Puppies have needle-sharp teeth, a feeling you know only too well when they are sinking into your ankles or your juicy big toe! Quite a lot of the puppy visits I make are to address this issue. Mouthing can be annoying and painful for puppy owners, and lead to future problems, so let’s “nip” it in the bud! It’s time to stop your puppy from biting you.
Mouthing, nipping or biting? It doesn’t really matter what you call it – my view is that any teeth to skin contact should be avoided.
It is going to be difficult for your puppy to understand that a certain level of mouthing is OK by you, but a little bit more pressure is not OK. An acceptable level of ‘nibbling’ for you might not be fine for someone with more sensitive skin or less keen on dogs – they could view it as a ‘bite’. How can we teach your puppy how to differentiate, when we have different levels of tolerance? To keep things simple, let’s just say that any teeth to skin contact isn’t appropriate. From gentle gnawing/suckling on your hand, to grabbing at and sinking the teeth into ankles, all are a no-no.
Why do puppies bite?
Puppies have 28 teeth to lose, and 42 adult ones to gain. Generally, they are finished teething when they are around 6/7 months old. Some might hang on until they’re 8 months. That is a lot of teething, so it is no surprise that there is a lot of tooth based action!
Anyone that has experienced a teething human baby will know how it affects them. Painful gums, ruddy cheeks, and an “out of sorts” baby. Puppies are going through these experiences too; they will need to gnaw and soothe away the discomfort and we need to provide suitable outlets.
2. Play and Exploration
I see many first-time puppy owners who are worried that biting is the beginnings of aggressive behaviour. Be reassured: exploring the world with their mouths is perfectly normal. Puppies use their mouths to pick up and experience new objects, just as toddlers use their hands to touch and grab everything within reach. A pretty summer dress flowing, a dressing gown belt tantalisingly dangling, trouser legs flapping, squishy slippers flip-flopping around the house – all of these things are prime play targets! Chasing their ‘prey’, catching it, and holding on to it: all are normal canine play behaviours. In enthusiastic play, they may even try out vocalisations.
Whilst we acknowledge that the behaviour is normal – it is not appropriate. The good news is that we can train alternative ways for them to try out their natural skills.
Mental stimulation is essential for a developing puppy. If they aren’t napping, then they will occupy themselves. A puppy that feels bored, lonely, or a little anxious, will get their teeth stuck into something to make themselves feel better. Chewing releases endorphins, which helps reduce stress. Chewing on a table leg or a skirting board can be a lovely relaxing way to spend an afternoon.
What to do to stop your puppy biting
- Offer appropriate chewing options.
- Avoid reinforcing play biting.
- Mentally stimulate your puppy.
Offer Appropriate Chewing Options
- Consider products such as the “Kong“, which come in a variety of sizes (puppy pink/blue, classic red, strong black). I like the idea of having around 3 Kong’s on the go – one for the puppy, one for the wash, and one for the freezer. Fill them with a variety of recipes and then freeze – place a top-notch treat at the bottom (a little ham, a dried sprat, piece of chicken, cheese, liver cake) to keep them working right to the bottom. Add a layer of their regular food, and then top with something juicy to get them started such as a little peanut butter, cream cheese, salmon paste. A variety of flavours, smells and textures will keep a puppy interested in a Kong for a good 10-20 minutes. Providing them frozen is best as the cold rubber will soothe teething pain, and are also ideal as they will take longer to work through. The Kong website is here: https://www.kongcompany.com/en-uk/ and offers some good recipe ideas.
- Be creative with things they can chew on – it could be a rubber toy of theirs that you have smeared with something tasty and frozen. How about soaking a rope toy or old tea towel in the leftover meat juice from the Sunday roast and freeze that? Be careful of carpets though – defrosting food chews and puppy slobber may make rather a mess!
- Try a variety of textures as well as flavours. There are various natural chews such as “pizzle sticks”, twisted fish skins, pigs ears, chicken feet, hooves that you can stuff as you might a Kong. There are all sorts of weird and wonderful natural options. They can be quite smelly and stomach-churning to us, so best to serve them in your puppy’s crate/pen.
- Avoid rawhide – it is produced using a lot of chemicals to strip the animal hide and make it look clean, and once chewed is not easily digestible so can pose a choking hazard. Antlers are increasingly popular, but too tough for puppies so wait until they have their adult teeth for those.
Avoid Reinforcing Biting Behaviour
How we accidentally make biting more likely
Contrary to our natural instincts, saying a firm “No!” and pushing a puppy away isn’t very effective. If they are chewing/nipping at you because they want to get your attention and engage you in play, then any eye contact, verbal response, or physical contact, will mean their strategy has been successful. Puppies are resilient little creatures, and can regard even quite a vigorous shove as us engaging in play. Some puppies get rather excited by some roughty-toughty play, and next time they come in even more exuberantly!
Shouting/shrieking/squealing, shoving the puppy down, or running away – all of these reactions are instinctive to us. Unfortunately, such responses actually reinforce the behaviour: it makes puppies more likely to repeat the behaviour. They think you are joining in the game! If you have young children to consider, bear this in mind – particularly if the child gets worried and tends to run away from your puppy. Great advice specifically for teaching children how to behave around dogs can be found here: https://clickertraining.com/node/3535
The Rule Everyone Must Follow
The best approach is to calmly, silently, remove all contact: eye contact, verbal contact, and physical contact. Each and every time puppy puts mouth to skin, it is the end of the game. Zero tolerance. Zero fun. Every single time puppy puts mouth to skin. Everyone follows this rule.
