Puppy biting is cute when they're little and nibbling on your toes. Still, gentle mouthing can quickly become painful and distressing when puppies start biting too hard.
And when your puppy gets overexcited, puppy biting can get out of control. Together with potty training and other factors, a fierce attack on your hands, clothes, and feet can grow to be more than just a nuisance.
If you're thinking, "my puppy bites hard, and nothing I do seems to work," then have no fear; we'll work you through the basics to get you and your dog playing nice again in no time.
Why do puppies bite?
In general, puppies bite for four main reasons:
- They may mouth, gnaw, growl, and nip as part of playing and learning about the world.
- They may have developed fear-aggression or reactivity.
- They may be resource guarding a high-value item such as food, a toy, or a favorite person.
- They may have pain that causes them to lash out when touched at the wrong place.
Puppies will rarely bite from genuine, dominant aggression. This kind of aggression usually only occurs in older dogs who have reached sexual maturity.
That said, a puppy that is genetically wired for some form of aggression may show signs of aggression early on, usually to another dog. Or it may be struggling with extreme fear that is coming out as aggression.
This is extremely rare and will need a certified behaviorist to assess and help a puppy with this arousal problem as soon as possible.
As with normal aggression, resource-guarding and fear aggression are behavioral issues, and fixing them are topics for a different article.
The focus here is on the thing that all puppies do: play biting.
Play biting is as natural to a puppy's development as sucking on a dummy is to a baby. Their mouths are their primary source of learning about the world and interacting with it.
Biting, ripping, nipping, and tearing are also the first way a puppy will learn to play with its siblings, and it will be the primary way it plays with you: at least, to begin with.
They will also mouth objects or your hands and feet. This is often done thoughtlessly, the way a baby might pop something in their mouths while staring into the distance.
Unlike a bite, mouthing is usually relatively gentle and involves light chewing on something. However, chewing can quickly become gnawing, and gnawing can turn into biting.
Typical biting behavior may also involve pouncing and grabbing onto something, like your sleeve, and pulling or tearing at it. It may also mean a sharp nip on your ankle as you pass by.
If your puppy is teething, they are probably also chewing on anything they can get to soothe the pain in their gums.
When left with a mother, biting too hard will naturally be curbed with a correction. So older puppies generally learn to moderate their bites as they grow.
But since you may now have become the primary target of those needlelike little milk teeth, it is now up to you to teach your puppy where the line is when it comes to biting.
Puppy play biting vs. aggressive biting
Some puppies, mainly working breeds like the Belgian Malinois or active hunting dogs like the Vizsla, can become overstimulated.
This makes them prone to obsessive biting attacks known as the "sharkies," which can be extremely frustrating and painful to deal with. However, even the sharkies are still a natural part of playing.
You can tell whether a puppy is showing actual aggression by looking for the following signals:
- A hard glare or side-eye
- A lip curl or snarl
- Stiff body language
- Ears pressed back against their head
- Low growl
- Raised hair on shoulders or back
- A bite that usually starts as a warning snap
- Behavior that escalates under pressure, such as an overexcited child shrieking or an owner deliberately putting a hand in a food bowl.
In short, aggressive biting always comes with a warning.
The only time a dog might skip some of the warning signs is when they have been punished for it. For instance, being punished for growling might lead a dog to skip the growling stage and go straight to biting.
This is why a dog must never be punished for growling.
On the other hand, play biting looks very different. A puppy will:
- Have relaxed but alert body language
- Their ears will be pricked and their jaws open and relaxed
- They may play bow, play growl, sneeze, or bark to indicate that they want to play
- They will chase moving objects such as your feet as you walk past
- They will grab and pull on your clothes
- They may mouth your hands, which may turn into biting.
Proper aggressive biting is rare in puppies. The cause will need to be determined, and how you handle the problem will be determined by the reason.
For instance, suppose your puppy is afraid and uncomfortable with having its nails trimmed. In that case, you will need to start a process of desensitizing your dog to the clipper or grinder and building trust through positive reinforcement.
Likewise, aggression from fear, resource guarding, or other issues will need to be handled through a consistent regime of building trust, positive reinforcement, and practical ways of setting boundaries and discipline.
But play biting is another story, and there is a lot of mixed advice about handling it. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with setting boundaries with your puppy and teaching them not to bite hard.
The trick is to do it assertively but without bullying your puppy so that they lose their trust in you.
Remember, this is a natural behavior to them, so teaching them to be careful with where they put their teeth is a necessary suppression of natural behavior.
Teaching Bite Inhibition: The Most Common Advice
The most common advice on the internet to stop a puppy biting is to make a loud, sharp noise when they do, such as "ouch!" or "stop!."
This is supposed to surprise your puppy enough to make them let go for a second, and from there, the advice usually differs.
You are told to either:
- Turn around and ignore your puppy for 10 to 20 seconds and re-engage when they are calmer.
- Put your puppy in "time-out."
- Or redirect with a toy.
Now, all of this may or may not work, depending on the puppy, except the time-out, but more on that later.
Making loud, squealing noises can sometimes excite a puppy further and encourage them to bite harder to make the human keep making the funny sounds. Think of a squeaky toy.
Ignoring your puppy can work, so long as the behavior isn't self-rewarding. That is, so long as it's your attention that's driving the biting.
