Your kids have been begging you for a puppy for months, and you’ve finally given in. It’ll be a great way to teach responsibility and secretly, you’ve wanted a puppy, too.
You’ve scoured the internet and local shelters and found the perfect fit for your family. Little Oscar is utterly adorable, and everyone has instantly fallen in love with him. He’s the talk of the town with those tiny spotted paws and swinging tail.
There’s just one problem: He won’t stop biting. Sure, it’s cute when you’re playing tug of war and those tiny teeth don’t hurt too much. But when little Oscar goes for your ankles and his growing teeth aren’t so small anymore, cute turns to problematic.
Don’t throw in the towel just yet. You might think you’ve tried everything to get your puppy to stop biting, but rest assured there is an end in sight, and we can help you get there.
How do you stop your puppy from biting? You stop your puppy from biting by reinforcing positive behavior, and teaching him that biting, though it is a natural instinct, is not OK. Using bite inhibition to teach your dog how to moderate the force of a bite when teeth come into contact with your hands, offering alternatives for chewing and providing your puppy with a safe place to calm himself down are a few effective strategies to consider.
While training your puppy to stop biting takes time, patience, and a lot of repetition, it can be done.
There are a few essential teaching tools and methods that you’ll need to utilize in the process, and we’ll go through each of them in detail, as well as the reasons why your puppy can’t seem to get enough of your fingers and toes.
Why Do Puppies Bite?
Puppies are born with about 30 tiny, sharp teeth in their mouths. Just like humans, as they grow, those baby teeth will fall out and will be replaced by about 40 adult teeth (source).
Most of the time, puppies will swallow their baby teeth as they fall out, but you might catch one in a toy or on your carpet at some point in his young life.
The entire process of teething can be painful, and if you think about all of the teething toys that are the market for babies, the instinct to chew as new teeth are coming in is instinctual for babies and puppies alike, as chewing provides much-needed relief.
In addition to teething discomfort, puppies nip at each other while they are playing. You’ll notice the difference between teething and nipping since the latter generally occurs when your puppy is excitedly playing with you. Teething bites are more akin to nibbling on your fingers or your hand in search of relief.
While both teething and nipping are completely natural, and nipping is a primitive part of the play, this seemingly playful behavior for them can lead to much more dangerous (and painful) biting or aggression as your dog grows into an adult.
And, as you’ve already experienced, neither is exactly comforting for you if your hands have turned into your puppy’s chew toy.
Additionally, puppies who are nipping are also often feeling out their role. Because dogs thrive in packs where hierarchal positions are established early – leaders as well as those of low rank – it is important that nipping and biting are taken seriously to avoid aggressive behavior in the future.
You can read more about helping to avoid dominance aggression in dogs who have established themselves as “leaders,” in the article entitled, “Why Your Dog Barks at You, But Not Your Husband.”
Do Puppies “Grow Out” of Biting?
While some puppies do grow out of nipping by about 6 months, as teething pain subsides and baby teeth have all fallen out, this is not always the case.
As your puppy grows, he will continue to explore his world with his mouth, continually looking for items to chew on, play with, and unfortunately for your favorite pair of slippers, tear apart.
One of the best things you can do to prevent chewing, whether on your hands or on your furniture, is to offer plenty of toys for your puppy to choose instead.
Understanding that chewing and nipping are natural instincts and ones that your puppy can learn to appease in acceptable ways is an important first step.
Still, you may be sitting there thinking, “my puppy has more toys than all of PetSmart combined…” Don’t worry – we just need to establish some ground rules for your little guy, and you’ll be surprised to find out how quickly he will learn.
Training Your Puppy to Stop Biting
Puppies, like children, can be pretty stubborn. It’s easy to get frustrated and yell, even when you are in the best of moods. Still, before getting into what you should do to train your puppy to stop biting, it’s also important to know what not to do.
First, don’t yell. And, don’t hit. While these may seem like workable tactics to teach your puppy to stop doing something, they are actually far less effective than you may think and will do little more than teach your puppy to be afraid of you.
To make matters worse, you may also be teaching him to be aggressive, and that will lead to more biting as your dog grows.
Most puppies are not quite confident in themselves to exert any aggressive behavior just yet, so it is important that the tactics you do utilize to teach your dog not to bite are not inadvertently teaching him that resorting to aggression is the only way out of an undesirable situation.
