Bringing a new puppy home is a wonderful time! It’s full of soft puppy breath, snuggles, wagging tails, and watching your puppy learning to be an adult dog. It’s almost perfect, but then the puppy biting starts. Puppy biting is one of my most commonly received questions from new puppy clients, so I thought I would take a minute to write up a survival guide for this completely normal phase of puppy development.
My husband and I were just reminiscing about how we felt like our own puppy, Buck’s biting phase would never end. Rest assured puppy biting phases are completely normal and are no indication of aggression or dominance.
If puppy biting isn’t to show dominance why do puppies bite so much?
- Dogs and puppies are opportunistic which means that they will repeat what is rewarded. By the time you bring your cute little puppy home, your puppy has had about 8 weeks to practice roughhousing with his littermates. Which taught your puppy that using his mouth to bite littermates is a great way to get his littermates to play with him.
- Genetics may also play a role, some breeds like Heelers and high drive German shepherds have been bred for hundreds of years to bite things that move. Other Breeds like Goldens and Labradors like to carry things in their mouth, this may also include a pant leg or a hand.
- Teething can cause biting since it’s uncomfortable and painful. Teething typically lasts for two to three months.
- Your puppy’s biting is most likely caused by a combination of all of these factors.
When is the puppy biting phase is NOT normal? When should you seek professional guidance to address the biting?
- When the puppy is growling before a bite it could be an indication of play, but it also could be more concerning than that. In this scenario, body language will help you decipher the motivation. If the puppy has a loose body and is wiggling around before using his mouth it’s playing. If your puppy is stiffing up or freezing while growing and before biting it’s more serious.
- You are finding that your puppy is only doing this in situations where you are guiding him or asking him to do something it is more serious.
- Your puppy seems to be doing the biting when you try and take something of his or touch something of his.
- Your puppy is consistently breaking the skin with his bites on another dog or a person.
- If your puppy is over 5 months and still having problems with biting.
If your puppy falls into the category of one or more of the above seek training with a CCPDT or a CABB certified trainer right away.
When will my puppy grow out of biting?
The bad news, they don’t grow out of biting without feedback from their environment. That essentially means that it is up to you to teach it.
Studies have shown that if puppies are kept in a natural environment with a mother and their littermates they will receive enough feedback from their litter and their mother to stop biting by 3 ½ months to 4 ¼ months depending on breed. Puppies that are born without littermates or taken from their littermates before 6 weeks are at a disadvantage when it comes to learning bite inhibition. This is due to not having received the important feedback from littermates that sets the foundation for bite inhibition. The more the puppy receives feedback about his bites the safer that his adult jaws will be.
Why is it important to teach bite inhibition to your puppy?
The ability for puppies and dogs to control their bite pressure is called bite inhibition by trainers and behaviorists. Bite pressure matters, because there are times in most dog’s lives where they may need to use their teeth. This could be a reaction to pain, such as having a toe stepped on or being pushed too far by another dog. A Siberian Husky has a bite of 320 Pounds per Square Inch. A Cocker Spaniel has much less powerful jaws; however, even though they only weigh between 25 and 35 pounds yet 23.6 percent of Cocker Spaniel bites end up requiring stitches. This is so important we teach our puppies that they can use their jaws softly.
Phase one is teaching the puppy the human skin is sensitive and how to use their mouths softly.
Phase two is about teaching them not to bite altogether. While it can be tempting to skip phase one and go straight to two it can also be pretty risky in the long run.
Remember puppies need lots of feedback on how they use their mouth, so they can leave to have safe adult jaws.
Before we jump into the training we want to make sure that we are managing and meeting the puppy’s needs correctly.
- Make sure you are meeting your puppy’s exercise needs. This is more than just letting your puppy play in the yard with an older dog. This should be at least two 20 minute sessions playing games like fetch and tug with your puppy. This teaches puppies how we want them to play.
- Have either a playpen or a tether area set up for your puppy. This area should have at least three different types of chew bones. I like to have a softer nylabone made specifically for puppies, bully sticks, kong, and a plush toy.
- Keep a tuber ware of their puppy food, so that you can reach to it for training at a moment’s notice.
- Offer your puppy plenty of options for soothing their sore gums during teething. Having multiple bones with different textures and flavors available to your puppy at any given time is ideal. Things like celery with xylitol-free peanut butter frozen, rubber kong stuffed with yogurt and pumpkin and frozen, bully sticks, puppy nylabone 3 pack with the flexible verity and Whimzees chews are all great options. Here is a longer list if you need more ideas:
Bite inhibition is the first and most important part of teaching your puppy not to bite. There are LOTS of good ways to teach this so I have picked my 4 favorite ways to get you started. Each method will help strengthen your puppy’s understanding of using his mouth softly in a different way.
Exercise 1, No Mugging:
This one is great for puppies that are biting hard. Do these exercises twice a day with your puppy’s meal. Pick a word to use that you will use throughout this training. I typically use words like “gentle” or “easy” to remind my puppy to use his mouth softly.
Setting up for step 1: Sit on the ground with your puppy and put a few pieces of kibble in your hand with a closed fist. Put your hand at your puppy’s nose level and wait. Keep your hand as still as you can, don’t pull it away or wiggle it around. Don’t worry your puppy can’t steal the food, because it is in a closed hand. Instead, he is going to try different behaviors while attempting to access the food rewards. The behaviors your puppy will offer gives us plenty of opportunities to give lots of feedback on how our puppy uses his jaws.
Criteria for step 1:
If your puppy bites hard during this step you can say, “Ouch” calmly and stand up.
If your puppy lightly bites say, “Ouch” don’t stand and keep your hand closed.
If your puppy licks your hand, doesn’t got for it, or is gentle say “Good” then open your hand and allow your puppy to eat the kibble.
