As a veterinarian, I see many families with new pets, and it’s very common for them to show me the scratches and scars that have accumulated on their arms and hands from rough play. These are virtually always superficial wounds that will heal rapidly in the average person, and this kind of behavior is normal in young animals; however, overly rough play is still a nuisance and a barrier to good bonding between an animal and his human family. Young pets tend to be extremely persistent, in some cases contributing to frustration that mounts by the hour until the family regrets or even reneges on their new purchase. Safety can be an issue for people who have delicate skin or immune deficiency.
Many people’s first instinct is to yell at their pup or punish him with a smack to the nose. You will have much better luck with animal training if you show your pet what he does want to do rather than give him a long, tedious list of things he shouldn’t do. If he bites too hard and too frequently, carry a favorite toy with you to deflect the onslaught. When he’s tempted to gnaw on your skin, try to present the toy as a more desirable option. If redirecting his attention isn’t successful, you will have to employ the “silent treatment”. First, say “ouch!” and then turn away from your pup. He is using his teeth playfully and is hoping to lure you into a game. Interacting with him in any fashion, including by scolding or touching him, suggests that you are ready and willing to play. Send the correct message by saying the code word (“ouch!”) and refusing to participate. Don’t speak to him or make eye contact. If he tries again, repeat the code word while getting up to leave. Some dogs will benefit from a quick and quiet trip to their crate for five minutes’ timeout. If your pup is always met with the same response (from every member of your household), he’ll learn that he has to play nicely or not at all.
Like young children, puppies bore easily and have tons of excess energy. You may be familiar with the adage that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” Keeping your youngster as busy as possible will consume some of his energy and leave him more calm when spending down time with you. Chasing a ball and simply running around are good physical workouts, while learning new tricks and solving puzzle toys are great mental stimulation. As in humans, these pursuits work together to settle the mind and body.
Last of all, remember to be patient. Your new pup might take weeks to show that he is maturing into someone who can be trusted with exposed human skin, and his progress might not be obvious to you every day. Fight the urge to blow up at him, because that is counterproductive; just continue to work with him in a calm and consistent way. You will both benefit from the effort you are putting in together.
Dr. M.S. Regan