This will be a multi-part series highlighting tips and tricks for helping you and your deaf or deafblind puppy through adolescence.
Part 1: Help! My deaf puppy won’t stop biting!
First of all, take a deep breath. Puppies are hard, and adolescent dogs are even harder. If you’ve brought a deaf or deafblind dog into your home, it’s likely this dog did not come from a situation where its early socialization was taken with much care. It is during the first few months of life that puppies start learning bite inhibition and start developing their personalities. Genetics and even the prenatal environment also play a role. Deaf puppies take extra care during these developmental stages, since they are lacking certain sensory input and are not receiving the same auditory (or visual) feedback as the other puppies in the litter. If the puppy was taken away from its mother and litter too early, or if it was perhaps a singleton puppy, these can also increase risk factors for poor bite inhibition and behavior problems.
Okay, so you have your deaf puppy and you’re doing the best you can, at the expense of your clothes, skin, and anything in your home that is or is not nailed down. The cause or the manner in which you acquired your puppy does not matter, it’s already happened.
It’s important to note that puppies bite for a variety of reasons. Like any behavior we want to modify, it’s important for us to understand why our puppies are exhibiting said behavior. As in, what is the driving force, the thought (or lack thereof) behind it. We do not simply want to stop the behavior, because stopping a behavior does not guarantee a better behavior will take it’s place. Punishment can also create fallout, which I won’t go into much here, but it is not a method I recommend for any puppy, but especially for those that look to us for visual or tactile communication. The last thing you want to do with your deaf puppy is break down their confidence or make them feel unsure or unsafe in any scenario. Spraying your puppy with water, or sticking your fingers down their throat can cause further issues down the line. Behavior is communication to interpret, not suppress.
Puppies get overly mouthy for a lot of reasons, especially as adolescents. Frequently there is low arousal control. Essentially, they get so worked up that they aren't able to think clearly and their brains sort of "shut off" for a bit. You may notice it's hard to get your puppy to follow cues during these periods. So what can we do?
Be pro-active, not reactive. Avoid having your dog in situations where they might get overly nippy. If your puppy is getting mouthy during play, be ready with a toy. If they are getting mouthy during petting, consider that as information that being pet is a bit too arousing or uncomfortable for them. Offer them a treat and a very short pet instead and see if they choose to re-engage.
But then aren’t we just avoiding the behavior? Well yes, in a sense, but more importantly, we are building neural pathways for how the dog should behave in those scenarios. Puppies have a lot of neuroplasticity, so setting our puppies up for success by not even allowing them to practice unwanted behavior in the first place, is an effective way to teach the behavior you do want.
Make sure their needs are being met. A lot of our deaf dogs are not only impaired, but are high energy breeds that need an outlet for their physical and mental energy. With a dog who is impaired, especially deaf and blind, it can be hard for owners to pinpoint what is causing their dog’s behavior problems. We forget that we have a dog that was bred for generations to have certain behavior traits, and they’ve had one or two of their major senses taken away. Suppressing or not allowing a dog an appropriate outlet for what it was bred for is like holding a beach ball underwater. That energy is going to pop up somewhere else, and sometimes manifests in an unexpected way.
Your puppy should be getting opportunities for enrichment that encourages chewing, biting, shredding, and foraging safely.
Make sure your puppy is getting plenty of exercise, and I don’t mean just playing fetch in the yard. High energy breeds need more than high arousal activities. These dogs have been bred for generations to intimidate large animals, and have endless stamina. Playing tug is great, taking care to stop the game if their mouth hits your skin. You may also need to experiment with different types of tugs (different materials, textures, sizes, etc), to figure out what works best and safest for you and your dog.
On the same note, one way you can help prevent your puppy from getting over aroused during play is by intermittently asking for behaviors that they already know, and then offering play as the reward. If they have a hard time with this, start in an easier environment and when they are a bit calmer. Remember, we want to practice low arousal and arousal control. Though this is a good idea for any dog, if you have a dog with vision impairment I strongly recommend teaching a “get it” cue so that the dog isn’t blindly grabbing for the toy before you’re ready.
Finally, teach an interrupter cue. This is particularly helpful for puppies that like to latch on and not let go. We have a great training video linked HERE.
If none of this seems feasible for you and your dog or you feel your puppy is exhibiting aggressive behavior, please find a Certified Professional Dog Trainer near you. A trainer can help you identify your dog's triggers and come up with an appropriate training plan specific to your dog.
Keep in mind that the dog training industry is completely unregulated, so find a trainer that keeps up with the latest research and is always continuing their own education. I recommend starting here.