Puppy Biting and Mouthing

Yeah, they have needle teeth, I know.  But, it’s normal and even beneficial (seriously!) to have a puppy who mouths you.  Unfortunately for your hands and clothes…

Puppies play-bite because that’s how they interact naturally with other dogs with whom they’d like to play.  When they grab you with those little needle teeth, they’re simply trying to engage you in play or get your attention. Dogs have thicker skin than we do (not to mention fur), so it doesn’t hurt them when they play-bite each other. In fact they would probably be thrilled if you wanted to bite them back. (Not that I’m recommending that, though, unless you like flossing with dog fur.)

There are two schools of thought on puppy biting:
puppy biting can be improved with training!
1) Let them bite.  Allow them to mouth your hands as much as they’d like; you’re interacting in a healthy way with your dog.  Don’t correct, but remove your hands when they bite too hard.  The thought is, teaching a dog “don’t EVER put your mouth on human hands!” actually teaches them nothing about just how hard one can bite down on us fleshy humans without hurting us, which could be valuable information for a dog to have in the future, if he’s ever afraid enough to bite.  The thinking is, he’ll know exactly how hard he can press down before injuring a person, and thus have more refined bite inhibition.

2) Not surprisingly, the second school of thought is, “don’t ever let your dog put his mouth on your skin!”  This makes sense too.  When a dog bites a human it is quite literally a capital offense – there is a chance he could be sentenced to death for it.  Dogs don’t understand this.  Perhaps in making human skin forbidden we could give them an idea of how serious this is.

It’s up to each individual pet owner to decide where their feelings on this issue lie.  I will tell you however, that no matter how much training or preparation a dog has, if he is scared enough and nothing else works, he WILL bite.  It is an animal’s last defense and you will never train that out him.  The real skill, and this can be done, is to raise a confident, well socialized dog who is better able to deal with stress and has excellent frustration tolerance and impulse control; the best way to start this is with a good Puppy Kindergarten class.

At any rate, if your hands are covered in scratches and you’re tired of it, here’s what to do. Make sure everyone who interacts with the puppy uses the same rules, whatever they are.

1) When you play with your dog, use a toy. Encourage your dog to bite it. Growling and energetic predatory behavior is okay.  “Oops I grabbed your hand!” is not okay.  End the game immediately.  No punishing, just leave. Count to twenty, start the game again.  Puppy will learn that if he bites you, you’re not going to play.  If he keeps his mouth on the toy, HAPPY AWESOME PLAY FUN TIME continues!!

2) If your puppy bites you (or, bites you too hard – again it’s up to you to decide what the rules are but be consistent) – the moment he hurts you – yelp like a puppy.  Don’t be shy – your yelp should be loud, high pitched, and will probably get everyone else in the room to look at you like you’re crazy (that’s how you know you’re doing it right!)  Then, get up and leave the room. That second step is crucial – if you don’t get up and leave, you’re just going to become a human squeaky toy. If you go to leave and your puppy is attached to your pant leg, have a baby gate handy and step over it, or lock yourself in the bathroom.  Again, count to twenty and return to your puppy and resume playing.  You’re doing a very condensed, simplified and slightly clumsy version of what another dog would do in this scenario.  Most puppies understand this with lots of repetition.

I do not advocate alpha rolling, pinching your dog’s lip against his teeth, jamming your hand down his throat, pinning him, flicking his nose, smacking him, or any other aversive punishment.  We want your dog to associate human hands with good things, not be afraid of them.  If your timing isn’t excellent, your dog may not even associate the punishment with something he did.  Scared dogs are more likely to bite.  (Trust me on this one – your veterinarian will thank you.)

And of course, the disclaimer: this is the quick and dirty version of puppy biting solutions.  All sorts of other factors (behavioral and otherwise) can come into play, so if you have any concerns or questions, just shoot me an email or phone call!

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