How to handle mouthing/biting behaviour in puppies (and dogs)

The most common issue I am asked about in puppy classes in biting. “How do I get my puppy to stop biting me?”

Puppies can bite for a few reasons:

-Exploration (because they don’t have hands, they tend to pick up and feel things with their mouth!)
-Defensive/offensive (more often defensive)

During play puppies will or should learn bite inhibition, which is basically how hard they can bite before the other individual hurts.
When they play with other dogs their fur and slightly thicker skin (in the case of most breeds/types) to us humans means that they may find it more difficult to understand why us sensitive, less hairy creatures make such a fuss when they make contact with their teeth.

In my experience, when puppies start to manically bite it’s usually down to over arousal (too excited) or fatigue (over tired). In these heightened emotional states they often lose control of themselves a little more and are not in a good cognitive state for learning or taking on information from the environment (what we are doing or saying to them).

So in my opinion, part of the key to preventing biting is to keep your puppy calm by not playing for too long or too intensely (not winding them up too much).
Alternatively, catching the behaviour in the early stages before they turn into a crocodile. What body language clues does your puppy (or dog) give before the biting happens?
Do the whites of their eyes show, does their face go lined (not so easy to tell with hairy dogs), do they pant, do they move faster or slam into things more, do they become less responsive? All these are clues that your puppy is becoming over aroused or tired.
When you see these clues stop what you’re doing and go get your puppy something to do! If you’re smart you will have Kongs ready made in the fridge/freezer or activities nearby so you can give your pup something to do quickly. Alternative activities are treat searches/scatters, snuffel boxes/mats or being given something to chew.
Giving them something to redirect onto can help calm and slow them down.

If you’ve missed these clues and your puppy is biting you I tend to advise that people stand up and walk away without saying a word. Then go find something for your puppy to do- don’t worry about rewarding biting, if you aren’t immediately giving them a kong/chew/food puzzle after the bite it’s unlikely they’ll make the connection providing they aren’t biting you immediatly before you give them the activity.

I tend to not advise people to say ‘owww’ or yelp as I find this excites an already excited pup more. I also don’t tell puppies off because they’re not doing the behaviour to spite us and telling them off may then encourage biting out of defence (if our shouting scares the pup).
If they’re over aroused or tired, they likely won’t learn anything anyway- so telling them off will possibly fall on deaf ears or the pup may just get use to us raising our voice (in which case we have to either escalate our punishment for it to work, or we just stress ourselves out by shouting and not having any effect on the pup’s behaviour).

You can also teach your puppy an ‘off’ cue through positive reinforcement training, so that when they make contact or hold on with their teeth you can get them to stop.
You can try replacing your hand/arm/limb with a toy, but in my experience many puppies are a bit ‘meh’ about toys in exchange for human flesh. If your puppy loves their toy then certainly give this a go though! My other concern with this option is that it has the potential to reinforce the mouthing behaviour (when you mouth me I give you a toy!).

If you’re playing gently with your pup and they only catch you a little bit, just remove your hands/fold your arms and pause for a second, say nothing and just wait for 5 seconds before resuming calm play. The consequence for biting is that play momentarily stops.

I think it’s sensible for us to provide clear communication to our dogs as to what we expect, and the only way to do this is to have a 100% teeth off rule. Because your idea of hard biting may be very different to mine. We all have different thresholds for sensitivity or pain and therefor the level of biting we will individually tolerate will vary and the conflicting information will confuse a pup, make learning difficult and provide ample opportunity for frustration to develop in the process.
So, it’s easier to just establish that significant tooth contact and sense of pain = play stops for a moment.

If your puppy likes to bite your trouser legs or socks then a great management strategy is to wear boots or shoes around the home for a while, which will break the pattern of behaviour. Or if your pup approaches you (when you’re not wearing boots/shoes) reinforce them NOT biting with a treat- getting there before they do the behaviour you don’t like.
It’s easy to focus on what you don’t want your dog to do, but think about what you want them to do instead. What is the opposite of biting? Not biting! So reinforce not biting when you get it!

Also have your pup doing alternative activities to tug,wrestle, ball chasing and other high arousal games. Engage their nose by doing treat searches or box searches to tire them out, using the nose is very tiring and produces far less adrenalin than fetch, tug or wrestling!

If your pup is teething then provide them with frozen kongs or frozen carrots to help sooth sore gums incase the biting is due to irritability from pain or seeking something to sooth their sore gums.

If your pup is chewing things around the home provide a variety of textures for them to chew. We stock anco roots (for those who want to chew wood), leather toys (for those that want to chew shoes) and safe plastic toys. It may not satisfy  a dog that enjoys chewing wood being given plastic toys to chew as they are totally different textures.

Be cautious of trying a variety of approaches, inconsistency often sees limited results and can also cause frustration or insecurity (emotional states that mouthing can be a symptom of).
If you get stuck then employ the help of a force free qualified trainer who can show you in person how to help your puppy understand what you want them to do.

Thanks for reading!

2 Comments on “How to handle mouthing/biting behaviour in puppies (and dogs)”

  1. Thanks for your great advice! Dealing with a new puppy is both a joyous and tiring game!
    Herding puppies are the worst! Although the cutest.
    Always herding!

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