Should I Yelp to Stop Puppy Biting?

The internet has a way of spreading ideas like wildfire and one idea that has gone "viral" in the puppy community is yelping like you're hurt to stop puppies from biting you. Many books and websites say you should make a loud, high-pitched, "Yipe!" or squealing sound of some sort when your puppy bites you. This advice was born from the concept that imitating the yelp of a puppy's litter-mate, as they might do to convey the message that a bite was too hard, will also work if a human does it. Sounds reasonable right? I suppose it does and may be worth a try, however, things often look better on paper than in practice.

"I don't know why he keeps biting, we are doing everything just like the book says!"  - Common, Frustrated Puppy Owner

The fact of the matter is that yelping does work but only sometimes. The thing to know is that it doesn’t take a million repetitions, you will know right away if yelping worked or not. If it does then great, problem solved. If it does not help or makes things worse, by all means, please stop!  In my experience, yelping usually does not work and more often then not it actually makes the puppy biting intensify. Most people are already yelping and pulling their hands away as a natural reflex and it usually just turns the humans into giant, human, squeaky toys (as far as the puppy is concerned). “I love this game!” the puppy thinks as the human continues to squeal, “No puppy, stop, don’t, ouch!”

I prefer to use Extinction which is the opposite of yelping. Extinction requires that you be totally non-reactive. I also advise the play-with-a-toy-so-you-don’t-become-the-toy approach. I know what you’re thinking, and yes, I agree, some puppies simply bite too hard to be ignored and prefer human flesh over toys. I totally get it. So, if yelping and the above two approaches fail, or, in dire situations that need emergency intervention, I will then use some form of correction or punishment for puppy biting. (That's positive punishment in behavioranese.)

Note: I am aware that correcting a puppy is controversial and some "positive reinforcement only" trainers will disagree with me here, but the truth of the matter is that there is a time and place for appropriate corrections in dog training. For some folks,  (elderly people on blood thinners, small children who are getting injured or frightened, and owners on the verge of giving their puppy away because the nipping is too sever, to name a few) may be candidates for appropriate puppy corrections to nip this nipping in the bud. Corrections can achieve fast, sometimes instant results and should be respected as a training method when the situation is right. Now, to be fair, using corrections also carries a greater risk of negative side effects if done improperly so you want to correct your puppy appropriately.  If you have hit the wall, please seek the guidance of a qualified and balanced trainer before using punishment on your puppy. 

Regardless of conflicting dog training advice, here are five reasons why yelping may or may not be the right choice for you. Let's take a brief glimpse into the puppy and canine mind:

