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Puppies and Biting by Frank Utchen, DVM

For those of you who have adopted a puppy recently I want to convey what I think is the most important thing you can teach a puppy. Of course, there are countless things puppies can—and should learn—to help them feel comfortable with their place in the “pack” (i.e., your family). I believe dogs do best in a structured environment, and consistent training is part of maintaining that structure for them. 

So what do I think is most important? I think most trainers would agree that teaching a puppy “bite inhibition” is crucial to having a dog who is a pleasure to be around, and not a potential concern or liability when around other people and dogs. 

What do I mean by “bite inhibition”? Simply put, this is the ability of a dog to put their mouth gently on something without biting hard, in other words, inhibiting the strength of their own bite. Every day I see dogs who have had this simply but important ability properly reinforced as they grew up and they are joy to be around. I also see my share of dogs who were never instructed properly on how to be gentle with their mouths (and I have the scars to prove it!). 

So how do you do this? The first thing is to put yourself in your puppy’s place to see things from his perspective. When a puppy wants to play with another puppy his innate approach is either hit, pounce, bite, or otherwise start “rough housing” with them. Often this includes growling in as deep a voice as a little puppy can muster. If the other puppy wants to play, she responds in kind—biting, pouncing, hitting, growling, etc., and the game is on.  

On the other hand, if the second puppy is inadvertently bitten too hard by the first puppy, she will let out a high pitched “yelp” (as you would expect) and jump away, which the first puppy correctly interprets to mean: “Ooops, I bit too hard, and now she won’t play with me.”  

When this happens, the puppy initiating the play stops briefly, then “attacks” again. But so long as he is being too rough with his friend he quickly learns that this approach isn’t getting him anywhere and he tries things a bit more gently. So long as he is still being too rough he will be continually be rebuked by his littermates or other dogs, and gets no real playtime in the bargain. However, when he is finally gentle enough he discovers the other puppy doesn’t cry and run away but instead responds in kind at hits or bites back, thus rewarding the first puppy with the play time he wanted.

So when your puppy very naturally wants to play with you, and jumps up and bites your hand as you reach down to pet him, how do you tell him—in HIS language—that he bit too hard and you don’t want to play that way? It should be obvious that the WRONG thing to do is to hit him back, grab his muzzle, push him away, or tell him anything whatsoever using a deep voice. If you do so, then to your puppy you just told him you want to play in the way he initiated things.  

The more you spank him, push him away, or say things in a deep threatening voice, like “Noooooooo biting!” (which to him is akin to growling back at him) the more he will persist in playing with you as he assumes you want him to. As this interaction is repeated each time he bites you, you will quite effectively be training him to bite you! He will be incorrectly (from your perspective) interpreting your physical reprimands as positive reinforcement for his aggressiveness. You are telling him you like to play rough, and you are giving him exactly what he wants when he bites you. So, of course, he comes back and bites you again next time. If you are especially consistent in your incorrect responses to his overtures, you may well train him to believe that EVERYONE likes to be bitten by a dog! 

The proper way to react is to “yelp” in a high pitched voice—a sudden “ouch” usually works fine. And it must be a REAL yelp, not simply a conversational expletive. And the worst thing to do is to respond physically. Even if you spank your puppy hard enough to hurt, he still won’t understand that you are telling him not to bite you. Instead, he will think: “They like it when I bite them because they play in response, but these guys play really rough—I’ll have to be faster the next time I bite them!” Don’t fall into that trap.  

Even as a puppy begins initiating play with you by using his mouth more and more gently, you should still let out a high pitched “ouch”, and continue this long after the mouthing is so gentle that it doesn’t hurt anymore. In this way a puppy will become progressively gentler with their mouth, to the point that unless they are aggressively provoked to fight they will not clamp down with their jaws. 

 And while this may seem straightforward—which it is—it is infinitely easier to teach a puppy how to use their mouth this way than it is to teach an adult dog how to be gentle. Given the opportunity, puppies spend a majority of their time initiating play sessions with other puppies by biting. Thus, there are countless opportunities to take advantage of this during the first few months of their life by showing them that “people are wimps” and that the slightest pressure with their jaws will end the play session before it even begins. However, waiting until a dog is an adult before trying to train this into them is much harder. Not only are dogs more set in their ways by the time they mature, but the opportunities to teach them are fewer and farther between because they aren’t constantly nipping at you to initiate play.  

The first four months of a puppy’s life constitute the window of time when this can be taught easily and quickly. Take advantage of their constant attempts to play with you as the opportunities they are to teach them how NOT to bite the hand that feeds them.

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