Biting in puppies is a normal, though undesirable, behavior. Puppies often use their mouths for exploration and play, and this behavior can extend to the human family.
My biggest concern in these situations is that owners may be using or are being told to use physical correction (alpha rolls, leash corrections, holding the mouth closed, pinching the tongue, hitting or tapping the muzzle) as a treatment strategy. Using physical correction can cause a fear response and can result in the escalation of your puppy’s aggressive behaviors.
A better approach is to both address the biting at the time it occurs, and prevent biting as an option for the pup. Once you have ruled out any physical abnormalities that could be contributing to the behavior, your approach should include teaching your puppy simple obedience commands from Day 1, ample playtimes, frequent short leash walks, and puppy socialization classes.
It is often a challenge to convince a new enthusiastic puppy not to bite the hand that feeds him, pets him, and plays with him. Nipping and mouthing is a very common and very normal puppy behavior.
When puppies play with each other, they use their mouths, so they tend to do the same thing when they interact with people. This is rarely an aggressive behavior intended to harm you, but it can be a difficult habit to break without some good, practical tools in your “puppy training tool bag.”
The worst thing you can do is physically punish your pup for this natural behavior, although many people incorrectly do so.
Most normal puppy mouthiness just goes away on its own, regardless of how much or how little puppy parents do to stop it, once puppies acquire their adult teeth
Instead of punishment, the use of positive distraction and the encouragement of acceptable behavior are far better approaches, yielding much better results. This article is intended to help you manage puppy nipping effectively, while at the same time helping you build a good relationship with your puppy, based on trust rather than fear.
How to Tell Normal Play from Problematic Aggression
Most puppy play consists of chasing, pouncing, barking, growling, snapping and biting. So how can you tell the difference between normal play and true aggression?
According to DVM online magazine, in normal play, a puppy will “play bow” (lower his head and raise his hind end), present his front end or side to you, hold the front part of his body up, wag his tail, dart back and forth, emit high-pitched barks and growls, and spontaneously play-attack.
However, behaviors that may indicate early aggression include:
- Prolonged deep-tone growling
- A fixed gaze
- A stiff posture
- Aggression that is not spontaneous—that is, aggression that is not situational or stimulus-dependent.
These aggressive behaviors may be related to fear, possessiveness, conflict or pain. Of course, even normal puppy play can become too intense, and when this happens, you must intervene appropriately.
If you have concerns about excessive mouthing or early puppy aggressiveness, consult your veterinarian or a board certified animal behaviorist.
Distraction Is the Best Prevention
Nipping or biting often occurs in puppies when they are being petted or played with. A quick and easy method for redirecting your puppy’s attention is offering a more acceptable object to gnaw on, such as a chew toy, at the same time as you start to pet him. One hand offers the toy while the other hand reaches out to scratch him behind the ear.
This helps your pup learn that people and petting are wonderful, and also keeps his mouth busy. Try alternating which hand does the petting and which one offers the chew toy. Remember, the longer he is petted, the more likely he is to get excited and start to nip, so you may need to shorten play sessions, at least initially.
Encouraging Appropriate Play
When your pup does nip you, a good strategy is to imitate what another puppy would do if he were bitten. Make a high pitched “yipping” noise—or loudly say “OUCH!” and immediately walk away. Ignoring your puppy for a few minutes teaches him that biting you makes you go away, which is an immediate negative reinforcement for the behavior.
Then you can return a little later and try playing again.
It’s generally not a good idea to sit on the floor with your pup for prolonged periods of time. This tends to overexcite puppies and places family members in a vulnerable position, making it more difficult to control the puppy.
Here are a few other tips for encouraging appropriate play:
- Provide plenty of exercise. Your new puppy is a bundle of energy, so give him plenty of discharge outlets. Going on walks is a fantastic way to do this, and benefits you with some exercise as well. Short but frequent walks help your pup vent pent up energy and gives him an appropriate outlet for all that motion!
- Play, play, play. Playing fetch or kicking a soccer ball around the yard lets him burn off some energy, while strengthening your parent-pup bond.
- Obedience training. Teach and review basic obedience commands early on. Well-trained dogs are more likely to follow orders when misbehaving.
- Time out. If your puppy won’t stop a bad behavior, put him in a room or better yet in his kennel with toys to keep him busy until he calms down.
- You are the leader. You can teach your puppy that you are the boss by having him respond to a command, such as “sit,” before he gets anything he wants or needs.
If he becomes too pushy about getting attention by whining, nudging, etc, pull your hands away and look away. Once he stops soliciting attention for 10 seconds, ask him to sit. Then give him attention and affection. Do not reward annoying or bad behavior.
You can also teach him not to move without your permission. Any time you begin to move from one area of the home to another, use this as an opportunity to ask you pup to “sit and stay” for a second or two, then give the command to follow you.
- Be consistent. It is very important that all behaviors be managed consistently by all family members.
- Promote socialization. Exposure to a variety of people and other animals as the puppy grows and develops, especially during the first 4 months, will help prevent asocial behaviors, fears, and biting.
What Not To Do
You should never use physical punishment with a puppy. This includes:
- Scruff shakes
- Alpha rollovers
- Forcing the puppy to the floor, or pinning him down
- Thumping or swatting his nose, hitting, or kicking
- Pushing his nose into feces (punishment for inappropriate soiling)
- Putting your fingers down his throat
- Forcibly removing an object from his mouth
- Choke chains, pinch collars, electric collars or throw chains
Some pet owners are still using remote training collars out of frustration, since they don’t know what else to do. But most people are unaware of how powerful these tools are and how easy it is to misuse them.
The average pet owner does not use these remote collar devices with the impeccable timing and consistency required to be effective.
And they should never be used as punishment devices.
A study was done in Germany in 2006 in which dogs were given high intensity electrical stimulation, delivered with poor timing (meaning inconsistently with regard to the dog’s behavior). These dogs showed severe and persistent stress symptoms.
Therefore, ordinary use of these devices will most likely cause your puppy to grow into a dog that is fearful, aggressive, and asocial.
Research has shown that most aggressive dogs are actually fearful, rather than attempting to achieve dominance.
When physical punishment is used, several things may happen, depending on your puppy’s temperament and the severity of the punishment. According to the Humane Society, a puppy who is hit or slapped in the face for biting can react in the following ways:
- Become “hand-shy” and cringe or cower whenever a hand comes toward his face
- Become afraid of you, and refuse to approach you at all
- Respond in a defensive manner, and attempt to bite you to defend himself
- Interpret a mild slap as an invitation to play, causing him to become more excited and even more likely to nip
Tots and Pups
You should carefully monitor all interactions between your children and your dog. It is very difficult for children under the age of eight or nine to practice the kind of behavior modification outlined in this article.
Your child’s first reaction to being nipped is probably to push the puppy away, and this will most likely be interpreted by the puppy as play, causing him to nip and bite even more.
By teaching your puppy good behavior, and teaching your children proper interventions, your pup will grow into a well-behaved and happy part of the family.