Puppies Bite – What Can We Do About That?

Puppies bite. It’s a fact. It’s a normal and natural behavior. In fact, it’s a necessary part of puppy development. But is it something that we have to just accept? Do we just put up with it – taking all the nips, scrapes, actual blood – and just hope that Sadie grows out of it? Absolutely NOT.  Some dogs are more exuberant than others when playing and so may bite more and/or harder than other puppies. But all puppies bite both during play as well as at other times. It’s part of what puppies do. They are exploring the world around them with the only tool they have – their mouth. They do not yet have a clear understanding of their own strength and do not have an innate understanding of how to be gentle. It is up to those around Puppy to teach her how to be gentle.

Further, Sadie’s teeth are like little needles. Those teeth are razor sharp (Patricia McConnell declares that puppies have carpet knives in their mouths!) and it does not take much pressure for her to break the skin. This is nature’s way for Sadie to learn some self control and what we call “bite inhibition” – controlling, or inhibiting, the force of their bite.

Look closely at Sadie’s teeth compared to that of an adult and you’ll see that the adult’s teeth are larger and more rounded than Sadie’s. This means that the same bite force from an adult will be less painful and cause less physical damage than Sadie’s current set. Surprising, I know… but true.

Puppies lose their teeth usually between 4 and 6 months of age. During, and for a while after that time, you are likely to see an increase in biting/chewing behavior as Sadie loses her teeth and teethes while her adult teeth are coming in. Though she may have all her adult teeth by 7 months, it takes another 10-12 months for adult teeth to firmly set in the dog’s jaw. This means there’s a physiological need for heavy chewing/biting behavior which is likely to continue for the first 2 years of Sadie’s life. Some dogs will need to chew for a lifetime as it’s fun and comforting; others completely grow out of it. If you understand why Sadie is chewing/biting it can help you emotionally and make it easier to retain your patience as you guide her to the appropriate alternatives and help her learn what she can, and what she  cannot, bite. Keep in mind that Sadie is not trying to hurt you or irritate you. She’s only a puppy and doing what puppies do!

As I mentioned above, during the puppy stage Sadie learns what is called ‘bite inhibition.’ This is the process of learning how to control the force of her bite (inhibit the desire to bite down fully) so that it becomes ‘acceptable play’ and not aggressive or actually damaging to the recipient.  The very best way for Sadie to learn this is from other dogs. Dogs are significantly better at teaching what I call ‘Doggie Etiquette’ than humans. Those little needle teeth play a big role in learning bite inhibition because such little force is needed to cause pain. If Sadie bites a little too hard while wrestling with a litter mate, that puppy will yelp and cry and avoid interacting with Sadie for a while. While playing with older dogs, a too-hard bite from Sadie will result in the older dog correcting Sadie. Adults dogs are very aware of Sadie’s age. While she’s under 16 weeks, the adult is likely to tolerate A LOT from Sadie – biting and holding, bite/shake behavior, rude and pushy play behavior… Once Sadie is beyond 16 weeks, the patience of adult playmates will wane and they’ll start to give more corrections and teach her about polite dog behavior. These corrections may be a snarl, growl and (if necessary) a corrective nip (likely not even making physical contact, or if contact is made, it will be a very well inhibited bite meaning contact but no pressure) to teach Sadie to ease off. The more quality socialization Sadie can get the better. Play dates with similarly sized puppies and well socialized, fully vaccinated adult dogs are great! You must avoid dog parks (and really all strange grass) until Sadie is fully vaccinated to protect her health. There are also many Puppy Head Start group classes or Puppy Socialization classes you can join. Make sure that the class is held in an indoor space that can be properly cleaned and that they have rules in place that refuse entry of puppies who are showing any signs of not feeling well. Further, all puppies in these classes should be at least 10 days past their first set of vaccines.

