By Joan Orr M.Sc.
This is the fifth in our series about how to stop your puppy from biting. Please read the previous installments, since we won’t be repeating information and you will want to know why it is important to teach your puppy how to bite softly and then not at all. All the strategies we offer are important and you should use them all. Click here to see all the parts in this series. Some of this article is excerpted from an article published at clickertraining.com. Click here to view the entire article if you want more details and more advanced steps once your puppy has the basic idea.
Teach the Puppy to Leave It
An important strategy in helping the puppy to learn what he can and cannot bite and whether he is biting too hard is to teach a cue that tells the puppy to leave it. Some people use the cue “leave it” or “out” or “off”. In our example we will use the word “off”. You can use whatever you want, just be sure that this word is unique for the purpose. For example, you would not use this to tell the puppy to get off the couch or to take his paws off you. Choose a word that is going to be easy for you to remember to use in a consistent context.
Command vs Cue
Many people train “off” as a command with its associated threat: “Leave it or else.” The trouble is, once the dog has swallowed the light bulb (I am not making this up), or Granny’s $3000 hearing aid, the ensuing “or else” does not do much to remedy the situation. It is not as if you can dock the dog’s allowance or extract an IOU to pay for the costs of his transgression. Experienced clicker trainers, especially those whose training goals require an exceptional degree of reliability (those who work with guide dogs, service dogs, bomb detection dogs, etc.), know that training cues rather than commands produces a dog that can be counted on even in very difficult situations. Be sure to watch the video clips at the end of this article to see the results of training with cues using clicker training.
It is important to understand the difference between a cue and a command. A command implies a threat: “Do it or I will make you.” A command is given before the behavior is learned, and it can be enforced if the dog does not comply. For example, a trainer may teach “sit” by pushing down on the dog’s rump while saying sit, repeating the word and action over and over until the dog figures out that the word sit goes with the action of sitting, and that sitting fast enough will prevent the rump pushing. In the early stages of this kind of training, the dog associates the command “sit” with all kinds of stimuli and with actions that have nothing to do with the dog sitting on its own. Eventually after much frustration he figures it out.
“Off” is commonly trained as a command by placing a temptation near the dog and holding him back, or tugging on his leash and saying “off” in a stern tone of voice. If the dog does manage to grab the prohibited item, the command is repeated while the item is forcibly removed from the dog’s mouth. This method is stressful for the dog, and he may not learn much. In many cases, the command approach may place the trainer at risk of being bitten, too.
A cue is completely different from a command. There is no threat implied with a cue. A cue is like a green light that tells the dog that now is the time to execute a behavior for the chance of reinforcement.
A cue is attached to a specific behavior only after the dog is offering the behavior on his own. The “sit” cue, for example, is only given once the dog has learned to sit, and, therefore, the cue is not associated with anything other than the act of sitting. If the dog does not respond to a cue, a trainer knows that further training is required. The trainer does not assume that the dog is intentionally misbehaving and must be forced or helped to do the behavior.
Getting the Behavior
A common and very reasonable question about teaching cues is, “How do you get the dog to sit or demonstrate the goal behavior in the first place, so that you can click/treat and eventually add a cue?”
An easy way to get the puppy to take his mouth off your hand so that you can then click (or say yes) and reinforce was described by Carolyn Clark (click here for the original article) and summarized here.
A popular method is to hold a treat in your closed fist and allow the dog to sniff, lick, paw it—whatever he wants to do to try to get the treat. Keep your fist closed until he backs off for just a fraction of a second, then click and open your hand to give him the treat. Alternatively, you can click when he backs off, and give him a better treat from your other hand. Avoid the temptation to say anything—no scolding or otherwise telling him not to pester your hand. The dog learns best if he figures it out for himself without fear of reprisal.
If the dog is too frantic to get at the treat, use something less tantalizing to start. If the dog loses interest and does not try to get the treat, use something more tantalizing.
Raise criteria gradually so that the click/treat comes only when the dog is deliberately moving his head back several inches from your hand. Raise criteria again so that the click/treat comes only when the dog makes eye contact with you after moving away from your hand. Gradually require longer periods of eye contact, until the dog backs off from your hand and maintains eye contact for three seconds. Now is the time to add the cue “off.”
Show the dog your fist containing the treat. When he looks away from it and toward you, say “off,” click, offer the treat, and say “take it.” Teaching opposite cues in pairs like this is a really effective approach. From now on, always say “take it” when you give a treat after the dog responds to the “off” cue.
Here is a video demonstrating the method by super trainer Emily Larlham. Emily uses the cue “leave it”. Notice the tone of voice; there is no threat. Note the extreme reliability of the behavior. Emily puts a plate of food down, asks the dogs to leave it and leaves the room. We recommend that you watch all of Emily’s training videos!
Here is another video that demonstrates the extraordinary power of this type of training. See a dog retreiving a hot dog and another willingly relinquishing a raw steak.