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Play biting and mouthing

Why is my puppy nipping and biting family members?

Just as children like to explore the world with their hands, puppies like to explore the world with their mouths. Mouthing is a common and normal behavior in most young puppies. Mouthing behavior is rarely aggressive and not intended to cause harm. As puppies are usually highly motivated to exhibit this type of behavior, attempts to suppress or stop it are unlikely to be successful unless you give your puppy an alternative behavior.

Although often thought to be a teething behavior; nipping, mouthing and biting in puppies is generally a form of social play and exploration. Teething is more likely to involve gnawing or chewing on household objects. If you are experiencing problems with teething, make sure your puppy has ample opportunity for play. Social play with people could involve chase and retrieve games, as well as walks and exercise relevant to your puppy’s health requirements. 

Although wrestling and tug-of-war games can be fun, they may lead to play that is too rough or unruly. Teething puppies may also find tug games painful for their gums. Instead, try using a soft, tugging toy and keep the games gentle. Puppies need to learn bite inhibition. This is something they start to learn with their litter-mates and one reason why puppies stay with their breeders until 7 - 8 weeks. During this time, the puppies have had time to practice social skills with other dogs. Regular interactive social play periods with other dogs or puppies in the home or in the neighborhood can therefore be beneficial to the development of your puppy.

Give them appropriate chew toys

All puppies require toys and things to chew as they are teething and exploring the world. Make sure you supply your puppy with plenty of toys to chew in order to prevent them from chewing inapproriate items. Items such as pig’s ears, rawhides, Kongs and raw bones are ideal for young puppies’ mouths. To get more wear out of the toys, use them on a rotational basis every day so that the puppy has something new to chew. At the end of the day, this item is taken away and replaced with a new or different toy. This way, your puppy is only getting the same toy once every few days, rather than having the same ones all the time.

Re-direct the behavior

If your puppy likes to chew on your hands while you are playing, the first thing to do is to try and re-direct it onto something more appropriate to chew. If your puppy is chewing on your hand, have a toy or dog chew nearby; distract the dog with the toy and let it play with this toy instead. Remember to praise the puppy for doing so. Keep the petting sessions short, as the longer your puppy is petted, the more excited it is going to get and more likely it is to nip. To make this even more successful, remember to quietly praise your puppy every time you see the puppy chewing something appropriate. This will reinforce that chewing toys makes ‘good’ things happen and is something to be repeated. Providing your dog with plenty of acceptable chew toys will enable the puppy to appropriately exhibit this behavior.

Bite inhibition

Usually mouthing becomes a problem if the puppy hasn’t learnt that humans have very soft, sensitive skin and don’t appreciate being chewed. All dogs and puppies need to learn that human skin is very sensitive and the slightest pressure from their jaws causes pain. This is called bite inhibition. All dogs have the ability to bite, especially if provoked, so it is important that we teach the dogs to be gentle with their mouths. In order to have the best success it is also important that we teach our puppy this from an early age.

In order to understand the process of bite inhibition, here is a simple example:
  • When puppies play with each other, if puppy (A) bites on puppy (B) too hard, puppy (B) will yelp. If that does not work, puppy (B) will get up and walk away. This tells puppy (A) that if it bites too hard the game will stop. Therefore, puppy (A) will learn that in order for the game to continue, it needs to be gentle.

We can do a similar version of this by teaching our puppy that nipping ‘turns off’ all attention and social interaction with you. As soon as you feel his teeth on your skin, yelp in a high pitched voice and if necessary, stand up and walk away. This sends the message to the puppy that the bites are painful and that biting will cause play to be terminated. Here we are acting like puppy (B) and ending the fun if your puppy gets too rough. When consistently administered this will often stop playful biting. For this to be completely effective, we need to be consistent and do this every time the puppy bites on our hands. Using this, in conjunction with re-directing the puppy onto something nicer will reduce the frequency of the puppy biting your hands.

What if yelling does not help?

Some techniques for stopping play-biting involve harsh discipline, such as slapping the puppy under the chin or forcefully holding the mouth closed. Remember, pain can cause the puppy to become increasingly agitated, nervous and fearful or perhaps more excited. These techniques also require that you grab an excited puppy; not an easy thing to do. Some puppies may even misinterpret the owner’s attempts at punishment as rough play, which in turn might lead to an increase in the behavior. Physical methods are therefore not recommended.

Remember that play biting is a component of play behavior in puppies. Play is a form of social interaction. Realise that your puppy is trying to play with you even though the behavior may be rough. Remember that when the play gets too rough immediately end the play session and leave. Social withdrawal can be a very powerful tool. Leave the puppy alone for around a minute before returning. If upon your return the wild playing begins, leave again. Although it is tempting to pick the 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 the puppy to a confinement location.

If you are still having difficulties with biting, please contact your behavioural trainer or behaviourist for some more individualised assistance.