picture of a bernese mountain dog in nature and the text : bmdtutorials.com - bernese mountain dog tutorials by a dog parent, for dog parents

Chapter 7 - Mission The Molar

7 months old Bernese Mountain Dog Puppy
Bruno at 7 months old. We can still both fit in his basket.
Tip: not a good idea to buy him a basket so early. Bruno chewed on it.

Puppies bite. A lot. And their teeth are so sharp they make you squeak like a rubber duck. And that's a good thing. Say whaaaaat? How's that a good thing? It's a good thing because even though it hurts, you still have all your fingers. So now’s the moment to teach him to control his jaws, before his milk teeth change and he gets the upgraded version of his teeth.

Maybe you’re saying, Alright, awesome! Now how do I do that? I'm glad you asked. You teach him to control his jaws when you give him treats. Especially during the daily examinations we talked about in Chapter 6: Operation Terra, The Big Deal. And you do this in steps. You teach him to:

  • Bite gently
  • Hold your hand in his mouth without putting any pressure with his teeth
  • Let go of your hand when you say so
  • Mouth your hand only when you begin the game
Q: Why don't we teach him not to bite right from the start?
A: Because he wouldn't get the opportunity to learn to control his jaws. If he ever does bite, at least he'll do the plush jaws bite.

Let me tell you a story, to see why this is so important. You know I recommended you to brush and comb your dog every day? Well, I don't do it all the time. I know, so bad. But hear me out.

So one day, the fur on Bruno’s belly had a few mats in that sensitive spot right between the ribs and the knee. The dematting comb was out of service so I decided to comb him with the undercoat rake. I started to detangle those mats holding with my fingers the fur close to his skin, in an attempt to avoid hurting him.

It worked for a while, but then I became a little too enthusiastic and I sank the rake deeper in his fur. And then, Hooooooowl! Bruno yelped and with one instinctive movement, he landed with his teeth on my hand.

What do you think happened next? Nothing. I felt nothing. Not even a scratch. Because Bruno has full control over his jaws.

1. Bite gently

After play, when he’s tired, you begin the daily examination. You examine his ears, you give him a treat from your hand. You examine his tail, his paws, and so on, each time giving him a treat.

Now hear this. From time to time let him mouth your hand. You read that right, let him bite your hand! Whenever he bites too hard, squeak, Ouch!!! and hide your hand behind your back for two to three seconds. Then let him bite your hand again until he bites too hard. And do this every day until he learns to bite gently.

But it hurts! It hurts so badly, he even bites my fingers to get the treat! I can definitely relate to that. So here's a tip. Take a treat, open the palm of your hand and stick the treat at the lowest point between your index and your middle finger. Then say, Take it! and offer him the treat palm open. It's a lot less painful this way, right? And with this occasion, you’ve just taught your puppy the cue Take it. Tadaaaa! Congratulations!

Open hand palm with dog treat between fingers
Offering a treat palm open

2. Hold your hand in his mouth without putting any pressure with his teeth

Just like in the first step, you do the daily examination and give him treats. From time to time let him mouth your hands. But now say, Ouch! as soon as he puts the slightest pressure with his teeth, and hide your hand behind your back for two to three seconds. Do this every day until he learns to play delicately with your fingers.

3. Let go of your hand when you say so

Here's a method. So, like in steps one and two, let him mouth your hands during the daily examination. Then say, Drop it! and immediately put a treat right under his nose. What does the puppy do? Well, he can't take the treat and mouth your hand at the same time, so he lets go of your hand. Be ready and click the exact moment he lets go. If you don't want to use a clicker, you can say, Yes! instead of the click. Then immediately give him the treat.

Repeat this exercise every day. When he releases your hand as soon as you say, Drop it! and before he sees the treat, it means he now knows the cue. So you can stop using the clicker for this exercise, but continue praising him each time and rewarding him once in a while.

Next, you can teach him to Drop it with other things. For example, with a tug toy or a tennis ball. The exercise is exactly the same, you simply replace the hand with the tog toy. Each time you teach the cue with a new object, use the clicker again. When he understands the cue, remove the clicker but keep the praise and sometimes the rewards.

Tip

Drop it is also useful when the puppy catches a tissue in his mouth, for example. Or a sock. Or a yucky undefined thing on the side of the road. Or a feather. I never realized how many feathers there are on the street, until I first took a walk with Max, one of my sisters’ dog. I could make myself a duvet with all the feathers he finds.

Oh, and one more thing. Remember: the human hand makes everything better, always. So when you take something away from him, give him something better in return. Why? I promised earlier we’d talk about it in detail. Now’s the time, so here we go.

Imagine you're hungry, you have a hunger the size of the Eiffel tower. So you take a chocolate bar out of your pocket. While you open the packaging, well, look who’s here! Aunt Selfish. And she wants you to share. We’re talking about Aunt Selfish, the one who doesn't even call for your birthday, let alone give you a gift. Would you share? Maybe, but chances are slim.

