Help! My Puppy Bites!
Training Proper Use of Mouth
by Lisa Lafferty
...Dogs don't have hands, but
they do have a mouth full of teeth and they just
love to explore their world with those big white
choppers. Whether it's your hands, your
child's hair or clothing, or your heels as you walk
on by, this article will teach you how to show your
dog how to control himself when he wants to wildly
nip and play with you as if you are another dog...
All dogs play using their teeth, and this can be a large
concern to pet owners. Whether it be a very young puppy incessantly
chewing on hands or an older dog that grabs pant legs or shirt sleeves, it can
be an extremely annoying behavior to pet owners and the people who encounter
the dog. At worst, it can escalate into more severe issues that are much
harder to deal with. In any case, training is necessary and advisable for
any dog, no matter what the size or breed, so that he can learn to behave
Hint Number One: THEY WILL NOT GROW
OUT OF IT IF YOU ALLOW IT TO CONTINUE.
Hint Number Two: IF ONE MEMBER OF THE
HOUSEHOLD IS HORSING AROUND AND ROUGH-HOUSING WITH THE DOG AND THE OTHER
PEOPLE ARE TRYING TO TRAIN THE DOG TO STOP MOUTHING, NO AMOUNT OF
TRAINING WILL WORK. Playing rough with his mouth is very, very fun
for your dog, much more fun than choosing not to mouth. You cannot
compete with this with any sort of training program. You must
teach the humans (and I am sorry to say that husbands and older sons are
notorious for teaching a dog to roughhouse like this, sorry guys, you
need to find a different way to manly play honey) to discourage
mouthing, no matter how much they (the humans) enjoy it.
Hint Number Three: PREVENT TODDLER
SCREAMING AND RUNNING FROM DOG WHEN HE MOUTHS. This is crucial,
because a human squeaky toy that also runs away is the most fun
Hint Number Four: NO TEETH ON SKIN,
CLOTHES, HAIR, no exceptions, be consistent.
One of the most common issues for new puppy owners is how
to handle their puppy’s needle-sharp teeth. If you have a new older dog
that has no training in this area (or worse, comes from a home where
people routinely played rough with him), this may be an even bigger
issue. Parents of small children feel the
greatest brunt of the problem. The children run around, the puppy gets excited,
and the next thing you know the puppy is hanging off the pants or hair of a
child that is screaming in pain. If it's an older dog, this problem can
mean the child falling, or a visitor getting grabbed and misreading the
Although a puppy is not trying to hurt
anyone, its needle-sharp teeth easily break the skin. Many a puppy has been
re-homed or put down because it has put scratches or holes in a child’s face.
Adult owners of new puppies often feel frustrated because they cannot interact
with their new pet without having hands bitten and clothes torn. No matter what
they do, it always ends painfully, and they start to think the puppy is “bad” or
“doesn’t like them” and they might even wonder if the mouthing will lead to
serious biting when the dog grows up. Human protective instinct gets
really strong when a child is hurt and screams, and a much-loved puppy
can turn into something that the mom wants to dump out the door and that
the dad wants to choke. Prevention is key.
Older dogs who mouth a lot scare strangers who aren’t sure
if the dog is behaving aggressively. Also, dogs who mouth their owners a lot
are often confused about the leadership structure in the household (and think
they might have a shot at being the boss, which can lead to multiple serious
For these reasons, dog owners should know what mouthing is,
reasons why it needs to be thoughtfully and seriously managed, and how to teach a
dog appropriate use of its mouth among humans.
What is play-biting or mouthing?
All dogs play and interact using their jaws, teeth and
tongue. Called “mouthing” or “play-biting” (very different from aggressive
biting), it is their instinctual programming to play with their littermates and
other dogs by jaw-wrestling and inhibited biting. Most dogs attempt to play
with humans in this way as well, especially during puppyhood when the urge to
use their mouth is strongest.
Play-biting serves an important purpose in a dog’s life.
Because dogs use their mouths to interact with their world (unlike humans, who
usually use their hands) it is crucial that a dog keeps this sensory organ in
good shape with lots of exercise. Jaw-wrestling and inhibited biting are
important parts of a dog’s social behavior, and much rehearsal is necessary for
these social behaviors to become honed to the point where the dog can function
properly in doggie society. So, dogs mouth and play-bite throughout their lives
to learn how hard or soft they should bite, and to keep their mouths speedy,
Did you know that dogs can bite 5 times in one
second, with incredible accuracy? Think about five dogs all
chasing a tennis ball, and one catches it on the fly while running full
speed with its head turned sideways. Dogs easily learn to
accurately and appropriately use their mouth.