Now, it is necessary to supervise play time and make sure things don’t get out of hand because if Sadie doesn’t heed the lesson, she may end up in a scrap that she didn’t want to be in. Scraps like that can be excellent lessons, but can also cause physical damage or emotional trauma to one or both dogs, so we have to find a balance of letting the dogs teach and learn with each other, but also ultimately supervising and intervening when necessary. If Sadie is being overzealous in her biting play with another dog then we may need to intervene. If Sadie is respecting the other dog’s request for space, but the other dog isn’t letting up on the correction, then we may need to intervene. (see my Healthy Play blog). My simple rules for healthy play are this: If Sadie is being too intense for Zoe’s liking, and Zoe says “Back off” Sadie must respect that. If Sadie doesn’t back off when Zoe tells her too, then we help Sadie heed Zoe’s request and redirect Sadie to another activity. On the other hand, if Zoe tells Sadie to “back off” and Sadie does heed the warning, but Zoe now won’t let it go and is chasing Sadie down and being ‘ugly’, then we must intervene. In this case, we redirect Zoe to another activity. It’s important that the respect goes both ways between the dogs. Zoe is entitled to tell Sadie she needs space (and vice versa). But once the point is made and the message received, it’s time for everyone to move on.

Dr. Ian Dunbar recommends “time outs” during play. This is exceedingly useful not only to help the dogs regain some self control and catch their breath when they’re overly excited, but also helps them learn how to actively control that over excitement. When I first teach a pair of dogs “time out”, I pick up one puppy (or gently move by harness or drag line leash) as I say “Time Out!” I move that dog just a couple feet or so away from the game and tell both dogs to Sit. After they’re Sitting with calm bodies (not vibrating),  I will say “GO PLAY!” and let go of the dog/leash. In the beginning this may require two people so each person can gently restrain one dog to avoid the ambush of the dog trying to cooperate with me. If either dog is immediately over excited again, I will immediately do another Time Out. If the play is not overly aroused and both dogs are taking time-outs on their own, then I allow the game to continue without my active help.

Time-outs between dogs usually involves one or both dogs stopping their physical movement, averting their gaze (looking away or turning head away), turning their body away from the other dog, doing a full body shake as if wet, lying down or sniffing the ground. They may walk away and then return, stretch or do a play-bow (elbows to the ground with bum in the air). They can do any of these or a combination of several. It may be Sadie will begin the time out and Zoe will mirror the behavior or do another of these behaviors. The time out may last only 1 second, or it may be a real break in the game lasting 30 seconds or longer. If the dogs are doing this on their own, then I just praise them for a “good time out”. If not, and the game is very high energy, Dr. Dunbar recommends time outs as frequently as every 10-15 seconds to help keep the dogs from becoming overly aroused. When dogs are that excited, it’s easy for the bite force to get just a little too hard and a game sudd
enly turns into a fight.

CAVEAT: If you interrupt an encounter or split up a scuffle out in public, it is hugely important that you DO NOT LEAVE the area immediately. If you leave on that sour note Sadie will end up associating the park (or wherever you are) with sour encounters and it will either make her hesitant to go again or she’ll be on guard from the moment of arrival and more likely to “get into it” with another dog at future visits. If there is a need to break up a fight, put her on her leash and walk around for a bit. Give her time to sniff things and enjoy being there again. Give yourself time to catch your breath and calm down. It’s important that the last moments of this visit are positive. If possible, try to encourage her to have a positive encounter with another dog before leaving – a polite greeting** – so that the parting moment for both Sadie and you is a positive one. That will help make everyone feel better about returning. Be honest with other owners and tell them you’re trying to socialize Sadie with POSITIVE EXPERIENCES while she’s still young so she can learn to be a polite dog and you’re doing your best to let the other dogs teach her – with your ultimate supervision – so that she learns the lessons well.

**Polite GreetingPolite greetings should be brief. Make sure that you and the other human are standing on opposite sides of the dogs in such a way that your leash is in a straight line between you and Sadie, and the other person’s leash is in a straight line between them and Zoe. NOTE – THE LEASH SHOULD BE LOOSE AND SLACK, NOT PULLED TIGHT. The dogs shouldn’t even notice they’ve got leashes attached to them. But you want to be sure that you and the other human do the same dance as the dogs so that the leashes don’t get tangled and so if you do need to separate the dogs quickly, an easy 2-step reverse on your part will move Sadie away from the greeting (the other owner doing the same thing).

Sadie and Zoe are likely to first go nose-to-nose for a moment and then they may do the greeting waltz as they walk in circles to sniff each other’s bums. The initial greeting should be 2-3 seconds only. A quick sniff of the face and then the humans should cheerfully say “Let’s go!” and trot a few feet away. Talk sweetly to Sadie, “Wasn’t that a nice puppy? Did you like her? Do you want to meet Zoe again???” Give Sadie a chance to take in the experience, then if both dogs are relaxed (not anxious/stiff/nervous), you can come together for a second greeting that lasts maybe 5-7 seconds. Repeat. If the first 2 greetings go well, then you can give them more time. But always watch for body postures of BOTH dogs. If one stiffens, suddenly stands tall, freezes, shows teeth… or if one cowers, tucks tail, shows teeth… then separate them quickly (but nicely) and give them some time to calm down.

