Puppy biting is a pain in more ways than one. It’s important to understand that biting and nipping are a normal, natural behaviour for puppies and that they use their mouth and teeth to learn about their world, learn about what works for them and what doesn’t and to get access to things they want. It’s also important to know that they need to be able to chew on things to help develop both their jaw and their brain.
But none of that helps when we are yelping in pain, tears pouring down our faces, trying hard not to lose our shit at our tiny little puppy who just sank their needle sharp teeth into our delicate human flesh for the 73rd time that day (seriously, do we have a puppy or a shark??). Or when our 9th pair of pants are now rendered un-wearable due to our little fluffy darling latching on every time we walk past them.
So what can we do about it? Read on!
Firstly, we want to make sure that we are setting ourselves, and our puppy up for success.
- Confinement: Giving puppy free run of the house means we have very little control of their space, which is a very important factor in stopping puppy biting (and so many other problem behaviours!) Setting up an ex-pen, baby gate and crate help to create a smaller environment that we can puppy proof and control.
- Remove Temptation: Our feet and pant legs are just the right height to be super enticing and interesting as they zoom past our puppy’s faces and mouths. Think about what it looks like when we try to get our puppy to play with a toy. What do we do? We drag the toy around in front of the on the ground or wave the toy in their face to try to get them interested and playing with the toy. Is it any wonder that puppies attack our feet and pant legs with gusto? Now add material that billows and flows as you walk and you have a recipe for disaster (or incredible fun, from your puppy’s perspective). Don’t wear loose, flowy clothing around your puppy until they have successfully learned that we are not their toys. Wearing shoes in the house allows us to be less reactive to puppy biting at our feet, as it doesn’t hurt as much. It’s hard to not react to rows of needles being sunk into your feet, but the bigger our reaction, the more fun it can be for our puppy, so wearing shoes can help eliminate that super fun reaction. Shoes without laces are ideal, because laces are also really fun to play with!
- Be prepared: Whether your puppy prefers their toys or food, we can use both to help redirect our puppy’s attention onto something more appropriate for them to have in their mouths. Timing is important on this one. Bad timing can teach your puppy that anytime they want some food or their toy, they come over and sink their teeth into your foot. Be prepared. Always (and I mean always) have food or a toy on you when you are around your puppy, ready to whip out and engage them with BEFORE they have attached themselves to your heels.
Know your puppy: Knowing when our puppy tends to be the bitiest means we can figure out why they are biting. Does your puppy bite the most when you walk past them? Or when you play with them? When they get the evening time zoomies, racing around the house like a lunatic? Or when you pick them up? When you try to put their harness on? Or when you try to brush them? If they are biting because they have learned that it makes you go away, that takes a different approach than if they are biting because they hate their harness, or because they’ve learned it gets them lots of attention or because they are too over aroused and need some help calming down. Understand that what you do IS going to either make the biting worse, or better.
Secondly, prevention is always better than cure. The more we can change what we are doing before our puppy bites us, the better.
- Teach them that body handling is a good thing: We often expect way too much of our puppies and throw a leash, harness and collar on them, or whip out a brush and nail clippers with no real prep work to help them get comfortable with the idea. As little puppies they don’t really have much choice in the matter or ability to say “no thank you”, but A LOT of puppy biting is caused by them getting tired of being manhandled into a harness, or picked up and being moved around just because we are bigger than them and can do it. Puppies don’t come automatically loving the equipment we need them to wear or use, nor do they come automatically loving being picked up. Take the time in the beginning to help them love their equipment, and love being picked up.
Help them learn how to play: If playtime is what winds puppy up into a frenzy of teeth, we need to help them learn to regulate their emotions and play. Make your play sessions short. 30 seconds to 1 minute to start, then take a break. Get them engaging with you in this break, doing things that require focus and attention like puppy push ups, nose touches or high fives. After a few minutes, when their emotions have evened out, go back to your play session. Slowly make the play sessions longer and longer, still taking lots of breaks and helping our puppy avoid the over excitement that turns them into a T-Rex.
