Puppies will bite anything – your hands, legs, feet and anything else they can get to. Their “baby teeth” are wickedly sharp and sometimes it feels like you’ve actually brought home a baby shark. But why do they bite? Puppies chew on people or objects to help them learn about the world around them – it’s of no concern to them if it’s valuable to you, they just want to know how it feels as it’s their main method of touch. Certain breeds can be mouthier than others, such as bull breeds or retrievers, but a popular question from new owners is how to stop a puppy biting?
Chewing also alleviates the discomfort puppies feel when teething. The baby teeth usually begin falling out at 12 weeks and most permanent teeth have erupted by around six months.
Puppies also bite because they are used to engaging in play this way with their siblings. Quite often you will see one puppy hanging off another one’s ear or face and you wonder how they are not hurt or yelping. But this is normal for a dog and they do not rationalise any difference between us and their litter siblings in the first few weeks of bringing them home, which is why they’ll be particularly attracted to small children, ankles and slippers. Sometimes you will hear a high yelp pitched from a dog engaged in play and the other dog immediately backs off. This is good behaviour and a positive sign as they are learning about bite inhibition.
How to stop a puppy biting
There are various methods you can employ to stop a puppy biting, and it depends on your dog, its personality and triggers. Some people make a loud squeak if the puppy bites them and then the puppy backs off. This can work, but if a puppy is already over-excited and you’re squeaking, it is only going to encourage it and excite it more. We cannot make the same noise as another yelping dog, it’s as simple as that.
Once I heard someone suggest that you should bite the puppy back. You should never do this and it’s a ridiculous suggestion. I also never recommend smacking a dog over the nose as it’s unkind and will make them hand shy. Instead, I gently tap back under the chin with a flat hand and say “no nip” quite firmly with no eye contact. The moment the puppy stops, I say the “yes” command and redirect or reward.
You could also immediately stop playing with the dog, stay still and cross your arms. If the dog is going for your feet when moving or sitting still, give the puppy a little time out to calm down. It’s important to teach bite inhibition at this stage and from the moment I begin working with a young dog I teach them “gentle”, starting off with rewards and the giving of toys.
Most bite inhibition will have been learnt during the time that they are with their siblings. Once the victim of a hard nip yelps the other backs off for a moment, before play resumes again and this is how puppies learn to control their bite intensity. You can also use sound therapy, just as clicker training is used to associate reward with a behaviour, sound can be used to snap them out of the red zone. There are positive and negative sounds – I find a squeaky toy is great at stopping ankle biters and, in severe cases, you can use a bottle half full of stones. I’d always recommend doing this with a professional as you need to follow up anything negative with a positive very quickly.
What to do when the biting stops
Praise is as important as discipline. Immediately praise the puppy – I say “yes” as its quick and makes you smile, so the body language is very positive for your puppy. Reward with a treat if you’ve got one to hand or play with a toy and get them to chase it to redirect the brain onto something other than biting you. Avoid wrestling or rough play, and instead play with a tug toy or another toy that he can then associate with so if he wants to start mouthing he can seek the toy out.
You may also wish to introduce chews and various other puppy toys and teething implements to help the dog calm down and self soothe. Putting these items in the fridge also helps soothe gums if the biting is associated with teething as well as play.
Tips to stop the biting for good
Avoid rewarding behaviour that you do not want – and do not let others reward it either. Chewing on hands and feet needs to be corrected and redirected in accordance with your dog’s personality, breed and traits. Include lots of training, the best puzzle toys and don’t make a scene if they steal something that they shouldn’t. Simply get something that they might not have had, but that they can have and do a trade-off. Be sure to rotate toys and chews often so that they do not become bored.
The more you react, run and chase, the more the puppy learns this behaviour gets your attention and it becomes a game. This is especially true of dogs in a family of young children. Small children often run, play and squeal – to a puppy this is normal and he sees them as litter siblings. It’s important to make sure young children understand how their actions affect the behaviour of their puppy to the best of your ability. The Kennel Club has an excellent section for children on their website about how to stay safe around dogs.