Why Dog Training "Tips" Often Fail: Puppy Biting Edition

When I began apprenticing as a dog trainer, almost a decade ago, I had a million questions for my new mentor, Laura Monaco Torelli, and most of them started with, “What do I do when . . . ”

I imagined any professional dog trainer would just have a mental catalog of predetermined responses for various situations: When the dog does this, you should do that. If he does that, you do this.

But instead, the answer to almost all of my questions, to my frustration, started with some variation on “Well, it depends.”

It turns out this answer is so common in dog training that it’s sort of an inside joke—at one seminar I attended, a presenter joked that she should just have a T-shirt made.

It would be a couple more years before I really understood this answer, and I’m not sure I truly, deeply grokked it until my interest in dog behavior led me into the broader field of applied behavior analysis.

That’s where, finally, I learned that what we think of as a single behavior—let’s use puppy biting as an example today—can actually be many different behaviors, and that each one must be viewed in context of its specific antecedents and consequences.

Antecedents are signals in the environment that tell the animal a given behavior is likely to produce reinforcement now. Consequences are outcomes that make the behavior more or less likely the next time the same circumstances arise. Behaviors that produce desired consequences will be repeated, and antecedents that predict desired consequences for a given behavior will become cues for those behaviors. To change behavior, we have to adjust these environmental conditions.

This is why dog training “tips” and even whole “methods” sometimes fail. General advice, by nature, cannot take into account the specific context in which a behavior occurs.

Yeah, yeah, you say. I get it in theory—but my puppy is biting my hand right now, and it hurts like a motherf@#%er. I have to do something, don't I?

The good news is that with some practice, assessing why a behavior might be occurring and figuring out what to change doesn’t have to take long.

First, identify the behavior—just one, and just the facts, no interpretation or implied motive.

Then, as if you were examining a filmstrip frame by frame, look at what typically happens immediately before and just after, in similarly objective terms. For example:

ANTECEDENT: I move my hand toward the puppy’s collar.

BEHAVIOR: The puppy puts her teeth on my arm.

CONSEQUENCE: I pull my hand away.

Now we can make a hypothesis—an educated guess—about whether, if these conditions are repeated, the behavior is more or less likely to happen again next time. It can be helpful to rephrase the above terms as “when,” “if,” and “then”:

WHEN I reach toward the puppy’s collar

IF the puppy puts her teeth on my arm

THEN I pull my hand away.

PREDICTION: When I reach for the collar, the puppy will continue to put her teeth on my arm in order to make my hand go away.

We don’t know why this hypothetical puppy wants my hand to go away. We don’t know if she’s “angry” (a label often used to describe a group of behaviors that people with better understanding of dog body language might call “scared”). It’s unhelpful to speculate whether she is “dominant.” But with just the observable facts, we can make a plan and test our hypothesis.

One approach might be to teach the puppy that as I reach toward her collar, she can do a different behavior that produces a consequence she likes:

WHEN I reach toward the puppy’s collar

IF she looks forward

THEN I give a treat

PREDICTION: The puppy will increasingly look forward more when I reach toward her collar.

What’s more, the puppy’s motivation to make my hand go away in the first place is probably going to get weaker. After all, my reach now predicts a treat.

There are lots of variables in this simple-sounding process. For instance, if the puppy is extremely uncomfortable being reached for, we might have to break it into small steps, only reaching partway toward the collar at first. The treats need to be something this particular puppy really values, not just something that came in a bag labeled TREATS. For one puppy, I might be able to just catch her looking forward before she turns toward my hand. For another, I might prompt the new behavior more explicitly to start, say, by presenting a treat right in front of her nose as I reach in, until she starts to anticipate that it will be there.

Over time, the puppy can also learn that me reaching for the collar predicts me clipping the leash on, which predicts a walk. At this stage, if the puppy finds going for a walk reinforcing, treats can be faded out.

Now let’s look at another puppy biting scenario, where the behavior looks the same (and hurts just as much), but the function is different:

WHEN I am working on my computer

IF the puppy bites my arm

THEN I reach for a toy

PREDICTION: The puppy will bite my arm more often when I am working on my computer.

The function of this behavior is different from the function in the previous example—and thus it best assessed as an entirely different behavior.

The first time your puppy bites your arm here, she probably isn’t requesting a squeaky. But behaviors that start with one function can easily acquire another. Sitting is not the behavior dogs naturally do to get food. Yet most pet dogs, even if you’re barely making an effort to train them, will somehow learn to sit to acquire food. Think about that—what animal, in the wild, sits to get food?

In this case, your solution should acknowledge that a puppy needs lots of legal stuff to do with her mouth. So you can still direct her to a toy, but timing matters: Take your arm out of play right away, without a lot of fuss, and then watch for a moment or two of some other behavior that you like better. Then present the toy so that it not only satisfies the puppy's need to chew or play but also reinforces that bit of more desirable behavior.

Other, even better options:

Give your puppy the toy as soon as you sit down at the computer—before she has to “ask.”

Limit the ways in which she will be able to "ask." For example, you could confine her to an exercise pen near you during computer time, with plenty of legal options for chewing and play, but zero access to your pants. Think of the pen as training wheels: she can ride the bike, but she can’t fall over. When she’s developed good riding habits, you can take the training wheels off.

From there, you can teach easily your puppy something like:

WHEN I am working on my computer

IF you sit next to me

THEN I will give you a toy

Note: This is a place where standard "tips" can really go awry. The behavior here doesn't have to be a sit—and maybe it shouldn't be. Sitting might be hard for your individual dog, because it hurts his hips or because he's too excited or because the surface near where you use your computer is slippery. Standing, lying down, or doing an adorable head tilt might be acceptable or even preferable ways of making this polite request. For more on how to select alternative behaviors, see my columns When Sit Doesn't Happen and Training With the Grain for One Tail at a Time.

There are as many behaviors as there are reasons to behave. Figure out what need your dog is expressing, and teach her the easiest way to get it met.

This post was originally written for One Tail at a Time. It has since been revised and updated.