Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.
How Can I Train My Puppy to Stop Nipping and Biting?
If your puppy is a land shark, you may be wondering what you can do to minimize the chances of getting nipped at all day. It's unfortunate that many people think that nipping is a behavior that must be corrected through punishment. You may have heard about keeping the pup's mouth tightly closed or grabbing the pup and putting him on his back to show him "who is the boss." Unfortunately, these methods do more harm than good, often turning an innocent behavior into a defensive one.
If a Puppy Nips, Is It a Sign of Aggression?
If you watch a group of puppies interact, you will notice how, for the most part, the pups will use their mouths. This is simply pure play; through play, the pups learn hunting skills, bite inhibition and good social skills. When a puppy gets too rough, the other pup will often squeal and withdraw from the game, giving its playmate a "time-out." After some time, the rough puppy learns that, in order to play, he must pay attention to how rough he's being and learn to inhibit the pressure of his bite.
If You Punish Your Pup for Biting, He Will Nip You Defensively
For some odd reason, when pups nip owners, they are often believed to do so because they are naughty—or, worse, trying to rule the roost because of some creepy intent to become dominant. So the owners feel justified in using methods such as holding the pup's muzzle tight, tapping his nose or alpha rolling the pup to "put the pup back in his place."
What happens next is that the puppy may start resenting being handled in any way and will nip in defense. Correction after correction, the pup learns that human hands are bad and need to be bit to keep them away.
Try a Gentle Game Instead
Luckily, there are better ways! The following are some force-free games that can help your pup learn how to inhibit his bite, love being handled and learn that hands are not chew toys.
5 Games to Play With a Puppy to Train Them Not to Nip
Below, you'll find a description of five gentle games I use to train puppies not to be so mouthy.
- The Car Wash Game
- The Touch Game
- The Target Game
- A Game of Fetch
- A Game of Tug of War
1. The Car Wash Game
I came up with this game casually one day when I was sitting on the floor with a nippy puppy. This game is meant to get the dog desensitized to touch and that great things happen every time he is touched. To play this game follow these steps:
- Lie down on the floor with your legs stretched out.
- With your dog on the left, lure him with a treat to walk over your legs and toss it to your right side.
- As he passes by to get the treat, touch his body as if he was a car going through a car wash
- He should then get his treat.
2. The Touch Game
Many puppies will try to nip when you try to pet them. I had owners confess to me that they haven't been able to pet their puppy for months! To make your dog love being touched, try the touch game.
- Find out what parts your pup doesn't like you to touch, leave these for last.
- Start touching him where he seems to be less likely to nip
- Touch briefly say "good boy" and then immediately give a treat.
- Gradually, build upon this by touching for more prolonged periods of time and with more intensity and then finally petting those areas he doesn't like much always giving a treat right after. Pat his head, give a treat, lift his paw, give a treat, touch his ears, give a treat, open his mouth, give a treat. With time, your pup should learn that every time he is touched, he gets a treat and he'll look forward to it more and more!
3. The Target Game
In this game, your dog will learn that hands are not toys, and that alternate behaviors to nipping such as making nose contact with your hand make good things happen.
- Keep your hand open with the palm facing your dog.
- The moment your dog comes sniff your open hand, say "good boy" and give a treat.
- Continue several times.
- When your dog gets good at this, add the cue "target" right before you offer your hand so your dog does it on command.
4. A Game of Fetch
Fetch games work well for pups who will start nipping to get you to play as they teach the dog to play with toys and not pant legs or arms. This game will keep your pup busy so he can learn an alternate game other than nipping. It also keeps your pup exercised while teaching him to drop it too!
- Move a ball around to get your pup's interest and then toss the ball
- Wait for your puppy to pick it up and then call his name
- When he's by you with the ball in his mouth, show a treat
- In order to get the treat, your dog will drop the ball
- As he eats the treat, get the ball, wait for him to finish eating and toss it again
- When dropping the ball becomes fluent say "drop it" or "give" just before you show the treat
- Repeat several times, but stop showing the treat, say drop it or give and the moment he drops the ball, give the treat.
5. A Game of Tug of War
If your pup nips at your shirt, pant legs and ankles, he most likely is loving it because he is getting a free game of tug of war! And the more you move, the more fun he has! By playing tug of war with a tug toy, you are teaching your puppy to focus on toys more than hands.
- Get a tug toy and wriggle it around to get your pup interested in it
- Grab the other side of the tug toy and gently play tug of war.
- At some point, stop tugging and show your pup a treat.
- When your pup drops the tug to get the treat, say "yes!" or click your clicker.
- Give the treat and start playing tug again.
- Once your dog gets good at dropping the tug toy, add the cue "give" or drop it."
- Repeat several times, but stop showing the treat. Say "drop it" or "give." The moment he drops the tug toy, give him the treat.
What to Do If Your Puppy Nips
So what should you do if your puppy nips at you? As tempted as you may feel to correct him, consider that physical correction will only teach your dog to not like having hands near him. Instead, you can squeal like a puppy and say a sharp "ouch!", withdrawing from the game. However, while this works with some pups, consider that some other pups may get more aroused when you yelp in pain. You will have to work on finding which vocalization works best.
If you are playing any of the above games, you can always withdraw from the game and leave the room. Your pup will soon learn that rough play means that you will leave and he will no longer get any treats.
Force-Free Methods Teach Bite Inhibition and Promote Touch
As seen, there are several force-free ways you can train your puppy not to nip. Hand-feeding your puppy can also teach him how to take treats gently. These methods offer a win-win situation: Not only does your pup learn how to inhibit his bite, but he also learns that touch is good and that he can still play—as long as he doesn't focus too much on hands and only uses a gentle mouth.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2016 Adrienne Farricelli