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The Mouthy Puppy

By David Dickey, CPDT

When Kevin and Devra Kronfeld from Manhattan Beach, California added a companion dog for their family and 12-year-old Golden Retriever, they chose a Great Dane. “Many of our friends and family thought we’d lost our minds, since the dog would become very large, and we have a four-year-old son and an eight-year-old daughter in the house,” said Kevin.” What made the situation worse was that their new dog was a definite mouthy puppy. “The puppy’s mouth always seemed to be on the kids arms, hands and legs,” Devra commented.

Actually, Boom, the Great Dane (named for his puppy propensity of running into things), was not unlike most puppies his age, but because of his anticipated size of around 140 lbs, Kevin and Devra needed to assure no harm would come to their children. “Our kids are number one in our life, and the purpose of bringing another dog into our household was to add another buddy for the kids and not stress them out that they might be used as a chew toy,” said Devra. “Our veterinarian and common sense told us to get a trainer as soon as possible,” added Kevin.

For that reason, Boom started obedience training at eight weeks of age. Boom was a game player and saw life as a party just awaiting his arrival. He also loved attention. One of the first changes in Boom’s behavior that the Kronfelds witnessed was a sharp reduction in the mouthing. “Boom would just sit for attention instead of grabbing our arm. We had no idea that Boom was mouthing everyone’s body for attention,” said Kevin. “The modified behavior was a relief in some ways, because at least, we were assured it was not aggressive,” said Devra.

Boom certainly wasn’t lacking any attention. He was incredibly well loved and taken care of, but he just could not get enough. He constantly craved attention, even negative attention, and he encouraged it by using his mouth whenever and wherever it would get him the greatest response. With the kids, it was chasing them and playfully snapping at their legs. With the adults, he seemed to concentrate more on the arms and hands.

One important tenet of training and behavior modification is that you are either punishing or reinforcing; there is no in-between. If you aren’t decreasing or eliminating the behavior, then by definition, you’re reinforcing it. Kevin explains; “When our Golden Retriever was a puppy, we used to yell “no” when he would put his teeth on us, and it would stop him, but that didn’t seem to have any effect on our Boom at all. We even tried making noise with a can of pennies, and the only result was that Boom would look at us as if we were crazy and then continue playfully mouthing us.”

It’s important to note the same actions the Golden Retriever saw as a punishment actually had the opposite effect on Boom and reinforced the bad behavior. All I had to do to eliminate this unwanted behavior was to first help the Kronfelds recognize that what they’d tried with their old dog wouldn’t work with their new one. When explained that it was simply an attention-seeking behavior, it changed how the Kronfelds looked at the problem. All that remained was to replace the old, inappropriate behavior with a new behavior of sitting for attention and praise.

Basic obedience gave the Kronfelds many ways to help Boom work for their attention in a positive fashion. The mouthing of family members was a misunderstood behavior exacerbated by a method that didn’t work for this dog.

By using the correct application of reward-based training, Boom is now a well-behaved addition to the family. When applied correctly, reward-based training has proven to be very effective in establishing long term results that can be demonstrated for everyone in the family. “My four-year-old son can have Boom follow the same commands now at 140lbs that he would as a puppy,”. Kevin stated.

The key to success for Boom and others like him is to substitute a new behavior in place of the old, unwanted behavior. Doing so can give you the desired result in less time without the liability of harming the human animal bond.


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