Nipping is one of the most common concerns that puppy parents have. It can be frustrating and painful. Puppy teeth are very sharp! Understanding why puppies bite is essential to knowing the best way to reduce this behaviour.
Why do puppies bite?
Each time puppy grabs hold of a sleeve, finger, or trouser leg, they tend to get some kind of reaction. It’s pretty hard to ignore, after all! This can mean lead to pup learning that they can use their teeth to get attention – be it good or bad!
When puppies play, especially littermates, they often use their mouths, nipping and hanging on to one another. Through this play, they begin to learn how much force is okay – if they use too much, their play partner will usually yelp and the fun will stop for a while. It’s natural that pups also try to use this play strategy with their new human family, but certainly not something we want them to continue to do.
This is very common – trying to handle an overaroused puppy is likely to result in getting bitten. It’s important to familiarise yourself with the signs of rising arousal levels and keeping a track of which activities or environments tend to tip your puppy over into overarousal.
As your puppy's adult teeth start to emerge, they may chew and bite to alleviate the discomfort of teething.
Exploring the world
Puppies use their mouths to learn about their surroundings, much like human babies do with their hands.
Keeping a note of the times that your puppy becomes particularly bitey can help you to spot patterns and triggers for this behaviour. You might, for example, notice that your puppy goes into shark-mode after a meal, when coming back from a walk, at particular times of the day or after playing with certain toys or in a certain way. Knowing when pup is most likely to transform into a piranha can help you to pre-emptively take steps to avoid it. As biting often emerges as part of play or over-excitement, it can prove to be a lot of fun for puppies. This means that the more they do it, they more likely they are to repeat it in future. Limiting the opportunities to practice biting is very important!
How to reduce puppy biting
Barriers or tethering
Barriers (such as baby gates, puppy pens or doorways) that allow you to give puppy a bit of a breather can be incredibly helpful when trying to prevent overarousal, or to cope with a puppy that has become overaroused. Popping them into another space to give them a chance to calm down slightly before rejoining you can help to prevent them practicing biting. Similarly, if you spot your puppy becoming overstimulated, giving them a bit of time to calm down may prevent them tipping over into ‘shark mode’.
Tethering your puppy with a harness and lead is a similar alternative. This allows you to put some distance between yourself/your guests/other pets and your puppy, while allowing them the opportunity to remain in the presence of their trigger. Being stationary encourages calm behaviour and, after a while, your pup will likely settle down.
With either barriers or tethering, it can be very helpful to give your puppy something to do to encourage calm and settled behaviour. A stuffed Kong, Licki-Mat, snuffle mat or long-lasting puppy safe chew are good options.
As well as using barriers and tethering to help your puppy calm down, biting can be reduced by avoiding activities that tend to lead them to become overstimulated. Rough and tumble play, for example, can make some puppies SO excited that they become overly aroused and begin to use their teeth. Using barriers or tethering pre-emptively around triggers that tend to ignite your puppy’s inner piranha can also help avoid the issue before it arises.
Focusing on calmer interactive games and reward-based training sessions instead of rough or high intensity games can help keep your pup on more of an even keel and less likely to spiral into biting. Wind down play sessions by lowering the intensity gradually, rather than suddenly stopping altogether. In addition, when ending a game, it can help to give your pup something to direct their energy into, such as a stuffed Kong or puzzle feeder.
Enrichment activities that tire your puppy out mentally, such as puzzle feeders, training, scentwork and so on, will help them feel more settled and able to relax.
Puppies who aren’t getting enough rest are much more likely to become overtired, overaroused and bitey! Ensure your puppy is getting adequate quiet time for rests during the day, as well as sleeping during the night. Pups can sleep for up to 20 hours per day and a puppy who needs a nap is much more likely to revert to using their teeth than a well-rested pooch. Ensure your puppy has ample opportunity to sleep, with access to a quiet and comfortable resting place.
Teaching your puppy to target your hand with their nose is a great way to teach them that hands near their face are not something to be frightened of – very helpful for grooming and health checks! – and that they can interact with hands in a way other than biting them… to earn rewards!
Appropriate chew toys
It’s vital to ensure plenty of appropriate chew items in a range of textures and sizes for your puppy. If they are biting due to sore teeth, suitable chewing options in abundance will reduce the chance of them trying to relieve their discomfort by chewing on you!
OW - What if they’re already biting?
Inevitably this will happen sometimes! With the best will in the world, you won't always be able to avoid your puppy becoming overaroused and biting. The best option is to interrupt the behaviour and remove yourself, or them. If puppy teeth touch skin, all the fun should stop. Give yourself both a bit of time to calm down and then try interacting again!