By Ian Dunbar
Puppies bite. And thank goodness they do! Puppy play-fighting
and play-biting are essential for your puppy to develop a soft
mouth as an adult.
Puppy Biting is Normal, Natural, and Necessary!
Puppy biting seldom causes appreciable harm, but many bites
are quite painful and elicit an appropriate reaction - a yelp
and a pause in an otherwise extremely enjoyable play session.
Thus, your puppy learns that his sharp teeth and weak jaws can
hurt. Since your puppy enjoys play-fighting, he will begin to
inhibit the force of his biting to keep the game going. Thus
your puppy will learn to play-bite gently before he acquires
the formidable teeth and strong jaws of an adolescent dog.
Forbidding a young puppy from biting altogether may offer immediate
and temporary relief, but it is potentially dangerous because
your puppy will not learn that his jaws can inflict pain.
Consequently, if ever provoked or frightened as an adult, the
resultant bite is likely to be painful and cause serious injury.
Certainly, puppy play-biting must be controlled, but only in
a progressive and systematic manner. The puppy must be taught
to inhibit the force of his bites, before puppy biting is forbidden
altogether. Once your puppy has developed a soft mouth, there
is plenty of time to inhibit the frequency of his now gentler
Teaching your puppy to inhibit the force of his bites is a
two-step process: first, teach the pup not to hurt you; and
second, teach your pup not to exert any pressure at all when
biting. Thus the puppy's biting will become gentle mouthing.
Teaching your puppy to inhibit the frequency of his mouthing
is a two-step process: first, teach your puppy that whereas
mouthing is OK, he must stop when requested; and second, teach
your pup never to initiate mouthing unless requested.
It is not necessary to hurt or frighten your pup to teach her
that biting hurts. A simple "Ouch!" is sufficient.
If your pup acknowledges your "ouch" and stops biting,
praise her, lure her to sit (to reaffirm that you are in control),
reward her with a liver treat, and then resume playing. If your
pup ignores the "ouch" and continues biting, yelp
"Owwwww!" and leave the room. Your puppy has lost
her playmate. Return after a 30-second time-out and make up
by lure-rewarding your puppy to come, sit, lie down, and
calm down, before resuming play.
Do not attempt to take hold of your pup's collar, or carry
her to confinement; you are out of control and she will probably
bite you again. Consequently, play with your puppy in a room
where it is safe to leave her if she does not respond to your
yelp. If she ignores you, she loses her playmate.
Once your pup's biting no longer hurts, still pretend that it
does. Greet harder nips with a yelp of pseudo-pain. Your puppy
will soon get the idea: "Whooahh! These humans are soooo
supersensitive. I'll have to be much gentler when I bite them."
The pressure of your puppy's bites will progressively decrease
until play-biting becomes play-mouthing.
Never allow your puppy to mouth human hair or clothing. Hair
and clothing cannot feel. Allowing a puppy to mouth hair, scarves,
shoelaces, trouser legs, or gloved hands, inadvertently trains
the puppy to bite harder, extremely close to human flesh!
Once your pup exerts no pressure whatsoever when mouthing, then
- and only then - teach him to reduce the frequency of his mouthing.
Teach your puppy the meaning of "Off!" by
hand feeding kibble. Your puppy will learn that gentle mouthing
is OK, but he must stop the instant you ask him to stop.
Puppy Must Never Initiate Mouthing
At this stage, your puppy should never be allowed to initiate
mouthing (unless requested to do so). Please refer to our Preventing
Aggression booklet for a detailed description of the
essential rules for bite-inhibition exercises such as hand feeding,
play-fighting, and tug-of-war.
By way of encouragement, mouthing-maniac puppies usually develop
gentle jaws as adults because their many painful puppy bites
elicited ample appropriate feedback. On the other
hand, puppies that seldom play and roughhouse with other dogs,
puppies that seldom bite their owners (e.g., shy, fearful, and
standoffish pups), and breeds that have been bred to have soft
mouths may not receive sufficient feedback regarding the pain
and power of their jaws. This is the major reason to enroll
your puppy in an off-leash puppy class right away.
Should a dog ever bite as an adult, both the prognosis for
rehabilitation and the fate of the dog are almost always decided
by the severity of the injury, which is predetermined by the
level of bite inhibition the dog acquired during puppyhood.
The most important survival lesson for a puppy is to learn bites
cause pain! Your puppy can only learn this lesson if he is allowed
to play-bite other puppies and people, and if he receives appropriate
If you feel you are having any difficulty whatsoever teaching
your puppy to play-bite gently, seek help immediately.