Greetings do NOT have to result in play. Often just that 3-second sniff and walk away is plenty. They got to check each other out and nobody went on a power trip or got scared. Let’s celebrate that awesome greeting and move on!

All this Dog Etiquette socialization is great, but how do we get Puppy to stop biting US?!?!

As far as her interactions with humans, it is about a consistent response, which means all humans who interact with Sadie must respond the same way every time.

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t actually want to teach Sadie to never put teeth on anyone. If she never has practice at appropriate mouth pressure, then she is FAR more likely to inflict damage if she’s startled, frightened or in pain. Instead, we want to teach her what acceptable mouthing is as this way, if she ever is startled and reflexively bites, she will be well practiced at inhibiting that bite and far less likely to cause damage as she makes her point. See below for details…

First, have a variety of toys handy to play with. Try to have toys that are BIG and allow you to hide your hands behind part of the toy so Sadie is grabbing at toy and not you. Try to have LONG toys so that there are 8-20 inches between Sadie’s end and yours. If Sadie likes to grab at hands/wrists, you can wear cycling gloves and long sleeves when playing to protect your skin. If Puppy is an ankle biter, make sure you’re wearing socks &/or long pants when playing. Make sure that even if you’re wearing protective gear, you react when you feel the pressure of teeth. It won’t actually hurt if you’re wearing gloves, but you still need to react like it is and respond the same every time.

Here’s what has worked for me:

1. Consistency in response: During play time, NO TEETH CONTACT AT ALL. If you feel teeth, the game ends immediately. Period. Drop the toy, pull your hands to your chest so Sadie can’t reach them and look away from her. If necessary, get up, turn your back or leave the room. Whether you just look away or leave the room, you will wait between 10 and 20 seconds, then return as if nothing happened and start a new game with Sadie – with a toy…

2. Redirect the behavior: Have a toy right there so that when Sadie bites, you can correct her (see #4)  and immediately redirect her to an appropriate alternative.

2a. Have a variety of toys – soft and plush, hard but rubbery so there is some give, hard Nylabone or plastic and even real marrow bone or antlers that can crunch and break if she works at it long enough.

3. Encourage gentle behavior: and praise, praise, praise when she is behaving politely.

4. Proper correction: If you feel teeth there is a series of things that will happen simultaneously. The verbal response should mimic that of Mommy dog. I know many suggest mimicking the puppy ‘yelp’ but I have found that this is usually more encouraging than discouraging. I have had excellent luck with Mom’s reaction instead. This makes sense because you are in the parental role and you’re educating your puppy. So, how does Mom respond? With irritation/annoyance. This is done in your normal volume voice. Women may need to lower their pitch to be effective. In my most irritated tone I’ll say “Owwww…. That hurt!”

As you speak this “Owwww!” command you will simultaneously pull your hand away from the dog’s face and ball your fingers into a fist. No, you are not threatening to strike Sadie. You’re removing targets from her space. Fingers are moving targets and they’re super fun to try to catch – like a gnat that flits around her face. By making a fist you remove all such targets. So at the same moment you are giving a firm, irritated correction you are also removing the target of Sadie’s efforts to make oral contact. After you have disengaged physically (including looking at her) for about 10-20 seconds, grab one of her toys and offer it up. In your sweetest, chirpiest, high-pitched, most playful tone (even a little baby-talkish) tell her, “Bite this instead.” You can even get into the game by saying, “Get-it, get-it, get-it!” The important thing in this is to make it exciting. Don’t just shove the toy in Sadie’s mouth. Move it around a few inches in front of her face; drag it along the floor so she can stalk it – make it a target for her to attack and encourage her to do so. Once she’s involved with it, you can play a little gentle tug (nothing wrong with that game – more later) or you can toss it and encourage her to chase it and pounce the toy. When she is making full mouth contact with the appropriate alternative (a toy), tell her what a good girl she is for playing with the right thing.

