelping works in this case because it’s based on negative punishment. Negative punishment, in layman terms, involves withdrawal of something the dog enjoys contingent upon the presentation of the undesirable behavior. The term negative in this case is used to depict the removal of something the dog has interest in such as play, attention (appetitive stimuli) and the term punishment refers to suppression of the undesirable behavior.
The yelping followed by withdrawal of play would therefore be said to work only if the rough nipping decreases over time. Playmates provide constant feedback to the nipping puppy, by withdrawing from play when the pup plays rough and by playing more and more when the pup plays gently. Once the puppy learns to better inhibit his bite, he is therefore, rewarded with the privilege of longer sessions of almost uninterrupted play.
Humans are often advised to adopt the same yelping as it happens in the litter. As mentioned though, yelping doesn’t always stop puppy biting, so let’s see why.
Do Puppies Feel Empathy?
First, do puppies feel empathy? We don’t know with certainty whether puppies feel empathy towards us or towards other living beings, but exactly what is empathy?
According to the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, “Emotion researchers generally define empathy as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.”
Empathy is therefore quite a complex emotion that requires the puppy to put himself in our shoes. While a dog’s mind has been compared to the mind of a 2 or 3-year old child, and there is data supporting that toddlers show some form of primitive empathy around age two, this emotion isn’t fully developed until the child has reached four years of age or more, points out Stanley Coren.
When a puppy owner yelps in response to a pup nipping too hard, there may be therefore chances that the pup may be giving a more down-to-earth response based on emotional contagion. The pup might not understand exactly what the person may be feeling, but may react to the owner’s emotional distress by nuzzling, licking or coming over to sniff, not really to comfort the person, but rather to mainly comfort himself or perhaps just out of plain curiosity.
Two researchers though, namely psychologist Dr. Deborah Custance and psychologist Dr. Jennifer Mayer, decided to delve deeper on the subject by conducting some research. Their research concluded that dogs are, not only capable of understanding the emotions of their owners, but also the emotions of strangers, and their behavioral responses are likely consistent with an expression of empathic concern.
It would have been interesting though knowing whether puppies would have shown the same empatethic behavioral responses compared to dogs. Is empathy in dogs something they are naturally born with or is this something that they acquire as they mature? We don’t know this with certainty yet, so back to the subject why yelping doesn’t always stop puppy biting.
Why Yelping Doesn’t Always Stop Puppy Biting
There are several potential reasons why yelping doesn’t always stop puppy playing. A little troubleshooting can help reveal some possible flaws, but it’s important to point out that with some puppies the yelping may not work at all. Following are several reasons why yelping doesn’t always stop puppy biting.
These flaws associated with using yelping to stop puppy biting are significant enough that puppy owners may decide to try an alternate method, but hopefully one that is not based on aversion-based methods which may lead to more rough biting, mistrust and potential defensive aggression.
“My biggest concern in these situations is that owners may be using or are being told to use physical correction (alpha rolls, leash corrections, holding the mouth closed, pinching the tongue, hitting or tapping the muzzle) as a treatment strategy. Using physical correction can cause a fear response and can result in the puppy’s using aggression in an escalating fashion.”~John Ciribassi, veterinary behaviorist
Not Followed by Immediate Withdrawal
Since we cannot ascertain whether puppies feel empathy for us of for other living beings and we don’t know whether they realize that the yelp means that they have hurt our sensitive skin, yelping on its own typically doesn’t work. It’s best to go instead by what we know.
What we know with more certainty is that dog behavior is governed by consequences and when yelping is accompanied by a consequence (in this case withdrawal from play) the yelping behavior has a potential tendency to decrease.
Therefore, yelping on its own might not work, unless it becomes a vocal marker immediately followed by withdrawal from play. The word immediately is emphasized in italics because timing is crucial to create the association between yelp and withdrawal.
Now withdrawal can mean different things to different people, it can mean, simply freezing, turning limp or turning the back to the pup or leaving the room. These forms of withdrawal may work with some pups, but not all.
For very movement oriented pups, turning the back and walking to leave the room may encourage further engagement with the pup latching on and chasing. Now, the pup may get the the idea that he has lost his favorite playmate once the owner has left the room, but he might have had a blast of fun in the meanwhile, so there is no guarantee whether the association was made.
Extinction Burst Phenomenon
If your puppy was used to you playing with him despite his rough biting and now you suddenly decide to yelp and stop playing, this inconsistency may pave the path to a phenomenon known as an extinction burst. It’s not really a bad thing, actually, it’s a good thing, but you really need to know what to do about it to prevent the biting from getting worse. Here’s a closer insight into what happens.
When puppies play with our hands, and they bite hard and we keep playing, their biting is reinforced because they associate it with continued attention and play. What happen the day though when we suddenly stop playing and ignore the behavior? The puppy may feel compelled to bite stronger and with more intensity just to get us to play with them again (extinction burst).
The phenomenon is similar to what happens when you always buy candy to a toddler when he cries for candy and then one day you decide to become strict and refuse to buy it (let’s say a dentist reported too many cavities). Next, watch the toddler cry even more, and possibly, progress to the worst temper tantrum you have ever witnessed on earth.
Now, what happens next is very critical: if you give up and buy the candy, you will have just rewarded persistence. The toddler has learned that crying longer and louder will gain the candy and will keep using this strategy at full intensity. But what happens if you don’t give in? Chances are high that if you stick to your plan, you may witness perhaps a couple more extinction bursts, but then the behavior will eventually extinguish, pufffff… just like a fire without oxygen to fuel it.
Therefore, it’s important that you stick to your plan when training your puppy to stop nipping hard. If your puppy has played with you rough in the past and now you wish him to stop (as his teeth are starting to inflict pain), it’s important, that, should you decide to go the yelping- and- withdrawal- from- play route, that you stick to it.
And if the puppy has an extinction burst and risks hurting you, you are better off to stop any interaction and even leave the room if necessary (without dragging a pup attached to your leg hopefully!) or… to avoid all this, try a different training strategy altogether.
Not all Dogs are Created Equal
Another main reason why yelping doesn’t always stop puppy biting is that not all puppies are created equal. Yelping followed by withdrawal from play may work with some puppies (perhaps the most mellow ones), but not all. Indeed, some puppies seem to become even more excited or aroused when they hear the yelping. This is the beauty of working with dogs; not all dogs are created equally and therefore you can never take a cookie-cutter approach for changing behavior.
Why do some puppies get more hyper and excited after hearing people “yelp?” Most likely for the same reason they love squeaky toys: yelps and squeaks trigger a dog’s predatory drive. How fun is it to play with a live tug toy (you) which, on top of moving, emits squeaking and squawking noises too?
Of course, that small puppy has no intent to maul you, but there are chances that those yelping sounds just might make you sound more like a hurt animal than anything revving up those instincts. With puppies as such, it may therefore help to skip the yelping and just walk away, count up to 20 and then return, rising and repeating as often as necessary. If walking away means having a landshark attached to a leg, then best to try another method altogether such as teaching sokme constructive replacement behaviors.
Now, that you know some reasons why yelping doesn’t always stop puppy biting read next: How to stop a puppy from biting your feet and hands using replacement behaviors.
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