Playfully chewing, biting, and mouthing of you and your clothing is to be expected from puppies, but older dogs that haven’t learned proper bite inhibition may do so as well. It is not only natural, but also instinctual for puppies to chew and nip. To a dog, exploring with their mouth is just as important and normal as your eyes and hands are to you. Please do keep in mind that this is a form of interaction, communication, learning, and play, NOT aggression. I will be going over true aggression, in more detail, in another article. From the time puppies are born, their mouth allows them to explore everything around them. Once they are a few weeks old, puppies begin using their mouth to play. This takes the form of biting and nipping their siblings. Sometimes an adult dog will continue this behavior when playing or during emotional duress. This usually occurs when the dogs owner encourages playing rough, or if the dog was removed from the litter at too young an age. When puppies play with each other, they learn something called “bite inhibition”.
Even after a pup has learned the basic bite inhibition from littermates, they will need further conditioning when interacting with people. This is because the human body is more easily damaged by play bites than dogs. If a dog has no idea about bite inhibition, they can be annoying at best or down right dangerous at worst. A simple, harmless playtime could result in serious pain or even injury. Although a puppy has very sharp teeth, their jaws muscles are too weak to much damage (a rather strong puppy can only bring a few drops of blood). An adult dog however, can inflict much more than a scratch by accident. Now think about it for a second, does it really matter if the dog didn’t mean to it when you are bleeding?
Here is how to help your puppy learn good bite inhibition. (NOTE: this will still work with adult dogs, however you can expect it to take longer.)
To start, you will need to decide how much is acceptable and when it becomes too much. Some people are comfortable with a dog touching their hands with teeth if no pressure is placed on it. Other people prefer no tooth contact at all (this is important with large, strong jawed breeds). Next, as soon as your puppy has “gone too far” let out a loud yelp and turn your entire body away. Walk away a few steps, keeping your face and eyes away from the puppy. Do not speak to him or touch him. You may feel silly doing this, however, the purpose is to socially isolate him for about 15-30 seconds. This is long enough for him to notice, but not long enough for him to forget what he did right before you yelped. If other people will be around, you need to make sure they do the same as you. If they start playing with or giving attention to your puppy during this time it will be for nothing.
Most dogs seem to have a compulsive need to chew on something, and doesn’t really matter what! To keep him from finding out what a nice chew toy your fingers are, provide him with something more appropriate. Rawhide chewies, squeezy rubber toys, and similar are all fine.
If your puppy should start snapping at your face or hands while playing, say “NO!!” in a loud, quick, sharp manner. This will startle him and he should stop. As soon as he stops, give him praise (don’t be confused, your puppy will associate snapping with getting yelled at and not snapping with praise) and redirect his attention to something more appropriate such as a chew to. When he takes the toy, praise him again and give him a quick petting.
Never correct or punish your puppy for chewing or nipping with physical force. In cases such as this, hitting your puppy will only encourage the behavior. (He will think you are playing.) Simply turning away, as above, is highly effective and a humane way of expressing displeasure. Your puppy wants you to be happy, he wants to please you but doesn’t know how yet. Puppies learn much faster from a cold-shoulder then they do from a rolled newspaper.
If for some reason your puppy is all wound up and trying to nip, even with a cold-shoulder, he may need a bit more social isolation. Think of it as a “time out”. To give your puppy a “time out”, all you need to do is take him to a crate or small room by himself for about five minutes. When the time is up, bring him out and start playing again. It would be a good idea to play a little calmer until you find out how excitable he is going to be. Some dogs (especially high energy, herding breeds) become overexcited very easily. For dogs such as this, choose non-contact play such as frisbee, or fetch. You can even play tug-o-war if your dog knows “drop it”. Refrain from slap-boxing and wrestling, these games encourage instincts such as nipping and aggression. Keeps games more low-key instead.
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