Puppy nipping and biting: The do’s and don’ts!
By Hannah Burton
Puppies come with a set of razer sharp teeth that every puppy owner can attest to. In their litter, puppies will have done nothing but roughhouse with littermates, and it comes as a shock to many first-time owners that they may try out their behaviour on them!
While it is perfectly normal for puppies to explore the world with their mouths and bite new things, it is not advisable (or pleasant!) to allow your puppy to practice this behaviour on you.
One of the queries we get most often at Wanderdog is about puppy nipping and biting. Owners are often at their wits end and sporting bruises that would put a professional rugby player to shame!
In an attempt to help, here are our top tips of do’s and don’ts in an attempt to make your puppies behaviour as manageable as possible.
DO: Create rules and be consistent with them.
Creating simple rules that your puppy can understand will be the key to clear communication and success. Like deciding whether or not your puppy will be allowed on the bed or sofa, all members of the household will need to agree on acceptable play behaviours.
The easiest rule to enforce by far is no teeth on skin. If your puppy’s teeth touch your skin with pressure, in any context, the interaction stops.
This needs to be consistent with every interaction, and with every member of the household. Any slipping on this will result in confusion for your puppy.
Some trainers advise owners to allow teeth on skin, but to not allow any form of pressure. This is often referred to in popular culture as teaching bite inhibition. This rule is much harder to enforce however, as the amount of pressure tolerated may vary from owner to owner. It also encourages puppy to put his or her teeth on your skin, which can lead to more problems further down the line.
DON’T: Play rough games with your dog that encourage biting
Though it can be great fun to wrestle with your dog, any game that encourages biting can be confusing for your dog.
Allowing your dog to bite your clothes and body while you roll around on the floor with them but not when you walk past your puppy moving your body in a similar fashion can confuse your puppy. Why can they mouth at you sometimes and not others?
Imagine if I invited you into my home and told you to sit on my couch. The next time you come over, I shout at you for sitting on my couch. There seems to be no consistency to when you are and are not allowed sit. Eventually, you’d probably get quite annoyed with me and stop coming over. It stands to reason therefore, that your puppy may feel the same way if you are not consistent with them.
Setting a ground rule of no teeth on skin in all contexts, including play, creates a simple environment for your puppy to understand. Being consistent with this is the key to your puppy understanding what is allowed and what is not.
DO: Give your puppy a good range of chews and toys
When playing with tug toys, such as the one pictured above, create a clear point for where your puppy’s teeth should be.
Draw a physical line on the toy with marker, or a mental line if you can be consistent with it. As soon as your puppy’s teeth go over this line, the game stops and the fun is over. As with teeth on skin, if you are consistent with this, eventually your puppy will learn where to place their teeth for the fun to continue, meaning you can continue to play safely.
Using long toys with length will help your puppy to manage this. Having your hands further away from your puppy’s mouth gives them less temptation!
Keeping toys like this all over your home can also be useful if your puppy is excited by movement. If you see that your puppy is getting ready to chase you, grabbing a toy with some length on it and moving it across the floor for your puppy to chase before they get the chance to bite you may prevent the behaviour.
Timing on this is essential, however, as you do not want to teach your dog that biting you equals playtime! Instead, be sure to pre-empt the behaviour by presenting the toy before your puppy ever gets the chance to put his or her teeth on your skin.
DON’T: Make high pitched noises
Old advice from trainers used to suggest when your puppy bites you, to make a high-pitched yelp to discourage biting. The theory behind this was that puppies in the litter would yelp to let other dogs know that they had gone too far, and to soften their bite.
However, more modern research has indicated that letting out a yelp does one of two things:
1. The sudden high-pitched noise acts as a punisher for your dog. They do not understand why this noise happened from nowhere. The behaviour remains at the same likelihood of biting and instead create a negative association with you.
2. Your dog finds the noise extremely exciting! This riles your puppy up and makes them more likely to repeat the behaviour – the exact opposite of what you where aiming for!
Instead, it is much more effective to simply remove the reinforcement for your puppy, be this attention, games or both.
DO: Take all the fun out of biting
If you have a puppy and a child in the same home, you may find that your puppy goes for your child more than other members of your household. This will more than likely be due to their louder, more animated reaction.
Children are more likely to scream, run about or laugh when a puppy moves towards them. This makes your puppy think that chasing them is an incredibly fun game, that gets all the attention on them! Taking all the fun out of nipping is likely to remove the reinforcement of games and attention, therefore making it boring for your dog.
When your puppy cannot be re-directed on to an appropriate item and makes contact with your skin, simply remove them to their puppy pen or the other side of the baby gate where they cannot access you. Puppies should not be placed in any crate or form of safe space for this training. It should be separate for your nipping and biting training.
Do this as unemotionally as can. As soon as your puppy appears to be calm, allow them back into the space.
If your puppy is too big to lift or does not enjoy being lifted, you should instead remove yourself for the situation so your puppy cannot practice the behaviour.
Regardless of if you remove yourself or the puppy, you should not ignore your puppy for more than thirty seconds. This can be frustrating state to leave your puppy in and leaving them in this state can cause further problems. Instead, the second your pup shows a polite behaviour, for example a sit, you should calmly reward them with fuss, attention, or a game. If they start nipping again, simply remove the potential for reinforcement again.
Often giving your puppy something to lick, chew and sniff at can calm them down during more excitable periods.
DO: Ensure your puppy has a good amount of rest time
Nipping and biting from your puppy is likely to be worse when your puppy is tired. Like toddlers, puppies have less control over their behaviour when they are tired and are more likely to make bad decisions without thinking about consequences.
Another way that puppies are similar to toddlers is that puppies require lots more sleep than adults. Young puppies require around 18 hours of sleep each day. Without it, they are much more likely to act out and show behaviours like the zoomies.
If your puppy’s behaviour is particularly bad, you may wish to consider keeping a diary of when their behaviour is worse. Keeping track of your pups sleep patterns and biting may help you to see trends in the behaviour. Is it later in the evening when they are ready for bed that their behaviour gets worse? Is it just after a long play session in the park?
Giving your puppy a space like a playpen or a crate where they know to rest can be a great tool for preventing the nipping and biting behaviour. Dogs fall very quickly into routines, and so providing your dog with a place to sleep at the same time every day to promote good rest habits can result in a natural desire to sleep at the same time every day.
If you have any specific queries about your puppies nipping and biting, or feel you could use additional support, please get in touch with Wanderdog for private, personalised advice.