When your sweet loving puppy suddenly bites you or your loved ones, there can be an instinctual reaction of offence and betrayal; however, understand why a puppy bites and how to manage biting events will help you to learn critical concepts in taking your pup into adulthood, psychologically and emotionally sound. It is rare for young pups to be exhibiting truly aggressive behaviour, but if you are concerned best to go to your Vet and rule out any pain (outside of adult teeth coming in) and any medical issues.
The first thing to clear up is a dog is not a wolf. The behaviours shared between a wolf and a dog are dormant under ancient genes, and a dog's DNA has evolved to seek and need human companionship. Second, a puppy who bites is not trying to be dominant. This is a falsehood perpetrated through sensationalized programming. Dominance does occur between dogs but is widely misunderstood when considering the relationship with the dog's human. Consider that a dog is 'manipulative' if a label is needed. It is not bad in a dog, as it is based on instincts to survive, not subvert. A puppy who bites, plays, cuddles into a bed to sleep is figuring out this new world with a solid need to experience and learn and have its needs met.
Is your puppy's nipping a sign of aggression?
If a dog growls, snarls and lunges systematically at everyone approaching it, and then goes still awaiting for a response we classify this a 'displacement behaviour'. It doesn't make sense in the context.
A puppy who lunges and bites ankles of a running child is in context, as the puppy is thinking it is a game of chase and is innocently not understanding. Puppy biting is easy to go a little crazy during playtime. Many caregivers are confused at assessing a puppy's ability to understand that the biting hurts. They put too sophisticated cognitive and social abilities on the puppy. Let's look closer at this example. The running child is chased by a puppy who nips at his heals. The child screams 'ow!' and starts crying. You come running and yell at the puppy. Suddenly, the puppy cowers, looking up at you with crescent eyes, and it is interpreted as they are sorry. This is not true. In fact, the puppy is trying to calm 'you' down and these are called appeasement signals. A puppy is not capable of feeling guilt although this is widely misconstrued through Youtube videos of the 'guilty' dog. There is no scientific evidence that a dog experiences guilt. There is plenty of scientific evidence of reading a human and responding in a way to try to calm them down.
How do I train my puppy not to bite?
Puppies less than 8 weeks old learn with their littermates; biting too hard makes them unpopular. A puppy who doesn't pay attention to their playmates' yelps is ignored until they learn to play with less bite strength. Puppies mouth are filled with 28 razor-sharp teeth. It is 12 to 16 weeks when tiny little adult teeth come, all 42. This process is painful!!! Puppies want to interact with you, just like their early experiences with their littermates. Chewing on things, including you, helps ease the pain, but milk-teeth, those sharp little razors, are not fun and often lead to punctures. The puppy is also unaware of their bite strength. Whether the dog is teething or trying to engage with you in some fun, training a puppy to not to hurt you is a must. Note we are not saying to stop your puppy from biting. We are saying we need to teach it 'mouth control'. Puppies who learn mouth control are less likely to grow up into adult dogs who bite. Your goal is to teach moderation. The way to reach this goal is to observe and set out a training plan.
When the bite strength is too strong, a sharp 'ow' can be given, but caution on teaching children not to yell or scream 'ow' as yelling is consider force. Modern science has done away with any force or punishment as it has been proven to have long-term impact on behaviour. Scaring a puppy is easy and at the very least, if intentional, cowardly, while caring and nurturing a puppy is hard work and takes commitment. In some pups, an 'ow' may get them more aroused, because they don't understand the meaning. If this is seen, don't keep trying to make it work. Stop. Instead, place yourself away from the puppy. Behind a babygate is perfect to protect you from puppy bites. Once the puppy calms down, come out and immediately engage in a frozen toy or a plush toy that is long and extended away from your hands. If they do settle down and play make sure you provide lots of praise to build up your communication and relationship.
