Canine Behavior/Puppy Barking, Lunging, and Biting at Me
Hi, My fiance and are first time puppy dog owners, we just got a Blue Heeler/Boxer puppy last Saturday (so it hasn't even been a week yet). She is 14 weeks today. We have been working with her on click/reward based training and treating her when she is doing a desired behavior and giving her an "ahh-ah!" or firm "No!" or just ignoring her with no reaction or walking away when doing an undesirable behavior. For the most part she is very good. She is good with "sit" and we use it before entering or exiting the house so we are setting an establishing ourselves as the alpha. She is also very good with "come." "Stay" and "down" are a work in progress.
My big concern is during times when she appears to get a rapid energy burst and can sometimes become aggressive - usually after walks or arriving home after a lot of stimulation like a pet store. She will bark, lunge, and bite at me (not usually my fiance), and no walking away, ignoring the behavior, "ahh-ah's," "no's" or chew toy replacing seems to work. I try to divert her attention to a chew toy and clicking and rewarding the behavior, but I can't always get to one while she is attacking me. I have been told to never be mean or physically dominant to my puppy as I do not want to destroy my relationship with her, but I was recently reduced to shoving her very hard to get her off me as she was being very aggressive and scary. That seemed to work in that moment, and I was able to get her to sit and treat her and pet her to make up. However,the next day it was back to the same.
My question is, is this normal puppy behavior? If not, how do I correct the behavior when none of the training techniques I've read about or been given are working? I am worried that she will become aggressive towards other humans or dogs if it is not corrected.
Thank you sincerely,
Thank you for your question. It sounds like you are committed to using positive reinforcement and learning theory (rather than aggressive/compulsive training methods) and that's wonderful! I applaud you for making that choice.
New puppies can be quite a handful. And both Heelers and Boxers are particularly high energy breeds, so your "handful" of a puppy probably often feels like twice what other new puppy parents have to cope with.
First let me assure you that the high-energy moments you're describing are TOTALLY NORMAL PUPPY BEHAVIOR. Dogs are most active twice per day - usually within the first 30-90 minutes of waking and then again in the evening (often beginning between 6 and 9 pm, depending on the household's schedule). The technical term for the high-energy burst is called "Frenetic Activity Period" or "frapping". I call it "Puppy Frenzy". If you know roughly when your pup has these puppy frenzies, then you can anticipate them and direct the activity to better manage the behavior so that it's not a full-blown launch at you. So, if your pup always gets hyper active around 7pm, then you can begin a game around 6.50 and keep playing with her for about 30 minutes. This can be a game of chase (you chase her, she chases you, whichever she prefers), it can be Tug (this is a GREAT game - more later). It can be Fetch or Catch if she'll do that. Being a Heeler, she's probably a natural fetcher. You can get multiple toys out and encourage her to 'herd' them and round them all up. You can get puzzle games and have her find bits of her dinner kibble in the puzzle toy. You can use interactive food-dispensing toys as a way to feed her dinner, coinciding with this high activity period. These toys may include Buster Cube (if you have carpet), Tricky Treat Ball (if you have hard floors), Kong toys stuffed with kibble and a soft, dog-safe food to use to bind the kibble together. You can play hide-and-seek with her kibble, hiding kibbles all over the house and encouraging her to hunt for them (occasionally a special treat like a bite of cheese or hotdog...). If she just really needs to run around and burn some physical energy, as opposed to mental energy, you can see if she likes to chase a laser light.
The laser light is one of my favorite ways to direct hyper energy. If the dog is into it, then you can sit still and the "bug" (laser light) appears. You can hold it steady and let her stalk it, you can dart it across the room for her to chase. I have used hallways and stairs to provide my dogs with more vigorous exercise. You can make it disappear suddenly and reappear somewhere else. Many dogs will become frustrated at the chase that never results in a "catch", so while you've got her down the hall (with her back to you), you can toss a treat into the space and then land the "bug" on the treat/kibble so that she gets to 'catch' something. Make sure that the 'bug' disappears the moment she goes for the treat so that she is in fact 'catching' it.
