The good news: in the vast majority of cases, puppy biting and mouthing is EXTREMELY normal, for several reasons:
- Puppies explore the world with their mouths.
- They go through an uncomfortable teething process that lasts for 2-3 months.
- They play hard with their siblings, often using their teeth to (successfully) instigate play and attention.
- Herding breed dogs are predisposed to nip, herd, and chase small, fast-moving things. Young children often get the brunt of this behavior.
- Retrievers are predisposed to picking up and holding anything and everything within reach, including your hands and arms.
A word on what to avoid:
- Above all else, avoid physical punishment when it comes to puppy biting.
- I have heard people given terrible (albeit, well-meaning) advice over the years, from squeezing your puppy's mouth shut, to pinning them on their backs, to muzzling them to stop the biting.
- Your puppy is *NOT* being "dominant", and you do not need to physically punish him to curb this behavior.
- Physical punishments like this range from silly and ineffective to cruel and downright abusive. In fact, you can create fear and aggression in your dog using these types of methods.
So, what should you do about puppy biting?
- If your puppy bites you, you need to ignore the behavior and remove *yourself* from the interaction, with no drama.
- Note: You are not putting your puppy in a time out. That involves way too much time, talking, and attention to be an effective punishment. You are either ignoring the behavior or removing yourself from it.
- That means play is over, fun is over, attention is over. Be as non-dramatic as possible.
- If the behavior is hard for you to ignore, go behind a door or baby gate where your puppy does not have access to continue nipping at you.
- If your puppy tries to nip at you when you return, remove yourself again.
- You should see a major decrease in the intensity of biting as well as the amount of biting attempts within a few days.
An Important Caveat:
Some puppies find the act of a person walking away reinforcing. If your puppy seems to enjoy you removing yourself as a game of chase, you can alternatively use the side of your leg (not your knee, please!) as a "wall," blocking your puppy's advances and non-dramatically removing them from biting you without involving your hands.
You may have to block them multiple times before they stop trying; don't give up! And most importantly, still avoid yelling or using your hands – bitey puppies tend to find both of these things very exciting.
Things to keep in mind:
- Be sure to give your pup attention and praise when they are behaving nicely!
- All family members and guests MUST be consistent in order for this to work!
- Be aware that even doing everything right, this behavior may not go away entirely until 5-6 months of age. Remember, this is a normal developmental period in puppies.
- For extra-bitey puppies, or those that are biting after 5-6 months of age, this blog will help give you some additional tips and recommendations.
Why Does This Work?
- A behavior that doesn't get reinforced will stop.
- Your pup will learn that we don't react to biting with play, attention, or even a negative reaction. All of these things can be fun for a puppy.
- Your pup will learn to self-entertain. Once they realize the nipping isn't working, they will eventually redirect themselves onto something else.
- Your puppy will seek out appropriate ways to get your attention, like offering a "sit" or laying at your feet.
A few other suggestions:
- It's also important to have a management place for your puppy, such as a play pen or baby-gated bathroom. It gives you a break from your puppy, and is a calm place for your puppy to settle down if he gets too wound up.
- Make sure your puppy has plenty of rubbery teething toys, is getting daily exercise, and is not excessively crated. If his needs are not being met, the nipping will take longer to extinguish.
- Make sure your puppy is eating three meals a day.
- Things we may think are punishing, like pushing your puppy away, yelling at him, etc, can be considered fun, play-like behaviors for your puppy and can encourage biting. When doing the above exercise, be as quiet and calm as you can.
When should you be concerned about biting in puppies?
You should seek out a certified professional if your puppy:
- Is growling, snapping, or biting when a person comes near a resource. (Food, toys, etc)
- Stiffens and stares at the person before biting.
- Is consistently biting and breaking skin.
- Barks, growls, or nips (not in play) at new people entering the home.
- Snaps or growls at children.
What if it's not getting better?
- Remember, we do not expect this behavior to go away entirely until at least 5-6 months of age.
- We also need to take into consideration a dog's breed, social history, and any medical conditions that could be contributing. For example, if a puppy has an intestinal parasite that's depleting their nutritional stores, we often see an uptick in biting.
- For extra guidance with extremely bitey puppies, or those that are still regularly biting after 6 months of age, check out these additional tips.