If the puppy is teething, make sure they have access to a lot of frozen toys. Rope toys soaked in chicken broth is our go-to favourite...and not just one. Let's pack your freezer with them for everyone in the family to grab with your puppy's gum's are sore. There are many other frozen toys designed explicitly for a teething puppy. Stock up on them for a wide variety to engage your puppy in novel items. Look for different textures, different flavours & smells (bananas, peanut butter, sweet potatoes), and odd shapes. This is also excellent mental stimulation proven to also calm your puppy down - a win-win.
Communication is key. You and your new puppy don't have clear communication nor trust. You may be bonded, but there is a lot more that needs to happen. Trust is critical to building with a puppy to ensure psychological soundness as the dog matures. Every interaction must make your relationship positive. Anything negative and your role is changed in your pups life, and you will likely require professional behaviour support later in the dog's life.
Exercise and Sleep. A puppy needs exercise aligned with their energy level and lots of sleep. In many puppy biting cases, we find the puppy doesn't sleep enough. Dogs need 15 hours of sleep, according to Dr. Denenberg, Veterinarian Psychiatrist. There is a lot we understand about sleep and behaviour and a lot we don't. Many studies are underway to dig deeper into the relationship between sleep and dogs behaviour. Our experience suggests observing the puppy, chart their sleep patterns and behaviours, and see if longer sleep helps.
Predicting biting events. Many clients tell us of the 'witching hour' at night or when the kids come home. As caregivers, we can expect and get ahead of the biting behaviour without reacting with our own heightened emotions (which negatively impacts our relationship).
How do I stop my puppy biting visitors?
A few tips about greeting when your puppy is still learning bite inhibition:
Keep greetings low key.
Think warm, calm and friendly, not joyous excitement.
Have long frozen toys or plush toy at the door that visitors can hold away from their hands and play with the dog as a greeting.
A short note about 'tug of war'. We don't want to 'win' 'tug of war'. That is an old fashion training construct around dominance/alpha. It simply doesn't stand up to today's science. Let the dog win regularly. It is, after all, just a game. And, it makes you more fun to be around.
Toys that extend away from the hands is best for a teething puppy. Long plushy snakes, long ropes or a flirt pole. A flirt pole is a long pole with a toy at the end and are a perfect option to play fun games of chase without getting your hands nip. Use it on a grassy surface for good grip and no slips.
How do I stop my puppy biting my clothes?
Make sure your puppy has a structure routine, enough sleep, regular feeding times and subsequently regular pee/poop times. Poop-stress is a real thing. Many puppies will become anxious and unsure of what to do, as their new little bodies feel the pressure to relieve themselves. Biting your clothes or you may be a signal of your pup needing to poop.
Stop the activity you are doing if the pup is biting your clothes. Consider it a signal that your puppy needs something. Go through a checklist: hungry? thirst? overtired? needs to play? Depending on your evaluation you may need to ask your dog by redirecting them to their water, their bed, a snack or a calmer way to play. With adequate structure, observation and planning your puppy will stop biting your clothes.
When will my puppy stop biting me?
It takes a few weeks to help your puppy understand the pressure they are using with their mouth hurts. You must be very patient and gentle. Anything harsh breaks the bond with your dog, and subsequently, behaviours will worsen over time. Any use of force, even yelling, can create long-term behaviour issues. As soon as their adult teeth come in around 5-6 months, the biting tends to decrease. If the dog is appropriately supported and taught, it evolves into gentle 'mouthing' to engage with you.
Regular attention to the bite strength is a good idea as enthusiasm can sometimes reduce the dog's ability to regulate the bites.
Our practice uses fear-free, force-free and positive reinforcement to create voluntarily well-behaved cooperative family dogs and prevent fear aggression in puppies through private programs to teach you to guide your pup. If you are concerned with your puppy biting, your abilities to help your puppy learn, and want the best private training for yourself and your dog, then please reach out. Proper one-on-one modern training is a huge benefit to you for life and avoids later behaviour issues such as fear aggression, frustration aggressions and people aggression and other aggressive behaviour.
'Sparky' Smith is a Canine Behaviorist and Practioner, educated through the International School for Canine Psychology & Behaviour, earning her ISCP.DIP.CANINE.PRAC.