Puppy Mouthiness and Bite-Inhibition

Puppies don't have hands. They explore the world through their mouths (not unlike human babies). But, what they don't yet know about humans is that we are far more delicate than their littermates, and they have to be more careful. One of the most important things to teach your puppy is bite-inhibition, and it starts the day you bring your puppy home.

There are three main aspects of teaching bite-inhibition: teaching proper play habits, consistent consequences for incorrect behavior, and teaching your puppy how to be gentle with his mouth. It is a process in which you teach your puppy to become more and more gentle with his mouth on humans. A dog with adept bite inhibition will play with an open mouth, but not bite down on human skin or clothing.

When playing with your puppy, go in "armed and ready." Always have at least two toys in hand for your puppy to put his mouth. Direct your puppy's attention to the toys by wiggling the toy near your puppy or rolling or tossing them for him to chase. It's a good idea to have a variety of toys for your puppy to play with and explore. Put soft, plush toys up and away when not in use, and rotate the toys each day to give your puppy something "new" to play with so he won't get bored. Harder, chew type toys can be left down for your puppy to chew on when the need arises. Experiment and figure out what toys your puppy likes best. You can soak some chew toys like Nylabones in chicken broth or water with a bouillon cube or smear a little bit of peanut butter on them to make them smell and taste more enticing. Encouraging, engaging, and praising your puppy for playing with his toys makes it an enjoyable and rewarding activity to do.

If your puppy is trying to chew furniture, the carpet, or your child's toys, redirect him onto an appropriate chew toy. In some cases, it may be best not to have dog toys that closely resemble the texture and material of the things you don't want your pup to chew. You may need to interrupt with clapping or a No Reward Marker if you have taught that to your puppy with training (see Following a Lure video). But, always follow this with encouraging the appropriate behavior you want your puppy to engage in so that proper learning takes place. If your puppy likes to chew inappropriate items, you need to block him off from those items or keep those items put away until you teach specific cues and choices. Puppy play yards/ex-pens are fantastic for this and help you manage your puppy's accessibility to things while still keeping him in the family area of the house for socialization and bonding. Many ex-pens can be used as a "fence" to block off areas; they don't always have to be set up in a circle.

Always supervise your puppy when he is playing and chewing on his toys. If pieces break off or if toys get worn down, remove them and replace them. Be careful with stuffed toys. Many puppies love to "gut" them. The squeaker simulates the squeak of a prey animal and entices the puppy to chew it, and tear it open, and pull out the stuffing and the squeaker. Once a stuffed toy has a hole, get rid of it, or at least set it aside until you can repair it and sew up the hole. Until you know your puppy's chewing habits, don't leave him alone with chew toys, edible and non-edible. Also, be aware that a puppy's chewing intensity will change with age - more intense when teething and in adolescence, less severe as they settle into adulthood (around two years of age, but this also varies per individual). There is no such thing as an indestructible dog toy! The one toy I can confidently say is safe for puppies and dogs to play with unsupervised is a Kong. They come in various sizes and toughness to match your dog's chewing habits. Plus, you can put yummy treats inside to entice your puppy to lick, roll, and play with the toy and get rewarded for it. Perfect!

Teaching Puppies About Human Skin

Teaching bite-inhibition is a process. The puppy learns over time to be more and more gentle with his mouth. At first, we ignore the little scrapping of teeth and nips and only focus on the bites that are strong enough to hurt. Over time, we get pickier and work the lighter nips until the mouthing decreases and eventually stops. You have to be patient when teaching bite-inhibition. Some pups are just more mouthy than others. Biting is worse when the puppy is excited or over-stimulated. There are a couple of methods that have proven to be effective in teaching bite-inhibition:

