If you have a puppy in your household, then the chances are you’ve been the victim of puppy play-biting. This is something that most people accept as being a natural part of puppy behaviour. And it is natural – however you need to teach your pup that it’s not acceptable to bite people.
Why isn’t play-biting acceptable?
Puppy bites are painful but not really dangerous – adult bites can be very dangerous, even if they’re given when playing. We need to teach puppies that people are fragile and that we don’t like teeth on skin – in any context at any time.
Having said that, I DO allow small puppies to chew me. Why? Because it’s a natural, hardwired behaviour and I want to take the time to replace it with something better, not squash the pup’s enthusiasm for interacting with me. Also, it allows me to teach them about the strength of their bite. I’ll talk about how to do that a bit later on in this article.
Things to consider first
Pups don’t just bite when they’re playing. Biting is often a symptom of emotional/physical distress so make sure that your pup isn’t biting you excessively for one of these reasons:
Is my pup bored/frustrated?
Are you giving your puppy enough play time and appropriate outlets for their energy? If you don’t meet your puppy’s activity requirements the pup will take any opportunity it can find for play and activity. That might mean using you as a wrestling partner whether you like it or not.
Is my pup tired?
At the other end of the scale, ask yourself whether your pup is actually over tired or over stimulated. Just like kids at a birthday party, as pups get mentally tired they stop making good decisions and start running on emotion and adrenaline. If your pup has had a busy or exciting time, a nap might be in order. This is a VERY common reason for yucky behaviour.
Is my pup teething?
At about 14 weeks old the puppy’s gums start getting sore in preparation for teething. Adult teeth usually start to show at about 16 weeks. Teething is painful. Many puppies turn into absolute monsters at this age. They’re antsy, fractious, stroppy and bite a lot! For a few weeks expect biting and tantrums. Ride it out calmly, provide plenty of soothing chew items and remember it is only a passing phase.
Is my pup in pain?
If your pup consistently tries to bite/mouth you when you handle a specific area of his body he may be finding it unpleasant or painful. Most pups dislike having feet, ears, eyes and mouth examined, that’s normal and needs to be taught as a positive event. However, if touching his body (i.e. his back) causes him to whip round to nip you, there may be an underlying pain issue.
Civilizing your pup
A combination of the following methods works best to curb puppy biting but they must be used every time pup bites – consistency is the key to teaching bite inhibition.
Distract with a toy
Transferring pup’s attention to a toy is a simple method you can use to teach him not to treat you as his personal chew-toy. I’ve found that soft, floppy toys work really well for this. The longer the toy, the safer your hands and body parts will be!
This method works well when you know pup is going to be excited to see you. Have a suitable toy ready by the door when you come home and when you let him out in the morning. Carry one in your dressing gown pocket if necessary!
When he is about to start play-biting your hand, offer him the toy instead. Try to offer the toy BEFORE pup has attached himself to your hand/trouser leg etc. Often it is possible to calm an excited pup during greetings by having them carry a ‘greeting object’ in their mouth. Give the object and fuss as usual. If it is dropped just give it back. Keep repeating until pup holds the item consistently. As he gets better at holding it, make a fuss dependent upon keeping it in his mouth: he spits, you stop fussing. He carries it, you fuss him.
“OUCH! That hurt!”
A very common method that’s often recommended is to give ‘feedback’ every time your pup bites you. In my experience this works very well with sensitive pups and not at all with bold, confident pups.
I’ll detail it here, but use with caution: you don’t want to frighten your pup! Don’t shout but do ‘freeze’ for a second. I think the ‘freeze’ is actually better feedback than the “ouch” but used together I’ve found them quite effective for some pups.
I like to use this method to give my pup feedback about the strength of his bite. When he is young I’ll tolerate a lot of biting and only ‘object’ if he actually hurts me. As he gets more confident I’ll ‘object’ earlier and earlier in the biting. Eventually he’ll be getting ‘feedback’ for even soft bites.
Why do I do this? Because stopping ALL biting prevents him learning about how to moderate his jaw pressure. As he grows and matures he gets consistent feedback about how hard he’s using his jaws. If I allow soft mouthing he gets to practice… soft mouthing. This is especially important if your pup is an ‘only dog’ and doesn’t get to play jaw wrestling or biting games with a ‘mentor’ dog.
It looks like this:
Puppy bites and chews on me. He gets bold and bites hard – I let him know by yelping and freezing for a second or two. Many pups will back off at this point. If he does, it’s a method I can use. If he bites harder, trying to make me yelp again, then this probably isn’t a method I’ll pursue, but see the note below.
If your pup is tired, fractious, over excited, needs a potty break or is hungry, then yelping is unlikely to be effective. Why? Because your pup is in a mental state where he can’t really process the feedback; he’s just a chomping machine; not thinking about what he’s doing. Best to address the reason for his lack of emotional control before trying to do more handling or playing with him.
Time out involves withdrawing your attention from pup when he mouths or bites. This can be an effective method when combined with “Ouch!” If pup is biting, yelp, then turn your back and ignore him for around 10 to 20 seconds. If pup is very persistent you may have to physically put yourself out of reach for the time out period so that he gets no attention from you whatsoever.
A baby gate or barrier that you can step over or through can work well. I’ve been known to jump into the (empty!) puppy pen to prevent myself being used as an animated tug toy.
Keep time-outs short; at the end of the time out resume the activity you were engaged in. 10 to 20 seconds is sufficient to give pup time to settle down – if you take much longer the pup will probably forget that he was playing with you and the lesson may be wasted.
Placing yourself out of reach, rather than removing the pup, is a better option as the feedback it provides is instant: puppy bites, you instantly become unavailable for further play.
Why shouldn’t I use physical punishment?
Smacking, scolding, firm restraint etc. will all fix puppy biting. However, they’ll also teach your pup to be afraid of hands – and possibly people in general. The last thing you want is your dog to be worried that hands coming towards him mean ‘bad things’ for dogs! He’s likely to either bolt, or bite.
Think of the amount of times a day you have to reach for your dog: petting, putting on collars, leads or harnesses, checking body parts, removing inedible rubbish before it’s swallowed… the list goes on. You NEED your dog to love your hands approaching otherwise life is going to be very difficult for both of you.
- Ask yourself why your pup is biting? Make any necessary changes.
- Always be prepared! Use a toy to redirect from chewing you to chewing the toy at times of high excitement.
- Give appropriate feedback if your pup responds to it.
- Remove yourself from reach if all else fails.
- If you’re worried that the biting/mouthing is NOT play, contact a qualified positive reinforcement trainer sooner rather than later.
– Sarah and the Gang
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