By: Jill Jones
There’s an old expression, “It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye,” that’s apt for playing with puppies. Puppies love to use their teeth—for everything—but particularly during play, which may seem cute and endearing at about seven to eight weeks, especially since their new little baby teeth, while needle-sharp, don’t seem that scary. It’s a different story, however, a month or two later when their adult teeth start to emerge. Those big teeth can inflict harm if you haven’t properly curbed your puppy’s nipping behavior. The puppy must learn to stop biting as early in his development as possible.
Puppy Development Stages
The most important element of raising puppies is their proper socialization, which includes helping them learn how to use their mouths appropriately. A key period for their social development is from about three to twelve weeks, starting when they’re still with their mother and littermates.
If you’ve ever seen a litter of puppies in action, you know that they spend a lot of time rolling around together doing acrobatics, wrestling, and biting each other, seemingly mercilessly. You may not realize they are learning important lessons during this rough play. For example, that’s when they start to learn the difference between a hard bite and what’s usually referred to as an “inhibited bite,” otherwise known as mouthing. If they bite one another too hard during play, the response will be a startled yelp and a swift rebuke from the mother if she is in immediate proximity. It doesn’t take puppies long to figure out how to use their mouths gently on each other.
Curb Aggressive Puppy Biting Early
This lesson doesn’t translate well to interactions with unsuspecting humans, however, who might not appreciate puppies’ primal need to use their mouths, especially during the period when they’re teething, starting at about twelve weeks. Their new humans may perpetuate hard-biting behavior by unwittingly reinforcing it. As they graduate from playing with canine siblings to playing with new human companions, puppies need firm, consistent guidance to learn a new set of rules.
Evolution has provided puppies with a natural instinct to grab and explore things with their mouths, making them infamous for their mouthy destructive behavior. Their compulsion to chew is exacerbated by the teething process which is why pet owners must get the behavior under control before teething starts. After twelve weeks or so, not only will it be harder to manage inappropriate biting and chewing behavior related to teething discomfort, but developmentally that’s when puppies start to become more resistant to change. Inappropriate biting behavior should be nipped in the bud (pun intended) before twelve weeks of age, if possible. Older puppies and dogs of all ages can still be trained, it’s just easier when puppies are really young.
Teaching a Puppy not to Bite
So, what do you do to make your puppy to stop biting? First, take great care to consistently discourage your new puppy from engaging in any inappropriate biting behavior—which essentially means biting anything other than one of his toys. Starting as soon as you bring him home, make your puppy understand that he can chew on his toys but he can’t can’t chew on your fingers, other body parts, or any of your possessions. All members of the household must be on board with the plan: consistency is the key to training puppies and dogs.
When your puppy starts to nip or chew inappropriately, say “No Bite” or some variation thereof, such as “No Teeth”—the terminology doesn’t matter as long as you use it consistently. Give the command in a firm voice (don’t yell) and calmly redirect him by giving him a chew toy to bite instead. When he cooperates by taking the bait, praise him and give him a treat. If he persists in biting you, calmly walk away and ignore him for a few minutes. If he follows you, continuing the mouthy behavior, leave the room and shut the door or lead him to a time-out space. When you re-engage with him, repeat the process as many times as necessary. It’s crucial that all members of the household follow the same playbook. Chew toys should be distributed around the house so there’s always one within reach. It doesn’t usually take too long for the puppy to get it. After all, he should have learned the lesson already from his littermates.
If for some reason you happen to have a recalcitrant puppy who doesn’t respond to the routine described above, up the ante by spraying a non-toxic taste deterrent on your hands or other object of his attention. Or, if that doesn’t work, some experts advise the nuclear option: a spray of water in his face to accompany your firm “No Bite” command. But this strategy is risky; it may make your impressionable puppy permanently fearful and/or may not work. Pavlovian conditioning is more effective: dogs respond best to positive reinforcement.
As with any training exercise, persistence and patience are required. Be assured that he will come around, eventually. It is the nature of dogs to want to please their humans, so unless something has gone awry with your puppy’s socialization, he will respond to your gentle but firm efforts to teach him how to use his mouth in an appropriate manner.