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How to Train a Puppy That Bites

Puppies spend a great deal of time playing, chewing and investigating objects. All of these normal activities involve puppies using their mouths and their needle-sharp teeth. When puppies play with people, they often bite, chew and mouth on people's hands, limbs and clothing. This kind of behavior may seem cute when your puppy is seven weeks old, but it's not nearly so endearing when he's three or four months old-and getting bigger by the day!

What to Do About Puppy Mouthing

It's important to help your puppy learn to curb his mouthy behavior. There are various ways, some better than others, to teach this lesson. The ultimate goal is to train your puppy to stop mouthing and biting people altogether. However, the first and most important objective is to teach him that people have very sensitive skin, so he must be very gentle when using his mouth.

Bite Inhibition: Teach Your Puppy to Be Gentle

Bite inhibition refers to a dog's ability to control the force of his mouthing. A puppy or dog who hasn't learned bite inhibition with people doesn't recognize the sensitivity of human skin, and so he bites too hard, even in play. Some behaviorists and trainers believe that a dog who has learned to use his mouth gently when interacting with people will be less likely to bite hard and break skin if he ever bites someone in a situation apart from play-like when he's afraid or in pain.

Puppies usually learn bite inhibition during play with other puppies. If you watch a group of puppies playing, you'll see plenty of chasing, pouncing and wrestling. Puppies also bite each other all over. Every now and then, a pup will bite his playmate too hard. The victim of the painful bite yelps and usually stops playing. The offender is often taken aback by the yelp and also stops playing for a moment. However, pretty soon, both playmates are back in the game. Through this kind of interaction, puppies learn to control the intensity of their bites so that no one gets hurt and the play can continue without interruption. If puppies can learn how to be gentle from each other, they can also learn the same lesson from people.

When you play with your puppy, let him mouth on your hands. Continue play until he bites especially hard. When he does, immediately give a high-pitched yelp, as if you're hurt, and let your hand go limp. This should startle your puppy and cause him to stop mouthing you, at least momentarily. (If yelping seems to have no effect, you can say “Too bad!” or “You blew it!” in a stern voice instead.) Praise your puppy for stopping or for licking you. Resume whatever you were doing before. If your puppy bites you hard again, yelp again. Repeat these steps no more than three times within a 15-minute period. If you find that yelping alone doesn't work, you can switch to a time-out procedure. Time-outs are often very effective for curbing mouthing in puppies. When your puppy delivers a hard bite, yelp loudly. Then, when he startles and turns to look at you or looks around, remove your hand. Either ignore him for 10 to 20 seconds or, if he starts mouthing on you again, get up and move away for 10 to 20 seconds. After the short time-out, return to your puppy and encourage him to play with you again. It's important to teach him that gentle play continues, but painful play stops. Play with your puppy until he bites hard again. When he does, repeat the sequence above. When your puppy isn't delivering really hard bites anymore, you can tighten up your rules a little. Require your puppy to be even gentler. Yelp and stop play in response to moderately hard bites. Persist with this process of yelping and then ignoring your puppy or giving him a time-out for his hardest bites. As those disappear, do the same for his next-hardest bites, and so on, until your puppy can play with your hands very gently, controlling the force of his mouthing so that you feel little or no pressure at all.

What to Do Next: Teach Your Puppy That Teeth Don't Belong on Human Skin

  • Substitute a toy or chew bone when your puppy tries to gnaw on fingers or toes.
  • Puppies often mouth on people's hands when stroked, patted and scratched (unless they're sleepy or distracted). If your puppy gets all riled up when you pet him, distract him by feeding him small treats from your other hand. This will help your puppy get used to being touched without mouthing.
  • Encourage noncontact forms of play, such as fetch and tug-of-war, rather than wrestling and rough play with your hands. (Refer to our article, Teaching your Dog to Play Fetch, to learn more about this game.) To keep tug-of-war safe and fun for you and your puppy, you'll need to follow strict rules. Please see our article, Teaching Your Dog to Play Tug-of-War, for detailed guidelines. Once your puppy can play tug safely, keep tug toys in your pocket or have them easily accessible. If he starts to mouth you, you can immediately redirect him to the tug toy. Ideally, he'll start to anticipate and look for a toy when he feels like mouthing.
  • If your puppy bites at your feet and ankles, carry his favorite tug toy in your pocket. Whenever he ambushes you, instantly stop moving your feet. Take out the tug toy and wave it enticingly. When your puppy grabs the toy, start moving again. If you don't happen to have the toy available, just freeze and wait for your puppy to stop mouthing you. The second he stops, praise and get a toy to reward him. Repeat these steps until your puppy gets used to watching you move around without going after your feet or ankles.
  • Provide plenty of interesting and new toys so that your puppy will play with them instead of gnawing on you or your clothing.
  • Provide plenty of opportunities for your puppy to play with other puppies and with friendly, vaccinated adult dogs. Playing and socializing with dog buddies is important for your puppy's development-and if he expends a lot of his energy playing with other puppies, he'll feel less motivated to play roughly with you. Consider enrolling your puppy in a good puppy class, where he can have supervised playtime with other puppies and learn some important new skills! Please see our article, Finding Professional Help locate a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) in your area who offers puppy classes.
  • Use a time-out procedure, just like the one described above-but change the rules a little. Instead of giving your puppy time-outs for hard biting, start to give him time-outs every time you feel his teeth touch your skin.
  • The instant you feel your puppy's teeth touch you, give a high-pitched yelp. Then immediately walk away from him. Ignore him for 30 to 60 seconds. If your puppy follows you or continues to bite and nip at you, leave the room for 30 to 60 seconds. (Be sure that the room is “puppy-proofed” before you leave your puppy alone in it. Don't leave him in an area with things he might destroy or things that might hurt him.) After the brief time-out, return to the room and calmly resume whatever you were doing with your puppy.
  • Alternatively, you can keep a leash attached to your puppy during time-out training and let it drag on the floor when you're there to supervise him. Then, instead of leaving the room when your puppy mouths you, you can take hold of his leash and lead him to a quiet area, tether him, and turn your back to him for the brief time-out. Then untie him and resume whatever you were doing.
  • If a time-out isn't viable or effective, consider using a taste deterrent, such as Grannick's Bitter Apple®. (For more information on taste deterrents and how to use them, please see our article, Using Taste Deterrents.) Spray areas of your body and clothing that your puppy likes to mouth before you start interacting with him. If he mouths you or your clothing, stop moving and wait for him to react to the bad taste of the deterrent. Praise him lavishly when he lets go of you. Apply the bad taste to your body and clothes for at least two weeks. After two weeks of being punished by the bitter taste every time he mouths you, your puppy will likely learn to inhibit his mouthy behavior.
  • Be patient and understanding. Playful mouthing is normal behavior for a puppy or young dog.

Because mouthing issues can be challenging to work with, don't hesitate to enlist the help of a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT). A CPDT will offer group or private classes that can give you and your dog lots of assistance with mouthing.Please see our article, Finding Professional Help, to locate a CPDT in your area.