By Dr Kate Mornement Ph.D, BSc(Hons)
Biting, nipping and mouthing are common when it comes to puppy behaviour. In fact, puppies use their teeth and mouths to explore things in their environment. Although puppies are absolutely adorable, those sharp teeth on human skin can really hurt!
So how do you teach your puppy to stop mouthing and biting you and your guests? First, let’s consider the function of the behaviour in a little more depth…
Why do puppies bite?
Biting and mouthing is a normal dog behaviour. Most biting and nipping in puppies is related to play and exploration of the environment. Human babies do a similar thing when they put food and other objects in their mouths. This exploration provides sensations including taste, texture and temperature as well as what food is safe to eat.
Teething and dental health
Nipping and biting can also be related to teething. When puppies are teething, biting down on various objects helps to relieve the pain and discomfort that teething can cause. Biting and chewing also helps to clean the teeth naturally as plaque is dislodged during the process and chewing encourages saliva production which also helps to combat plaque and tartar.
Is it play?
Puppies also bite during play, even before they go to their new homes. Play biting helps young puppies learn bite inhibition. This involves learning when you bite too hard, causing pain. For example, when puppies play with their littermates, if they bite a sibling too hard and it hurts the other pup that puppy will yelp and not want to play anymore. This teaches the offending puppy to bite softer next time if they want the play to continue.
The mother will also reprimand puppies that bite her too hard. This is why it’s important for puppies to remain with their mother and littermates for at least 8 weeks, if not longer, so they can learn the important skill of bite inhibition before they go to their new homes.
Biting was reinforced
Sometimes puppies learn to bite us because we accidently reward the behaviour with play, attention or a fun reaction. This can happen when we rough play with puppies with our hands. At first it’s cute when they bite us because they’re small and it doesn’t hurt that much. We may get animated and react in ways a puppy finds fun or exciting which teaches them to keep biting. However, as the puppy (and their teeth) grow bigger the biting gets stronger and can really hurt.
When puppy biting becomes excessive or causes significant pain or harm to others it can be a serious problem. It’s important this type of biting is addressed early so it doesn’t remain a problem when your pup grows into an adult dog.
How to stop your puppy biting
To teach your puppy to stop biting you, you first need to understand that behaviour is driven by consequences. What this means is that your puppy will repeat behaviours that have a desired outcome for them, based on their individual likes, dislikes and past experiences. For example, a puppy may learn to jump up on people because the consequence is that they get attention and a pat. If attention is something the puppy values, then the jumping up will likely be repeated. Similarly, a puppy may learn to bite you because it feels good (relieves pains from teething) or because biting you results in attention or a fun reaction.
Stopping your puppy from biting you and other people involves teaching them that biting appropriate items, such as their toys or a chew treat, is more reinforcing. Follow these tips to help stop your puppy from biting:
Give them toys
Teach appropriate biting by providing your puppy with lots of toys. Give your puppy a variety of toys. Different shapes, textures and types provide variety and allow puppies to choose which toy will satisfy their chewing. Squeaky toys, soft toys and food puzzle toys are popular choices. You can help make your puppy want to chew their toys by playing games like tug of war and rewarding them with treats, pats and attention when they do so.
Provide healthy chew treats
The desire to bite and chew is a natural instinct. In the wild our dog’s ancestors ate other animals including their bones which helped keep their teeth clean. Providing your puppy with age and breed appropriate long-lasting healthy chew treats every now and then is a great way to satisfy the desire to bite and chew in an appropriate way. They also promote good dental health. Ensure you supervise them eating chew treats to ensure they’re eating it correctly.
Feeding your puppy their meals from food puzzle toys provides an outlet for biting and chewing which can help reduce your puppy's desire to bite you. Feeding enrichment also has the added benefit of providing mental stimulation and physical exercise, helping to reduce boredom and destructive chewing.
Teach an incompatible behaviour
If you find your puppy bites you in certain situations, such as when you pat them, work on reinforcing a behaviour that’s incompatible. For example, when you want to pat your puppy hold a chew toy in front of them and encourage them to bite it. When your puppy starts chewing on the toy, gently pat them on their shoulder. If your puppy tries to bite you, say “no” and walk away from your puppy and ignore them for 10-15 seconds. Repeat the steps as needed. With consistency and repetition, your puppy will learn that biting makes the good things (attention, toy and pat) go away whereas biting the toy means the nice stuff continues. They will learn to bite appropriate items instead of you.
Why you shouldn’t punish biting
It’s important not to punish or physically reprimand a puppy for biting you. Our understanding of dogs and their behaviour has advanced significantly in recent decades and we now know that harsh punishment is detrimental to learning, welfare and the bond you share with your puppy. Punishment can also increase the likelihood of aggressive behaviour. That said, it’s ok to say “no” or “ah-ah” in a stern voice the moment they do the wrong thing to communicate they did something wrong. Sometimes a high pitched yelp helps too.
More importantly, work on reinforcing desired behaviour consistently as this will result in your puppy offering these behaviours in favour of unwanted behaviour due to their strong reinforcement history.
Ensuring your puppy stops biting long term
Sometimes when we initially solve a problem, such as biting, we stop being consistent and the problem can creep back. To stop puppy biting you long term, you need to ensure that not biting you is always more reinforcing for your puppy. You can do this using a process called intermittent reinforcement. Intermittent reinforcement is very useful when you want to maintain a desired behaviour and it involves reinforcing the desired behaviour (biting appropriate items and not you!) every now and then, or intermittently.
Don’t worry if your puppy occasionally bites you as this is bound to happen during the learning process. The important thing to remember is that your puppy will always do what’s most reinforcing for them in the moment and you can strongly influence your puppy’s behaviour during very interaction you have with them. Consistently teaching your puppy what behaviours you like and don’t is key.
Using the tips and training outlined in this article, you should be able to successfully teach your new puppy to stop your biting you and enjoy a closer bond with them. If you find you're still having problems contact a dog trainer or animal behaviourist for professional help.
By Dr Kate Mornement Ph.D, BSc(Hons)
Applied Animal Behaviourist and Consultant
Pets Behaving Badly – Solutions with Dr Kate