  1. Yelping Doesn't Always Work When Puppies Do It. I see it quite frequently in my puppy socialization classes; a puppy yelps when another pup is being too rough or bites too hard and then the ruffian gets more excited and continues to bully the yelper, often even rougher than before. Matters get even worse when the yelping puppy tries to flee because the other pups will "pack up" and join in the chase. The yelper has now become a target, the weak one or the prey if you will. This is called pack-drive or prey-drive and is a good reminder that these little guys are indeed pack-oriented, predatory animals, not furry little babies. This is when humans have to jump in and interrupt the behavior - kind of like yard duty at an elementary school for children.
  2. Puppy Yelps are Often Accompanied by Puppy Corrections. Puppy yelps do work quite often, as I also see in my puppy classes. Sometimes it is because the biting puppy acknowledges the yelping puppy and naturally and backs off. This shows good social skills, is appreciated by the yelper and then they continue playing. Another way it goes quite often is that the yelp is followed by one or several corrective bites from the yelper. You see, this lets the biter know that the bite was too hard and won’t be tolerated. This keeps the yelper from becoming a target and sets some healthy boundaries for continued playing. These little harmless displays are called “Ritualized Aggression” and are great practice to keep actual aggression and injury to a minimum. This is how puppies learn bite inhibition and why puppy class before 12 weeks of age is so important. If neither one backs down however you will likely get a little puppy fight, which obviously must be broken up immediately, but most of the time they work things out amazingly well. This is instinctual stuff and how dogs figure out who’s who and what’s what. They are practicing skills for what, in the wild, would be used for hunting, fighting and rank ordering or establishing status in the pack. It is vital that a little bit of room is given them to work on these communication skills while they are still pups, otherwise things can get ugly when they try to figure this stuff out as adults. It can be difficult for the average person to know when to step in and when to let them go, so it’s a good idea to find the best puppy class in your area, watch closely and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
  3. The Mother and Older Dogs Don’t Yelp. Generally speaking the mother and other mature dogs will not yelp; they will either ignore a bothersome puppy or they will give a corrective warning bark or snap in the air making no physical contact. A good puppy class may even have a well-behaved adult dog, most likely female, that won’t hurt the pups to play “Mama Dog” and keep the little buggers in line. It’s amazing how much patience and tolerance dogs can have with puppies but some have more than others. If the ignoring or warnings are not enough, they will give a quick little bite or grab the puppy by the muzzle with their mouth. A normal, healthy, balanced dog will not harm the puppy although the pup may get a bit of a scare. The unwritten code is “never bite if a growl will do,” but in order to learn what a growl means, puppies will usually endure a bite or two - it’s just a natural part of the learning process.
  4. Puppies are Predators by Nature. Things that make high-pitched sounds and run away tend to become prey in the eyes of a predator. It’s not that your puppy literally thinks you’re a prey animal, it’s just that squealing and pulling (or in the case of children running away) will spark a predatory-chase-instinct. People tend to pull away when a puppy bites them and usually in tandem with some sort of high-pitched sound. This also makes for worse bites because not only do predatory instincts cause puppies to chase things that move away, they also cause them to hold on (bite harder) to things that try to escape their grip. Think about it, if a wolf or wild dog let go of an animal that they were lucky enough to have gotten a hold of, they would starve to death! Some puppies will have stronger drives, deeper roots to their wild ancestors if you will, but all will have them to one degree or another. Even a Teacup Chihuahua will chase a toy, grab it and shake it just like a wolf chasing and killing its prey. These behaviors are hardwired. Keep in mind, your pup is just being affectionate or playful in most cases. They do not mean to hurt you but they need to chew and they need to play. Unfortunately, humans just happen to be covered in ultra sensitive skin.
  5. Most People Can't Do an Adequate Impersonation Last but not least in our list of reasons yelping probably won’t work is that most people can’t or won’t imitate a yelping puppy very well, especially men. Let’s face it, it’s not very macho! Now I have to admit, I've seen Victoria Stilwell do a good job of it on her show, "It's Me Or the Dog," but can you imagine Cesar Millan on his show, "Dog Whisperer," doing that? That would be hilarious! Victoria pulled it off on the episode I saw because she hit some crazy high note that Mariah Carey would've been jealous of. Most of us however can't hit that note. Another thing to note is that the results may only be temporary due to the startle value. If the puppy only stopped for wonder of what that crazy sounds was, the effect will likely not be long lasting. “Oh look, the funny lady sings when I bite her. FUN!!!”

So does it make sense to imitate natural canine behaviour in order to communicate with dogs on their own level? I think it does to some extent but not in a literal way - not if you think you are going to trick the dog into thinking you're a dog. Let's face it, you don’t look, smell or act like a dog no matter how hard you try. You are a human, so you don’t need to get on all fours, you don’t need to growl or bite and you don’t need to squeal. With that said I do believe in communicating in a way that is in-tune with nature and your dog’s hard wired instincts.

If I am going to go the route of “imitating” natural canine behavior, however, I am more likely to imitate the "Mama Dog" or an older dog, not a litter-mate. I don’t want my dog to see me as a litter-mate, I want my dog to see me as a leader. I believe the human-dog relationship should be relative to parent-child, teacher-student, employer-employee or whatever comparison you choose that places you in a position of authority. If you are lucky enough to be starting with a puppy, then it would behoove you to establish this relationship correctly right away. It only gets harder the longer you wait and your puppy only gets bigger and stronger. After reading this blog, can you start to see how imitating the yelp of litter-mates probably won't do? You just need to set some rules and borrow some of the skills of a “Mama Dog" which can be done without actually pretending to be a dog. Use patience and tolerance by ignoring the biting as much as you can, redirect your puppy's mouth to a toy and play tug or fetch. Play with toys so you don't become the toy! If those things don’t work, then you may, like a mature dog would do, give a fair but firm correction. An appropriate “Goldilocks” (just right) correction will be just enough interrupt the unwanted behavior without physical or mental trauma. As soon as the correction is accepted you can go back to playing with a toy or petting the dog. This communicates to your puppy, "I'm not mad at you, I just don't like that."

-Chad Culp, Certified Dog Trainer and Canine Behavior Consultant

© Thriving Canine 2013