Did you know that medium-sized dogs can exert over
300 pounds of bite force pressure in one bite? This is
enough to break both lower bones in a grown man's arm in ONE BITE.
It's enough to crush the leg or the muzzle of another dog instantly.
Yet rarely do these things happen, because dogs learn quickly and easily
to inhibit their bite.
Much of this learning takes place when they are
together with their littermates and mother between the ages of 5-7
weeks. Wrestling matches happen and puppies that overdo it are
muzzle-pinned by mom, or their brothers and sisters open a can of
whoop-a** on them when bitten too hard. If you take a puppy from
the litter prior to 6-7 weeks, you will likely have a dog that is
difficult to teach appropriate use of his mouth--I see it all the time
in my obedience classes. It is important not to take a puppy away
from the litter prior to 7 weeks, to avoid this problem.
Interestingly, these "early puppies" usually have very difficult
problems with dog/dog interactions. I can usually pick out an
"early puppy" just by watching his body language and behavior the first
night of obedience class.
My whole point in giving this information is that
it is not difficult to teach a dog appropriate mouthing skills.
Their brains are pre-programmed to learn good use of their mouths.
All you have to do is provide consistent boundaries and opportunities to
learn, and they readily comply.
Why does mouthing need to be managed?
Dogs have to live with people. For this reason it is
critical for dogs to learn appropriate use of their mouths with people. Because
dogs can bite with great force, even in play, it is crucial to get a management
plan and thoughtfully teach your dog what is appropriate, and what isn’t.
In particular, great care needs to be taken with dogs and
children, who present the ultimate in excitement for a canine. They move
quickly, they like to have fun, and best of all…they SQUEAK when bitten, better
than the best squeaky toy on the pet store shelf! A child’s natural reaction to
painful puppy teeth is to back or run away screaming shrilly. This stimulates
the puppy to higher excitement levels and harder, more intense mouthing. An
adult dog can badly bruise a child while innocently trying to play, and at the
extreme worst, become so stimulated that they see the child as prey (especially
when they hear that rabbit-like squeal and see the child running away).
Children like to “horse around” physically with dogs and
often actually encourage the mouthing (until it gets too hard, at which point
they “squeak”). This can lead to ripped clothing, bruises, broken skin.
In the worst case, it can lead the dog to believe that the child is similar in
status to a littermate or another dog that is lower in status. Dogs readily
discipline dogs that are lower in status. A dog that has been allowed to mouth
children can unintentionally learn that it’s OK to discipline a child for
wrongdoings such as bumping into them, disturbing the dog while it is resting,
trying to put the leash on and off, and for coming to close to anything the dog
The same is true when adults horse around with a dog and
allow mouthing. Dogs that are allowed to use their mouths on humans will
sometimes get the idea that they can use their mouth to communicate with the
human in the same way they use it with another dog. For example,
if you have a dog that has been permitted to horse around and play
roughly with his mouth, and you disturb him and he is irritated with the
disturbance, you have unintentionally taught him that using his mouth on
you is OK. He might treat you like another dog, and snark and whip
around on you using his mouth. You certainly don't want your dog
to be confused in this way! Dogs that have no mouthing inhibition
with humans are dogs that will whip around on you when you are brushing
them, hard-mouth you when you trim nails, and REALLY hard mouth you when
you try to grab them when they are excited. Putting on or taking off the leash becomes a struggle
to stay out of the way of the dog’s teeth. Vet visits become a nightmare and
nail clipping virtually impossible.
The dog learns that sometimes when it bites, it can cause a
human to flinch, move away or stop. This is a very dangerous thing for a dog to
learn. Dogs do what works. If snapping or biting has worked for them in the
past, they will continue to try it in the future. For example, a dog that has
whipped around and snapped during leashing will certainly escalate to actual
biting in the future if the whipping around and snapping made the person even
slightly flinch, or worse, if it makes the person drop the leash and let go of
the dog(and it’s almost impossible NOT to flinch under those
behavior can no longer be called
“play-biting.” It is the real use of force and aggression to get their way, and
definitely stems from the dog thinking it is allowed to use its mouth on
Another reason for thoughtful management of play-biting is
how dogs act with people outside the immediate family home. If the dog
encounters a stranger and tries to play-bite it can easily be misconstrued as
aggression, which is dangerous to the dog. Often, dogs rip people’s clothing in
an attempt to play. It’s easy for a dog to bruise or break skin while playing.
