Understand why your puppy is biting.
The first step to effectively managing your puppy’s biting is to understand why they’re doing it! Generally, there are four main causes of biting: Exploration – puppies use their mouth to investigate and learn about the environment. Teething – biting down on things with varied textures is soothing for puppies that are teething. Play – puppies use their mouths to play with littermates and will often extend this kind of play to people. Frustration/overstimulation/overtiredness – Puppies can sometimes bite when feeling frustrated (e.g., being held when they don’t want to be), or when they’re overaroused or overtired and are struggling to control their behaviour. Knowing why your puppy is biting can help you decide the best course of action to begin to change their behaviour using the following tips.
1. Don’t try to handle a worked-up puppy
Overarousal is often a trigger for puppy biting! Try to avoid handling an overexcited or overstimulated puppy – you’re likely to get bitten if you do! Keep activities such as handling and grooming for times when the puppy is calmer, and they’ll be less likely to use their teeth!
2. Puppy teeth on skin makes all the fun stop
If you’re interacting with your puppy and they begin to mouth/bite you, all the fun should stop. If you’re playing, immediately drop the toy and disengage from the activity. Turn or walk away and ignore your puppy for a few moments. This helps give the puppy the message that using their teeth on people makes everything get boring very quickly!
3. Positive interrupter
Positive interrupter cues work by indicating to your puppy that they should stop what they’re doing as there is a chance to earn a reward coming up and can be a helpful way to stop undesired behaviours. Once your puppy has stopped, you can then redirect them to do something you can reward instead. A positive interrupter can be any word or sound, however it should not be loud enough or shouted such that it might frighten the puppy. Often a strange sound works well to grab the pup’s attention!
To train a positive interrupter, grab a handful of treats and your puppy. Make the sound or give the word you’ve chosen (e.g ‘Enough’, ‘Treat’, ‘All done’ etc) and immediately feed them a piece of yummy food. Repeat this 5-10 times.
Next, when your puppy isn’t already looking at you but isn’t doing something too exciting, make the sound. When your puppy looks at you, reward them with a piece of food. Repeat this many times in short training sessions.
Once your puppy consistently looks to you on hearing this cue, you can use it to interrupt undesired behaviours. If puppy bites, make your sound/say your word to interrupt them. When they stop biting, immediately ask them for something you can reward (e.g. sit, paw, eye contact) and reward them for this alternative behaviour.
Gradually begin to introduce this cue in more distracting environments. If your puppy stops responding when hearing the cue, ‘recharge it’ by going back to step 1 (indoors, make the sound/say the cue and immediately feed) for some more practice.
4. Time out
If you try the positive interrupter and your pup doesn’t stop biting, or you try to walk away or ignore them and they continue to bite as you do so, it’s time for a time out. It is sometimes just too difficult to calm down when there are people around, so a time out in a quiet room by themselves can provide an opportunity for their arousal levels to fall. Without saying much, move the puppy into another space. Try not to use the space they sleep in for this purpose – pop them into another room instead. Wait 1-2 minutes and then let them out again. Try not to immediately re-engage in play as this will raise the puppy’s arousal levels once again, but calmly interact with them as normal. If they go back to biting once again, repeat the time out, leaving them for slightly longer to ensure they’ve had long enough to become calm.
5. Appropriate chew toys
Teething can be a big contributor to biting in puppies. Biting down naturally helps to ease the teething pain they’re feeling and satisfies a need to chew. By providing plenty of appropriate chew toys of varying materials and textures, you can reduce the chance of your puppy turning their teeth on you, or your possessions, in an effort to soothe their sore gums. As well as providing plenty of things for your puppy to chew on, temporarily removing access to particularly tempting items (such as chair or table legs) can help to manage destructive biting.
6. Ensure enough rest
Puppies need a LOT of rest, even if they seem like they are full of energy. Most puppies need to sleep between 18-20 hours per day and an overtired puppy is far more likely to become a biter. When overtired, puppies often feel quite out of sorts and generally have much less control over their behaviour – zooming round the house, forgetting everything they’ve previously learnt, and biting/nipping are all signs of a puppy that needs a rest.
Ensuring your puppy gets enough rest is key to helping keep shark-mode at bay. Crate training and/or structured rest times during the day can help keep energy levels topped up and is particularly important for puppies who always seem to be on the go. Keeping the environment as calm and peaceful as possible will also encourage your puppy to switch off and get some rest, making the overtired biting less likely to rear its ugly head.
7. Mental stimulation
When trying to occupy a puppy, it can be tempting to always opt to play to try to wear them out. While this can be effective, play can also raise your puppy’s arousal levels. An overaroused puppy is far more likely to start biting than one who is calm. Replacing some playtime with some mental stimulation activities can help encourage a more relaxed puppy. Sniffing and licking are naturally calming behaviours for dogs, so offering them food enrichment toys such as licki-mats or snuffle mats or creating a treasure hunt of food is a great way to engage your puppy without working them up into a frenzy. Similarly, practicing some reward-based training focusing on calm behaviours (e.g. lead walking or a calm settle) can give your puppy a brain workout and allow them to feel more relaxed, rather than overaroused but overtired!
8. Don’t punish your puppy
Avoid punishing your puppy for biting by using aversive measures such as shouting or hitting them. In most cases, the puppy simply learns that their new owner is someone to be frightened of, associating the punishment with you rather than something they did. This can lead to numerous problems down the line and it’s far more important to build a bond of trust with your puppy so they grow up knowing that they can rely on you to keep them safe.
It is much easier to teach a dog to do an alternative behaviour than teaching them not to do a given behaviour. Giving plenty of suitable chew toys, mental stimulation, and adequate rest, as well as praising and rewarding calm behaviours is a much more effective way to reduce puppy biting.
9. Avoid accidentally reinforcing biting
Finally, avoid accidentally reinforcing biting behaviour. Tugging back on clothing, immediately putting a toy into puppy’s mouth or making a big fuss when they bite are all ways that we may inadvertently be rewarding our puppy for biting. If they learn that grabbing onto your clothing results in a great game of tug, biting your hand means you throw a toy for them or nipping your foot makes you notice that they’re there, it can result in the behaviour becoming stronger over time.
Instead, if your puppy grabs a piece of clothing, show them a piece of food to get them to release it, saying ‘drop’ as you do so. Make sure to ask your puppy for a behaviour you can reward (e.g. sit) before throwing that toy for them after they nibble your hand, and try to withdraw attention following biting – make everything very boring – and give lots of attention and rewards for calm, non-biting behaviour.
10. Consistency is key
By following the tips above, your puppy will stop their biting, but the best way to accelerate the process is to be consistent. Consistently provide alternative chewing outlets, withdraw attention when your puppy begins biting and reward calm, alternative behaviours and puppy biting will become a distant memory!