  • "Ouch" - The Startle Method: This is an initial lesson a puppy learns with littermates and other dogs through play. While playing with your puppy, if he grabs hold of your skin instead of the toy, "yelp," a high pitched, loud sound, or say, "Ouch!" Tell your puppy that play is getting too rough. Most puppies will stop for a brief moment as if to wonder, "What happened?" Both human and puppy should pause for a second or two, and then play can resume again by redirecting your puppy's attention back onto a toy. If your puppy does not stop the biting when you "yelp" or if the continued play is back on your hand and not the toy, "yelp" again and abruptly walk away. The playtime is over! Allow time for your puppy to settle down a bit before coming back to play again. Do not allow your puppy to follow you. The consequence is you go away and are no longer accessible for attention, so if you need to put your puppy in the ex-pen, please do this and walk away. Make sure to have things in the ex-pen for your puppy to chew until settled.
  • Freezing - The Shunning Method: This technique involves FREEZING the moment your puppy's teeth touches your skin. Don't flinch, jerk, or move because your puppy could interpret this as play and continue biting. You can also use this method if play starts getting too rough. The trick is not to pull your hand away! Your instinct will be to pull away if something hurts, and your puppy may bite a bit on your hand before he realizes that things have stopped. If you have a persistent nipper and you use this technique, you may want to wear gloves. When your puppy stops biting, give yourself and your puppy a moment to calm down a bit. If he responds nicely, capture the moment of calmness and praise your pup. If he goes to nip again, you can say your No Reward Marker or another word that lets your puppy know play is over (such as "Enough!") Walk away, leaving the room, and don't let your puppy follow. Give your puppy time to settle down in an ex-pen and resume play later.
  • The "Interrupt" Method: Decide on a sound that you will make or a specific word that you will use. Examples would be "no bite" or "oops" or any strange noise that is going to get your puppy's attention. When your puppy starts to bite at your hand, use your interrupter and then get up and move to a new location, getting a couple of treats and a different toy in the process. Typically your puppy will follow you. Then, re-engage but work some training games or cues that teach bite-inhibition and a little focus first, before you start to play again.
  • Time Out Method: Mouthiness is often due to excess energy. It correlates to arousal levels, the intensity of energy and emotions. Using a timeout and removing your puppy from your attention to settle down could be just what he needs to calm back down and find manners. Plus, denying the reward, which is your attention, is the consequence of the undesired behavior. You can use an ex-pen, or crate, or small room (be sure that they can't find something else to entertain themselves and get into trouble). Place toys in the crate or ex-pen so your puppy can redirect mouthy behavior onto a chew toy. Make a mental note that your puppy might need an activity to burn some of that initial energy he has stored. If you precede the timeout with a word - "Enough!" for example, this can turn into a verbal cue that may calm your dog down just enough once they know what the consequences are if he doesn't make a better choice.

These techniques will also work for when your puppy goes for your feet. The movement is what is stimulating to your puppy. So if your puppy goes for your ankles or feet, stop and utilize the "startle" or "freeze" method. Toss a toy across the floor to redirect your puppy on to the skidding toy and off your ankles. 

Sometimes, your puppy doesn't play nice from the beginning, and you need to figure out why. Ask yourself these questions: Is your pup just too excited and needs to run off some excess energy? Is it close to meal time? Has he been up for a while and may be tired and cranky? Puppies need naps just like little humans, and if your puppy is too tired, his play may not be so lovely. On the flip side, sometimes puppies act crazy as if they are possessed. They get this wild look in their eyes and race around. In the dog training realm, there is a technical term for those times that a puppy acts crazy (usually sometime in the late afternoon or early evening, but it can happen at any time). It's called "Zoomies" (doesn't sound so technical, does it). Zoomies is a naturally occurring behavior where puppies will need to release energy and will dash around the house or yard. Zoomies is a puppy's way of releasing stress or frustration. Adolescents and sometimes adult dogs will also get the zoomies, and it's usually an indicator of over-excitement, arousal, or stress (zoomies can happen during training). If your puppy gets the zoomies, it is best to let him run if off outside and save your playtime for when he is calmer.

Management Strategies

Specific tools are going to be very helpful when teaching your puppy not to bite. Crates, baby gates, and ex-pens are necessary tools to contain your puppy when he is not in the right mood to play nice. You are going to need something to allow you to walk away and leave your puppy for a little while when he gets mouthy, without him able to follow you. That place also needs to be safe, allowing for only appropriate choices, so your puppy can’t get into additional trouble for chewing on something inappropriate.

Puppies will get mouthy for a number of reasons. More often than not, it is because the puppy is overtired and cranky, or overstimulated and overwhelmed. Some quiet time in a crate of ex-pen may just what your puppy needs to settle and think more clearly. Freedom is a privilege that is earned by making good choices and following the “rules of engagement."

Additionally, playing with your puppy inside of the ex-pen not only helps your puppy to enjoy being there (safe and away from other things not appropriate to chew), but when your puppy's play starts to get mouthy, you can immediately leave. Send a strong message to your puppy, "Play nice and don't use your teeth, or you will lose my attention." Your puppy wants to be with you and have your attention, so if you are consistent with your verbal warning and leaving, he will learn not to be mouthy, or immediately stop if he hears it.

