Puppy Nipping and “Zinging”: What’s Going on Here?

Adding a puppy to any household brings plenty of new demands on the family’s time and energy. Understanding this early phase of life and maintaining realistic expectations keep everyone on an even keel. A sense of humor helps, too.

Stress in a New Environment

Moving from a breeder’s home/facility or foster situation and into your home is stressful for a puppy (or dog of any age). This isn’t personal: any change in environment is a significant stressor. Often puppies don’t eat well for a few days. It can take a week or longer until Puppy is consuming her entire meal, actively exploring her new home, and engaging with family members.

There are plenty of demands on the puppy. He must mentally unpack where he has landed and assess who is setting the order, so everyone will survive and enjoy life.

Threshold Arousal Levels

All puppies have a threshold level of arousal, commonly referred to as excitement. Arousal is a neurological state which determines an animal’s response to a stimulus or stimuli. Because they are immature, puppies have many triggers for sensory overload and a low threshold for over arousal. This combination results in common puppy behaviors, such as nipping, vocalizing, and “zinging”.   (Zinging: the mindless, aimless, and speedy movements of a dog that has momentarily lost his marbles.)

At a sub-threshold level of arousal, your puppy is thinking and responding to the world around him. For example, he processes learned obedience cues and complies. His general demeanor is relaxed and open to play and engagement.

At an over-threshold level of arousal, your puppy is no longer thinking, but rather reacting to the stimuli around him. He cannot respond to learned cues. He isn’t unwilling or stubborn. He is incapable in these moments.

At increased arousal levels, a default puppy behavior is nipping. Mouth use and lack of bite inhibition are hallmarks of over-threshold arousal in dogs. Nipping is one of the most undesirable behaviors that new puppy parents encounter. When over-threshold, many puppies cannot be re-directed to an appropriate chew or toy.

Understanding and identifying threshold levels in your puppy help manage and prevent reinforcement of resulting behaviors. Indeed, throughout all growth phases, this is an essential benchmark for training and behavior management.

Prevent Practice and Offset Over-Arousal Behaviors

As the days go by with your puppy, your observation skills sharpen. He’s sniffing too long in the corner or losing interest in playtime. It’s time for a trip to the potty place. These same skills alert you to your puppy’s increasing state of arousal. Play movements may become fast and less deliberate. Instead of running after the ball, he’s more interested in your sleeve. Puppy’s attention seems to be everywhere and nowhere. Handling the puppy often escalates her arousal level rather than calming her.  (An attached leash or drag line is an alternative to handling.)

Before reaching that over-threshold level, quietly place Puppy in his crate with a chew. Close the door and go about your business. Depending on the puppy, calm down time can range from three minutes to 15-20 minutes. If Puppy places his teeth on you when petting, stop petting before he does this. Keep petting brief – and valuable. Your hands are not playthings and your petting isn’t a game. Playtime rules are helpful in maintaining sub-threshold levels of arousal.

As immature animals, puppies have very short attention spans. When playtimes, interactions, and training practice are short and frequent, arousal levels are more likely to remain sub-threshold. Play, socialization, and training are more effective.

Use A Crate

The crate is the single most helpful management tool for puppy parents. Not only is housetraining fast and reliable, but it is the most effective and humane means of providing calm down space. Playpens fall short because they offer other “options” and sooner rather than later, most puppies hit upon an escape strategy. Puppies who aren’t taught to accept the boundaries and benefits of confinement grow into dogs who are likely to need those boundaries as adolescents and young adults.

Copyright © Kimberly B. Mandel   CPDT-KA, 2016 all rights reserved

Kimberly Mandel Canine Behavior and Training LLC