Puppy - Biting (Play) and Mouthing

Why is my puppy nipping and biting family members?

Although often thought to be a teething behaviour, nipping, mouthing and biting in young dogs is often a form of social play. Teething on the other hand, is more likely to involve gnawing or chewing on household objects.

As play is an important form of social interaction, puppies need to be provided with ample opportunity to play without biting. Social play with people could involve retrieve games, walks, hide and seek games as well as tug games as long as they are played using appropriate rules (any biting, even accidental, ends the game and a reliable "give" cue is in place). Although wrestling can be fun for the people involved it can be very confusing for your dog and may lead to play that is too rough or rambunctious. It may even encourage biting.

Bite inhibition is something that puppies start to learn while with their litter mates. In play, if puppy A bites puppy B too hard, puppy B will yelp and may run away. This sends the message to puppy A that these sort of bites will disrupt or end the play session. What they are actually learning is how much pressure from their jaws causes pain. Without this feedback, a puppy does not learn to inhibit the force of its bite. Because all dogs may bite at some time, this lesson is vital for human safety. Thus, ideally, puppies should have time to practice their social skills with other dogs before being adopted by a new owner. It can also be beneficial for your puppy to have regular interactive social play periods with other dogs or puppies in the home or in the neighbourhood, as long as these are supervised in such a way that the puppies do not learn inappropriate responses.   See handout on Puppy - socialising.

How can I stop play biting?

Just as puppies learn bite inhibition from one another, people can teach the same principles when interacting with their puppy. Provided your dog is receiving adequate play, attention and exercise, you can turn to training bite inhibition. In the beginning, owners often allow the puppy to chew on them without reprimands and the puppy assumes that the behaviour is acceptable so they are not receiving the vital message of how much force is acceptable when you put your mouth on human skin.

The message people should send is that mouthing and chewing on hands is painful. To do this, try the following every time your puppy nips or mouths with ANY force on family member:

  • Emit a sharp "yip"
  • Cease all play and attention immediately it may help to turn your back on your puppy
  • As soon as the mouthing has ceased offer your puppy a toy to put in the mouth to teach that putting the mouth around human flesh is not acceptable but mouthing on a toy is always rewarded

It is important to send the message to your puppy that bites are painful to humans and that biting will cause play to be terminated. When consistently administered this will rapidly stop play biting, but it is very important that all family members respond consistently every time any pressure of teeth is felt. It is also important to offer an alternative rewardable behaviour (such as mouthing on a toy) in order to avoid frustration.

If your puppy persists, chases or immediately repeats the behaviour, walking out of the room and closing the door can help to teach your puppy that nipping leads to an immediate lack of attention. Although it is tempting to pick your puppy up and take it out of the room, this interaction may be interpreted by your puppy as additional play and the biting may continue as you carry your puppy to a confinement location.

What if yelping does not help?

Other techniques are often suggested for play biting. Some involve harsh discipline, like slapping your puppy under the chin or forcefully holding the mouth closed. Remember, pain can cause aggression and cause your puppy to become anxious, fearful or perhaps more excited. These techniques also require that you grab at your puppy when it is in a high state of arousal and this can lead to misinterpretation and even perception by your puppy that it is being threatened. Some puppies may even misinterpret the owner’s attempts at punishment as rough play, which in turn might lead to an increase in the unacceptable behaviour. Physical methods are therefore not recommended.

The use of a head collar with a remote lead attached allows your puppy to play and chew, but a pull on the lead can immediately and successfully close the mouth and stop the biting, without any physical force. By simultaneously saying "no biting", many puppies will quickly learn the meaning of the command. As soon as your puppy stops and calms down, the owner can allow play to resume, as long as biting does not begin again.

In summary

Remember that play biting is a component of normal behaviour in puppies and that play is a form of social interaction. It is important to accept that your puppy is trying to play and that this is important for the development of life skills. The problem is that this form of play is unacceptable when it is aimed at humans and your puppy needs to learn this.

Ideally puppies should learn that you will initiate and end play sessions. This gives you more control over teaching appropriate behaviour. Play with toys, do not encourage mouthing of hands and feet. One effective strategy when the play gets too rough is to immediately end the play session and leave. Withdrawal is often a very powerful tool for correcting social misbehaviour. Leave your puppy alone long enough for him to calm down. If upon your return the wild playing begins again, then leave him again.

Used and/or modified with permission under license. ©Lifelearn, The Penguin House, Castle Riggs, Dunfermline FY11 8SG

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