Journey of Finn – Are You a Puppy or a Piranha?

This week, Finn found his teeth.  That means we’ve been doing some work on settle and impulse control.  I am also continuing to work on socialization, loose leash walking and handling.

In the garden.

In my posts I focus on the training we are doing as well as the issues he’s having and how I’ve been addressing them.  He is responding really well to his training and he’s really great dog – I am so glad he has joined our family.  However, I don’t want to give you the impression that having a puppy is easy – even for a professional trainer and behaviorist.  It’s not.  It’s difficult and stressful and there are moments where I just want to walk away (for a little while, at least).  If you have a puppy and you are struggling – please know that it’s normal!  Puppies are a lot of work!  But I hope that these blog posts will help you know that you are not alone and give you some very practical tips for working with your own dog.

Puppy Biting

It’s not terribly unusual for me to get a phone call or an e-mail from a concerned owner.  “My puppy is attacking me!  He is really mean, he just grabs onto us and growls and won’t let go!  He’s super aggressive.”  In most (but not all) of these cases, this is normal puppy behavior, though it can still be very alarming and upsetting.  Usually this occurs with puppies who are particularly smart, high energy or high intensity (what performance people call high “drive”).  This is Finn.  In his case, it’s also related to being a herding dog, though I see this type of behavior in plenty of dogs that are not herding breeds.  He has taken to lunging at me and grabbing onto my clothing or bare skin and biting down, hard.  If he can, he will latch onto my clothing and pull and tug while growling.  He’s ripped some clothes and even made me bleed once or twice.  I have no pictures or videos of this because it’s a little hard to focus on that when I’m being bitten!  But, again – this is normal puppy behavior.

However, that doesn’t mean there is nothing you can or should do about it.  In fact, I think it’s really important to work on this behavior because it is an indication that the dog is out of control and teaching our dogs better self control is one of the best things we can do for them.  There are several things I have been working on to address this and his biting has decreased in frequency and intensity (but it still happens daily – he is still a puppy, after all).

  • Implement regular naps – This behavior is often at it’s worse when puppies are tired.  When they start to behave this way, it can be a good idea to put them in their pen with a nice chew toy or interactive food toy and let them fall asleep.
  • Reward for good behavior – Make sure the puppy gets plenty of attention for not biting.  If Finn is riled up and walks near me without nipping at me, I praise him, play with him, pet him or feed him.  If I know he is particularly excited, then I don’t bother with the first three (which can escalate him further) and instead focus on food rewards.
  • Redirect – You’ve probably heard this one before – redirect your puppy to a toy.  Food works too.  Yes, I walk around my house and yard carrying food and toys with me.  When he starts to escalate, I first try to redirect him to a toy.  Usually that works.  If it doesn’t (usually when he’s overly tired and needs a nap), I will drop several pieces of food on the floor and then walk away while he eats them.  Thus, no biting my legs.  Once he finishes them and catches up to me, I ask for a sit and repeat until I get him to his x-pen.  This works quite nicely – keeps me from getting pierced by his needle teeth, prevents him from practicing bad habits, and teaches him good behavior in the form of sitting for what he wants.
  • Go to place – I have been teaching Finn to settle on his mat.  This involves rewarding him first for putting one paw on it, then two paws, then four, then sitting, then lying down.  Once he’s lying down on it, I continue to reward him as long as he stays there, gradually increasing the distance from him, the duration (how long I ask him to stay) and the distractions.  I have used this to good effect when he is really struggling to settle down.  Here is a picture of Finn practicing his mat work with Darwin during dinner time.

  • Time outs – He also gets time outs if he bites particularly hard.  I tell him “time out” and then I either leave the room or put him in his x-pen.  I try to minimize this as much as possible because I think proactively preventing the behavior is much more effective than reacting to it after the fact, but sometimes it happens and I want to make sure he learns that it removes all attention.


I’ve mentioned in previous posts that Finn is rather shy.  For this reason, I have been focusing heavily on socialization.  I am exposing him to as many people and situations as possible both at and away from home.  He has been to the grocery store a few more times as well as the playground.  He’s also been to the vet (just for fun) and on several walks in various locations (I am still avoiding areas frequented by dogs and natural areas where there may be populations of raccoons and other wild animals that carry distemper and rabies).  He continues to meet friendly, vaccinated dogs.  I am happy to report that he has gotten much braver and now walks up to most people with his tail wagging.  He also seems to be getting more comfortable with dogs.  I have noticed that he’s afraid of cars (another very common puppy behavior) so when we are passed by cars on walks, he gets praise and treats.  Here is a photo of us sitting outside a playground waiting for children to come visit.  I chose a fenced playground so that we would not be overwhelmed by kids from all sides.

Loose leash Walking

Leash training is going pretty well, though walks with both dogs are still somewhat awkward and stressful.  Here is a clip of me rewarding Finn when the leash is loose as well as waiting for him to look at me and stop pulling before moving forward again.


Teaching an animal to enjoy – not just tolerate – handling is something that is very important to me – and for preventing behavior problems later on.  This includes things like grabbing the collar, trimming the nails, brushing and accepting veterinary exams and procedures.  I am just starting to work on these this with Finn.  I am teaching him to lie flat on each side (using a lure) which will come in handy for both nail trimming and brushing.  I am also pairing a number of different things with food including:

  • Touching and flipping over his ears
  • Briefly placing my hand over his muzzle (to examine or brush teeth)
  • Touching his paws and very lightly holding each toe
  • Touching his tail
  • Being in the bathtub
  • Brushing
  • Gently grabbing his collar

If you are working on this with your own dog it is critically important that they are calm and relaxed at each step.  If they are squirming, pulling away or mouthing at you, then you need to tone it down.  If your puppy pulls away his foot even at a light touch to her paw, then simply place your hand near her paw.  Once she is comfortable with that, you can move it closer and eventually proceed to a light touch, then picking it up, etc.

Below, I am working on handling his muzzle in preparation for examining and brushing his teeth.  There are several things I want to point out about the video.

  • For most of the video, Finn is not showing any signs of stress (pulling away, mouthing at my hand, yawning, tongue flicking, etc).  He appears to be calm and relaxed.  I think I do a better job of this in the beginning of the video.  Toward the end, he does start to pull away just slightly a few times.  It’s mild, but not ideal – this is something I need to pay closer attention to next time.
  • I touch his muzzle, THEN give him the treat.  The timing of this is very important.  Make sure the treat doesn’t precede the handling you are doing.  Maximum learning happens if the touch comes just prior to the food (rather than at the same time).  Very little or no learning will happen if the treat precedes the touch.
  • I pause between repetitions.  This is also important as it makes it very clear that the dog is only getting treats when the muzzle (or other body part) is being handled.  To get a little technical, this is backed up by research – faster and stronger learning occurs when there are breaks between pairings of the soon-to-be conditioned stimulus (handling) and the unconditioned stimulus (food).
Picture of Kristina Spaulding

Kristina Spaulding


    1. Hi Lou,

      That’s wonderful! I’m really glad it’s helped you. Thank you for taking the time to say thank you!

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The Science Matters blog provides practical science-based information on dog training and behavior in addition to personal, heartfelt stories about loving and living with dogs.   For a more detailed summary, take a look at the first blog post here.

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