Puppies are adorable. They’re cute, silly, mischievous and endless fun, but it’s not long before those little needle-sharp teeth start to really irritate you. It’s the painful side of puppyhood which we often forget about … puppies BITE. Your puppy is not being ‘aggressive’, he does not need to ‘learn who’s boss’ and he is not trying to hurt you, he’s simply doing what puppies do!
It’s important to understand that this is normal puppy behaviour, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything about it. Biting should improve with age, but it will also become worse if you react to it in the wrong way. When puppy biting is dealt with incorrectly, it can quickly escalate into a much more serious or dangerous problem, especially as your puppy grows into a bigger, stronger adult. To appreciate the importance of dealing with this behaviour correctly, you need to understand why it happens.
Why Does My Puppy Bite?
Puppies explore with their mouths, along with their sense of smell, this is how they gain information about their surroundings
They bite during teething to help relieve the discomfort
Biting is used to instigate play and attention. Puppies will have used this with their siblings, and it’s usually an effective way to gain human attention too!
Different breeds are predisposed to nipping or chasing behaviours (e.g. herding breeds) or to using their mouths to carry things (e.g. gundogs). These dogs may have stronger traits for mouthing or biting behaviours
What Not to Do
DON’T REACT – if you scream, yelp, jump up and down or wave your arms when your puppy bites you, he will only want to try it again. You become FUN when you react. He has successfully got the response he wanted and guess what… biting works!
Do not use physical punishment. People will suggest all manner of methods to stop a puppy biting, but things like smacking his nose or clamping his mouth shut are more likely to create further issues than resolve the biting
It is NOT a dominance or pack issue. Your puppy is not trying to take over your household, he is simply acting how puppies act, so don’t panic and don’t punish him
Physical punishment, or anything aimed to shock, startle or scare a puppy will only cause fear and risk creating further issues. These methods may appear to stop the biting, but they can also have unwanted consequences, like making your puppy scared of physical contact, or fearful of people, hands or certain situations
What Should You Do?
RESPOND not react – stay calm and disengage when your puppy bites you. Fold your arms, stand quietly and wait for him to stop. When he stops, reward him calmly with treats scattered on the floor or gentle praise, or offer a toy for him to bite instead
Biting means play stops, your attention is gone and nothing exciting happens. Don’t create a scene by yelping, squealing or pushing him away
If he doesn’t stop quickly or you’re not able to ignore him, remove yourself from the room with minimal drama or step behind a baby gate where the puppy can’t reach you
When you return, be armed with treats to scatter on the floor or a toy to put in his mouth so he doesn’t continue to bite you
If the biting happens again, remove yourself again
Reward the good and ignore the bad … when he makes good choices REWARD HIM! We so often focus on the bad behaviour and forget to tell our puppy when they’re doing the right thing. Have treats on you at all times so if he interacts calmly or makes a choice not to bite, always reinforce this
Everyone in contact with the puppy must follow the same rules, don’t tolerate people playing inappropriate games which encourage or reinforce biting behaviours. Being clear and consistent is essential.
Will This Really Work?
When a behaviour isn’t reinforced, it will stop
When biting no longer creates a reaction from you and it no longer gets any attention, your puppy should offer alternative, preferable behaviours in order to gain your attention
‘Reward the Good, Ignore the Bad’, is absolutely key to resolving puppy problem behaviours
With consistency, he will learn to redirect his biting in appropriate ways (e.g. onto his own toys) and keep his teeth away from your hands!
Remember, biting is also developmental, so your puppy will need time to mature before the biting stops altogether
Use a crate, playpen, or safe room where your puppy can settle and sleep, and where you can put him when you need a break
Puppies will bite more when they’re over-excited, over-aroused, or over-tired so manage these situations by putting him in his safe place if his biting is becoming excessive
Biting tends to worsen when a puppy is tired so make sure your puppy is resting regularly through the day. Puppies need far more sleep than most of us realise (18 hours a day) and we often get into the habit of trying to tire them out, assuming they have excess energy to wear off when actually they’re in need of a decent sleep!
Keep a light house line on your puppy to gently guide him into a different room or move him away from people if he’s biting them. The lead means you can calmly remove him without having to physically intervene by grabbing his collar or picking him up (note, the lead is not there to jerk your puppy or ‘correct’ him, so NEVER tug harshly on the lead)
Using a lead means you can intervene without provoking him further or creating a confrontational situation
Have plenty of appropriate toys and outlets for his biting, puppies do need to bite and chew, so direct this behaviour onto suitable chew toys and activities
Encourage calm activities, especially if your puppy is getting over-excited and more bitey. For example, sniffing for food, working out puzzle toys or other enrichment activities like Kongs or Lickimats
Puppies and Children
Children can often be particular targets for puppy biting. Partly because they move fast and make exciting noises, but also because we find it impossible not to react to this behaviour
When your puppy is biting your children, this is NOT the time for ignore the bad, reward the good!
