Popular dog literature 30 years ago claimed that dogs should never be allowed to place their teeth on human skin or they would learn that it is okay to bite humans. Fortunately, we now have a better understanding of why dogs bite...and it has nothing to do with whether or not we let them when they are puppies.
First, let me distinguish between mouthing and biting. Mouthing is what you see in the photo, above. The puppy has my hand in his mouth, but there is no pressure. If puppies did this for 6 months until they outgrew it, they would be so much easier to live with. I don't discourage mouthing in puppies as long as it doesn't escalate.
But this article is about puppy biting. Those hard, sharp bites that bring tears to your eyes. Puppy biting is normal, natural behavior for your puppy. It is how he played with his littermates and his mother. But just because it's normal and natural doesn't mean that it feels good or we want to encourage it. Puppy biting can hurt!
So what can you do to stop puppy biting right now? Nothing.
I know that's not what you wanted me to say, but the reality is that nothing is going to immediately stop your puppy from biting. Sure, there are a lot of suggestions out there that seem like they work the first time you try them, but eventually, the biting will return...sometimes worse than before.
Worse, there is the risk that physical corrections, ranging from holding your puppy's mouth shut to rolling them on their back can backfire and create a puppy who is fearful. Fear is definitely a major contributor to dog bites. I've seen heartbreaking cases of dogs who were treated this way as puppies and it caused serious aggression.
So, does this mean you have to live as a puppy pin cushion for the next 6-8 months? Of course not. Curbing puppy biting is possible with a little effort.
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
Ideally, we want to prevent the biting as often as possible. We can do this by managing the puppy's environment...and managing the puppy when necessary.
While it might seem like your puppy is biting "all the time," there is most likely a predictable pattern. Dogs are crepuscular, which means their activity levels peak in the morning and early evening. Puppy owners usually confirm that the biting is worse after their puppy eats breakfast and dinner. We want to take that energy and redirect it to more appropriate activities.
Replace meal time with training/play time, using your puppy's food as rewards for new behaviors. You will be amazed how tired your puppy will be after a good training session.
When you're short on time, use interactive toys instead of bowls for meal times. Or, plan ahead and soak their food in low-sodium broth, then and stuff and freeze it inside toys or hollow bones.
TIP: If an interactive toy is too hard at first, puppies can get frustrated and give up. Start with something easy, like a water bottle (remove the ring and label), then gradually increase the level of difficulty.
If your puppy starts biting at other times, examine what happened right before the biting started? Did your children run through the room? Maybe in the future when the kids want to play, puppy gets a bully stick in their pen, then can come out when the whole family is ready to practice training. Once you determine the trigger, you can take steps to manage the environment or the puppy to prevent the biting from starting.
TEACHING GOOD MANNERS
Management doesn't teach good behavior, it only prevents the unwanted behavior. We also want to teach puppies how to behave nicely.
This is where I recommend using a tether. Tethers are great training tools, but especially helpful for biting puppies.
Before starting your training session, make sure you've given your puppy a chance to play and go potty, so they are more likely to relax.
Now, attach the tether to the leg of a couch and give your puppy a mat to lie on and toy or chew while you sit and read or watch tv. As long as your puppy is calmly lying next to you, drop a treat next to them every so often. If they start to mouth or bite, get up and walk away. Say nothing. Let your behavior speak for you.
Return and try again. Be sure to reward your puppy as soon as you return, before the biting can start again. Now, repeat the steps above.
Calm behavior is rewarded. Biting makes you leave.
More tips can be found in this video from kikopup:
TEACHING BITE INHIBITION
Not all puppy biting is the same. Some is just gentle mouthing, with no pressure. It doesn't cause pain. This is GOOD biting. This is what we want to encourage in our puppies.
Here's a wonderful video on how to encourage bite inhibition from Laurie Luck at SmartDog University:
NO ONE'S PERFECT
So, you're having a bad day and didn't do what you needed to prevent the biting or set yourself up for a good training session. Now you've got 28 needles sinking into your ankle. Do you just have to suffer? No.
If you can, get up and walk through the nearest gate or door and close it behind you for 10 seconds, with your puppy on the other side.
When you return, look for something you can immediately reward that isn't biting. It could just be standing and looking at you without biting or offering a sit. Whatever it is, it is not biting, so we want more of it. Grab a toy, a treat, a sock, I don't care, find something to reinforce that behavior! Now, either start a training session, or redirect your puppy's attention to something more appropriate.
MISGUIDED PUPPY BITING ADVICE
So much advice out there fails to take into account how dogs learn. Positive reinforcement is not all cookies and love, and it can work against you if you are simply following a recipe. Here are some examples:
IGNORE THE BITING?
If you were lucky enough to get a puppy with marshmallows for teeth, go for it. But even after teaching puppy classes for over a decade, I can't ignore a hard bite with those needle-like teeth for long. And if you ignore the little bites only to react to the big bites, guess what you just reinforced? Yup. Big bites.
WHAT ABOUT REDIRECTING THEM TO A TOY?
While this is well-meaning advice, you need to be careful about what your puppy is learning. If your puppy bites you, and you immediately reach for his favorite toy and start playing, what was the behavior that got you to play? Biting. What does the puppy learn is an effective way to get you to play? Biting.
YELP/SAY NO BITE/CLOSE THE PUPPY'S MOUTH
Remember that thing about positive reinforcement coming back to bite you? Puppy biting can be an attention-seeking behavior. If you stop what you are doing and look at, talk to, or touch your puppy, you are giving him/her attention.
As long as you focus on not reinforcing the biting and rewarding the behaviors you want to see more of, punishment, whether verbal or physical, is completely unnecessary.
WON'T THEY JUST GROW OUT OF IT?
Eventually, as long as you aren't doing anything to reinforce the behavior, it does get better over time. How long depends on your puppy. My puppy clients reported that, as long as they were consistent with the suggestions above, biting problems decreased significantly, with most puppies finding other more appropriate ways to interact by adolescence (5-6 months). Plus, once your puppy hits that point, you'll be so focused on the destructive chewing, you won't have time to worry about a little puppy biting now and then!
RECOMMENDED PUPPY BOOKS
General Puppy Care
Socialization and Puppy Training
Adolescent Puppy (5-18 months)