One of the most common problems I’m approached with as a dog trainer is this one:
“My puppy is so sweet. I just love him! But he bites me all the time. He’s not being mean – he’s just playing. But he needs to stop!”
I’ve met people who are covered with scratches and wounds all over their arms and legs from their puppies play-biting them. Usually, my first thought is “OUCH!”
Why Do They Bite?
There’s a reason why this is such a common problem. It’s because puppies play using their mouths! When they’re with their litter, before they move in with you, they’re playing together by wrestling, chewing, and nipping at each other. As they do this, they learn something called “bite inhibition.”
Essentially, bite inhibition is knowing that if they bite, that may cause pain, and cause your playmate to react in a not-so-favorable way. Brothers and sisters may turn and nip them in return. The play may stop. If they bite the wrong dog too hard, they’ll likely get a more harsh correction – a lot of time, their mama will lay them out flat for biting inappropriately during play. This is why puppies who have left their litters too early, or those who were single puppies, often have MORE biting issues. It’s because they don’t learn bite inhibition from other dogs.
So, while they’ve learned from the beginning of their journey of having teeth that they need to be careful, they often still aren’t prepared to live with someone who has no fur, only skin. A bite that may be appropriate for another fluffy puppy or dog is likely going to hurt your bare skin a whole lot more!
So What Do We Do About It?
There are a few key things to do when you’re addressing play biting in puppies.
- Firstly, recognize that it’s a normal behavior, and they’re not doing it because they’re mad at you, they hate you, or that you’re not a good mommy or daddy to them. Dogs are dogs, and biting is a normal thing for puppies to do. It’s simply something they haven’t learned to control with people just yet.
- Give them an outlet. We don’t want your dog to be afraid to use his mouth indefinitely. That’s not healthy, and it can really limit the kind of training and rewards you’ll be able to use in the future. Giving plenty of opportunities for chewing, chasing, and tugging is essential! Let them use their mouths in an APPROPRIATE way, and let them know that this is good with lots of praise and play.
- Correct them when they bite. This is usually where I see things breaking down. Owners don’t want to be mean to their puppies. They don’t want to hurt them. They only want to be positive. Unfortunately, that’s not how dogs think, most of the time. As I said above, if a puppy bites an older dog too hard, they’ll get put in their place pretty quickly.
The easiest way I’ve found to give a puppy a bite correction is to take the skin on their cheek firmly in your hand and say “No,” or “Off,” or whatever your word is. Say it like you mean it. Your puppy may turn and try to bite you again immediately, like a toddler who’s just been told not to hit his brother. Repeat your correction each time he does it, and then try to redirect him to an appropriate way to play.
Correct, and Redirect. If you don’t redirect it to another play activity, your puppy may become stuck on the idea of “getting away with” biting you. He’ll start to see if he can bite you fast enough and get away before you can catch him, so you do need to correct it, and then say “Let’s go find a toy!
Puppy biting is a pain, but it is pretty normal. With consistency, opportunity for play, and maturity, your puppy will quit and become a joy to play with!