So you have brought home your new puppy. It has only been a few days and you look down at your hands and see scratches and in some cases, puncture wounds. You wonder if you have a shark rather than a dog, and whether there is something wrong with your dog.
The short answer is that it is completely normal behaviour. How is this so?
Why do puppies bite?
Puppies investigate the world using their mouths, so it’s perfectly natural to expect them to nibble and bite fingers and hands when they are young.
They use their mouths and teeth a great deal to find out how this important part of their anatomy works.
Puppies will typically attempt to play with humans by mouthing and play biting. It is something that they did in the litter with their siblings (and usually mum) and it’s a very normal part of learning how to play with dogs. At this point it is also important to note that some puppies if separated from their mother and litter too early (normally through being rescued or being in a puppy mill), they may not have had the correct teaching for bite control. This can create harder bites which will need to be corrected via breaking away from play and other methods explained later in this article.
It’s also very important to remember that puppies will be experiencing discomfort during the teething period in the same way that human children do, so make sure that you give them lots of opportunities to relieve this by providing chew toys. The natural teething process normally lasts until your pup is around seven months of age.
Some breeds are most likely to have more severe puppy biting than others. In my experience, normally street dogs and working breeds tend to be more mouthy and more intense than others.
How to stop a puppy from biting
Learning to read your dog’s body language can help change its biting behaviour. When you are more aware of when your pup is uncomfortable, over stimulated, or overtired, you can remove them from the situation before they are tempted to bite. To learn more about reading dogs' body language, you can refer to this article: Introduction to Calming Signals
My advice is to always be calm around your puppy and if they become too playful or ‘snappy’, simply end the interaction. You can make sure that playful nipping doesn’t escalate by sticking to five consistent rules:
Don’t encourage play biting. Instead, encourage puppies to mouth toys rather than nip at clothes. Keep toys close at hand so you can redirect the nipping as soon as it occurs. Toys can be made cool in the fridge or freezer to better calm teething.
Do not over excite your puppy. Be mindful that you are not sending your puppy into a frenzy during play and if you feel like this is happening, stop, let the dog settle down, and return to them later.
Walk away. If you find that your puppy becomes overexcited and the nipping behaviour continues, calmly walk out of the room, ignoring your pup until they have calmed. This will teach them that play biting results in the game stopping.
Carry out early training. As a part of early training, you need to teach the dog a ‘leave it’ command so that you are communicating effectively with your growing dog.
Reward calmness. When your puppy is behaving calmly, reward them by giving them a treat. This tells them that they are doing the right thing. This will help their understanding of the right behaviour.
How to react when a puppy bites
Although it can be painful, try not to think of a bite from your pup as them being aggressive. (It is very rare that you experience actual aggression during puppy biting.) If you find that your puppy is biting your hand, just move it away and use a simple command like ‘leave it’. But remember do not shout. Just speak calmly and with a flat voice. If that command doesn’t work it means more training is needed. Then just stop there. Normally, leaving the room and letting your dog calm down before returning a few minutes later will usually lead to a much calmer puppy.
What toys help with biting
As a general rule, toys that are strong and durable are the safest. Here’s what I recommend:
A rope with two loops. This toy can be used as a pulling game, but be careful not to overexcite your puppy with an aggressive game of tug of war as this could result in biting.
Rubber toy, that can take food. You can put some soft dog food in this type of toy to help keep your puppy occupied for slightly longer periods of time. These can also be chilled or frozen to help with teething.
Rag toy. This toy comes in different sizes and is therefore great for all breeds. The rag toy is perfect for dealing with puppy biting because it has many tassels that a puppy can really get into.
What else can help reduce biting?
Like us, and of course young humans, puppies can get irritable if they don’t have enough sleep, mental or physical stimulation, or if they feel hungry. All of these can lead to play biting. So it’s important to make sure that your pups get the right amount of sleep and rest so they are not overtired. They should eat regular meals throughout the day to stave off hunger, and get plenty of play and exercise to keep their minds active.
How should I manage play biting around children?
Children love puppies and vice versa. Both have lots of energy and both can get overexcited. Unfortunately, this can often lead to play biting. Adult supervision is paramount to any interaction between children and a puppy. Children can sometimes be a little rough and may unwittingly pester or corner a puppy. Helping children to understand how to play with a pup and behave in a calm, gentle manner is really important.
What if play biting doesn’t stop or seems more excessive than play?
If you’re worried about your puppy’s biting or any other difficult behaviour, consider contacting a specialist for help. You can find many good science-based trainers and behaviour specialists in your area, or you can reach out to Noble Canine here on the website for help.