Training using aggressive or forceful methods will cause your dog to mistrust you or be fearful of you – and can eventually lead to far more dangerous biting when he is afraid or feels the need to defend himself (source).
We’ll discuss what to do about aggression more a bit later, but first, we’ll go through some tactics that will help you to teach your puppy to be gentle.
Teaching Your Puppy How to Be Gentle
Since we already know that nipping and chewing are both parts of normal puppy behavior, it’s hard – if not impossible – for him to stop doing so altogether. And, chewing provides a lot of benefits for your dog, including keeping teeth clean and healthy beyond teething.
Part of your training requires that you quickly show your dog that nipping at your fingers actually hurts you. If you are playing with your puppy and he nips at your fingers, firmly (but calmly) express that this is not acceptable behavior.
You can simply say “ouch” or “oops,” or even “no.” It matters less what verbal cue you use and more that you stop playing and ignore your puppy until he is no longer nipping at you or playing too excitedly.
It may take a moment or two of sitting still with your hands in your lap or behind your back – give him some time to calm down before reengaging in play.
This shows your puppy that biting means that you will not play with him – and, he’ll eventually figure out that nipping does not get him what he wants; rather, being calm and gentle rewards him with more play.
Teaching Bite Inhibition
Bite inhibition simply means showing your puppy how to control the force of his bite. When you play with your puppy and he is mouthing your hands (not nipping), it’s okay to let him continue to do so until he bites.
Once nipping or biting occurs, quickly give a high-pitched verbal cue – “ouch” or whatever verbal cue you have chosen to show that you are hurt (source).
If you’ve ever seen puppies playing with one another, you may have heard a yelp come from one of them. This happens because as we mentioned earlier, puppies nip and mouth at each other while they are playing – mostly to claim their roles in the pack hierarchy.
Once a puppy has bitten his playmate too hard, the “victim” will let out a yelp, while the offender will stop playing for a moment, recognizing he has done something wrong.
The same applies to your own playtime with your puppy. When your puppy begins to learn that he has bitten down too hard, you want to show him that you are hurt.
Give a high-pitched verbal cue in a similar manner, while at the same time letting your hand hang or go limp. This should startle your puppy, even if for a brief moment, and he will pause.
Praise your puppy at that moment, when he exhibits self-control with a pause, and then resume playing with him.
The key here is that both a verbal cue and showing you are “hurt” plus positive reinforcement when he stops will result in the change you want to see.
Don’t expect to see immediate results. This takes practice and repetition. Most experts suggest repeating the sequence up to three times in a 15-minute period before switching to a “time-out” procedure.
Adding in a Time Out
A time out does not necessarily mean crate time, but rather removing yourself from the situation for a few minutes, then returning to your puppy and initiating play again, repeating the above consequence sequence as needed (and, remember, it will be necessary to repeat multiple times!).
It’s important that your puppy understands that playing gently results in more play, while aggressive play results in the removal of your attention as well as his toy.
As you continue the process, continue to be firm (but still gentle – remember, aggression will only result in more aggressive behavior from your dog). The goal is to teach your puppy that even the slightest nipping will result in play ceasing.
As he learns, you will see that his nips become softer and softer until he is able to mouth without any pressure at all – this is the goal of bite inhibition.
Offer Your Puppy Alternatives
Once your puppy begins to learn that human skin is off-limits for chewing, it’s important to give him alternatives.
Remember, chewing is a natural instinct for dogs in the same way that it is completely natural for babies to put nearly everything in their mouths.
Also, as your dog grows past the six-month teething phase, he’ll also be going through some hormonal changes that may cause him to act out further or chew even more. This is perfectly normal.
Following the pattern of positive reinforcement, with lots of chewing alternatives, you will want to teach your dog that he’s only allowed to chew his toys – this will curb nipping and biting and also save your slippers and sofa from being torn apart!
If you take what you’ve already been working on to stop your puppy from nipping (high – pitched verbal cue and time out), this is where you can add another layer of teaching by offering him a chew toy instead.
If he continues to nip at your fingers while playing, repeat the process (verbal cue, pull your hand away, offer a chew toy, and if needed provide a time out).
This will help your little guy to understand that chewing is okay, but he’s not allowed to chew on your fingers.