Love and Affection

We all want to pet, kiss, hug, and cuddle with our dogs. The human element of cuddling, petting, and hugging is not normal behavior for dogs, and while some enjoy it right from the start, others may not. Some dogs begin to like it over time, while others do not. The trick is knowing what your dog likes and dislikes and how and when to start and stop. For some puppies, the mouthing can be a way of telling you he is not wanting the affection and to stop. Get to know your puppy! Not all puppies handle hugs (which is a form of restraint in a dog’s perspective) well. Love and affection needs to be on the puppy’s terms. Overtime, once the relationship and trust has been established, that might change.

Teaching Your Puppy About Hands That Pet

First off, always remember that an exercised puppy is a well-behaved puppy. Don't expect to be able to love and pet your puppy when he is a bouncy bundle of energy; that is the time to take him in the backyard and romp around. Encourage him to chase after toys and balls and burn off that excess energy. Save petting sessions for when your puppy is calm and relaxed. Your puppy deserves a lot of attention and reinforcement when behaving this way! He will also be far less likely to bite. Keep all your petting interactions kind and gentle. Find your puppy's favorite spots to be pet - you will be able to tell by watching his body. He will be relaxed, tilt the head, or even a smile!

If your puppy needs a little help in relaxing and enjoying being pet, utilize some fabulous distractions like a bully stick, a favorite chew toy, or even a spoon dipped in peanut butter or yogurt. Allow your puppy to lick and chew these things while being pet.

Sometimes petting can be over-stimulating. Keep petting sessions short at first and extend the time slowly. Most importantly, never vigorously pet your puppy. Intense tactile stimulation can lead to biting. Keep it gentle, sweet, and within your puppy's comfort level.

Never play rough games with your puppy that involve your hands like play slapping and muzzle wrestling or even vigorous petting that rough up your pup. Set your puppy up for success when playing. Your interactions should be positive ones and teach your puppy proper manners and self-control. Dogs learn through associations, so you want to be sure that your puppy associates hands with good things, not bad. Don't hit, slap, or hold your puppy's mouth shut for being mouthy. Spanking a puppy in the nose, even with your finger, teaches him that hands can hurt, and he may start to fear them or, worse, try to bite back.

Working Through Puppy Mouthing with Games and Cues

Don't wait until you enroll your puppy in a puppy class to teach obedience. Start now! Puppies are little sponges and can learn cues quickly. Play games that teach the necessary concepts for good mouthiness and bite-inhibition. Training games teach your puppy to make proper behavior choices without using cues. Games are a perfect way to teach your dog how to self-manage behavior and make good choices on his own; skills every well-mannered dog needs to have. In the beginning, evertime your puppy has freedom, you must be in training mode and utilizes structure through games to teach your puppy how to use the mouth appropriately. If the battery is full and your puppy is revved up and ready to go, you will need to have a strategy in place to redirect mouthiness and place structure with interactions. Engaging in games that utilize energy, but contain structure and plenty of opportunities for reinforcement for good choices will be invaluable for you to play with your puppy.

Teaching your puppy simple obedience cues like Touch, Sit, and Down is a great place to start. Also, teach your puppy how to gently take treats from your hand to avoid nipping when training and rewarding with treats. By starting early, you tighten the bond between you and your puppy, facilitate learning and teach your puppy to respond to you, and get your puppy on the right track to having manners and behaving appropriately. Another advantage is that when you do start taking puppy class, your puppy will be more successful because the needed behaviors are already established, taught at home in an optimum learning environment, and your puppy will be better able to perform the cues in the distracting situation of a group class.

So remember - relationship, management, and training! Spend time with your puppy, reward good behavior, and reinforce positive interactions between you and your puppy, removing rewards and attention when they are not.

  • Teach desired behavior. Reward good choices when they occur.
  • Use verbal warnings and follow through with consequences for undesired behavior.
  • Manage proper play by being prepared and setting yourself and your puppy up for success.
  • Play with at least two toys in hand to keep your puppy's chewing on appropriate items and not your hands.
  • Have a variety of textured toys and rotate them to keep your puppy interested. Allow your puppy to exercise and run and play to burn off excess energy.
  • Pet and play with your puppy when he is calm and less likely to bite.
  • Train your puppy with games that reinforce concepts and appropriate choices to strengthen your bond as a team and get a head start on good puppy manners and proper behavior.
  • Use known cues to get behavior upon request.

Be patient, this is going to take time, but with perseverance and consistency, your puppy will grow to love playing and being pet by you, enjoy chewing on his toys and learn to keep his teeth off your hands.