30 March 2021
The past year - and lockdown in particular - has brought a whole host of benefits to the nation’s dogs. People whose working lives have never allowed them to have a dog before have now been able to become new puppy owners, and families have been at home in ways they have never been in the past, 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 is entirely natural.
It’s in my genes
Many of the breeds and crosses that have become incredibly popular are dogs who have originally been 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.
Already it starts to become obvious that these are dogs whose behaviour and play repertoire is already very mouth-focussed. They will naturally and instinctively interact with the world using their mouths, so it is up to owners to appropriately channel those natural behaviors.
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 is all bitey, chewy focussed.
This is partly because they don't have any better developed social skills yet, partly because that is how all dogs play together, and partly because this is a developmental process where puppies learn bite-inhibition from their mum and their brothers and sisters 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 are 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 will 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 do not 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 and just wants to grab their hand. They don’t seem to realise that they have 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 - and having the whole family at home all the time means that many lockdown puppies are sleep-deprived (and anyone who has spent time with an over-tired toddler will know exactly what that means!).
How to cope with puppy biting
- Understand why it is happening - and that it is 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-to-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 re-direct any play-biting onto.
- Do not punish your puppy for biting. Aggression breeds aggression, and you are 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 will trust you and your hands less - and an adult dog who is 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.
If you have an Agria Pet Insurance policy, you can access the free Pet Health Helpline, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The veterinary-trained team will advise on any concerns or queries that you may have over your pet’s health – much like the NHS 111 service for people. Call free on 03333 32 19 47.