Hello Basenji Forums! My girlfriend and I have had our 4 month old basenji boy since he was 9 weeks old and we are experiencing some severe biting issues. Excuse the long post, but I want to be sure to provide as much detail as possible because we could really use some help! Here is our story:
Since we have had him he has always been fairly mouthy and although he was kept with his 3 litter mates and his mother during those first 9 weeks, it seemed like he never completely pick up on the bite inhibition concept. Early on we tried simulating basenji puppy yelps, to continue his bite inhibition training, but it didn't appear to be effective. We used a "Timeout" leash that was tied to a door handle with nothing else around and where he could be safely left alone to correct behaviors such as biting us, biting the furniture, going upstairs, or being places he shouldn't be (e.g., on the bookshelf). This was extremely effective! I think after about 3 trials he understood that upstairs was bad and although the furniture biting took a little longer, he soon had no interest in it. However, he never really stopped biting us. We never "played rough" with him and eventually decided that instead of timeouts, we would just ignore him when he bit us, although he never seemed bothered by the fact that we ignored him as if it is what he wanted.
The biting began to escalate. Although timeouts were seldom and usually in spurts, he began biting us HARD as we carried him over to his "Timeout Zone." Putting the leash on him was difficult because he would try to bite the entire time, but even after clipping the leash on he began lunging at us. If we walked by within the first minute or so of the timeout he would lunge and attempt to bite. A few times he was able to catch a pant leg, or a leg itself and these bites were vicious. Soon this behavior permeated beyond just timeouts. Sometimes while we were out on walks he would randomly decide to attack our legs. Eventually, it would just happen randomly in the house. I tried to diagnose what triggers these episodes but it wasn't easy. It certainly happened more often when he was going on a crazy run around in circles spurt. We had been told by our breeder to randomly take away a toy from him, just to remind him who's boss, to which he would sit patiently waiting for us to give it back or throw it to the other end of the room for him to chase. However, when he gets something he's not supposed to have and we take that away, the biting usually follows. For instance, we keep his toys in a canvas-like box thing in a corner. I don't mind so much that he chews on it, but a couple of times he dragged it out to the middle of the room. So, I would tell him no, and simply put it back in the corner. Each of the 2 or 3 times this happened it would lead to him chomping down on my legs and feet.
I think it is important to note that when these biting episodes occur, they are not love bites, they are not single nips. They are "chomp chomp chomp", jump up to bite at the knee or thigh "chomp chomp," go gnaw on the foot. They do leave marks, and at that point in time they occasionally broke the skin. However, he makes no noise while he does this, no growling, no showing of teeth beforehand. We spoke to the breeder about this and she didn't seem alarmed. She reminded us that she has never bred an aggressive dog and that he was a puppy and probably just scared. Although I couldn't completely wrap my head around the idea that fear was the cause, I considered that perhaps carrying him over to isolation in timeout could cause him some stress, leading to a defensive escape response of biting, but this certainly did not explain everything. We decided we needed some professional help, so we scheduled a consultation with a positive reinforcement trainer.
After meeting with the trainer she confirmed that he was extremely mouthy and that "mouthy" didn't really do it justice because they were in fact BITES. She explained this was very abnormal behavior, even for a puppy. We worked out a training plan that involved only positive reinforcement. Therefore, we did away with the timeout and essentially picking him up all together. He would have to get in his crate on his own and get away from or off of things in response to our commands and rewards, not by us physically picking him up. Thus far, this process has been a nightmare and he is at his all-time worst. He will now repeatedly go upstairs, he chews pillows and blankets that he never was even remotely interested in before but worst of all, the biting has increased exponentially. We use an "Eh-Eh" sound whenever he is biting something he shouldn't, including us. This is supposed to distract him so that when he releases, we praise and reward him. The noise rarely gets him to stop and trying to divert his attention with a toy is almost equally as ineffective, but treats will eventually get him to stop and pay attention to whats in our hand. However, this is a very painful process. He will attack our feet/ankles/legs, whatever he can get a hold of, bite down, and tug at the skin. Meanwhile, we refrain from touching him and are just using the "Eh-Eh" command and holding treats in front of his face to try to get him to stop. As a psychologist, rewarding him right after he stops biting somewhat contradicts my training and it seems that this would simply reinforce the initial biting, but this is what the dog trainer prescribed. While I am happy he chooses to attack me instead of my girlfriend most times, I am applying a couple new bandages to various parts of my body almost every time he is out of his crate now because he has CAUSED BLEEDING. It seems that all the bad behaviors we thought we had trained out of him are back and the biting is as bad as it has been.
Again, it is hard to tell if these bites are aggression because he isn't growling or anything like that, but at the same time it doesn't seem to be for attention or to initiate play, because toys and such will not get him to stop. Further, these episodes have occurred while giving him attention, or in retaliation for taking something away that he shouldn't have.
Couple of extra notes:
He is not yet neutered
He gets a few .5 to 1.0 mile walks a day, plus potty time outside. We do not have a fenced in yard, so physical exercise is something we've considered as a cause. However, we do have a tie-out outside that we use but he would much rather sniff and lay in the grass than run around and exert energy. He seems to get more energy out by chasing after the toys we throw in the house. Also, we have been able to take him off leash to a few places to run him around. The behaviors will still persist at night.
Thank you for reading this, I know it is a long post. Please provide any thoughts or suggestions you may have, or even just support to let us know that we're not bad puppy owners! We're reaching out to every resource we can for help, but nothing has seemed to work yet. I am a research oriented person with a strong psychology/behavior mod background, so any empirically supported information would be fantastic! Also, if I somehow missed some important detail, please don't hesitate to ask.