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How to stop my puppy from biting

Biting is a bad - and potentially dangerous - habit that your pup mustn’t get into. Here’s how to make sure your puppy’s bark is worse than its bite.
How to stop my puppy from biting

Talk to any behaviourist right now, and they’ll tell you that biting in puppies seems to be almost epidemic. And it appears to be a bigger problem than the usual play-biting that’s expected at some time from most puppies.

Carolyn Menteith, behaviourist and trainer, explains what's causing the problem… And what owners can do to stop their puppy biting.

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How do I stop my puppy from biting?

The past few years - and lockdown in particular - have brought a whole host of benefits to the nation’s dogs. People whose working lives never allowed them to have a dog before have now been able to become new puppy owners. And with families spending more time at home, so dogs have had more company, more exercise, more training, and much more fun.

While this has brought plenty of positives, some more worrying issues have come out of this - and one of them is puppy biting.

Why do puppies bite?

When thinking about how to deal with puppy biting, it’s important to understand why it happens… And why - while we may not like it - it’s entirely natural.

It’s in my genes

Many of the breeds and crosses that have become incredibly popular are dogs originally selectively bred to use their mouths to hold and carry things. Or catch and kill things.

This is nearly all the gundog breeds - including the Cockapoo, the Labradoodle, and other gundog crosses - all the terrier breeds, and some of the working and hound breeds.

These are dogs whose behaviour and play repertoire is already very mouth-focused. They’ll naturally and instinctively interact with the world using their mouths, so it’s up to owners to appropriately channel those natural behaviours.

It’s how to make friends!

Next, a puppy comes to their new owner directly from life with their mother and their littermates. Puppies have very limited ways to play at this age - and it’s all bitey, chewy focused.

This is partly because they don't have any better-developed social skills yet. It’s partly because that’s how all dogs play together. And it’s also because this is a developmental process where puppies learn bite-inhibition from their mum, and their brothers and sisters. It’s at a time when their teeth are really sharp, but their jaws have no power to injure.

When a puppy goes to their new home, they’re totally alone for the first time in their life. And they need to develop a social bond with their new family.

The only way they know how to do this is with play. And the only way they know how to play is with teeth. It might hurt, but a puppy is trying in the only way they know to build a social connection.

Isn’t this how we play?

While a puppy doesn’t know how to play with humans, humans seem to have no idea how to play with a puppy either.

Often play involves using hands - sometimes quite roughly - and you’ll see people pushing and shoving puppies as part of a game. While more confident puppies can enjoy this, it does teach them that hands are a focus for play. And when play gets boisterous, often that comes with teeth.

As a way to say ‘I don’t like this’

Also, playing roughly with puppies can quite literally come back to bite you. Puppies are only babies, and they don’t have the behavioural skills or the confidence to object to rough handling - no matter how much they don’t like it or how much it worries them.

Many people are shocked when their adolescent dog reacts with aggression to something ‘they used to enjoy’ without realising they never enjoyed it. They were just too young to be able to show their objection or fears.

No one has shown me that toys are better than hands

On the other hand, owners don’t spend enough time teaching their puppy that toys are great to play with.

People having problems with their dog biting often say - when told to deflect the biting onto a toy - that their dog isn’t interested in toys. They just want to grab a hand. They don’t seem to realise that they’ve taught their dog to do just that.

I am teething

At various stages of their development, puppies are teething and their gums hurt. Chewing is necessary at these times, and can bring relief too. But they may well also be fractious and a bit out of sorts.

I am so tired, all the time

And lastly, puppies need a lot of sleep. In the first few weeks they need 18-20 hours a day of sleep.

If the whole family is often at home, especially on weekends or holidays, your puppy may end up sleep-deprived. And anyone who’s spent time with an overtired toddler will know exactly what that means. Try to limit play-time to give your puppy a chance to rest up.

How to cope with puppy biting

  • Understand why it’s happening - and that it’s a natural puppy behaviour and part of their development. It isn’t unusual, and it isn’t your puppy being badly behaved.
  • Make sure your puppy is getting enough good-quality, undisturbed sleep.
  • Stop playing rough, exciting games with your puppy. Play should be about calm, thoughtful, bonding exercises - and not high-energy, physical games that lead to increased arousal and - all-too-often - grabbing and biting.
  • Spend time playing with toys with your puppy. By having a puppy that enjoys playing with toys, you can give them something to focus on that they can bite, grab and chew. All puppies need to do this as part of their development. And you need something you can redirect any play-biting onto.
  • Do not punish your puppy for biting. Aggression breeds aggression, and you’re very likely to make the situation worse either immediately or in the future. Either way, you will erode the relationship you have with your puppy, and they’ll trust you and your hands less. And an adult dog who’s fearful of human hands is not a good thing.
  • If your puppy’s arousal levels get high and you can’t deflect them onto a toy, give them something to focus on that's distracting and rewarding but doesn’t use teeth. Scatter some treats around the floor that they have to seek out, or use a snuffle mat or a licky mat. If your puppy’s nose is on the floor sniffing, their teeth are not near your skin.

When to seek help

If your dog is no longer a puppy, with a full set of adult teeth, and is:

  • still biting, or
  • scaring you and your family, or
  • causing injury

…find an accredited behaviourist who can help you prevent this from becoming a more serious problem.

All puppies will go through a phase of play-biting. But with some understanding and prevention of the most common causes - and some careful management of the rest - this phase will soon be over.

Want to know more?

About the Author

Carolyn is an accredited behaviourist and trainer with over 20 years experience working with dogs and other companion animals. She has written books, over 500 published articles and trains owners and professionals alike both nationally and internationally. Carolyn is also an experienced broadcaster and presenter, has appeared in five TV series’ and countless radio shows. Her passion is for helping owners build a strong and positive relationship with their dogs and fully develop the potential of the bond between them.

More articles from Carolyn Menteith

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