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When play biting escalates in the adolescent dog

Updated: Jun 7, 2023

When you bring a puppy home, you’re prepared for some level of mouthing and biting, and accept it’s a normal part of puppy development. As frustrating and painful as it is, we know we need to ride it out and as the puppy matures, the biting will stop. If you have a new puppy, you'll want to start with our Puppy Biting blog here:

What happens when the biting doesn’t stop and instead it gets worse?

Having a strong adolescent dog jumping and biting you can be scary and dangerous. Knowing how to handle this behaviour safely is vital for reducing it as quickly as possible and avoiding these situations.

There are several factors we need to consider when dealing with this behaviour:

1. Are your dogs needs being met?

2. Is the behaviour being reinforced?

3. Does your dog find the behaviour naturally reinforcing?

4. Are there other factors contributing to the behaviour?

Being aware of how puppy biting can develop if handled incorrectly, is also important. Some puppies will grow out of it regardless of how we deal with it, while others will have lasting associations and worsening behaviours as a result of poor management.

Are Your Dogs Needs Being Met?

You may be quick to answer ‘yes’ to this, you walk your dog, feed him, spend time with him and ensure he’s happy and healthy. But sometimes we need to rethink HOW we meet their needs.

For dogs who struggle with excessive mouthing and biting, it can be sign of something missing from their routine. This is where you need to look more closely at your dog’s day and consider what may be missing or what may need changing.

Mouthing behaviours can often be triggered by your dog feeling frustrated about something, for example, not receiving attention from you, feeling hungry, having too much energy, not have appropriate outlets for their energy or feeling unable to switch off and relax.

Some dogs will benefit from learning how to cope better when they feel frustration, so rather than redirecting these feelings onto you in the form of biting, they can channel it in an alternative way. Play is a great way to build frustration tolerance by working through impulse control games. You can also help build it by using some interactive puzzles or food enrichment, starting easy and gradually mixing in games of varying difficulty.

For other dogs, using their brain more productively will help. For example, setting up games where they can search for food in various boxes, on different surfaces or even just in the grass.

Feeding regular meals can benefit dogs who feel frustrated around mealtimes, feeling hungry can lead to an escalation in mouthing behaviours, so make sure your dog has breakfast and dinner, and vary how you feed them … always making it super challenging isn’t always the best way!

While exercise and mental stimulation is important, we must not forget the importance of rest time too.

Trying to occupy your dog all day to avoid them biting you, will only lead to worse behaviours. Your dog needs to learn how to switch off and rest regularly throughout the day, this will avoid them reaching a state of over-tiredness, and it helps regulate their emotional state so they can make better choices (i.e. not biting you!).

Is the Behaviour Being Reinforced?

This can often be the key to improving mouthing behaviours. As humans, we are prone to mis-communication with our dogs, we’re generally terrible at being consistent and we inadvertently create some really deep-set habits in our dogs.

Jumping and mouthing are two commonly reinforced behaviours, usually completely unintentionally. The problem is, we essentially teach our dogs to jump or bite higher or harder in order to get our attention, or we react in ways which tells our dogs it’s really fun and rewarding to keep practicing these behaviours.

  • Saying NO, DOWN, OFF … if you try to tell your dog to get off, stop biting you or generally speak or shout at him at all in these moments, he’s immediately been rewarded for the behaviour because he got your attention

  • Pushing your dog or physically punishing the behaviour … this is also rewarding for many dogs. Pushing them away or anything else physical can trigger your dog to react back, either as a game, or in some cases they may be trying to warn you from repeating the physical punishment

  • Ignoring the behaviour … this is a commonly recommended approach, but on its own it’s near impossible to successfully implement. When you ignore an attention seeking behaviour, like mouthing or jumping, your dog will try harder to gain your attention and may jump higher or bite harder, at some point you will inevitably snap because it hurts or you feel so bashed up by your dog. When you react, your dog has been rewarded and you’ve inadvertently taught them the new behaviour of jumping higher or biting harder

So what should we do instead?

Firstly, put some management in place to enable you to stop the behaviour being practiced:

  • Baby gates which you can step behind and safely have a barrier between you and your dog

  • Keep a lead on your dog so you can calmly guide them into a different room

  • Pre-empt triggers for biting and manage situations more carefully, for example, put your dog in a different room or behind a baby gate if there are predictable times when biting occurs

Secondly, teach some alternative behaviours which can be used before biting starts or to quickly redirect your dog’s focus. These should be taught to a highly reliable level BEFORE applying them in biting situations (in the meantime, use more management). Dogs repeat what's reinforcing, so giving your dog plenty of opportunities to earn reinforcement for more desirable behaviours will reduce the likliehood that your dog will repeat unwanted behaviours

  • Send to bed – being able to send your dog to a bed can be a lifesaver to interrupt biting and put some space between you and your dog. The bed should signal a calm place and be associated with more settled behaviours, so when they reach their bed, they are more likely to return to calmer, thinking mindset

  • Settle - teach your dog to settle on cue, but also, make sure to pay attention to your dog and calmly offer reinforcement when they offer to settle on their own (It's easy to get into the habit of always paying attention to our dogs when they're jumping, biting or stealing, but we forget to give them attention when they're settled nicely).

