By: Sara Ondrako, Certified Canine Behavior Consultant
From the time those sharp little needle teeth emerge through your dog’s gums until about six months of age when adult teeth come in, the world is a giant chew toy to puppies, and sometimes that includes us! Puppy teeth don’t just put holes in your favorite shoes. They can put holes in your fingers and your ankles, too.
While sometimes destructive and even a little painful, puppy biting isn’t “bad” behavior. It’s actually a completely normal behavior that needs shaping. The puppy teething phase gives you a golden opportunity to teach your puppy what’s appropriate to put their teeth on and what’s not.
Puppies bite for many reasons. Primarily, it feels good on their gums during teething, a period when your puppy’s baby teeth come out of the gums, and adult teeth replace them. Teething is uncomfortable for puppies, and chewing helps relieve their sore gums and loosen baby teeth.
Puppies may also bite because they’re:
Young puppies go through a critical period of learning how and when to apply appropriate pressure (which determines how hard or soft a bite is) based on the reason for biting. For example, their bite pressure will be harder while playing with a chew toy than when they play with another dog.
This learning process is how puppies develop good bite inhibition, which is the ability to control their mouth with purpose. This is critical to their communication and relationships as they grow and develop.
While puppies learn a lot with their mother and their littermates, they continue developing these skills as new encounters happen. New encounters can be with family members, pet playmates, and foreign objects that look fun to grab. These situations allow your puppy to practice and learn the consequences of how and when they should use their sharp teeth.
Remember, your puppy is learning new things every day. Their biting isn’t meant to cause harm. They’re just exploring and discovering how to relate to people, other pets, and new objects. There are several ways to keep puppy biting at bay, so keep these moves in mind next time your puppy gets too mouthy.
When your puppy’s teeth make contact with your skin, stop playing with them and immediately redirect them to something they can safely put their teeth on, like a rubber Kong or a squeaky toy.
If you’re petting them or playing with them and they grab a hand or finger, calmly remove both of your hands and be still for a moment. Next, grab a toy and offer it directly to your puppy’s mouth after giving it an enticing squeak.
Timing matters in teaching, so you need to be able to disengage them and scoop up appropriate teething toys in seconds every time they nip. Be sure to immediately use positive reinforcement such as verbal praise when your puppy begins chewing on the appropriate item.
If your puppy tries biting you harder, you’ll want to create distance right away. Make a mental note that your pup may need more activities to stimulate their brain. For example, play tug-of-war and simultaneously practice your “drop” (letting go of an object). Working on “drop” between tug sessions introduces a brain game that helps with impulse control and skill-building.
Tether your puppy to a fixed object using a hands-free leash, and practice approaching your puppy when they’re calm and quiet. If they start jumping at you or nipping, wait until they are calmer to re-approach. This shows them that more relaxed behavior leads to more engagement from you, while more impulsive behavior leads to less.
Crunchy kibble makes for fast and efficient markers for good dog behavior while training. If you feed kibble as their primary food source, you can use it in your treat pouch. At meal time, add some water or Native Pet’s Organic Chicken Broth to their bowl to soften their kibble so their diet isn’t always hard on their gums during their teething period.
If your puppy likes to bite your hands or ankles as you walk, use a fast-moving object to redirect them. Try shaking a tug toy or rolling a squeaky ball. Shifting your dog’s focus will give them an appropriate outlet for their natural behavior to chase and grab.
Use a baby gate or puppy playpen to give yourself space from your puppy while you work on teaching them calm and appropriate play. If your puppy jumps up at you from behind the barrier, wait until they have all four paws on the floor, which indicates a better frame of mind for self-control and less likelihood of biting with engagement. Re-engage your puppy calmly as they settle back down.
Be sure your puppy gets adequate naps throughout the day and uninterrupted sleep throughout the night. Young puppies sleep about 18 hours a day. If they’re not sleeping enough, your puppy may exhibit frustration biting and have difficulty learning new behaviors.
Provide a quiet, dark room that’s closed off from other dogs and people for at least two crate naps during the day and overnight. If your puppy has trouble winding down, try giving them Native Pet’s Calm Chews to help them relax into their nap. You can also cut up Calm Chews into small pieces and use them as training treats to work on a new skill and then place them in their crate for their nap. Just be sure to note the appropriate daily dosage. If your puppy isn’t comfortable sleeping in their crate, enlist the help of a behavior or training professional for crate training tips.
While there’s a lot you can do to reinforce good behaviors in your puppy, you’ll want to steer clear of these scenarios to ensure they maintain everything you’re teaching them through training.
Puppies have difficulty controlling themselves in a high-arousal (high-energy) state, and rough play directly contributes to it. Your puppy is much more likely to make poor decisions when they’re teetering on erupting into the zoomies, so keep playtime on the mellow side.
Puppies don’t make the connection between being kenneled away from you because they bit you. Crate time-outs, especially if your puppy is full of energy, can significantly increase the likelihood that your puppy will develop a negative emotional association with their crate. This can lead to frustrating behaviors such as barking, whining, defecating, and being destructive while kenneled. Rather than abruptly stopping the fun and sending them to their crate as punishment, use tethering or a baby gate for safe separation and teaching.
Some puppies may think this response is part of play and will keep biting you in the hope that you’ll repeat that sound again.
Preventing dog bites starts with preventing human behaviors that make a dog feel the need to defend themself. Yelling, hitting, or “popping” them on the nose can not only degrade your relationship and reduce trust but also increase the likelihood of biting because aggression is a defense mechanism. Stick by showing your puppy what you want them to bite and want them to do, rather than trying to punish a puppy for making a decision you don’t like.
This includes gentle nibbling. The more practiced your puppy is with using their teeth on human skin, the more they will, well after the teething phase.
When handled appropriately, puppy biting tends to stop around six months of age when all adult teeth have emerged. Some dog breeds are more prone to having retained puppy teeth (baby teeth that do not fall out on their own), and those need to be removed.
If you trained your puppy, their puppy biting should go away after all of their adult teeth come in. If your puppy is older than six months and likes to chew for fun or comfort, supply an appropriate outlet for that natural behavior, such as sturdy rubber toys or longer-lasting tasty dental chews such as Native Pet’s Yak Chews.
Occasionally a puppy’s biting behavior may be abnormal, and you should seek professional help. Scenarios where your puppy actively growls, snarls, bites and breaks the skin, or snaps in a serious manner is not play behavior. Involving a veterinary behaviorist or a certified behavior consultant as soon as possible can keep this brewing aggression from becoming a dangerous situation as your puppy develops.
If you need a little extra help, a dog trainer can typically work with you to show you how to curb this challenging puppy behavior. Attending a basic puppy training class in a group setting such as an AKC STARR Puppy Class is a great way for dog owners to learn some of the basics of dog training.
Working with a pet professional early on is a great way to learn fun and efficient ways to close that communication gap between your puppy and you as well as your puppy and other dogs. And when done right, you’ll also end up with fewer gaps in your shoes and fingers from those sharp little puppy teeth!
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