All it takes is a person or two that claims the dog “bit” them to send the dog
on a one-way trip to the vet’s office.
For all of these reasons, it is inadvisable to allow your
puppy or dog to play with you using its mouth on your skin, clothing or hair.
If you are a sport dog person and you disagree with this, please
remember that my target audience is a pet dog owner. I am very
aware of preserving tug drive and lack of bite inhibition with a sport
dog. I've been the breeder and owner of litters where I advised NO
reaction to mouthing in the whelping box. But you guys can manage
it--pet owners have a hard time. It is for this reason that I take
the stance of no skin/clothing/hair for pet dog owners.
In general, dog/dog mouthing is NUNYA. As in
"nunya business." Healthy dog play involves mock aggression.
Don't get involved or worry about it too much. Dogs easily
understand the difference between playing with another dog and playing
with a person. In the dog world we call it "playing bitey face."
When dogs play together, they usually play-bite and mouth.
Often there is a great deal of growling and “imitation” aggression which can
look and sound like true aggression—loud and scary! This is usually nothing to
be worried about—it’s practice for dog/dog social behavior, and you shouldn’t
interfere unless one of the dogs is much larger than the other, much more
physically fit (as in puppy/old dog situations) or much shyer.
If you see
desperate attempts to get away, it’s a good time to break it up. If the tone of
the wrestling play begins to look more serious, it might be a good time for a
break to allow the excitement levels to die down a bit before continuing play.
Really excitable play, just as in humans, can get out of hand. If
you see a high level of excitement, make them take a break.
Otherwise, play-biting between dogs is a nice way for the dogs to enjoy
themselves, and is really important for maintenance of social skills. Generally
it is not something to be concerned about and will not lead to dog/dog or
Don't be one of "those" pet owners that get freaked
out when their dog plays rough or makes noise when playing with another
dog. PLEASE, rein in your horror and let your dog be a dog.
I say this because I have met SO many people who utterly freak out and
act in ways that actually promote excitability and roughness when they
interfere with dog/dog play. Sometimes these people have never
seen their dog play with another dog, and think any sort of "aggression"
is truly terrible.
Dogs aren't people. People can't get in the
elevator and bite someone for standing too close, or wrestle with our
siblings and bite and growl like a fiend. We have words and big brains
that cause us to use different methods to communicate.
For dogs, these things are utterly normal--they
can't speak politely to the dog standing too close and say, "excuse me,
sir, can you scoot over a little?" and they certainly can't play cards
or video games like we would. Doggie communication is sometimes
rough and sometimes loud. "Scoot over, now!" is a lifted lip,
direct eye contact, and maybe even a snarl thrown in for good measure.
Wrestling is all about bitey-face, bitey-legs chase, growl, and
pretend-threaten. Not polite play by any means according to human
standards, but good old rock'em-sock'em fun for a dog.
Dogs are instinctively programmed to have the tools
not to hurt each other. Please trust in that from now on,
and relax! Even in a true fight, even when the fight goes on for
30 seconds or more, 99% of the time both parties walk out with nothing
more that a few hair tufts floating away on the breeze, or possibly a
nick in ear, lip, tongue or eye rim (areas very easily injured).
When you think about the fact that dogs can bite 5 times in one second,
with 300 pounds bite force pressure, and you muliply that by the 30
seconds of a fight where all parties walk out unharmed...you can see
that dogs don't inherently want to hurt one another. There are
exceptions, but they are not the rule, not by far.
How is play-biting on people managed?
Fortunately, managing excessive mouthing is a simple
exercise that gives speedy results and is very easy for the dog to learn. Dogs
readily learn to distinguish between appropriate dog/dog play and appropriate
dog/person play. Whether it’s a new puppy, a new older dog, or a dog that is
already in your household, the methods for management are the same. Prevention, Redirection, and Punishment.
Read more about
Punishment and Discipline before you think I'm horrible for using
the word and the technique!
Prevention: Prevention of the mouthing is the first priority. Do not horse around with the
dog and encourage it to mouth. It is difficult for the dog to learn that
mouthing is only appropriate SOMETIMES. Consistency is the key. Also, be aware
that as the excitement level of play gets higher, the tendency to mouth goes up
exponentially. This means that if you are playing with your dog and he begins
to get really excited, he will probably mouth you. Predict this fact and try to
make a break in the play BEFORE the excitement levels go too high. In dog/child
interactions, parents should carefully observe the puppy and break up the play
before it gets out of hand.