If she continues to go after you, rather than pick her up and put her in her crate (physically interacting with her more) for a “time out,” simply get up and walk out of the room. As you turn to leave, say “Finished” or “No more”. Close the door if necessary to keep Sadie from following you. Wait 10-30 secon
ds, then return and offer up a toy for a game. This is how to properly end a game when Sadie is not playing nice. You don’t want to increase your interaction with her when she bites, you want to end your physical and verbal interaction altogether and immediately. By consistently saying one “Finished” or something similar, she will quickly learn that this word/phrase means the end of the activity. But upon your return, you must act as though nothing happened. Dogs do not carry grudges and she will not understand why you are angry with her when you return. So act as though you’re just greeting her for the first time that day and you happen to have an awesome toy to play with. 

**Be aware that if you rip your hand out of Sadie’s mouth, you’re more likely to break your skin and bleed. In fact, puppy jaws are generally not strong enough to break the skin in a puncture. Instead, it is our reaction to pull our hands away that usually causes the laceration. So, if you find that this is happening to you, then do your best to HOLD YOUR HAND PERFECTLY STILL AS YOU SAY IN YOUR MOST IRRITATED VOICE, “OWWW!!!!! THAT HURTS!” Remember, it’s not volume here and loud only sounds like barking and may rile Sadie up. Instead, this is about tone of voice and intention. Your normal speaking volume is plenty loud enough for this process. And if you’re wearing gloves, it’ll be even easier to hold perfectly still while you do this because it just won’t hurt as much.

The Flip Side – Teaching a Soft Mouth…

The other half of this is teaching Sadie what gentle oral interaction is acceptable. During quiet time, when she’s cuddling in your lap, you can allow her to sniff and lick you. You can even allow your fingers to be in her mouth. So long as her nibbling is very soft, no pressure, you tell her that you like this gentle touch “Yes, we like gentle. Good girl.” But, if that gentle nibbling suddenly takes on any force at all, if she suddenly lingers in a bite/hold (even if it’s fairly gentle) or if she uses her whole mouth rather than just the front or just half of her mouth, remove your finger from her mouth, tell her “owww…” and offer her a toy instead. When this happens during quiet time, you want your volume and intensity to reflect the energy in that moment. In other words, if she’s quiet and relaxed, you don’t want to suddenly use a full volume response or you’re likely to not only startle Sadie, but also rile her up. Instead, if she’s half asleep or at least just quiet, then you want to use a softer voice to match that. You still should have a somewhat annoyed quality to the tone of your voice, but your volume should be quiet. This way you will be teaching her both what is unacceptable interaction and what is absolutely acceptable and appreciated interaction. You can decide if you do not want her to kiss your face or any other particular body part, simply by telling her “enough” and redirecting her to an acceptable location. Some people like to have their feet licked, but not their hands – or their hands but not their face. It’s up to you. The important thing is that for every “No/Don’t” you give her, you must also give her a “Yes.” Just like with human children, this is how Sadie will learn the boundaries and this is how she’ll learn to play gently.

So, during play, in the beginning, any tooth contact, even incidental grazing, will result in an interruption of the game. During quiet/snuggle time, you can encourage gentle mouthing to teach Sadie that a well controlled bite is appreciated. Once she’s got the hang of it, you can play gentle wrestle games where you encourage her to mouth you during play as this will allow you to test her bite inhibition. Don’t start this game until you feel confident that she’ll succeed. And if, during the game, she gets too excited and bites too hard, simply go by the rules: OWWWW!!!! and remove yourself from the game for 20-30 seconds, then try again.  This mouthing game has become my terrier’s favorite game and I even used this mouthing game as his reward for pottying in the right place instead of treats. But you first have to teach Sadie how to control that bite before you can start this game, otherwise you set her up for failure and yourself for serious frustration (and possible injury).

Regarding playing tug: Tug is an excellent game for both you and Sadie when played appropriately. It is good exercise for Sadie’s chest muscles and jaw muscles and is good eye-mouth coordination practice. It is a great way to bond with her. The rules, though, are important. Tug should never pull you off balance. If Sadie pulls harder than you’d like, simply drop the toy. After a brief pause, you can resume the game. If teeth make contact with your hand, the game ends – drop the toy as you say “Owww…”and walk away. Teeth-hand contact typically only happens out of zealousness for the game and Sadie’s effort to get a better or more complete grip on the toy, but you need to teach her boundaries – that they cannot get too close to your handhold during the game. It’s not only OK to let Sadie ‘win’ during the game, but necessary, because it will actually encourage her to come back to you to keep playing. If you’re disrupting the game because of teeth contact, it may seem very close to “winning” because you dropped the toy, but you’re also using our verbal indicator “Owwww”, turning your back on her or walking away and so the entire interaction ends. That’s not fun and this is how Sadie will learn the difference between “winning” during a game and “gone to far and game ended.”

