Puppy biting is instinctive and – believe it or not – necessary for good social development. It’s different from gnawing to relieve teething pain. And it’s not the same as working on a chew toy (please, no rawhide!). Learning to help your puppy control his play biting starts as soon as you pick him up from his breeder. Get into the routine right away. Immediately. STAT.
Why get in such a rush to deal with puppy biting? Because there’s a developmental window that has already started closing. And by 18-20 weeks old, it will slam shut. After that time, the simple strategies we’ll present here will not work. You’ll have to engage the services of a professional trainer, both for you and your growing puppy.
Just as babies are most impressionable and teachable between 1 and 4 years old, your puppy is learning from the time her eyes open. And most of what she learns has to do with her instinctive behaviors. The things we might consider ‘bad’ come naturally, like biting. This is not to say that all puppy biting is undesirable. But as the new ‘parent’ your job is to direct it to an acceptable behavior.
Most puppy biting is not because of teething
What? But those little teeth are like needles! Yes, they sure are. And they’ll come out, just like human baby teeth, to be replaced with adult teeth. That’s why we stress that you need to learn to control your puppy’s biting from the very first. See, a puppy bites because he must!
Dogs are naturally predators and scavengers, whose natural environment is their pack. A puppy’s teeth and jaws are his most important survival tools, used for communication, fighting, hunting and eating his prey. He needs to learn what’s food and what isn’t, who’s a friend and who’s a foe, and how hard to bite in which situation.
Communication is the first lesson. What’s the best way for a puppy to get attention? Right, he’ll use those little needle teeth to chomp down on whoever is closest! When your puppy is still close to his litter mates, it’s common to see him reach out to grab another puppy’s ear, or tail, or fur. Maybe he wants to play. Or he doesn’t want to play. Sometimes he’ll use his teeth to get a treat or a toy that another puppy has.
Give your puppy a chance to test how hard his bites should be in different circumstances. But direct his biting to the proper channels. Here’s how you do that, in 4 easy steps. They’re easy, but not instant. Bite training will take several weeks of consistent, gentle action, so don’t expect overnight results. However, with your direction, your puppy will grow into a well-adjusted dog that you can trust in any situation.
1. To Bite or Not to Bite?
Puppies learn about biting from their littermates and their mom, from the beginning. Like human babies, they put everything in their mouths to see if it tastes good or if it’s fun to play with. Once a puppy grabs an ear or a tail and bites down, the other puppy or his mama let him know in no uncertain terms if it’s too hard. They yelp in pain and go away.
Copy this behavior when your new puppy bites you in the same way as his littermates. It’s okay to let your puppy mouth you and give a couple of nibbles. That’s a good way for him to test whether to bite, and how hard it should be. But there will come a time when he crosses the line. No matter whether he grabs skin, clothing or your shoe, say, “Ouch!” and gently disengage him.
Distract your puppy with a toy to give him something immediately positive. Tennis balls are great because puppies love to chase them, and you can temporarily remove him from biting your ankles. He might even start learning to fetch. If he brings the toy back to you, please make him happy and play with him! He just wants to be with you.
2. How much biting is too much?
Puppies will bite. We’ve established that, right? To get them to figure out ‘gentle’ vs ‘bone-crushing’, there are some important things you should NOT do:
Don’t tell your puppy “No!” He doesn’t know what that means right now anyway, and repeating it will be useless. Instead, redirect his attention to an interesting chew toy.
Don’t shriek. If your puppy is already excited, it may alarm him and make him bite harder.
Don’t pull away. This will trigger his tendency to clomp down harder, or chase and bite again (remember the prey?). Hold still until he releases, then remove his target and substitute with a toy.
Don’t roll him on his back and act threatening. You won’t teach him who’s boss that way, but only trigger more aggression. Later on, when he needs to be on his back for grooming or at the vet, he’ll remember his bad experience with the alpha roll, and he’ll resist all of your efforts. And he’s much more likely to bite. Hard.
