My Puppy Bites
Why do puppies bite?
Puppies bite for a handful of reasons. Often, your pup is treating you like another puppy. Puppies frequently do this out of a dominance game mentality. They are exploring to find their place in the overall social hierarchy. Probably the worst and most widely spread advice on internet forums and online articles regarding puppy biting is to say ouch or squeal in pain to make the puppy feel as though it hurt you. Believe me, as a professional protection dog trainer who trains dogs to bite people who need biting. THIS DOES NOT WORK for all but the tiniest fraction of dogs. Puppies do not empathize in this way. They actually get gratified by the reaction you produce and bite more frequently and harder when they find out they can make you more entertaining by biting you. Certain dogs that are very socially sensitive and submissive may respond to this but if you have a problem biter... you don't likely have a socially sensitive slightly submissive dog. Likely the opposite.
Here are a few of the reasons why puppies bite:
Exhaustion/needs a nap
Defensiveness (things that put the puppy into fight or flight.)
It works. It gets a response. It gets a reward or a redirection
Prey drive is activated
Have you experienced your puppy biting during any of these circumstances? If so, the question becomes - how do you solve this?
First, What job do you want for your puppy? Do you want your puppy to use its mouth to play vigorously (and appropriately?) Games like tug, fetch and even bite sports or personal protection? If so the approach to dealing with puppy biting may be a bit different than if you are training a family pet or a service animal that we want to be very unlikely to ever bite.
For a family pet or service animal the goal should be to gently create bite inhibition without damaging the puppy's confidence. Bite inhibition is created when a puppy is corrected for biting. The puppy must perceive the consequence of the bite directly as less desirable than not biting. We cannot simply redirect the young dog after a bite onto something the puppy finds rewarding. That will look like a reward or an “on switch” for play. For the puppy to perceive what you are doing as a correction it must change the behavior.
In the case of a family pet or service animal a high degree of bite inhibition may be preferred. There are a number of techniques to apply that may allow your puppy to feel corrected while they bite. For any correction you must not initiate the biting by overly baiting the pup. If you do, the pup is likely to see you as the aggressor and themselves as a victim of your overbearing attack.
One such technique is to trigger a gag reflex with your thumb by applying it to the rear of the puppy’s tongue as they mouth at you. I will hold the lower jaw with my hand as I do this. (A glove helps as puppy teeth are quite sharp.) This is mildly unpleasant and for many puppies gives them a moment’s pause and helps them to reconsider the choice to bite. Allow this unpleasant feeling to last a moment until the puppy tries to escape the bite and allow them to quit. If the puppy is a particularly hard biter you may want protective gloves to perform any of these techniques. Another option is to roll the puppy’s upper lip between your hand and their teeth as they bite you. In this way when they apply pressure on your hand their own skin feels the pressure. Either of these techniques should be accompanied by a firm yet gentle “no.” Do not allow yourself to sound stressed. A low tone of voice but not too extreme is desired. For very hard biting, more dominant or higher drive dogs a leash and training collar may be required.
For working dogs or dogs that you want to engage in bite sports:
We have found that most all puppy mouthing and biting can be solved by non-reinforcement (maybe 98%.) This means when the puppy mouths or bites at us we remove the opportunity for biting/play/attention/touch/food. Stop the fun your puppy is getting. A simple “no” without any social pressure or energy in our tone of voice. If we can keep from showing any real reaction to the bite at all that is even better! Remember your puppy is a social animal who is used to playing with his or her littermates by biting them. Your puppy is doing what comes naturally to try to get a rise out of you. Bite inhibition is not helpful in training working dogs. Many dogs that come to us later in the process with an owner that desires to start them in bitework find that the dog that was very bitey as a young pup AKA a “shark” got bite inhibition from correction and does not want to start the play needed to build the motivation for bitework. If this is your goal avoid correcting biting but build it into your play as an “off switch” for the fun of play when an inappropriate bite occurs.
It is common for people to show responses to their puppy biting. However, we must never say "owwy," squeal or show any pain response if possible. Doing so gratifies the puppy by making them think they won the game! Watch a puppy bitework session for dogs destined to be police or military working dogs and you will immediately see what I mean. When such a puppy bites the protective equipment worn by the training helper he reacts as if it hurts. This over-acting strongly encourages the puppy to bite harder and hold on. the only dogs this works on are very socially sensitive and at least slightly submissive dogs. This type of dog usually is not the problem biter. So don't expect this technique to work if it didn't curb the issue in one try. What most people experience with problem biters is that the reaction encourages more biting.
How do you manage your puppy when the biting occurs? GOOD question.
We use puppy management to minimize the opportunities for biting. We keep our pups on a leash in the house so we can shape and reward the behaviors we want and stop the creation of unwanted behaviors. Our pups are typically on a leash, right next to us in the house. They are frequently working for food during this time. We also set our dog up for success by having a low profile bed and a firm but rubbery toy that is gratifying to chew on. We find many puppies love the Jolly Bones by Jolly Pets.
What are some other practices that can help with puppy biting/mouthing?
- If you have children, teaching them to hold their hands still and to keep their sleeves pushed up will help eliminate the desire for puppies to go after their hands. Waving/flailing hands and arms activates prey drive!
- Constant leash pressure builds frustration so puppies bite to turn off the pressure. Learning a loose leash technique is key. Kids and many adults tend to use constant leash pressure.
- Scheduled nap times. Yes, keep the routine!! Especially at 7 PM when the zoomies hit.
- When teeth touch the skin all the fun stops. Playing games like fetch and tug are great forms of fun for pups. Your pup will start to love these games and if they take a swipe at your hand you must turn the fun off. Just for 5 to 10 seconds. When the bite happens say no. Your pup will quickly start to avoid this “off switch” for fun.
- Playing tug correctly so they learn where it’s okay to bite. Do NOT do this as a redirect for naughty biting! We play games like tug and give the puppy food for good behaviors that we want the puppy to repeat. Like: sit, down, come, heel… we do not give a toy or food immediately after a bite as a redirection. This looks like a reward for biting to the pup and it makes the bite happen more!
Avoid the Alpha roll. This technique is a dominance play that can put the puppy into a fight or flight mode and cause an increase in aggression. For some dogs with moderate temperaments it may not be too harmful but for many at either end of the temperament spectrum it can be very damaging. For the extremely dominant dogs or the extremely fearful it can break trust with the pup. Many of these dogs will go to fight or flight and never submit to the roll. We recommend not performing the alpha roll but instead motivate and teach your puppy that you control the stuff they want and they get access to resources like food and toys when they show you compliance. This takes time and patience but it avoids the blowback possible when a pup is over pressured in an alpha roll.
Feed the Puppy. If your pup is a grumpy or sharky biter ask yourself: when does this occur most regularly? If the answer is between meals and approaching the next meal time, it may be that your puppy is hungry and bites because they got "hangry." Remember, the feeding portions on your food bag back are suggestions based on average puppy needs. Is your puppy a mover? Always on the go? It may be burning more calories than average and therefore need a little extra to manage their metabolic needs. If you are handfeeding your puppy rewards and getting chewed up consider the flat hand technique. By teaching the pup they will only receive the food for a proper "take" we can get them to stop the bite in the food reward.
If you can say you are doing these practices absolutely every time and not playing along with biting or gratifying it in any way and your pup is still biting, Audax is here to help! We can teach you additional techniques! Please contact us to learn more about our Private Training Sessions and other group obedience courses that may benefit you and your puppy.