Puppies are one big bundle of fun and energy with their happy smiles and wagging tails, but they also like to use their mouth – a LOT!, so knowing how to stop a puppy biting and mouthing everything and everyone can be tough.
Unfortunately, owners tend to reinforce the behaviour that we think is “fun” by playing with them, even a puppy biting as they play. This includes rough play, allowing them to nibble and bite at our hair and hands and jump up on us as they please.
While, it might be okay when they weigh just a few kilos, when they grow up to weigh more and have a full set of teeth and a powerful jaws, we no longer think a puppy biting and mouthing us is acceptable, and so they start to get punished for the undesirable behaviour.
This is very confronting and confusing for your dog, as you may have actually ‘taught’ them this behaviour and rewarded them for it, by allowing it to happen and continue when they were a puppy. Then suddenly they are being punished for something that they thought was perfectly acceptable behaviour.
This is setting your dog up to fail and is why it is so important to address any potential future behaviour problems as soon as they begin.
Biting and mouthing is one of the most common complaints of new puppy owners and is the issue we will focus on here.
Why is my puppy biting and mouthing me?
Puppies explore their environment with their mouths and also use their mouths in play and when teething, so it is important that we allow them to do this, but direct in the right way.
One way that puppies learn to inhibit their biting is by playing with other puppies. When one puppy bites the other puppy too hard, the play stops. This is no longer fun for either puppy, so they learn instinctively that if they want the play to continue, they must control their bite. We can teach our puppies the same thing.
Ways to divert your puppy biting and mouthing people
You can encourage your puppy to chew on safe, durable and appropriate sized toys that can’t be swallowed.
Fresh raw and appropriate sized bones are good to exercise their jaw and clean teeth. Check with your Vet about what size and type is best for your puppy.
Do not encourage it!
Never allow your puppy to bite, chew or mouth you, even if it seems to be in play, as this reinforces the puppy biting behaviour.
Definitely do not encourage rough play and puppy biting. Often kids will get down on the ground with the puppy and roll around letting them jump all over them and bite their hair etc. which encourages the puppy to do it more and sets them up to fail.
Encourage interactive play using a ball, frisbee or tug toy instead.
If your puppy does bite, walk away or fold your arms and ignore it. We do not want to give in to their attention seeking behaviour, so no eye contact or verbal responses either.
Don’t use punishment, reward desired behaviour instead
Your puppy is still learning about the world through chewing and biting, so it’s important to instead just ignore them and remove access to whatever they are biting.
Teaching and using an alternative command like ‘sit’ can also divert unwanted behaviour to a more acceptable one that you can reward, and therefore encourage more of that desired behaviour using positive reinforcement training.
Redirect the biting
If your puppy goes to mouth or bite you could also gently offer a toy to redirect it. You do need to be very careful with timing so that the toy connects with their mouth before they have connected with your hand or body, otherwise it could be seen as a reward for the biting behaviour, if they have managed to make contact with you and then receive the toy.
Try not to overexcite your puppy by waving your hands around and, if they are biting, it is also best not to use your hands to correct the behaviour. Slapping your puppy can make things worse. It can make some puppies hand shy, or for others it might actually encourage aggression and more biting.
If they are chewing on plants or furniture you can make up a spray of chilli or vinegar in water to spray onto the plants or areas they chew, or there are a number of ‘chew stopper’ sprays available in shops.
Always put away items that they tend to chew like shoes, socks, kids toys etc.
Digging is also a common puppy behaviour, so sandpits are great to redirect digging and can help with boredom too when dogs are left alone at home. You can hide treats or toys in the sandpit to help direct any digging to this area.
Remember, dogs don’t grow out of problem behaviour, they grow into it, so we need to make sure we set a puppy up for life by teaching it the behaviour we will expect of it as an adult.
Puppy school is a great way to start. Or if you’re having a few issues, get the help of a qualified trainer before the problem gets too bad.
About the Author: Lara Shannon is a certified dog behaviourist and trainer, pet food nutrition specialist, Executive Producer and Host of Pooches at Play on Channel 10 and editor of Poochesatplay.com. Lara also runs her own dog training business in Melbourne’s Bayside area and is the Author of World of Dogs and Eat, Play, Love Your Dog