Also be aware that as excitement
levels increase, playful mouthing can easily become very hard biting or true
aggression that is meant to do harm. Dogs that get to a really high level of
excitement lose bite control/inhibition and can actually “click over” into
aggressive mode. This is why it is particularly important to monitor excitement
levels in play, and try to keep things to a medium or lower level.
Remember that dogs learn to do
things by rehearsing the behavior over and over. If the dog needs to learn to
sit on command, the learning takes place by doing it again and again, and the
dog gets better and better at it. So if the dog is allowed to play-bite again
and again, he will definitely get better at it. The best way to teach a dog to
mouth/play-bite is to allow him to do it! Prevention of this kind of learning is
the first (and most crucial) step in managing this issue.
great way to play with your dog without encouraging mouthing is to use a toy or
bone. In this way you can physically play with a dog, allow them to use their
mouth, yet teach them that there is to be no contact with human skin, hair or
You can get the same fun down on the floor horsing around allowing
the pup to chew on a bone you are holding in your hand, a tug toy, or a stuffed
animal. I have seen great bonding and play take place with
I taught puppy raisers to do this when I worked at
Guide Dogs, and with the Lab pups especially (MOUTHING? You can't
begin to imagine how intensely a Lab puppy can be about this, did they
never hear of holding something softly? Duck hunters, right?
What the heck?It's like they just walk around with their mouth open
waiting to gnaw on something. Oops a pantleg. Oops the toddler's
hair. Oops the toilet brush. Oops a cat. Oops a coffee
table. They are the WORST).
But I digress. If you use this method,
holding the bone or chew toy while the dog chews the other end, the human must control the game,
NOT the dog. Never start a game because the dog brought you the toy--keep fun
toys up off the floor, and get them out only when you want to interact with the
dog (you can of course leave some chewing items down). Then initiate the game
and have a great time!
To end the game, simply take the dog’s collar, hold him
still, and let go of the toy. Wait for the dog to drop the toy, give a treat or
praise, and put the toy away. Never try to pull a toy out of a dog's
mouth--this is super fun for the dog. Just hold the collar and
wait for the drop, saying "drop it" as the dog drops. It works.
When nothing is on the other end of the tug, it stops being tug.
Therefore, it's no fun.
If a dog begins to mouth you,
and you have a toy nearby, you can firmly say NO, then pick up the toy and
encourage play while praising. This shows the dog that teeth on skin or clothes
is a no-no but teeth on toy is fine. Drawing clear boundaries like this
where you tell the dog what is NOT ok and then show the dog what IS ok,
is a very effective way to train proper mouthing habits.
Redirection allows the dog to
play in the way nature intended, without harmful side effects. The dog gets a
mentally and physically entertaining experience and you get to “horse around”
with your dog!
dog needs to understand in very clear terms what IS allowed, and positive
reinforcement should be used as much as possible, but at some point (especially
in the case of puppies, who mouth much more than adult dogs) punishment will be
What works best as punishment
for mouthing is simply to end the game. Have a baby gate or small room nearby
to where you normally interact with your dog, and as soon as his teeth touch
you, immediately stop and put him behind the baby gate or door for a time-out.
It must be done extremely quickly, the instant he touches you with his teeth.
Immediately drop eye contact, stop speaking to him, scoop him up or take him by
the collar and good-bye doggie for a time-out from humans. The whole thing
should be unemotional and FAST.
If you leave a light leash on your dog, even
better. That way, instead of a lot of handling (which might
continue to excite the dog) you can simply drop your participation, take
the leash, and without paying ANY attention, hook him to the nearest
doorknob and walk away. Use of a leash in this way when allowing
contact with young children that cannot accurately discipline the dog
for inappropriate mouthing is a MUST.
The play must be stopped and dog
in the time-out area within 10 seconds of the mouthing for this to work. In
addition, it might be a good idea to intentionally stimulate mouthing (get down
on the floor and horse around) over and over for 5-10 minutes so that you can
quickly show him that not mouthing=continued play and mouthing=game over. Many repetitions in a short period of time is the
quickest way for a dog to learn. With new puppies, doing this twice or three
times a day will help them to understand more quickly.
You needn’t be harsh or physical
with your dog to teach him not to mouth—just consistent. TOOTH
CONTACT=TIME OUT. No exceptions!