You also mention that she appears to have these high-energy moments after over stimulation such as going to the pet store or long walks. Over stimulation for puppies can have the same effect as it does in young children. When they get overly tired, they become a little "punchy" and sometimes begin to act out or get hyper. You can manage this by providing her with a sit-quiet-and-color activity immediately upon return from these over stimulating activities.
Sit-quiet-and-color activities for dogs include Marrow Bones (which can be stuffed like a Kong once the dog has cleaned it well), Kongs stuff with food, Bully Sticks, Antlers, Ever Lasting Treat Toy. If you're using a crate or playpen, she should always have one or two of these items in the crate/playpen with her so that she has something to do while confined. And it can be your routine that after outings/walks (when we know she has already pottied), she spends 30-60 minutes in her crate with a couple of these options to occupy her. It will help her to settle down, and she may actually doze off and take the nap she needs. At just 14 weeks old, she needs to nap for 1-2 hours about 3 or 4 times per day, with smaller dozing moments in between. And super active time/outings should be limited to not more than 2 hours, with at least one break of 15 minutes worked in so she can have some recovery time if you're out for a long time.
Tug is a great game with puppies. It's excellent exercise for the jaw and chest muscles. It's interactive play with you which provides bonding opportunity. The rules to Tug are really quite simple. If you feel her teeth on your hand, drop the toy. She's not "winning" the toy, she's losing the game, which is the thing she wants. If she trots off with the toy, that's fine. It's still no longer a game with you - and she clearly likes you to be the center of her game time... So, play tug. Teach her a Drop command - when she's calm and can focus - and periodically ask her to Drop while playing Tug. Then tell her Sit, wait for her to sit politely. Tell her Wait and set the toy down. You'll need to teach her a Focus command as well so you can ask for her attention to return to you. Once she's focused on you, free her to "get it" and then continue the game of Tug. I love this game as it's not only fun and bonding, it practices Drop, Sit, Focus, Wait, Get It, Bring It all in one game. I place this game with my younger dog terrier mix) every night. I do this while I'm watching TV and he's perfectly happy with this game. Below is a link to a video of me playing this game with each of my dogs so you can see what it looks like.
I'm also including videos of my younger dog practicing Drop and Focus so you can see how that works.
This skill begins around 2:25 into the video. The idea is that I tell him "Focus", hold the treat to his nose long enough for him to notice it, then draw the treat up to my nose. When his eyes land on my face (it doesn't have to be lingering eye contact, so long as his eyes are on my face), then I click and treat. My timing is actually a little off in this video as I am telling him Focus at the same time as showing him the treat. You'll have a better result if you tell your pup Focus and THEN show the treat.
Again, my timing was a little off in this practice as I'm telling him Drop at the same time as showing him the treat. You'll get a more consistent response by saying Drop a second BEFORE you hold the treat to your pup's nose to make the trade. Start the practice in a quiet place, when she's relaxed and there are no distractions. Build up to mild distractions, build it into games and build up to being able to ask for the Drop without the food trade and then from a distance. Your goal is to be able to ask for a Drop, and expect it to happen, while you're across the room from her.
This is the game I play with the little one daily. The larger dog doesn't play this game as often, though he does enjoy it occasionally as well.
I also encourage you to find a local positive reinforcement obedience class to take. Or at least begin with a couple of great books that will help you to help her mature into the dog you're hoping for.
Perfect Puppy in 7 Days
, by Sophia Yin (world renowned veterinary behaviorist)
Before and After Getting Your Puppy: The Positive Approach to Raising a Happy, Healthy and Well-Behaved Dog
, by Ian Dunbar (founder of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, pioneer of off leash puppy classes and one of the pioneers of positive reinforcement training)
Remember that some parts of puppy training is mostly just management as you help your dog learn bite inhibition and as we wait for natural milestones. Ian's book, Before and After Getting Your Puppy, will walk you through a great plan for dealing with the puppy nipping - how to respond, how long to disengage, how to re-engage, etc. It worked very well with my little terrier "monster" and has worked well with hundreds (if not thousands) of other puppies as well!
Good luck. Please feel free to followup if I can be of further assistance.
Los Angeles Behaviorist