Puppies use their mouths to explore the world and to play. The problem is, their little teeth are very sharp and can really hurt when they explore or play with you. They also are teething and find relief from chewing. Teething is typically over by 8 months of age but dogs enjoy chewing for their entire lives, so it’s good to teach appropriate behavior early.
“Bite inhibition” refers to a dog’s ability to control the force of his bite. Puppies usually learn bite inhibition during play with other puppies. If one puppy bites another too hard while playing, the playmate yelps and usually stops playing. After a moment, play resumes and the puppies eventually learn how to inhibit their bites so the fun never stops. Providing plenty of chances to play with other puppies and dogs will be extremely helpful in teaching bite inhibition to your puppy. We want to teach that soft bites are desirable through age 18 weeks of age.
Some trainers will tell you to act like a littermate, yelping when your puppy bites you during play. In my experience, this method is not very effective and my guess is that it’s because our imitation yelps don’t communicate pain, they communicate excitement. Instead, I like to use a gentle time out to interrupt play.
When your puppy delivers a painful bite, instead of yelping say, “Oops” to mark the moment and ignore him for 10 seconds. I find it convenient to use a playpen or a tether to keep persistent puppies who keep leaping and biting at you from being able to do so. Then go back and resume play. Repeat as many times as necessary – it may take many repetitions, in the beginning, so be patient and understanding. We use consequences to help him learn about bite inhibition.
Hard Bite = play/attention ends
Gentle or No Bite = play/attention continues
When your puppy is age 19 weeks or older and has been playing our mouthing game for at least a couple of weeks, make the game more difficult.
Teeth on skin = play/attention ends
No teeth on skin = play/attention continues
Puppy Kong toys are great for developing puppies. You can smear a little peanut butter or squeeze cheese or wet food inside. If he likes that, you can also freeze the stuffed kong so it so it takes longer to excavate. Make it easy at first and use more complicated stuffing as he learns patience and persistence. Larger Kongs are available as he grows and you can find great recipes in one of my other blog posts.
Chilly Bones are made to be frozen and you can also get a rope toy soaking wet and freeze it to help with teething pain. If your puppy isn’t interested at first, try soaking them in broth instead of water.
Hand targeting is a good exercise to teach puppies to touch hands with their noses instead of mouths. Hold your hand about 2 inches in front of your puppies nose. When he touches it, say “Good!” and feed a treat. Repeat until he understands the game, then hold your hand further and further away and in different positions.
Encourage fetch and tug games. Avoid wiggling your fingers or hands in pup's face, wrestling, and rough play. When playing tug or fetch, the play ends when teeth touch skin. Set your puppy up for success by using a nice, long rope with room to grab without hitting your hand.
For pups who don’t like fetch or tug, and for mealtime fun, try a puzzle feeder like an Omega Treat Ball for him to push, paw, and chase. Kibble will dispense as it moves. Be sure you aren’t overfeeding by measuring what you put into the ball and keeping track of his meals from bowls and puzzle toys (a large ball fits about ½ cup kibble). If your puppy is a tough chewer, Buster Cubes are similar but more difficult to destroy. Kong Wobblers and Bob-a-Lots are great for puppies who will grow up to be large dogs because they hold up to 3 cups of food.
If your puppy bites at your feet/ankles or pant legs, stop moving and redirect with a tug or chew toy. I often find tossing toys works best. If it happens mostly when you arrive home, keep a basket or bag of toys in easy reach of the door to the room your puppy is living in while you’re away or on top of your puppy’s crate. Long, soft toys work best like braided and knotted fleece.
Provide appropriate chew toys and puppy proof or supervise everywhere else. Watch out for the corners of rugs, table legs, banisters, shoes, window ledges, and more. If you find your puppy chewing on a forbidden item, redirect him to an appropriate item and supervise more closely in the future. Ruff roots are good for pups who seem to enjoy chewing on wood (baseboards, coffee tables, chair rungs and legs,…) Consider using a scent or taste deterrent on furniture and electrical cords that can't be relocated, like bitter apple or another essential oil your pup is disgusted by. You have to experiment a bit but I find that many pups dislike the scent of orange, peppermint, lavender, and eucalyptus. Just wipe a tiny bit of scent on areas you want pup to avoid.
Avoid roughhousing or waving your fingers or toes in your puppy’s face or slapping the sides of his face to entice him to play. Doing these things can actually encourage your puppy to bite your hands and feet.
Avoid jerking your hands or feet away from your puppy when he mouths. This will encourage him to jump forward and grab at you. It’s much more effective to let your hands or feet go limp so that they aren’t much fun to play with.
Punishment of any kind can cause fear or aggression. You will have a real problem on your hands down the road if your dog is so afraid of your approach or your hands that he feels he must bite you to avoid being hurt. Absolutely never do any punishment, including scruff shaking, whacking your puppy on the nose, holding his muzzle shut, sticking your fingers down his throat and any and all other punishments you may read about online or in outdated training books that might hurt or scare him.
This article has some more great ideas for puppies.
If your puppy is an older adolescent, mouthing may progress to arousal biting, where your puppy is over-stimulated and jumps and bites to release stress. See if this article sounds familiar. If so, get help from me to change this behavior, as it can cause accidental injury to humans.