Being a first-time Labrador Retriever owner brings with it not only responsibility but often battle scars. This particular dog breed was bred for using its mouth for hunting and retrieving game. Therefore, it is not uncommon to see a Lab have the natural instinct to put everything and anything in its mouth; including its owner’s hands, clothing, and most prized personal items. Unfortunately, most Lab owners will take this behavior and commonly label the dog as a “freak” to its breed. To do so is wrong. The Labrador Retriever is just doing what it was designed to do and it is the owner’s responsibility to teach it what is and is not acceptable behavior.
Biting or mouthing is common is young puppies. From the beginning, they use it as a form of play with their litter-mates. It is a social interaction between dogs that is healthy in the beginning. However, the mom of the litter has been known to swat down, growl at, or ignore such behavior when it becomes too much. This is a prime example of the “dog pack” method of letting the pup know when biting is allowed and when to just knock it off!
Since we are not dogs, there are other methods to training our pups to keep their piranha teeth off our bodies and personal items. First, we need to look at the types of biting associated with any dog breed. They are:
- Fear Biting
Most puppies will not show aggression at a very early age. This is mostly a learned behavior over time. Hence, when small puppies bite, they bite out of fun, playfulness, teething, or the need to have something in their mouth. At first it may be cute, but it should be corrected immediately since it will not be as cute when they are a 70 lbs. adult Lab! Puppies should be taught from a young age never to mouth or bite humans. How do you do this? Well, based on our experience, there are a couple of steps to curb this type of behavior. When a puppy bites, first use a sharp tone and say “No Bite!” If the puppy continues to mouth or bite, grab the back of its collar with your other hand and give a quick/sharp tug and say “No Bite!” again. The tug action should only serve to startle the pup and not hurt it in any way. It may take 4-5 times in a row of performing the tug action while saying “No Bite!”, but the pup will understand quickly that when it bites you, it receives something it doesn’t like (the tug action).
It is important that after the pup stops biting, you replace the object of objection with something it should chew on. As soon as the pup bites down on this other object (toy, bone, etc), praise it using a very happy and higher pitch voice. This practice is considered positive training and instead of teaching the pup what not to do, you are replacing a negative action with a positive action. After a while, you will just have to say “No Bite!” and the pup will automatically release upon command.
The teething stage is often seen with a great deal of chewing and destruction. We recommend using the method mentioned earlier but instead of a chew toy or bone, give your pup a Chilly Bone, a small towel that has been soaked in water and frozen, or an ice cube. Be sure to monitor your pup when chewing on any of these items as they can be a choking hazard for the more aggressive chewers. Ice cubes can be given regularly but give them slowly at the beginning and monitor your pup for any loose stools as this is a normal reaction for some Lab pups.
Other Types of Biting
Other types of biting including fear, territorial, and aggression biting. An owner may think that their puppy or dog was born with these negative behaviors but that is not true. Each of these negative behaviors is usually linked to a negative event that happened to the dog at an early age. Dogs that bite or threaten to bite out of fear and territorial influence can usually be trained out of such behaviors.
At 4 months of age, our own Lab, Dakota, was relaxing in the backyard with me. We both heard a noise from behind us and turned to see a 7-year old boy standing a couple of feet from us. Both of us jumped and both of us were not happy. Even though the boy had come over to see the puppy, he did so in a manner that scared Dakota so badly that she became fearful of any boy around that age. As soon as she sees one, the fur on her back will stand up and she will bark wildly. Is she aggressive? No, she is not. How do we know that? Simply because her tail is wagging wildly as well and she backs away from the boy. In order to combat this fear, we bring her to places with other people in varying ages and when we see a little boy, we ignore her behavior. We then tell the boy to talk to us for a minute while ignoring Dakota’s action. After a minute of us ignoring her, she slowly creeps towards the boy, sniffs him, and then starts to lick his hand. It is only at that point do we allow the boy to pet her. This has been going on for several months now and Dakota is almost perfect around little boys now. This never did turn into fear biting because we worked immediately to reprogram her fear and show her there was nothing to be afraid of. Had we not done so, it could have easily turned into fear biting.
Why include our own personal experience with such a negative behavior? Kindly, it is to illustrate that most negative behaviors can be corrected with persistent and consistent training. The same goes for territorial biting. The owner need only research what caused the behavior and slowly recondition the dog to understand that they have nothing to be territorial or fearful about. If you are unsure how to proceed with such training, please ask your veterinarian if they can recommend a dog behaviorist to assist you further.
Lastly, dogs that bite or threaten to bite out of aggression have a serious problem that must be dealt with immediately. Most canine aggression problems start slowly and progressively get worse. Recognize the early signs of aggression and seek help immediately if see your dog do any of the following:
Contact a professional dog trainer right away for help if your dog bites you or a member of your family or acts of if it might. Be sure to not react by striking your Lab in any way, since this can increase the aggression.
Most biting and mouthing behaviors can be fixed with consistent and persistent training. With some common-sense strategies, a little bit of forethought, and a healthy dose of patience, any owner can help their Labrador Retriever become a well-mannered family companion.
Pavia, A. 2001. The Labrador Retriever Handbook. Barron’s Educational Series, Inc.
Training Secrets for Labrador Retrievers. Popular Dogs Series. Topic Volume 7.