  • Find It – this signals to sniff for treats on the floor, entirely incompatible with biting or jumping. Simply say ‘find it’ and drop a few small treats on the ground. Sniffing is a calming behaviour so it can help bring your dog out of the biting state. Repeat a few times and then follow with something else controlled, e.g. a down-stay or walking eye contact

  • Down – this is typically a word we are guilty of saying in an attempt to stop a dog jumping, so why not teach it as a super reliable down-stay behaviour. If your dog is about to start biting, or after redirecting the behaviour, you can ask for ‘down’ and reward your dog for lying down calmly. Keep rewarding frequently to keep your dog in the down position until they’re calmer

These cues may work to interrupt the behaviour and avoid it escalating but on their own, they won’t be enough to completely control or stop the behaviour. You can follow these cues with putting your dog in a different room or behind a baby gate to calm down, or by working on something settled like boundary training on a bed.

The aim is to be able to interrupt the behaviour without any conflict, allowing you to then take action to help your dog remain calm.

Does your dog find the behaviour naturally reinforcing?

Unfortunately, some dogs just love to bite. Some breeds are predisposed to excessive mouthing behaviours due to their breed traits, whether that’s retrieving, chasing, biting, these instincts can make mouthing and biting intrinsically reinforcing.

In adolescence, internal rewards are particularly powerful and addictive, more so than any other time in life. Your dog may find things like chasing, jumping, biting and winning highly addictive and neurochemically reinforcing, meaning they are more persistent with these behaviours and more likely to enjoy the conflict and reinforcement it creates.

If you have an entire male adolescent dog, it's likely you will struggle with this behaviour even more! When your dog jumps up to bite you and he's successful, he gets a testosterone boost and feels great about it. It feels great, so he does it again and gets another boost of testosterone, which is highly addictive. This cycle can start from as early as 4 months of age and you can see this cycle in other behaviours like bullying other dogs, chasing, pinning, stealing etc.

Rather than trying to train the biting behaviour out of the dog, it’s important to find appropriate outlets for them. This can be done alongside the methods discussed above, but it’s a crucial factor to consider for many dogs.

What works best will depend on your individual dog, but remember any outlet can be used to teach better frustration tolerance and impulse control, it will also strengthen your bond and show your dog more appropriate ways to gain your attention.

  • Tug and drop games – using short bursts of tug in a controlled way will teach your dog so many good skills. Keep sessions short so your dog doesn’t become over-tired or frustrated as this could trigger biting. A couple of 10 second bursts of tug is a good starting point, followed by a calm down time, and the tug durations can gradually be built up, always ensuring your dog can calm down after and no biting is triggered

  • Searching games – playing find a toy or find food is a great way to channel natural behaviours and get your dog thinking. You could ‘help’ them find the toy or food, making it a teamwork game

  • Scentwork and mantrailing – taking it up a level from basic ‘find it’ games with toys and food, teaching more advanced scentwork or mantrailing skills can be a great way to give your dog other sources of internal rewards, these activities activate the seeking system which will be a release for internal rewards

  • Teach tricks and new skills – engaging your dogs’ brain is a great way to channel any frustration or energy productively. Aim for behaviours which are incompatible with biting, for example, teach your dog to hold a toy, pick up suitable items and bring them to you, or any tricks with keep their feet on the floor!

If your dog is particularly bitey with certain people, get these people to work on easy behaviours with your dog and play short games of tug and find the toy. Biting behaviours may be worse with certain people due to past reinforcement or just a lack of communication and bonding. Building new associations by involving them in games and activities which your dog enjoys, will help reduce their need to display biting or mouthing.

Are there other factors contributing to the behaviour?

With these types of behaviours, we must also consider whether there are other contributing factors, especially if you’re applying all the above ideas.

We know biting escalates when puppies are teething, so in some adolescent dogs the behaviour will also worsen if they’re experiencing pain from teething. Offering chews or other relief from the pain may help, alongside using management and training.

There are also thought to be links between excessive mouthing/biting behaviours and gut problems. If your dog has previously, or currently, suffered from infections such as giardia, they may have some lasting gut imbalances which may influence their behaviour. Ensuring they have a high quality diet or seeking further professional advice about nutrition and gut health can be hugely beneficial.

Lastly, pain is always a factor to think about. Some adolescent dogs will experience considerable growing pains, this can cause a much lower tolerance of frustration and stress, meaning biting can quickly escalate. As well as growing pains, it’s worth having a thorough assessment to check for any other possible pain, such as joint issues, injuries or other things like ear infections or allergies.

In Conclusion

As frustrating as excessive mouthing and biting is, we have to stay calm and give our dogs clear directions to avoid situations escalating. Using management is important to limit your dog practicing biting behaviours, but being aware of how your reactions can reinforce the behaviour is also important.

For some dogs, the solution is relatively simple, and with consistency the behaviour will disappear quickly. For other dogs, it can take a combination of everything and a lot of management before the behaviour improves.

Having appropriate outlets to meet your dog’s needs and provide suitable opportunities for internal rewards, will go a long to reducing their need to bite and mouth you.

Never underestimate the importance of teaching your dog to rest and relax, being able to regulate their sleep is hugely important to enable them to think calmly and cope with frustration. It’s not all about more activity and stimulation, sometimes it’s far more important to simply SLEEP. Read our blog here about finding a balance between attention and enrichment:

Written by Naomi White

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