“How do I stop my puppy biting?” “Why does my puppy bite so much?”“What do I do when my puppy bites?”These are the top questions in my puppy classes. It’s an incredibly common behavior, in puppies as well as some teenagers and beyond!
What is “Mouthing”?
For this article, “mouthing” refers to a puppy or dog putting their mouth on human skin or clothes for the purpose of getting attention or playing. This is also called “play biting” or “puppy biting”. There may be pressure behind the bites (they can hurt), tugging (especially on clothes), and scratched or broken skin. The important point is the motivation is play or attention, and not fear or a desire to cause harm.
If you are at all unsure if the behavior you are seeing is “mouthing” or something else, consult with a behavior professional.
For simplicity, this article refers to “puppies” but the advice applies to dogs of all ages.
Why Are They Mouthy?
Puppies explore their world and communicate with their mouths. It is very normal for them to approach many wants and needs in this way, until they learn alternatives. Your puppy might be mouthy because they are:
- Bored, feeling playful, or looking for attention
- Hungry or in need of a bathroom break
- Physical uncomfortable, such as having itchy skin or an upset stomach
- Stressed or worried about something, like being handled in a certain way
Dealing with Puppy Mouthing
Meet Their Needs
Make sure your puppy’s daily routine includes an appropriate balance of physical exercise, mental stimulation, and rest. The only way to find that balance for your puppy is to experiment with different types and amounts of each. A good place to start is adding an afternoon nap and seeing how this affects their behavior. Also try different types of exercise, play, and stimulation to find activities that burn energy but don’t leave them more amped up.
Take note of any changes to your puppy’s health. If they seem itchy, are licking themselves a lot, have changes in their appetite or elimination habits, or otherwise seem “off”, check with your vet about ways to support their physical health and comfort. This can have a big impact on behavior.
Use Toys to Redirect
Keep toys on hand to put between you and your puppy and give them something appropriate to bite. Not all toys are created equal. Make sure they are long enough to keep your hand away from their mouth, but still easy to grab (think long and thin). Pay attention to what toys and textures your puppy likes. If they ignore a toy and go for your hands or clothes, try a different toy.
Teach an Alternative
Teach your puppy that there are other behaviors that work better to get what they want. This generally works best when you dedicate some time to training, rather than trying to do it in the moment. Teach a sit instead of mouthing for attention, a wait instead of grabbing at things, or any other behavior you’d like to see your puppy do more of. The key is to train it, not just expect them to figure it out on their own. Here’s a bit more on getting your puppy to start doing something and you can also reach out to a professional for guidance.
Watch for Stress or Avoidance
If your puppy gets more mouthy when you are trying to put on their harness, brush them, pick them up, or otherwise do something to them, they may be expressing discomfort or fear about that activity. Rather than redirecting or punishing, you’ll need to focus on building comfort with those activities through training. You can learn more here and it may be helpful to reach out to a professional to help you.
Remove the Reward
If your puppy is trying to get your attention or engage you in play, make sure mouthing doesn’t work. Choose other ways for them to ask for attention or play and make sure to reward these behaviors instead. It’s much harder for a puppy to learn what you want if you only focus on telling them “no”.
You can use short time-outs when your puppy’s teeth hit your hand by immediately removing your attention. Don’t say anything or look at your puppy for 20-30 seconds. If they continue to grab at you during this time, go into another room, step over a baby gate, or enclose yourself in an exercise pen. After 30 seconds, return to your puppy and engage them with a toy, training game, or food-stuffed toy.
What About “Yelping”?
Common advice includes yelping or shrieking when your puppy’s teeth hit your skin. The thought is that this mimics how a puppy’s siblings would react. In some cases, this can be a helpful way of communicating to your puppy exactly what they did that made the play stop and to gently startle them into taking a break. It’s best to follow the verbal interrupter with a short timeout to provide a clear consequence.
If you’ve been trying to use a yelp or other noise when your puppy mouths and it isn’t working, focus on other tips listed here. Some puppies get more excited when there’s a noise and mouth even more. Also, make sure you aren’t frightening your puppy with this sound, which can cause other issues.
Avoid Physical or Verbal Punishment
You want your puppy to be confident and trust that it is safe to engage with people. Attempting to scold a puppy or physical grab, hold, roll, or otherwise punish them can carry risks of creating fear or aggression. That’s a much harder problem to overcome than mouthing. On the flip side, some puppies may find the attention and touch rewarding and come back for more. It’s difficult to effectively punish dogs and, along with the risks, rarely worth the effort when compared to using the other methods listed.
Have patience with your puppy. Just like human toddlers, they are learning all the time but not always mature enough to control their behavior along the way. Following these recommendations will help but not instantly. Like the heat of an oven when making a cake, time and maturity don’t work without the other ingredients, but they are necessary.
If your puppy or dog has a behavior problem that you need help solving, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.