For instance, if they are chasing a bit of your clothing that is loose, the act of chasing will keep them going whether you are ignoring them or not.
And finally, time-outs can be a problematic training tool to implement effectively. For instance, putting your dog in a crate as punishment can make them associate the crate with something negative.
It is also difficult to time a "time-out" so that a puppy actually understands what it did wrong. They are, after all, not children, and you can't explain to them that they are going in the pen for ten minutes because they bit you.
A time-out can definitely also create conflict during the adolescent "flight" phase. This is when a puppy may react badly to a situation where they feel they are being forced to do something, rather than being encouraged to make the right choice themselves.
So while some of these techniques can be worked into your bite inhibition training, such as ignoring them, there are further do's and don'ts when it comes to dealing with biting puppies.
How to stop my puppy from biting too hard: Do's and dont's
Do stop it before it begins
From the moment you get your puppy, don't allow nibbling on your hands or feet.
Keep them preoccupied with other games so that it never comes up as a possibility. Give them puzzle toys, start obedience training, and keep other toys ready for them to sink their teeth into instead of you.
Don't punish your dog
Biting is a natural behavior for a puppy, and punishments can destroy your relationship and lead to a host of new problems, such as shutting down, depression, or even actual aggression.
To remove yourself from the situation if you feel yourself losing your temper
Losing your temper will make you seem unstable and unreliable to your puppy.
What's more, it creates a hostile situation between you and your dog, which will affect your relationship moving forward. A calm, positive attitude will transfer to your puppy and keep the bond between you intact.
Don't snatch your hand or the object away
If your puppy is biting and you whip your hand, or whatever the dog is biting away, it might activate your puppy's prey drive.
This will cause them to chase after it and bite harder. As far as possible, ignore the pain and keep your hand (or the object) where it is so that it doesn't become more attractive.
By the way, pushing your puppy away can also become part of the game to them, so avoid that too.
Do mark and correct the behavior you don't like
This means, as soon as the puppy bites too hard, or bites at all, calmly say "no." Firmly take hold of the scruff of the puppy's neck and put them in the sit position for a second, and then release.
This may take several repetitions for them to get the message. It should be a quick, clear movement, not a prolonged battle.
Don't try to dominate the puppy or push them on the ground
Play biting is not dominant behavior and does not require excessive force. A simple, firm but quick "no," and then allowing the space to make the correct choice afterward is enough.
Do be quick to reward and change the game
Once your puppy has got the message and relaxed or diverted their attention, be ready to reward them calmly with positive reinforcement.
Another key is not to discourage all play.
Play is extremely good for your puppy's wellbeing and development. Always be ready with a more appropriate game and toy to channel their energy, like a tug toy or a ball.
Don't send mixed messages
Consistency is key when teaching your puppy not to bite too hard.
If you are firm about the rules, but somebody else in the household is not, or if you allow play biting sometimes, but not when you are in a bad mood, your puppy will only learn to keep bugging you until you give in.
When should you be more concerned about biting in puppies?
You should be worried and consider bringing in a professional for your puppy if your puppy:
- Is biting so hard and consistently that are leaving puncture marks
- Is growling and nipping at children
- Is showing aggressive body language before biting
- Is biting because they are guarding an item or a person
- Is aggressive with strangers or other dogs.
Puppy biting is normal and expected behavior, but that doesn't mean it won't hurt! Just like children, all puppies need to learn boundaries and rules.
However, there is no need to teach them this through punishment and negative reinforcement. Unless your puppy is showing real aggression, play biting can be solved through consistent correction of bad behavior and loads of positive reinforcement for good behavior.
“Critical Periods in Puppy Development.” UCDavis, ice.ucdavis.edu/%7Erobyn/Korina/BCIdeas/Criticalperiodsinpuppydevelopment.html. Accessed 9 Apr. 2021. “Effects of 2 Training Methods on Stress-Related Behaviors of the Dog (Canis Familiaris) and on the Dogâowner Relationship.” ScienceDirect, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1558787814000070?casa_token=Uk5tJDopaDAAAAAA:IAXxUQCjxWK-tS2AEHF5S17uzaPa_Ut1IkYEUsBkXchcSt76Vg35vPrMR8b4SKlJQnRViek. “How to Handle Four Common Puppy Behavior Problems.” Vetstreet, www.vetstreet.com/our-pet-experts/common-behavior-problems-in-puppies. Accessed 9 Apr. 2021.
“Critical Periods in Puppy Development.” UCDavis, ice.ucdavis.edu/%7Erobyn/Korina/BCIdeas/Criticalperiodsinpuppydevelopment.html. Accessed 9 Apr. 2021.
“Effects of 2 Training Methods on Stress-Related Behaviors of the Dog (Canis Familiaris) and on the Dogâowner Relationship.” ScienceDirect, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1558787814000070?casa_token=Uk5tJDopaDAAAAAA:IAXxUQCjxWK-tS2AEHF5S17uzaPa_Ut1IkYEUsBkXchcSt76Vg35vPrMR8b4SKlJQnRViek.
“How to Handle Four Common Puppy Behavior Problems.” Vetstreet, www.vetstreet.com/our-pet-experts/common-behavior-problems-in-puppies. Accessed 9 Apr. 2021.