Don’t hold his mouth closed or make him bite his own tongue. Pleasepleaseplease NEVER do that. You wouldn’t treat a baby that way, so don’t abuse your puppy.
If the puppy keeps up with biting, simply get up and walk away, like his mama would. When he calms down, you can come back and engage again.
When your puppy begins to let up on the pressure of his bites (he will, trust me), here are some things you SHOULD do:
The first time he figures out to lessen his bite pressure, give praise. Substitute a chew toy and play with him for a bit. That’s what he wanted, in the first place.
Use this new lesser pressure as your baseline for “Ouch!”. When your puppy starts to catch on, praise again and give him a new toy.
Keep backing away from the pressure over several weeks, until the puppy will voluntarily let go when you say, “Ouch!” Then you can give him a treat. A really yummy treat that he loves.
Withhold treats for this training until the very end, because they involve chewing. In a puppy’s brain, that can easily translate to biting.
3. Is biting ever acceptable?
Believe it or not, puppies and dogs engage in ‘social biting’. Your new little best friend must indulge in this practice to learn when it’s allowed and when it isn’t. That’s where you come in. You’ll act as a chew toy at first, to gauge the pressure of his bites. While you’re busy teaching him to back off the torque, substitute one of an over-the-top variety of puppy chew toys for your wrist.
With his puppy toys, he can bite and chew as hard as he wants to. But he’ll learn that you and your things are off limits. It will take time, and he’ll backslide now and then. But remember, he’s still just a baby. He needs you to gently show him the limits of his social biting.
Once he catches on that biting you isn’t good, carefully introduce him to other people. Your spouse, children, older folks, neighbors, friends and strangers. Finally, when you’re confident enough that he’s trustworthy, let him meet some babies and toddlers. Get him comfortable first with people who can take care of themselves, and who know what your training goals are. Then it’s time to meet the littles.
With other people, teach them to follow the same steps with your puppy. Remember, you don’t want him to STOP biting, but to turn it into a life skill.
4. Give your puppy the attention he deserves.
Ask yourself what a puppy wants from biting. Whether he’s bored, or excited, or wants to play, the main thing puppies want is ATTENTION. When he was still with his mama and his littermates, he could start a game of tag, grab a bone or get a cuddle with a few nips. Now he acts the same way with you. He’s a member of your family, and as such he’s entitled to be treated like one.
The most important job a puppy has is to learn from you. Not to put too fine a point on it, but you’re his world. Left to his own resources, a puppy will grow up to be a dog that is not fun to be with. We’ve all seen it. The kids beg for a puppy, so the parents give them one for Christmas. Ten days later the kids go back to school and the parents go back to work. What’s a poor puppy to do?
An attention starved puppy won’t learn how to use his teeth properly. Stories abound of the family backyard dog who was fine to be around until one day… All too often we hear of a sleeping dog who was startled awake and bit the closest person.
An improperly trained puppy is likely to become a fear biter. Puppies need lots of affection and assurance that they’re protected. They need to be accepted members of a pack, and the best pack is their family. This goes back to making them part of your inner circle. I’m not saying your puppy needs his own place at your dinner table, or his own pillow in your bed. But he wants to be included in your daily activities.
How to train your puppy for biting inhibition
Enjoy the video above, about this super important training from Ian Stone, Simpawtico Dog Training.
If this is your very first puppy and you’re not sure how to do all of this training, please don’t put it off! Engage a reputable (and friendly!) trainer to help you and your puppy learn what to do, when to do it, and how to do it.
Do a search for ‘puppy training near me’ and start looking for the best puppy trainer who will train you along with your puppy. But you’ll have to do your homework too! If you don’t know the right things to do, at the right time, your training money will be wasted. All the YouTube videos you can stand to watch will give good info. My kids tell me, ‘You can learn to do anything with YouTube.’ But it’s best to augment that with a local contact who will make sure you’re on the right track.
Have a happy, well-adjusted, chill puppy for your New Best Friend! Check out our Puppy Supplies page for tips on Safe Puppy Toys.