Ignore all other behaviors like jumping or pawing.
Repeat this as often as needed to get five “Goods” in a row without any “Ouches”.
Step 2: The setup is the same except this time when you are putting your hand down to your puppy’s nose you will say “Gentle” one time.
Criteria for step 2:
If your puppy bites at all you will say “Ouch” calmly and stand up.
If your puppy uses his nails to dig at your hand say “Ouch” but don’t stand and keep your hand closed.
If your puppy licks your hand don’t say anything, instead just keep your hand closed.
If your puppy looks away from your hand, or moves away from you in say “good” and open your hand allowing your puppy to get the kibble.
Repeat this step until your puppy never tries to mug you for the food that is in your hand. I typically recommend doing this at least every other day even after your puppy has mastered this.
Exercise 2, Gentle:
This is perfect for teaching your puppy to understand the word “Gentle”.
Setting up for this exercise you will want to have honey, peanut butter, or cream cheese nearby.
Sit down on your puppy’s level in an area where there is very little distraction. Put about a teaspoon of honey on your fingers or the back of your hand.
Step 1. Stay “Gentle” and present your hand to your puppy. If he starts licking you can repeat “Gentle” if your puppy bites say “Ouch” calmly and stand up. You will stop the session for at least one minute. This will teach your puppy that if he is rough he misses out, if he is gentle he continues to get rewarded.
Step 2: Repeat this on different parts of your hands once or twice a day until you can go through 5 sessions without an accidental nip.
Exercise 3, Relaxing Petting:
This is for puppies that get nippy when snuggling, petting, or when they feel overstimulated.
Setting up for this exercise you will want to collect some soft treats cut into small pea-sized pieces. Take your puppy on a walk or a good play session before your session then gives him 10-15 minutes to settle back down. Find a room with low distractions and sit with your puppy on the ground. If your puppy gets mouthy during this exercise then you should stand up for a minute and start back on step one.
Step 1: You are going to give your puppy a treat at the same time you touch your puppy. Be careful to only touch and not to pet. Feed and touch calmly as you can. Repeat this touching your puppy’s head, shoulder, paw briefly while you feed a treat. Repeat this until your puppy can remain relaxed while you touch your puppy all over.
Step 2: You will no longer feed at the same time you touch your puppy. Now you will touch your puppy, say “Good” then give your puppy the treat. Repeat this until you can touch your puppy all over and he remains calm.
Step 3: Take it from a quick touch to a single stroke. Pet your puppy once say “good” then treat. Repeat practicing all over your puppy.
Tip: You may notice some areas are more difficult than others. For example, your puppy may be very good for his shoulders but struggle much more with his legs. That is okay and completely normal, just work on getting your puppy completely comfortable. This will likely take 3-4, 15-minute sessions.
Step 4: Gradually pet your puppy more enthusiastically, starting with two gentle strokes, then three, then four between each “good” and treat. You can also pet them in different ways like patting or fluffing their fur. Remember if your puppy gets crazy or mouthy at any point in time go back to step one and work through the process again.
The more gradual you build the faster your puppy will get it.
Exercise 4, Being Polite:
To set up for this you will need to create a play zone. This is created by using a playpen, back tie, or baby gate that you can step in and out of easily, but will keep your puppy in his own space. We will use the baby gate to step away from our puppy as immediately as possible. If you are using a back tie make sure that your puppy is connected to a well-fit harness.
Step 1: Both you and your puppy are going to be in the play zone spend some time with your puppy it could be sitting with your puppy playing, sitting and petting your puppy, or anything else. If your puppy is playing politely stay and play with your puppy. The moment your puppy jumps up on you OR uses his puppy teeth say “Ouch” calmly and immediately leave your puppy’s space until your puppy does something calmer. This calm behavior could be anything.
For example: If he is starting off barking it could be waiting for a moment for him to take a breath from barking. If he started off jumping when you left it could be keeping all four paws on the ground. Once your puppy demonstrates a good understanding of this you can have other family members try this. Start with the adults in the home than older kids to younger kids until the puppy is behaving calmly with everyone. Your puppy will start to learn that biting loses friends while calm polite behavior gets them to come back and stay.
What about when the puppy is biting the kids when they run around?
You may notice that your puppy’s mouthiness reeves up with the kids around. Once again this is completely normal and it’s not an indication of dominance or aggression; however, it is something that you should address with your puppy right away.
Puppies tend to be more stimulated by children because of the children’s erratic movements and higher-pitched voices. When kids have something a puppy wants they may run from the puppy or waive the object in the air causing more excitement and that is going to look a lot like an invitation for rough puppy play to the puppy so here are some ideas to bust those behaviors.
- Have the kids hand feed as often as possible AFTER you have practiced the no mugging exercise.
- Use exercise 4 after the adults have practiced.
Also, try this training exercise to get a handle on your puppy when the kids are running and playing.
As a prerequisite practice teaching your puppy a rock-solid recall, if you’re not sure how to do that here is a link to get you started: https://youtu.be/FFQnL9BAEkk
Once your puppy can come on cue teach your kids to freeze with their hands at their side when you say “Be a Tree”. “Red light green light” also works well. When your kids are playing supervise very closely occasionally yell “Be a tree count to three then call your puppy away from the kids.” Have the kids stay frozen until the puppy comes back to you then give the all-clear for them to run and play again. Give your puppy an extra tasty treat for this exercise. The treat should be one your puppy wouldn’t normally get. If your puppy wants to stay with you for more training you can practice a nice down-stay so your puppy gets in the habit of lying next to you while your kids play.
If your puppy ever starts jumping up or being mouthy with your kids you can use this to stop the behavior while also strengthening your puppy’s recall.