Keep them mentally stimulated and occupied: Puppies learn very quickly that teeth on human skin elicits all kinds of fun (for them) responses. We often give them our attention when they bite us, because we are trying to get them to stop biting us. However, from their perspective this just means that biting works REALLY WELL to get your attention when you are distracted or not paying attention to them, so make sure that when you aren’t able to focus on your puppy, they are safely contained in their confinement area with a kong/bully stick/chew/toy that has their attention and is keeping them occupied. They can’t be biting you if they have a mouthful of kong. Mental stimulation is such an important, often overlooked part of puppy rearing. So many “problem behaviours” resolve themselves simply by making sure our puppies and dogs have adequate mental stimulation and enrichment. Feeding our puppy their meals out of a puzzle toy instead of a bowl, is an easy way to add some mental stimulation to their day.
Make sure they are getting enough exercise: Everything I said above goes for appropriate physical exercise for puppies too. We aren’t trying to exhaust them into sleeping for 12 hours, but they need adequate play sessions and running around sessions to ensure they are getting their physical exercise needs met.
Exercise their jaws: Puppies who are fed their meals out of a kong and have to lick and chew to access their food tend to be less bitey, because their jaws are getting a good workout 2-3 times a day. Well worked jaws mean less chewing and biting on everything else throughout the day.
Let them bite you: Huh? Yes you read that right, we do want them learning how much pressure is appropriate on human skin, so allowing your puppy to chew and bite at your hands/fingers GENTLY is important. If the biting gets harder than you are comfortable, follow the directions below. But as long as the biting is gentle and appropriate, allow it to continue.
Lastly, we’re not perfect, we are going to miss things, our puppy is still going to bite us. Then what??
- Confinement: Have all of your interactions with your puppy happen in or close to a confinement area. Play with them in their ex pen, or right next to the baby gate. If they bite you, take all attention and interaction away – remove your hands and the toy from puppy’s reach, don’t talk to them, don’t look at them, don’t engage them. If they disengage from you, you can carry on playing. If they jump all over you and bite at you trying to get you to continue playing, leave their confinement area, leaving them behind. Don’t make a big deal out of it (yelping just turns you into a great, fun squeaky toy). This ties in with setting yourself up for success. Having to walk across an entire room to leave only sets up your puppy to be hanging off your pant legs the entire journey. Setting yourself up right by the exit, means you are communicating your message that “teeth equal end of fun and interaction” in a much clearer way. You leaving the room is more effective, as picking up your puppy to put them in their confinement area gives them lots of opportunity to be biting at you as you pick them up and carry them to their area.
Stop moving: If your puppy has latched on to your shoe, stop moving immediately and pretend you don’t have a puppy (remember they are masters at reading body language and this includes facial expressions so that indulgent smile we give them while watching them tug on our shoes can be a reinforcer for them). Part of the fun of attacking our shoes is the continued motion and chasing of the feet as we keep moving, so removing this fun part of the game makes it less interesting for our puppies to want to play with our feet. If they learn that every time they start playing with our feet, the game stops, they learn pretty quickly that feet are boring. Once they have disengaged from your feet, you can pull out the toy/treat you have on you and redirect their attention on to that so that you can keep moving and not become the family statue in the living room because every time you move you re-engage your puppy’s sense of fun.
Be consistent: Remember all of this is hard for puppy to learn and doing it once or twice or even for a week straight is not going to get you the results you want. If you want your puppy to learn that biting doesn’t work for them, you need to show them that it doesn’t work for them in ANY circumstances and then it NEVER yields fun or attention or playtime. And that biting you is boring and means end of fun and end of attention, EVERY TIME.
Also remember that yelling, smacking, punishing your puppy as well as saying “No” in a “firm” tone or grabbing their muzzle can actually make biting worse. Follow the guidelines above consistently and you’ll have a puppy who understands how to use their teeth appropriately.