Many people express interest/curiousity/concern/fear about their puppy’s teeth, so let’s talk about teeth.
Dogs aren’t born with teeth, but they get them pretty quickly – certainly they’ll have them before you pick up your puppy. And puppy teeth are Evil Teeth – sharp as knives.
These are Syn’s puppy teeth. It isn’t those twelve little front jobs you need to worry about (she’s already lost one of the middle bottom ones), it’s those four honking nasty long ones on the side
And here’s a photo of Syn as an adult. Syn doesn’t naturally hold people in her mouth as Stitch did (see the next photo), but I’ve asked her to “Get It” (her retrieve cue) with my hand. You can see she’s holding VERY gently. Syn knows how to use her teeth.
Here’s my theory – those evil puppy teeth HURT. They’re SUPPOSED to hurt. They were put there so Syn’s brothers and sisters would feel the pain and TELL her when she’s using them too roughly.
Dogs are armed. They go through their entire lives “carrying”. My personal thought is that if you’re going to carry a gun, you should be trained in its use with hundreds and hundreds of hours of practise under your belt. I feel the same way about dogs. I could tell them, yes, you’re going through life armed to the… ummm… teeth, but don’t ever use them. Don’t ever learn about them. Don’t EVER play with them – instead, I want to have the chance to teach the dog how to handle her teeth, how to use them hard on hard things and gently on gentle things.
Once upon a time my just-walking son, who was carrying a large metal fire engine, tripped down a single step into the living room, landing on top of a sleeping Giant Schnauzer and cutting her head open with the truck. I heard the roar she made as she woke up, and turned around to see her mouth over his skull and blood everywhere. I’m surprised I didn’t have a heart attack right there.
When we sorted out the mess, the dog needed 5 stitches to close the wound on her head. The kid had a single dent in his forehead skin that I could have made with a fingernail. It was gone in a minute. That was a dog who had a LOT of training in using her teeth. Did I trust her after that? Immensely. Wounded, from a dead sleep, she had the presence of mind not to close her mouth.
On the left, a photo of old Stitch holding my wrist, a position she was very fond of when I was scratching her butt, as I was doing in the photo, or when I’d just come home after a few minutes away. It was a very special bonding thing that she did to tell me how much she was liking the moment. Stitch knew how to use her teeth. On the right, Serra (still with baby teeth) is telling me a story about what a good day he’s having.
Here Stitch had gone shopping. She’s handing my intact credit card to the pet-store guy. That was the last time she was allowed out with the car keys!
In case you’re thinking Stitch was a naturally gentle little foofoo, here’s what else she had done with her teeth.
So how do I teach a puppy about her teeth? I use my hand to play with her as another puppy’s mouth would. I bite at her. She bites back at me. Or we play tug with a piece of cloth. These are great games BUT they’re played by MY rules. She can invite me to play, and I can respond by playing with her, or I can respond by NOT playing with her. If I don’t want to play, I might give her a toy and then ignore her so she can play with it by herself. I might tell her NO in a deep, firm but polite voice and ignore her. If she persists, I’ll put her in her crate or in another room for a minute or two.
If I decide to accept her invitation to play, we play BUT we’re still playing by MY rules. Rule number 1 is that she doesn’t hurt me. Here’s where those puppy teeth come in. They’re much sharper than her adult teeth. When she bites too hard on one of her siblings, it HURTS. Sib TELLS her it hurts – usually with a growly sort of YELP, sometimes accompanied by a little muzzle-punch, then ignoring her for a minute or two. If she listens, sib will forget how evil she was and ask her to play again. If she doesn’t listen, she’ll get a louder growly YELP and a bigger muzzle-punch (you don’t have to use your face to punch your puppy, you can use your hand – I recommend two stiff fingers poked into the side of the puppy’s neck) and a longer period of ignoring her.
So that’s what I do. Play by the rules – don’t hurt me – and we’ll keep playing until I want to stop. Hurt me, I’ll tell you I’m not happy and the play stops immediately.
Here’s a wonderful sequence of photos I was lucky enough to get of adult Stitch playing with baby Syn.
Stitch is having a great time – look at the goofy look on her face! She’s got her tongue stuck out between her teeth, she’s giving Syn pretend whale eye, puppy’s got her down. Way fun!
Uh oh. Syn made a mistake – whether it was biting too hard, or biting Stitch’s tail (nobody touches the flag, Jack!). Now look at Stitch’s face. It’s no longer goofy, it’s a real lion face now. Stitch has pulled her tongue out of the way of her teeth (bad idea to bite your own tongue when you’re trying to bite somebody else), she’s pushed the corners of her mouth forward and uncovered all her front teeth. See how she’s crumpled up the whole front of her muzzle. Syn is going to die – and believes it. She hasn’t had a chance to get out of the way yet, but she knows she’s in trouble. She’s let go of the tail and is starting to pin her ears back. You can almost hear Stitch’s HEY!
Stitch is still coming. I’m glad that face isn’t pointed at ME! Syn’s ears are all the way back and she’s turning away as fast as she can.
But… Syn didn’t die after all. Since she’s turned her head away in acknowledgement of her impending death, Stitch has uncrumpled her face and only bumped Syn as if to say “I could have killed you, kid, but I chose not to!”
Because Syn stopped playing and prepared to die, a minute later Stitch picked up the tug rag and offered to play with Syn again. Syn, understanding what she did wrong, willingly accepted the invitation.
I’m the one who tells the puppy how to play, as her sibs would if she were still with them. I’m the one who says “THAT was too rough” – or tells her about some of the other rules, for instance, she doesn’t play tug with anything I’m wearing (nobody touches the flag, Jack!), and she stops when I want to stop.