You can also use Tug as an opportunity to practice impulse control. I use this game to practice Drop, auto-sit, auto-focus (eyes on my face), Wait, Get-it, Bring-it. I also use the word Tug to label the action the dog is doing during the play. This video demonstrates these exercises.

1. I had to teach each skill individually and then build them up together to practice in this game. The automatic Sit and Focus had to be guided until my boys understood the ‘rules’ of this game.
2. Although this video doesn’t show it, I do just randomly drop the toy during these games, allowing the dog to win at least 50% of the time. They will sometimes run around for a minute and “kill” the toy – shaking it and such – before returning to me, other times they simply shove the toy directly back into my hand because they are enjoying the Tug game. This is an important part of the game – letting the dog win a lot so that they’ll continue to want to play…

About Jody

I have a masters degree in Animals and Public Policy with a minor in Animal Behavior. I am a board certified Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (ACAAB) - one of fewer than 60 certified animal behaviorists in the world. I am also a Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA) and a Certified Fear Free Professional. For more than 14 years I have been helping families create more harmonious homes - one dog at a time. I train basic skills and manners to help dogs learn to live in our world. I also work with families with behavior issues from dog-dog reactivity to stranger-danger, from inappropriate jumping to resource guarding, and with a special affection for the timid/fearful pups amongst us. I work with families and their pets to overcome these behavior issues and help their dogs to be their best selves.
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3 Responses to Puppies Bite – What Can We Do About That?

  1. Ann says:

    Puppy is outside but comes in the house and pees. We say NO!, take her outside and say pee pee in the grass. Its still not working. What do we do?

  2. The Good Dog Blog says:

    You posted this comment under the Puppies Bite blog and so I am not sure if you have taken the time yet to read my trio of blogs on potty training. If you haven’t read the You Too Can Potty Train Your Pooch blogs, I encourage you to do so. They will likely answer any questions you may have. If you still have questions after reading all three blogs, please email me and I will be happy to try to offer some extra suggestions.

    As it is, the key to potty training is consistency in routine. Meals and water should be offered at regular times so that you have a better idea of when Puppy will need to potty. You need to use the same command every time you take Puppy to potty, take the same path to the potty spot so that Puppy can learn how to get to the potty spot, praise and treat the moment Puppy finishes going in the right spot (praise and treats – if you use treats – should happen on the potty spot to reinforce that this is the right spot). Use proper products to clean up after a potty accident. Only offer that scold if you catch Puppy in the act, do not scold if you find the accident after Puppy has finished.

    Remember that Puppy can only “hold” it for as many hours as she is months old. In other words, if Puppy is only 3 months old, then she can only go roughly 3 hours between potty breaks (give or take 30 minutes). Know your puppy’s schedule – she will need to go first thing in the morning, last thing before bed, shortly after meals/water, if she has been crated for any length of time, after naps, after car rides, when you get home, during playtime and other activity as this will stimulate the need to potty, and any other time that she or he tells you. It’s important that you go outside with Puppy and stay there – do not just put Puppy out and wait 30 or 60 minutes and bring Puppy back inside. Most dogs will wait until the owner is present – it’s a pack thing. So take the time to be out there with her. This not only ensures that Puppy goes, but also allows you to witness it and praise Puppy for being such a good dog so they learn that this is the right behavior.

    The other key is SUPERVISE OR CONTAIN. In other words,  you must be supervising Puppy when she is inside so that you can catch her if she starts to give signals and get her to the right spot. If you cannot supervise (taking shower, sleeping, leaving the house, etc) you must contain her somewhere that she cannot make a mistake – either crating her if you can provide enough potty breaks during the day, or in an area like a bathroom or a doggie playpen that can be lined with potty pads so that if she does go, it’s on a potty pad and not on the floor.

    My favorite spot cleaner for potty messes is Simple Solution. It’s easy to use, just follow the directions.

    Good luck. Be patient. Write again if my three blogs do not answer your questions.

  3. I really appreciated what you shared about the correct way to play tug. Teeth have hit my hand and we stopped playing, so I am glad to know I was on the right track on her training.

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