However, it doesn’t mean you need to react by shouting or grabbing the puppy. If the puppy is biting the children when they’re moving, ask them to stand still and ‘be a tree’, have a reward for them when they’re being statues so they enjoy the game. When they’re stationary, you can call the puppy away and redirect him onto a more appropriate activity
Train an interruption cue, rather than shouting ‘NO’ (which is ineffective because dogs don’t understand English), teach him what you want him to do instead
You could teach him using the cue ‘no’ or ‘ah ah’, which often come most naturally to us, but if you’re inclined to use this continuously then choose something more novel like ‘let’s go’
Work on saying your cue and tossing a treat across the floor for him to chase, then call him to you and ask him to ‘sit’ before you give him another treat. Repeat this all over the house and garden
Then bring in a distraction, perhaps your children, your cat or a mildly exciting adult. As they move around, practice saying your cue and tossing the treat away from the distraction, then call your puppy to you and work on a calm ‘sit’ while the distraction continues
You should now have an effective distraction cue which should result in a puppy who instantly stops in their tracks and spins back to look at you
Keep reinforcing this and encouraging calm responses from your puppy whenever he’s faced with an exciting situation
Set Up for Success
Dogs need consistency, but we are naturally very good at being extremely inconsistent. If you play rough with your puppy and encourage him to bite you, then don’t get upset when he expects to play bite everyone else. He will not understand why one minute you’re encouraging him to bite you, and the next you’re shouting at him for the same behaviour. The context may look different to us, but he’s unlikely to grasp this difference.
This can be particularly difficult with children because they have a tendency to wind the puppy up or encourage rough play. They are likely to do ‘fly by’ touches where they touch the puppy when running past to do something else. To the puppy this will appear as an invite to play, but to the child, they’re unaware they just encouraged the puppy to chase them down and bite!
Children are also often at the puppy’s level, they play with toys on the floor or run past at puppy height, so the temptation for the puppy to seek out play is even stronger. When living with children and a puppy, you need to train both equally how to behave with each other, and it’s essential that the puppy is always supervised around children. If you can’t be supervising, make sure your puppy is securely away so he can’t be practicing bad habits.
The same applies for adults and older children. If you can’t trust them to set your puppy up for success, don’t leave them unsupervised!
It’s important for everyone who interacts with the puppy to understand how to play and interact in an appropriate manner so biting isn’t provoked or reinforced. This is particularly important for children, but it’s for adults too!
Calm, gentle stroking – aim for slow movements so your hands don’t become like toys for the puppy. The calmer you are, the calmer your puppy should feel too. Stroke under their chin and down their chest to avoid reaching over their head. Hands reaching over the head can invite a bitey response, so listen to your puppy and stroke him in areas which promote calmness
Involve toys in your games – always encourage your puppy to hold a toy so they’re not inclined to grab onto clothes or hands
Use playtime to encourage calm – have bursts of exciting play, followed by a longer duration of calm activity. For example, 5 seconds tugging on a toy, followed by 10 seconds of sniffing for treats. This will teach your puppy to calm down even in exciting situations
Work on impulse control in all interactions – biting can happen more when a puppy starts to feel frustrated, perhaps because they’re not receiving the attention they want, so work on control exercises like sitting before receiving attention, waiting before tugging a toy, or lying calmly on a bed before greeting people. The more impulse control they learn, the better they will be at coping with frustration, and therefore the less they will need to resort to biting!
Puppy biting is challenging and some puppies are just born to be little crocodiles, but using a combination of consistent management and training, these crocodile moments will become less frequent and easier to interrupt. Always be aware of your puppy’s limits. Some puppies will turn into monsters when they get tired, for some puppies it’s the excitement of visitors, some when they get hungry, or some when they want your attention. Know your puppy and be ready to manage him if you know he’s going into a biting-mood.
The quicker you are to calm him down and manage the situation, the less opportunity he will have to practice this unwanted behaviour, and ultimately, the less he practices it, the less he will repeat it. Don’t underestimate the importance of reinforcement either. You may need to walk around with treats permanently attached to you for several months, but it will soon pay off when your puppy learns that calm, polite behaviours are what really gets your attention!
It’s certainly not an easy or fun part of puppy ownership and there is no shame in seeking help for puppy biting. If you’re unsure of how best to help your puppy and get on top of his biting then contact a professional to help you. Look for someone who uses force-free methods and steer clear of anyone who suggests using methods of punishment.
At Adolescent Dogs, we work with puppies and their owners all the time, we have lots of experience with all manner of puppy biting troubles so get in touch and we’ll be happy to help!
Written by Naomi White