What if instead of Aunt Selfish it was The Fairy Godmother? And Fairy Godmother offers you a trade. Before she can say dog, you give her the whole chocolate bar. And you don't even know what the trade is yet.

Because not only does she cover you in attention and gifts any opportunity she gets, but she bakes you a cake each year for your birthday. You’d do anything for her, even if she didn't give you something in return.

But Fairy Godmother doesn't let you down and she gives you a whole box of chocolate bars in return. Why does she do this, it doesn't seem logical? Who knows, maybe because she's the best godmother in the world, that's all you know.

You’re The Fairy Godmother for your puppy. Because one day you might find yourself in this situation: your dog is holding something in his mouth, and from the looks of it, this thing has the same value in his eyes as the chocolate bar in your eyes. Unless you don't like chocolate, in which case please replace the word chocolate with your favorite treat.

Maybe your puppy’s holding in his mouth a dark unidentifiable slime he found on the sidewalk. Or maybe it's not yucky or dangerous at all, maybe it’s your new smartphone. Or a contract, or some other important papers.

Whatever he’s holding in his mouth, you want him to drop it. Pronto. If you're The Fairy Godmother, you can breathe a sigh of relief, your puppy will surrender his treasure. If you're not, it's never too late to begin.

Be The Fairy Godmother for your puppy.
Always give him a reward when you ask him for a precious possession.
Give him something even better in return.

What if once you don't have anything at hand to give him in return? It's okay, your puppy will forgive you. After all, you're The Fairy Godmother.

4. Mouth your hand only when you start the game

Say, Take it! then extend your hand for him to mouth it.

You may be wondering, Okay, but how does he know not to mouth my hand if I extend it without telling him Take it? Well, this step has two cues: Take it and Leave it.

To teach him Leave it, you use the clicker or the word Yes and two kinds of rewards: Good-foods and Yummies.

Choose a quiet place where there’s just the two of you, the living room for instance.

Tell the puppy, Leave it! show him the Good-food in your hand, then immediately close your fist.

As expected, the puppy will start mugging your hand, biting it and pawing at it in an attempt to get the treat. Hold on and be patient, it won’t last until the next Big Bang.

Watch for the moment when he stops even for a split second.In that precise moment, click, hide your treat fist behind your back, praise him and give him the Yummy with the other hand.

After a few repetitions, the puppy gets it and stops mugging your hand faster.

Now you can move on to the next step, which is: wait before clicking.

So your puppy’s biting and pawing at your hand, then he stops. Wait for two seconds, then click, hide the treat hand behind your back, praise the puppy, Good dog! and give him a Yummy with the other hand.

Now that he gained some self-control, you can leave your treat hand palm open.

So say, Leave it! and extend your arm with the Good-food in your open palm. If he doesn't start mugging it in the next second, click and hide it behind your back. Then immediately praise him and give him a Yummy with the other hand.

If he does start to mug it, quickly close your fist and hide it behind your back, then try again.

When he's doing okay with not jumping immediately on your hand, go to the next step: wait longer before you click.

First, you wait for two seconds, then three and so on, depending on the maximum duration you want to make him wait.

And we arrived at our desired result. Tadaaaa!

Now you can say, Leave it! when you extend your hand and you don't want him to mouth it. And when you do want him to mouth it, you can say, Take it!

Fading the clicker away

Maybe you're thinking, That's great, but now I'm stuck with a clicker and treats all the time. Phew, I'm glad you reminded me of it, I almost forgot. For this exercise, you can put the clicker away now. Slowly cut back on the treats, giving him one randomly and of course, only for correct responses.

Tip

You can get sophisticated with this exercise. And because we just mentioned the clicker, remember to use it each time you increase the difficulty of an exercise or when you try a new exercise altogether. So, here's how you can go further with this exercise:

  • Putting the Good-food on the ground. And if he jumps on it, be ready to cover it with your foot
  • Adding distance. You put the Good-food on the ground and move one step further. Then two steps, three steps and so on, always making sure the puppy can't get the treat on the ground
  • Turning your back on the treat
  • Leaving the room
  • Pretending to drop the Good-food on the ground
  • Leave it! for other things. For example, a spaghetti plate on the table, a sock, a crumpled paper ball, or a cigarette butt on the street
  • Leave it! for people and animals. Why? Because we don't say, Hi! to all the people and dogs we meet
  • Exercise in different places
  • Exercise with distractions, like other people and animals doing what they do
Important
  • Take breaks often
  • Don't always increase difficulty, make it easier sometimes even if you're having success
  • If a level is too hard, it's okay, go back to an easier level for a while. Then try again the next level
  • End the exercise while you're succeeding and the puppy’s having fun. You know how you feel when an episode of The Big Bang Theory ends and you immediately want to watch the next one? Well, that's what you want your puppy to feel at the end of each training session, when you tell him, That’s all!