If you have a puppy under six months of age, play biting is a very normal (albeit annoying and often painful) part of your puppy's development.
For bitey pups under six months of age, read this blog.
But what happens when your dog's biting is lingering beyond that six-month mark, or you acquire an adolescent or adult dog that comes into your home with a chompy mouth?
First of all, don't get too alarmed just yet. Excessive play biting in adolescence is still not an indicator of future aggression.
The vast majority of adolescent dogs we work with that are still showing mouthiness with people have some or all of these three factors contributing to the behavior:
1. Needs are not being met.
Meeting a dog's most basic needs is simple: provide food, water, shelter, love them, play with them.
But depending on your dog's individual temperament, breed/breed mix, and age, those basics may not be meeting your dog's actual physical and mental stimulation requirements.
The first thing you should do to stop your adolescent or adult dog's mouthy behavior is take a look at how you can provide a more physically and mentally enriching day-to-day life for your dog, while still working within what's reasonable for your own schedule.
A few ideas:
- Ensure you're feeding your dog three times a day up to a year of age (sometimes longer for giant breed dogs) and that you have appropriately increased food based on their growth. With your vet's approval, you can typically drop to two meals a day by one year of age.
- Provide short (5-10 minute) training sessions a day to work on basic obedience, tricks – whatever you want.
- Offer mental enrichment options – see our 14-Day Training Challenge for training and enrichment tutorials and ideas.
- Increase your dog's physical exercise – playing in the backyard is simply not enough. Options include adding a daily walk, a game of fetch, taking an obedience class or getting involved in a dog sport. Find what works for both you and your dog – if it's not something you both enjoy, one of you will get burned out quickly. The behavior is being reinforced.
2. The behavior is being reinforced.
In order to address this issue, we have to look at why it's lingering. What is the function of the behavior for your dog? As puppies, biting was a way for them to try to instigate play and attention, explore the world, and burn off some teething frustration.
Which of those three still serves a functional purpose in an older dog?
Instigating play and attention.
Whatever you are currently doing as a reaction to your dog's biting is reinforcing the behavior – in short, your dog thinks it's worth doing it again.
Yelling "no," pushing your dog away, running away, etc. can all be considered fun, especially for an attention-seeking adolescent dog. Or if you do something too forceful or scary, you run the risk of losing your dog's trust and causing more serious issues.
So instead, find the least dramatic way that you can stop reinforcing the behavior.
- Do not look at your dog or talk to them when they start biting.
- Cross your arms and do not engage your dog with your hands.
- You can block more intense advances from your dog by lifting up the side of your leg like a wall (do not knee your dog in the chest, please!)
- If you find it too difficult to ignore your dog, you can remove yourself from the room or go behind a gate, but you must do so without it become a fun game of chase.
- Your dog will come back harder a few times as they try to figure out why their usual method of attention-seeking isn't working, but if you stay consistent, they will ultimately give up and go grab a toy or settle down elsewhere.
3. The behavior is intrinsically reinforcing for your dog.
If you're reading the above thinking "I've tried this, and I'm still not seeing the changes I want to see", then this may be a game-changing answer for you.
Some dogs are selectively bred to enjoy things like chasing, grabbing, biting, or stalking. This is what makes dogs excellent at certain jobs – police dogs, military working dogs, herding dogs, ratting dogs, etc. While we see this in herding breed dogs and terriers most frequently, it can apply to any individual dog.
This doesn't mean that a dog that enjoys to bite is an aggressive dog – it just means that the dog may find the act of chasing, biting, tugging, etc. fun regardless of your reaction.
These dogs don't need these instincts "trained out of them" – that's not fair or realistic – but instead need outlets for that natural drive.
Here are few things to try, in addition to the recommendations from points #1 and #2:
- Add a flirt pole to your daily routine, 1-3 times a day. This is my favorite activity for dogs that naturally enjoy chasing, nipping, and biting, as it's an excellent outlet and easy for most dog owners to use.
- Play tug with your dog, with some rules.
- If your dog grabs your hand instead of the toy, game over.
- Teach your dog to drop the tug when asked.
- Use a good, sturdy tug toy like this one.
The key is, you're still letting your dog know that biting people isn't appropriate, but you're also giving them an outlet for that natural instinct.