Puppy biting. Puppy teeth. Aren’t they special? Little laser sharp needles. Take heart, they will be gone by the time your puppy reaches 5 ½ months of age.  If you are reading this article, you are probably looking for strategies to help you get over the hump with all of your skin and clothing intact!

Mouthing and Biting are Normal Puppy Behaviors

Puppies use their teeth and mouths much as we use our hands:

  • They use their mouths to pick up and carry objects, especially common among retrievers
  • They use their teeth to instigate play with their siblings
  • They also grab and hold on to one another during play
  • Herding breed dogs use nipping as part of their herding behavior

Puppies (and dogs) also use their mouths for communicating:

  • Biting can happen when puppies are frightened and/or feel trapped. This can happen in a veterinarian’s office when handled by a stranger when the pup is scared and confused.
  • Likewise, it can happen when we forcefully move them using the collar or simply pushing them when they do not understand what is expected of them – they can become frightened by this maneuver and use their teeth in defense.
  • It also often happens when small dogs or puppies are picked up frequently by well-meaning adults or children. Imagine this scenario from the perspective of the puppy, if the puppy could speak human: “You pick me up and sweep me into the air when I least expect it, like a monster out of a horror movie. It scares me and I hate it. The two-leggeds don’t recognize the fear and distress in my face, I have no choice but to bite to make it stop!”

The Stages of Teething

In addition to these normal mouth-oriented behaviors, puppies are teething for 3 – 4 months starting at 4 1/2 months of age. During this time adult teeth are forming, growing and pushing out baby teeth. The teething process starts with the incisors (the small teeth in the front). The canine teeth (the fangs) usually fall out next, followed by the premolars and then molars. In some dogs, the back molars don’t arrive until the pup is 8 months old. During this entire process, the jaw does not feel quite right and puppies chew on things to soothe their sore gums.

So, you see, there is good reason chewing, mouthing, nipping and biting can become frustrating behaviors for dog owners. There is a heck of a lot going on in relation to the mouth and it is easy for humans to accidentally reinforce the wrong things!

How humans make it worse

Let us always remember, dogs and humans are distinctly different species and it takes a little effort to learn to communicate with one another. Often our actions to not convey what we are thinking and we accidentally promote the very behavior that we do not want! Below are common ways we unwittingly make biting worse:

  • Playing too roughly. Mouthing, grabbing and biting are common complaints of people who have inadvertently played too roughly with their dog. What is “too rough?” Human hands are not toys. Pushing, poking, “roughing up” the dog in any way, will promote biting. Why? Because they will often use their teeth to instigate play and if they have learned that being rough with human body parts is acceptable, they will naturally default to nipping in order to instigate play. NO ROUGHHOUSING WITH YOUR DOG. EVER. Tug-of-war is fine. Throw balls and frisbees. Put a toy between you and your dog. Teach them to be gentle with your hands – they are not chew toys.
  • Getting all high-pitched and squeaky will give your dog the idea that they have turned you into a squeaky toy. If you push them away at the same time, you will have become an interactive squeaky toy. The dog will think you are playing and that, in turn, will invite them to do it some more.
  • Bopping the dog on the nose, holding the muzzle shut, or pinning the dog to the ground will all make the problem worse, at best and possibly damage your dog’s trust in you.
  • Attempting to reason with them when they are in the “puppy zoom” time…

Puppy Zoom Time = Extra Bitey Time

Some people refer to this as the “witching hour.” Once or twice a day, puppies experience a time when they are extra hyper, often running in circles, bouncing off furniture and biting everything in sight. After they are all done, they will potty, poop and then crash and go to sleep. This crazy behavior is often referred to as the Zoomies. During zoom time, there are extra electrical impulses occurring in your puppy’s rapidly growing brain. They are unable to think or be calm or rational. Recognize these times and get out of their way. Meaning, do not try to reason with them or discipline them when they are in this witching hour. Put them outside or behind a barrier. Sometimes it is helpful to put them in their crate with a Kong stuffed with something irresistible. Sometimes, it is helpful to take them for a long walk during these times.

The main things to keep in mind during puppy zoom times are: No disciplining from you, no trying to train them – their brain has momentarily left the body.

How humans can make it better

  • Have a supply of appropriate chew toys. And keep them at easy access. Do everything you can to keep their mouth directed to appropriate items.
  • A common time for puppies to start mouthing is when they are in your lap. I have always had success holding something they like to chew on, such as a bully stick and moving it slightly while they chew on it. At the same time, you can pet the pup with the other hand. Moving the item a bit while they chew is more successful, than if you were to simply give it to them to chew on their own. Your “interaction” with it keeps it more interesting.
  • IGNORING puppy biting is always effective if it is possible to do so. Biting is often an attempt to elicit attention and/or play. If you CONSISTENTLY ignore them when they do bite, they will stop. The time to ignore is the instant their mouth is on you. Do not wait until the biting is harder. An effective way to ignore the dog is to put your arms up at your shoulder or chest, out of the line of fire, look away from the dog, become still and silent.
  • If the behavior is hard to ignore, go behind a door or baby-gate where your puppy does not have access to you. Stay there for a minute and then return. Be as non-dramatic as possible. If your puppy tries to nip at  you when you return, simply remove yourself again and repeat. If you are calm and consistent and persistent, the behavior will decrease. I had a client one time with a 6lb Chinese Crested who was absolutely fierce about biting pant legs. The owner simply bent down, calmly picked up the dog and gently set her behind a baby-gate for a minute while she stood with her back toward the baby-gate and dog. She remained consistent with this every single time and within a week the dog no longer found pant legs to be amusing.

Strategies for Children

When the puppy is biting at a child’s clothing while they walk through the house, and it is not possible for them to ignore the dog, have the child stand still and call for you to come and help. It is useful in these situations to keep a leash attached to the dog’s collar at all times. The leash can drag behind the puppy, but it is there for you to step on and get immediate control of the dog. Otherwise, you will end up with a dog that plays keep-away when you attempt to remove them from the situation. You will pick up the leash and usher the dog into a timeout. Behind a baby gate or in the crate or otherwise removed from the center of attention for a minute or two. No longer than that. One to two minutes. Be calm and matter-of-fact. Action = consequence.

When Should You Be Concerned About Biting in Puppies?

You should seek out professional help if your puppy:

  • Is growling, snapping or biting when a person comes near his food, toy or other possession
  • Stiffens or stares at the person before biting
  • Barks, growls or nips (not in play) new people entering your home
  • Snaps or growls at children
  • Is consistently biting or breaking skin and none of the strategies outlines in this article are helping.

I hope you find the answers you need in this article. I am available to help, if you need more hands on assistance! And remember, they won’t be puppies very long and one day soon these puppy challenges will be a distant memory.