Geez, dog, learn to take a hint
July 28, 2012 9:50 AM   Subscribe

My puppy has taken to playing by biting other dogs' (and cats') ears. Do I need to get him to stop? And if so, how?

About 2 months I adopted a 9 month old Havanese/Pomeranian mix that I named Mr. Dog. Obligatory adorable doggie photo.

I take him to the dog park almost every day. He's taken to biting ears as his form of play. Not hard, just nipping playfully then dodging back, then going in again, and he keeps that up for quite awhile. Obviously since ears are so sensitive for dogs, some dogs are bothered by this. Some are just mildly annoyed, but others start to get kind of pissed. Some growl a bit at him right away, some put up with it a little bit before doing it. Either way, he doesn't seem to take the hint. A dog can actually snarl at him and he doesn't seem to get that that means "Hey, cut it out!" He also does the ear biting to his "doggie best friend" that lives in my apartment complex, as well as the outdoors cat that lives here.

I'd really rather he didn't play this way. I'm concerned that one day he's going to keep nipping at the wrong dog and end up bitten for real. But I don't know how to stop him. If I tell him "no" he just thinks I'm saying "Don't play at all" which obviously isn't the case.

I don't want to stop taking him to the dog park. He loves it there. He loves playing with other dogs. He just sometimes can't take a hint.

Is this something he'll just grow out of? Should I try and stop him, or can I? Or does he just have to have that one bad experience to know not to do that anymore? That sort of "ouch, that hurt, I won't do that again" learning so far doesn't seem his forte.
posted by dithmer to Pets & Animals (8 answers total)
My lab went through a phase of doing this, and was also unable to take a hint. He outgrew it after awhile. I just kept an eye on him at the park and tried to keep him away from dogs whom he was especially irritating. For what it's worth, they all seemed to get that he was a puppy and no one ever snapped at him 'for real'. A sharp nip to tell them to ease up is just part of the socializing process, I think.
posted by torisaur at 9:57 AM on July 28, 2012

also, teething? make sure there's plenty of chew toys for him to gnaw on...
posted by sexyrobot at 10:25 AM on July 28, 2012

From my experience it's a puppy like behaviour to try and get other dogs to play and that dogs for the most part grow out of. Most dogs are very tolerant of puppy antics by nature and while they may discipline them to teach them more socially acceptable behavior with a snap or a growl or even just holding him down with their foot.

Puppies also do a lot of mouthing. If your puppy follows such behaviour at home discouraging it there will also help the puppy learn what is and isn't acceptable in the world at large. This is a very good article about it.

If he gets too irritating to other dogs I would definitely distract him the second the other dogs start to look annoyed, as you are dealing with strange dogs. I'd work on distracting him with a game with you or simply by calling him to you and running through a few behaviours like sit or whatever and rewarding him for being good and doing what you say.

My Silky still does this at the age of three with his boxer friend to get him to play, but the boxer treats him like he's still a puppy and lets him get away with it and they have a lot of fun. Other dogs however have taught him that it's not acceptable behaviour with anyone but his friend.
posted by wwax at 10:34 AM on July 28, 2012

It's a puppy behavior that he may grow out or, or may retain if not actively discouraged from it. My take is that you do want to find a way to end the behavior as soon as possible. Not all dogs are patient with annoying puppies, and you're correct in thinking he's targeting an especially sensitive spot by biting ears. He'll likely to get corrected severely at some point if allowed to continue, and I'd be worried about that given his size and apparent cluelessness.

Your best bet may be to talk/train with a behaviorist. If you want to get started before that, here's what I'd try (IANAB). Teach a solid "leave it" with positive rewards and then redirect your pup to playing with a favorite toy. Also, it's worth trying to tire him out with a walk before you hit the dog park.
posted by vers at 10:41 AM on July 28, 2012

This is completely normal puppy behavior, and it's actually a good method for learning how to properly play and otherwise socialize with other dogs. Dogs like to wrestle, and an older dog will know how to take care of himself and give the puppy proper cues about what is and is not acceptable in the world of dog play. As wwax says, when the other dog snaps, growls, returns the mouthing favor, or even pins the puppy down and makes him/her whine a bit - that's all part of being socialized.

That said, we've let our puppies do this with known dogs, not dogs that are complete strangers. If you're comfortable with the other dogs at the park and feel like it's a generally safe environment with friendly dogs who are themselves well socialized, I would keep an eye out but otherwise let your puppy learn this way.
posted by beanie at 10:44 AM on July 28, 2012

As noted, it's normal puppy behaviour to nip and push boundaries.

Adult dogs will growl and snap at the puppy, this is also normal behaviour and is the adult dog saying "You're being rude, knock it off". It's the adult dogs way of teaching the puppy what is and isn't acceptable in the dog world. Don't get angry with adult dogs who put the puppy in its place, they aren't trying to hurt it and the chance of a serious accidental injury is quite small.

I'd disagree with the advice about distracting the puppy from the other dogs before they have a chance to voice their displeasure... it's like having a child who's drawing on the wall of someone elses house and instead of correcting the behaviour you give him some cookies to make him stop drawing on the wall. The child never learns that drawing on the wall is not an appropriate thing to do.

Better for the pup to learn how to behave in canine society now, before he becomes an adult and other adult dogs are WAY less tolerant of that behaviour.
posted by Beacon Inbound at 12:26 PM on July 28, 2012

Yup. Normal. The other dogs will be much better at schooling your dog in acceptable play than you'll be, so don't worry. It's fine.
posted by space_cookie at 2:59 PM on July 28, 2012

Do you have friendly relationships with any of the other dog owners at the park? If so, I'd talk to the ones you have some familiarity with about this situation and the need to allow your pup to be schooled by friendly adult dogs. This might help distinguish between the dogs who will put him in his place, and the ones who might react more strongly. I wouldn't rely on the mostly, but definitely not universally, true common knowledge that adult dogs will be patient with a puppy. For whatever weird reason my female dog actively dislikes young dogs in particular, and doesn't even want them near her. I would definitely not trust her at all with a nipper.
posted by taz at 1:53 AM on July 29, 2012

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