One of the first questions I’m asked by new puppy parents is, “How do I get my puppy to stop biting?” I think they’re pretty surprised when I tell them play biting is normal and we need to let them do it.
Dogs have retained strong jaws and sharp teeth from their wild ancestors who hunted large prey animals and competed for resources like food and mates. It’s important among social carnivores to avoid causing injury or death to one another when conflicts happen, so they’ve developed ritualized behaviors, including body postures, vocalizations and inhibited bites.
The ability to bite without maiming force is learned by young puppies through play biting. When one puppy bites too hard, play will stop momentarily. With practice the puppy learns to be more careful with his mouth in order to keep play going.Puppies also need to learn that human skin is more delicate than puppy fur, so they have to be even more careful when playing with their people. For puppies between 6 and 16 weeks, play biting should be allowed, with some rules.
Set up a time during the day to practice. Start by using the ‘ouch and freeze’ method. Let your puppy mouth your fingers. When he bites too hard, say ‘ouch’ just loud enough to startle your puppy momentarily. Don’t pull your fingers out of his mouth or you risk teaching the puppy to chase after your fingers. Stay frozen and ignore your puppy for several seconds before restarting play. Repeat every time he bites too hard. With repetition the puppy learns biting makes play end.
Some puppies really seem to love it when we say ‘ouch’ and get more excited and continue to bite. In this case, try the ‘ouch and time out’ method. When he bites too hard, immediately say ‘too bad’ and get up and leave the area (assuming you’re in a puppy proofed space), or pick him up and gently put him in a pen or his crate (don’t worry, he won’t learn to hate the crate), and ignore him for 1 minute. Then return, let him out and resume play. Again, consistency is key. You must issue the ‘too bad’ cue as your puppy is biting, and do the time-out every single time he bites too hard.
During the first week of play biting practice, use the ‘ouch’ methods for any bites that hurt. For each successive week, get a little stricter about how hard your pup is biting, until he is mouthing with very little pressure. At that point, play biting can be phased out completely, by redirecting to toys, and providing a time out for all bites.
When you don’t have time to practice the bite inhibition exercises, use management. Redirect to appropriate chew toys or a chew bone to give your pup something to gnaw on. Engage your puppy with non-contact play such as fetch or tug. Give your puppy plenty of free-play with other puppies and safe adult dogs to give them an outlet for play biting and an additional opportunity to learn bite inhibition.
What about a ‘no-biting’ policy? This outdated thinking involves everything from squirting with water, pinning the puppy to the floor, smacking under the chin, holding the pup’s mouth shut or forcing him to bite his own lip. These methods can certainly stop a puppy from biting, but there are serious negative side effects. Your puppy may become afraid of you, of hands reaching for him, and even of being handled around his head or mouth in other situations. In addition, the puppy won’t learn bite inhibition. If, as an adult dog, he bites as a reaction to something scary or being injured, he’s much more likely to inflict serious injury because he never learned to control his mouth as a puppy.