It’s normal for a puppy to use her mouth during play and social interaction, but it’s certainly no fun having those sharp teeth embedded in your ankle or arm. It’s important to teach your puppy how to use her mouth in an acceptable manner. Strategies for controlling the little piranha include encouraging acceptable play, providing sufficient stimulation to meet her needs, teaching her basic commands such as “sit” and “down,” and ignoring or interrupting undesirable biting behavior.
When play biting becomes too intense or persists into adulthood, seek the advice of a behavior specialist so you can determine the best courts of action.
Don’t Make Things Worse
Do not encourage your puppy’s pesky behavior. Don’t get you pup all fired up with rough play, teasing, or a game of tug-of-war if these lead to biting. Avoid games that encourage your puppy to attack any part of your body, and don’t wear gloves during play to allow your puppy to bite.
Be careful not to inadvertently reward the behavior. If biting works to get your attention, the behavior will continue. Petting your dog, picking her up, talking to her, or even giving her a mild shove or a light scolding can actually reward biting behavior. Therefore, any hard contact between you puppy’s teeth and the human body should be a signal for you to cease giving any attention to your dog. Immediately stopping play and ignoring your puppy or walking away will teach your puppy that attention and play stop when biting begins. Similarly, do not begin to play if your puppy is displaying “demanding” behaviors such as pawing, jumping up, barking, or mouthing.
When biting begins during play, or if you can anticipate biting, try to change her focus to a toy or some other form of play that does not involve biting. Another option is to use a training command, such as “sit” or “down,” and reward her with a treat or toy if she settles down. A loud “ouch” when your dog bites can also be used to interrupt the behavior and mark the stopping of play. Play should begin again only if biting does not recur.
There will likely be times when your puppy becomes overly aroused and you cannot effectively deal with the problem. In these situations, one option is to immediately leave the room and shut the door (as long as it’s safe to leave your puppy alone) and return only when the puppy is settled. Otherwise take her to her safe area (such as a crate or pen) and give her a feeding or chew toy to keep her (and her mouth) occupied.
Avoid harsh corrections and physical punishment. Never hit or slap your pet, thump her nose, squeeze her lips against her teeth, shake her by the scruff of the neck, roll her onto her back, or force your fingers into her mouth. This kind of correction is likely to make the biting problem worse, ruin the bond with your pet, and lead to more serious problems, such as fear and aggression. On the other hand, some puppies may actually find these harsh corrections to be a big game, which only encourages them to bite an play more toughly.
Channel That Energy
If your puppy is constantly demanding attention by mouthing or biting or is playing too rough, then you will need to provide other ways to keep her brain and body active. Schedule regular play and exercise throughout the day in ways that do not involve mouthing, such as walking and running, playing fetch, chasing a ball, practicing some of her training exercises, or even playing tug games as long as your puppy’s teeth remain on the toy and do not touch your body.
Another way to channel your puppy’s energy is to provide frequent opportunities for playing with other friendly dogs. Giving your puppy dental treats, toys that are designed to be manipulated to release a treat, or those that promote prolonged chewing also provide opportunities to use the mouth and teeth in an acceptable and health way. The more energy the pup uses for these other activities, the less she will use for mouthy biting behavior. Remember the training mantra, “A tired puppy is a good puppy.”
Communicating with Your Puppy
Enroll your pet in puppy socialization and training classes as soon as possible. Teach her a few simple commands so you can communicate with her when she begins to engage in undesirable behaviors. Training sessions combine social time, mental stimulation, and learning new skills, while keeping your puppy focused on behaviors other than play biting.
Teach your puppy what behaviors you expect of her before she gets any rewards. For example, ask her to sit before giving her things she wants, and occasionally command her to stay for a second or two before following you around the home or going through a doorway. Be consistent.
You may want to permit soft mouthing and inhibited bites during play if you have a home in which there are no children or elderly family members who might be at risk. You can teach soft contact by placing your hand in the pet’s mouth when she is very calm and praising her when she mouths softly. However, if she bites with enough pressure that it is uncomfortable for you, say “ouch” and stop the play.
A dragline can be a helpful tool for managing your pup’s biting behavior. Attach a long line (ten feet indoors and twenty feet or longer outdoors) to your pet’s collar so you can quickly grab the line when you need to stop the biting. Be sure that the pet is closely supervised when she is wearing a dragline. With a gentle pull on the leash you can immediately stop mouthing and biting. Release tension as soon as the dog settles down. If the puppy will not focus, gets easily distracted, or uses her mouth excessively, more effective control of the head and muzzle can be achieved by using the dragline with a head halter. Head halters can give all family members, even young children, a considerable amount of control over the pet.
Enough is Enough: Using a “Stop” Command
If biting begins during play, it is important that the pet learn to stop on command. This can be done by giving an “enough” command when she is biting. Begin training when the pet is very calm. Hand the puppy a small piece of dry food as you say “okay” in a relaxed tone. Next, hold another piece of food in front of her and firmly say “enough” without raising your voice or yelling. If the puppy doesn’t attempt to make contact with your hand or the food for two seconds, say “okay” and give her the food. IF she touches you hand before two seconds pass and before you say “okay,” immediately say “enough” with sufficient force to make her back away but not frighten her. Be dramatic, lean toward the pup, and make eye contact when you give the instructive reprimand. Gradually increase the time the puppy has to wait. Once she learns to leave the food alone on command, practice the exercise without food by using only your hand. Later, repeat the exercise when the puppy is more keyed up
The goal is to get to the point that the puppy will not take food or touch your hand once you have said “enough,” no matter how tasty the treat or how interesting your hand. For this technique to work, the whole family must be very consistent, have precise timing, and practice every day. If necessary, a leash and head halter can be used to teach the “enough” command. Whenever the puppy ignores the command to stop biting, a gentle pull on the leash will closer her mouth. Eventually the puppy will stop biting when you give the command.