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Mouthing and Nipping on Kids

Dear WOOF:

My nearly 8 month old Golden Retriever is biting my 6-year-old and 10-year-old. He does not draw blood. I believe it is to get them to play with him. He will stop if I tell him no but my 6 year old is unable to get him to stop if I am not in the room. He will listen to basic commands from them (sit, down, stay, etc) but is entirely too rough. What should I do? I have told my 10 year old he is not to play rough with the dog. I have started to require that the dog sits and that the kids pet him only (no play). I need tips for the kids
to use to get him to stop the rough behavior if I am not around. He also will steal food from them and the countertop again if I am not around.



It sounds indeed like your dog is using these behaviors to gain interaction from your children. Dogs learn to repeat behaviors that bring a desired outcome (like play, attention, food). Positive reinforcement for a behavior happens when a behavior is immediately followed by a desired outcome. The pleasant/desired consequence for the behavior has an increasing effect on that behavior, a learned pattern sets in, and the dog will choose the behavior again, expecting the same outcome.

Unfortunately, children send all the wrong messages to dogs and they end up positively reinforcing behaviors (inadvertently of course) that we don't like. For example, your retriever has learned that
putting his mouth on the children gains interaction from them. Most kids will screech, flail their arms, run away, etc. Now, to a human that understands human forms of communication, these reactions would
indicate that the interaction was not appreciated or pleasant to the recipient. To an adolescent canine however, they are a huge invitation to continue! In other words, the child's reaction positively reinforces the behavior, and promotes him to continue with it. As a result, he will continually choose to repeat it...and it
becomes a "habit" triggered by their very presence.

In order to change your dog's behavior with the children, you must actively and consistently prevent him from engaging inappropriately with them. Trying to stop him after he is already doing the behavior
you don't want prevents him from learning anything new - reinforcement for the behavior has already happened and he will choose it again.

Breaking behavioral patterns in dogs is much like breaking them in human beings. When trying to break a habit, one must stop engaging in the habit (the behavior your trying to change) while at the same
time, learn new desired ways of behaving (a new habit).

Any behavioral change that you wish to create in your dog involves a very simple plan called the Do's and Don'ts.

Don'ts are the behaviors that you are unhappy with or want to change, such as biting at the children.

Do's are the behaviors you want to see from your dog.

Any behavior that qualifies as a "don't" must be countered with a "do".

For example:

"Don't bite on the children for attention"

would be countered with

"Do behave in a controlled manner in order to gain attention from the children".

Now, prevent the Don'ts and positively Reinforce the Do's.

In taking this approach, the Don'ts will decrease (they can't be reinforced if they're not happening, right?) and the Do's will increase because the only behaviors gaining reinforcement are the more appropriate ones you want!

Your plan of "no rough play" from your 10-year-old (this should be instituted with the 6-year-old as well) is a good one. I also like the sit for petting approach - you're definitely on the right track there too. But as we've already covered, the real key to changing his inappropriate behavior is to prevent it from happening in the first place. You must be there to supervise ALL interaction between the children and your dog and make sure that he is being positively reinforced for the Do's and not the Don'ts!!

If you haven't already done so, I would suggest that you enroll in a good positive reinforcement training class. Check out for Michigan training classes, and to view the articles "Beware Positive Reinforcement" and "How to Find a Good Dog Trainer" to help in your search.

On a final note, I would strongly suggest that you get this guy more exercise...a tired dog is a good dog! Your golden retriever is a sporting breed that requires lots of interaction and energy outlets - especially at this age. Perhaps your 10-year-old can teach him to play fetch (a naturally fun thing for retrievers!!) that will enable him to have appropriate play-time with the dog, while at the same time giving the dog an appropriate way to release some energy. In itself, this can help to curb his natural urge to go looking for
things to do!

Perhaps DayCare a few times per week can be considered. Again, he will have the opportunity to release some energy while learning to interact with other dogs.

If you have any questions or would like more information on our classes and DayCare programs, feel free to contact us directly.

Best of luck and thanks for writing!

Lisa Patrona,  Dip. CBST, CPDT-KA, ACDBC, AABP-CDT

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