Similarly, resume play and repeat the process – don’t stop playing altogether, but rather repeat for at least a 15-minute period.
What Types of Chew Toys are Best to Help Stop Biting?
Because your puppy is young, the best chew toys are those that are the correct size and firmness for your puppy. In general, the size of the toy will be proportionate to the size and degree of chewing that your dog enjoys.
Rubber toys that are specifically made for teething puppies are good options, as well as Kong toys. Most of these toys can even be placed into the freezer for added relief.
Experts recommend the “thumbnail” test to determine if the toy you choose is safe for a puppy’s teeth.
If you press your thumbnail into the toy and there is a little bit of giving, it’s generally safe for your puppy. If there is no give, you’ll want to find a better option that is better for your dog’s teeth.
For quick and easy steps, see video below:
It’s important to remember that when dogs do bite, there is a reason behind it. In other words, it is the only way that the dog knows how to get himself out of a situation he does not like, whether that be due to stress, fear, or anxiety. Dogs rarely if ever bite without reason.
Puppies will generally run away or hide when they feel fear or anxiety – it is very rare for a puppy to bite purposefully to harm until at least seven months of age (source). It is at that point that their confidence grows, and they are more likely to resort to aggression if provoked.
Reading Body Signals
You will want to learn and understand the signals your dog may give when he feels intimidated, stressed, or uncomfortable in a situation.
Often times, dogs will growl or show their teeth, or they may show a change in posture. All of these changes signal stress for your dog, and it is important that you teach your puppy to tolerate these types of situations without resorting to aggressive behavior.
The best way to do so we’ve already hinted on earlier – avoid any aggressive reaction on your part. Do not hit. Do not yell or raise your voice in a forceful manner.
This will lead to further aggression and your dog will only do what he knows (biting) to relieve the anxiety, fear, or discomfort he is feeling. Depending on the reasoning behind his aggression, there are different positive steps you can take to help remedy the situation.
Fear Induced Aggression
Dogs who are afraid tend to bite strangers outside of the family. The best way to avoid this is to socialize your dog when he is young.
Expose him to different people, children, and other dogs. But, don’t force your dog into a situation where he is clearly uncomfortable.
Allow his confidence to build over time and reward your puppy with treats and toys as he becomes more confident and as you help him out of situations that cause discomfort. Your dog will learn that you are his protector, and he need not be afraid or aggressive.
While it may seem odd at first, your job as your puppy’s caretaker is to establish yourself as the leader of the pack. A dog who sees himself as a subordinate figure in the household is much less likely to bite and more willing to obey your commands.
Remember, a good pack leader is not aggressive; rather, you are firm, protective, and understanding. You can show that you are the leader simply by “winning” more often than he at a tug of war games and putting the toy away immediately if your dog’s teeth touch your hands.
There are also other ways to show that you are dominant, including feeding your dog after you have eaten, and initiating play at times while not giving in to his demands for attention at others (source).
If your dog is specifically barking at one member of the family or beginning to show signs of dominance, be sure to read more about this type of aggression in “Why Your Dog Barks at You, But Not Your Husband.”
First and foremost, your puppy needs to learn that just because your hands are coming toward his food dish does not mean that his meal is being taken away. Give him his meal and as he is eating, add in a treat or two.
Doing so will show your puppy that you are adding something to his dinner, and he will be less inclined to be aggressive and fear that the food is being taken away.
While this is not an exhaustive list of ways in which to address different types of aggression, you do want to learn to read your puppy’s body signals, show that you are the dominant figure in the household and that you are his protector and provider.
Dogs are not aggressive simply for the sake of being aggressive. You must first understand the reasons behind the behavior in order to help eliminate it.
If you are particularly struggling with aggression with your puppy, it is also important to seek help early. The younger the dog is, the easier it is to help change the behavior, especially aggressive behavior, nipping, and biting.
You can get help with a qualified professional such as a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist or a Certified Dog Trainer (source). Be sure to first find out if the trainer has relevant experience in helping dogs with fear and aggression.
Remember, training your puppy to stop biting takes time and patience, and it likely won’t happen overnight.
Be willing to work with your puppy as he learns and enjoys every moment with your little guy. The truth is that he wants to make you happy, and he wants to please you.
With lots of positive reinforcement along the way, your puppy will be well on his way to chewing his own toys, and not your fingers and toes!