Everyone you talk to has a different philosophy or training method on teaching bite inhibition. Some say you need to curb mouthing entirely to the point that no teeth are ever allowed to touch skin while others at the other end of the spectrum believe that mouthing is an important piece of wolfdog communication and allow it and go to great lengths to train the wolfdog to control his bite pressure.
The internet is full of all kinds of techniques to deter wolfdogs from mouthing hard. Some of these include pinching and poking the puppy, grabbing and shaking it by the scruff, pinching the lip between its teeth, alpha rolling and spraying it with Binaca mouth spray. In our opinion these are negative techniques that don’t teach the wolfdog anything and certainly don’t help to build a healthy relationship with your companion. We prefer to teach them what is appropriate rather than correct them.
We take the training from a different angle. From early in life we believe the puppy should be taught that licking is the acceptable means of communicating with their mouth. When they lick our hands and arms we encourage it with praise. You can begin this kind of training as early as 10-14 days by dripping a little formula on your hand or on your finger and enticing the puppy to lick or suckle. We also spend time playing count the teeth and massage the gums when they are little. Just a little gentle massage pressure on the gums and placing fingers on the teeth gets them used to having hands in their mouths. This not only adds to your building a relationship with them, but helps them learn that licking is an acceptable behavior. As soon as a wolfdog puppy can eat solid food we begin hand feeding high value foods that will excite them and theoretically cause them to snap at food. We start off with tiny pieces of cooked chicken breast and move up to pea-sized diced pieces of raw meat, chicken and turkey. Some dog breeds are born with a naturally gentle mouth, but most wolfdogs come with alligator jaws & needles built right in. To teach using a gentle mouth we place a small amount of food in our hand and offer it to the puppy. You will see the excitement in their eyes as they take their first bite. Then we repeat with the food in a closed fist and offer the hand to the puppy. This may be a painful exercise in the beginning as the puppy smells the food and goes after it with great gusto and snapping needles, but it is worth it in the long run to tough it out. Timing is key in this exercise. The second the puppy gently nuzzles or licks the hand reinforce the behavior by saying “Gentle” and open the hand for him to eat the food. If he keeps up the biting, remove the hand from his sight by putting it behind your back for a few seconds and then reintroducing it to him.
An alternate form of teaching gentle and reinforcing bite inhibition is to take a meaty bone in your hand and entice the puppy to sit next to you or in your lap. Offer the bone to him, but do not let it go. This is just another method of teaching your puppy impulse control and what is appropriate to chew on and what is not.
It is important to understand that mouthing is one of the ways a wolfdog solicits attention from us, communicates his excitement and affection and in some cases shows his dislike for something. Wolfdogs have a tendency towards showing intense emotions – especially excitement and fear. So when you are playing with your pup and the needles start sinking into skin back off the play. Movement tends to fuel the behavior so when your pup is jumping around like a crazy canine become still and boring, and the mouthing should reduce or stop. We don’t encourage mouthing during any kind of play to help in reducing this kind of behavior. On those rare occasions when your pup might grab your hand to tell you to stop doing something the same stillness is called for. For an example, wolfdogs seem to come out of the womb with an intense fear of nail clippers. How often has the pup turned around to mouth your hand as you try to clip his nails? He’s trying to tell you to stop. If you become still for a few seconds, gently massage the paw pads and start again you are much more apt to get the job done.
Puppies communicate with their mother and their littermates using different intonations. Loud, short and high pitched tones like yelps and squeals are used to communicate distress or fear. When two puppies are rough housing and playing and one bites the other too hard you will hear a yelp. This causes the biting puppy to stop applying pressure. This is how puppies learn bite inhibition from one another. We can use this same basic technique to teach bite inhibition. When a puppy applies pressure on an arm during play simply yelp a loud “Ouch” and go limp and boring. Most of the time the puppy will stop what it’s doing and look at you. Reinforce the stoppage with praise and gentle petting on top of and around the head and muzzle. You may have to repeat the technique a few times, but eventually the puppy will understand that teeth on skin means all fun stops.
If the heavy mouthing continues it may be necessary to take the training to the next level. Wolfdogs love attention and absolutely hate to be ignored or shunned. If you have an extra stubborn wolfdog who just doesn’t understand the teeth on skin rule you may need to yelp “Ouch” and follow it with removing yourself for a few seconds. It may be enough to just walk away from him for 5 seconds, but you may need to walk out of a room for 30 seconds or so.
No matter what you do there will be times when your wolfdog (especially High contents) just won’t stop. For these times it’s best to redirect his mouth to something that is more suitable for chewing than our body parts. When you see that mischievous look in their eyes and just know your arm is about to be pounced on pick up a soft toy or a tug toy and offer it to them. While they are puppies it is so important to have an abundance of toys all over the house and in the yard that you can grab quickly to redirect their mouths.
For those who rescue an adult wolfdog with poor bite inhibition it is possible to teach it how to mouth gently, but it requires a lot of patience and can be extremely challenging. The best technique to use is hand feeding and teaching them to use a soft mouth but the closed fist method can be painful. To begin do not use a high valued treat or piece of food. You will want to use something that does not cause as much excitement to begin with. If the wolfdog uses too much force, take the treat away by hiding your hand behind your back for 5 seconds. Then repeat over and over again until they clearly understand that a soft mouth gets them food and a hard mouth gets nothing.
It is important to remember that bite inhibition is one of those items we need to continuously reinforce as the animal matures. It is not enough to teach it for the first 4 months of its life and then think we are done. Hand feeding your wolfdog is an excellent way of reinforcing gentle, soft mouth behavior for life.