Training a Puppy That Bites (cont.)

General Precautions

  • Avoid 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.
  • Do not discourage your puppy from playing with you in general. Play builds a strong bond between a dog and his human family. You want to teach your puppy to play gently, rather than not at all.
  • 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.
  • Slapping or hitting puppies for playful mouthing can cause them to bite harder. They usually react by playing more aggressively. Physical punishment can also make your puppy afraid of you-and it can even cause real aggression. Avoid scruff shaking, whacking your puppy on the nose, sticking your fingers down his throat and all other punishments that might hurt or scare him.

When Does Mouthing Become Aggression?

Most puppy mouthing is normal behavior. However, some puppies bite out of fear or frustration, and this type of biting can signal problems with future aggression.

Puppy “Temper Tantrums”

Puppies sometimes have temper tantrums. Usually tantrums happen when you're making a puppy do something he doesn't like. Something as benign as simply holding your puppy still or handling his body might upset him. Tantrums can also happen when play escalates. (Even human “puppies” can have tantrums during play when they get overexcited or upset!) A puppy temper tantrum is more serious than playful mouthing, but it isn't always easy to tell the difference between the two. In most cases, a playful puppy will have a relaxed body and face. His muzzle might look wrinkled, but you won't see a lot of tension in his facial muscles. If your puppy has a temper tantrum, his body might look very stiff or frozen. He might pull his lips back to expose his teeth or growl. Almost always, his bites will be much more painful than normal mouthing during play.

If you're holding or handling your puppy and he starts to throw a temper tantrum, avoid yelping like you're hurt. Doing that might actually cause your puppy to continue or intensify his aggressive behavior. Instead, be very calm and unemotional. Don't hurt your puppy, but continue to hold him firmly without constriction, if possible, until he stops struggling. After he's quieted down for just a second or two, let him go. Then make plans to contact a qualified professional for help. Repeated bouts of biting in frustration are not something that the puppy will simply grow out of, so your puppy's behavior should be assessed and resolved as soon as possible.

When and Where to Get Help

A trained professional can help you determine whether or not your puppy's mouthing is normal, and she or he can guide you through an effective treatment plan. If you suspect that your puppy's biting fits the description of aggressive or fearful behavior, please seek consultation with a qualified professional, such as a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB) or a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behavior (Dip ACVB). If you can't find a behaviorist in your area, you can seek help from a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT)-but be sure to determine whether she or he has professional training and experience in successfully treating fear and aggression problems, as this expertise isn't required for CPDT certification. Please see our article, Finding Professional Help, to locate one of these professionals in your area.

The ASPCA Virtual Pet Behaviorist specializes in the resolution and management of pet behavior problems only. Please do not submit questions about medical problems here. Only licensed veterinarians can diagnose medical conditions. If you think that your pet is sick, injured or experiencing any kind of physical distress, please contact his veterinarian immediately. A delay in seeking proper veterinary care may worsen your pet's condition and put his life at risk.

If you are concerned about the cost of veterinary care, please read our resources on finding financial help.