Removing contact could simply mean tucking your hands under your armpits. Maybe you will need to turn away from the puppy. If you are sitting on the sofa, tuck your feet under your legs. Stand up, fold your arms, and turn your back on the puppy. You may need to calmly exit the room from your puppy for a few seconds (remove yourself rather than interacting with the puppy and removing them). Do it all with minimum fuss and attention.
Your puppy may escalate their attention-seeking behaviour to begin with – their existing strategies have worked really well so far, so if they stop working all of a sudden they may “up their game” to try to get the same result. They might jump up, or tug more vigorously at clothing. Expect this; it doesn’t mean the technique doesn’t work. Be consistent and resilient: you can outwit and out-think your puppy! By repetition, your puppy will learn that mouth to skin = no attention. They will learn that when they are calm, that’s when you give them all the love and attention they need, and lots of it!
Sometimes puppies will cling onto clothing/footwear as part of the game. To tackle this behaviour, I recommend teaching an effective “Out” cue. Teach the cue word as a fun lesson, a training exercise in its own right – an exchange game is a good strategy – where the puppy gets a really super toy/high value treat in return for letting go of an item. Reward them really well for releasing an item from their mouth.
Don’t just wait until they’re being “naughty” and then tell them off when they’re sinking their needle teeth into your toe!
Teach them what the word means in a positive way. When your puppy understands the vocabulary, you can communicate effectively with them then when they are holding onto something they shouldn’t. Issue the “out” cue once and calmly, and then reward verbally with a low key “Good boy” (not a treat, otherwise they might start grabbing and biting just to get you to say “Out” so they can get a treat!).
Mentally Stimulate Your Puppy
I’ve said that puppies will explore the world with their mouths. When left to their own devices they will do just that – and sometimes the results are not endearing. There are lots of options to consider.
Interactive feeders – for example, ones where they have to roll about a ball/toy to release treats, are a good option. Snuffle mats are popular – hiding treats in fleecy mats will encourage nosework where they have to sniff out and hunt for treats. Reduce the amount of food they receive from their bowl – instead make them ‘work’ for it. Providing some of their daily food allowance via interactive feeders will keep them motivated to stay focused on getting every morsel rather than getting up to mischief.
If they are on a dried food, try “scatter feeding”: you literally toss their breakfast across the lawn and they have to hunt for every piece of kibble. That’s 10-20 minutes of hunting and foraging, compared to 30 seconds gobbling it all down in one go. There are things called “licky mats”, where you smear delicious foodstuff across a rubber food mat, freeze it if required, and they have the lick every morsel out. Anything involving licking or chewing is a fantastic option due to the endorphins the action releases. They’re occupied in a way that is also relaxing, win, win!
Teach them useful commands that will help – lots of short 1-2 minute training sessions throughout the day will make their brains tick and help to tire them out. Training is a wonderful time for mental stimulation and bonding. Stick to really short sessions, so that neither you nor puppy get bored or frustrated. When the kettle is boiling, work on a behaviour. When the adverts come on, do another one. Little and often. Concentrate on behaviours that are incompatible with ‘nuisance’ behaviours – so try building duration on their Stay in each position “Sit”, “Stand” and “Down” – because whilst they have their paws on floors they won’t be jumping up to hang off of your clothing! Teach the “Out” so they can understand that when you say that word, they release an object from their mouth when you ask them. Or teach them tricks such as paw, spin, rollover. All adorable, interactive, and ideal to keep them busy.
Engage in appropriate play with your puppy:
- a tug game is good – keep the tug toy low down and allow your puppy to chase it, catch it, and have a gentle tug. Then say “Out” and reward. This will give them an outlet for part of their natural prey drive behaviour (stalk, chase, bite, hold), as well as teaching them the “Out”.
- Drop a few treats down near your puppy, and whilst it is busy move away. When its nose comes up, call it over to you enthusiastically – get the puppy to chase you, and give a great reward of a toy or exciting treat. You’re then giving an appropriate outlet for the chase, as well as teaching a recall.
- Teach retrieve games. This is a great one – they get to chase a moving item, hold it in their mouths, and then release it in exchange for something worthwhile.
Hopefully, you now understand why your puppy is chewing and biting. Understanding the reason for problem behaviour is a great start so now you know how to stop your puppy from biting you.
You’re now armed with ideas for appropriate chewing options, a plan to reinforce calm behaviours not “bitey” ones, and can use feeding, training and play to mentally stimulate your puppy. So get stuck in with your training, rather than letting puppy get stuck into you!
A Big Thank You to out Guest Blogger
Denise Price BSc (Hons) MA
Denise belongs to the Institute of Modern Dog Trainers, and the Guild of Dog Trainers. Denise teaches Good Citizens Dog Scheme classes, and helps owners with puppy & dog training, obedience, and separation issues in and around Bedfordshire. Find her here: www.denisepricedoginstructor.co.uk