Ouch!! Those sharp little shark teeth our puppies have before their adult teeth grow in sure are painful when they come in contact with our skin. One of the most frequently asked questions I get during puppy classes and consults is 'how do I stop my puppy from biting me?'.
Puppies explore the world with their mouths and mouthing during play with their littermates is totally normal puppy behaviour. During those weeks they spend with their litter they will gradually learn how to appropriately use their mouth during play. A bite too hard during play with a littermate will result in a 'yip' and the end of the game. Puppies quickly learn that in order to continue play they need to inhibit their bites and keep their mouth soft. Unfortunately this bite inhibition rarely extends to their new human family and so we need to spend time also teaching them how to use their mouths softly with people as well as appropriate vs inappropriate mouthing and biting behaviours.
Unfortunately there is a lot of advice out there on how to stop your puppy biting, ranging from ignoring your puppy when they bite, yelping when they bite (like a puppy) to holding their muzzle closed, pushing your thumb down on their tongue or even biting your puppy back!
It can be hard to wade through all of the information and find the right answer.
The good news is you do not need to resort to holding your puppy's mouth closed, pushing your fingers into their mouth or biting them back.
So how do we address puppy biting?
The protocol I recommend to all of my puppy clients is as follows:
1) Ensure your puppy is getting enough sleep! In 9 out of 10 cases I find that puppies just aren't getting enough sleep. They need 18 - 20 hours per day! And at max they should be awake for 45 - 60 minutes (age dependent). If they have not had enough sleep, or they have been awake too long they are much more likely to engage in inappropriate behaviours such as biting.
2) Ensure your puppy is getting plenty of mental enrichment and especially legal outlets for chewing/mouthing/biting. This can include giving them chew toys, long lasting chews (bully sticks are a favourite in our house!), bones (appropriately sized for your puppy, please ask your vet), kongs stuffed with food, and engaging in games of tug with toys. This is especially important from around 12 - 18 weeks as this is the time when your puppy is likely teething!
3) Be proactive, prevent your puppy from practicing the behaviour and set your puppy up for success. Is there a time of day your puppy is most likely to engage in puppy biting? Maybe it is while you watch tv, bath the kids or cook dinner? If this is the case, be proactive and set your puppy up in a puppy confinement area with something to chew/occupy them while you engage in these activities.
4) Always play with a toy! Don't play games with your puppy where your hands are the target of play, this will just tempt your puppy into biting those hands (remember they play with their teeth/mouths!), instead ensure you always have a toy (make sure you make the toy very interesting to your puppy, wiggly it around, throw it, pretend you are excited to play with it) and redirect any puppy biting away from your person and onto the toy. Encourage and reinforce teeth on toy!
5) Remove reinforcement for the behaviour! Puppies bite because it has worked for them in the past! Any attention for biting is often enough to reinforce the behaviour. I know it is hard to ignore those sharp puppy teeth and this is why implementing steps 1 - 4 is SO important. Get up and walk away (without talking to your puppy) if your puppy is biting and cannot be redirected onto a toy. If your puppy chases you down to continue biting at your legs/ankles then pop your puppy away in their confinement area for a nap and/or to chew an appropriate item.
WAIT! I've been told to 'yelp' or say 'ouch' when my puppy bites because this is what their littermates would do?
After years of working with puppies of various breeds I have found that although successful in some cases, yelping/saying ouch can cause MORE excitement and more biting in many dogs. After all dogs are predators and squealing sounds very much like a prey animal! What fun, now we can make the humans squeal! We are not dogs and our puppies know this!
Additionally squealing/yelping does not really address WHY our puppies are biting. When addressing any problem behaviour we need to ensure we are looking at the function and consequences of the behaviour for the dog and look holistically at their environment and how it may be influencing our dogs behaviour and not just the behaviour itself.
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