Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and author of the online dog training course "Brain Training for Dogs."
There Is Biting and Biting in Puppies
"Help, my puppy keeps biting me aggressively! What can I do to stop this behavior?" asked the new puppy owner in hopes of some tips on how to stop this concerning behavior.
There is biting and biting in puppies, and therefore, the first big question is: When does this biting occur? What is the accompanying body language? How old is the puppy? And what breed?
"Puppies rarely bite in earnest until they reach the age of about seven months, unless the provocation is extreme or they have a genetic make-up that makes likely to bite," claims Gwen Bailey in the book "Perfect Puppy: Take Britain's Number One Puppy Care Book With You!"
So if not out of true aggression, why is my puppy biting me so aggressively? And most of all what can be done about it? Here are some answers to these queries.
A Matter of Play
If you have a young puppy who is eager to bite you with those awfully sharp puppy teeth, you may assume your puppy is aggressive, when actually puppy biting is very normal puppy behavior.
What often looks like aggressive behavior, turns out in most cases, being just a puppy whose nipping has gone a little over the top.
Here's the thing: when you open your heart and home to a puppy, you likely imagine a cute puppy who chases butterflies and rushes after toilet paper rolls rolling down a flight of stairs (like a popular commercial has portrayed for many years).
Instead, reality is quite different. Many puppy owners miss out on seeing what a pup's chapter in life was like back in time when the pups were in the breeder's home with their littermates and mom. Well, here is a little recap.
Before landing into your home, your puppy and his littermates were likely wrestling all day, playing mock fights quite roughly and with accompanying growls. These play fights were at the order of the day.
Once into their new homes, it's therefore natural for these pups to want to engage with their owners in a similar fashion. They'll bite to engage you to play (like they did with other puppies in the breeder's home). They'll grab your pants and growl as they pull back and play tug with them. They'll chase your legs and nip hard as you walk. This puppy biting is therefore something totally normal and something that all happy and healthy puppies do.
A Matter of Genes
All puppies regardless of breed bite, but some puppies belonging to certain dog breeds are more predisposed to biting and they do so with more intensity. This is especially the case with dogs breeds bred for herding livestock.
These dog breeds were selectively bred for herding large livestock with a tendency of being stubborn. So when you take a cute, fluffy puppy bred for this purpose and welcome him to your home, he'll be predisposed to biting unless you provide him with outlets for these natural, instinctive behaviors, loads of redirection and lots of training.
A Matter of Teething
Have you ever seen babies who cry and keep their fingers in their mouths when they are teething? Puppies go through something similar.
The puppy teething stage can be quite long in dogs. They first have to deal with their baby teeth which must fall out and then the permanent teeth start emerging. The process may last up until the puppy is 7 to 8 months of age, although the desire to chew will persist into adulthood.
A Matter of Overstimulation
Many puppies struggle when they are exposed to more stimulation than they can handle. This is because they lack the ability to self-soothe and settle. After all, this is a skill that takes time to master and it comes with maturity
Puppies, just like toddlers, may be reluctant to put themselves to bed unless you help them. So what happens when puppies become overstimulated and tired? They get cranky and more predisposed to biting!
More Serious Forms of Puppy Biting
True aggression is rather rare in a puppy under four months of age. However, it is not unheard of. Most dog trainers have encountered a truly aggressive young puppy. I have seen young puppies resource guard food and bones. This can be seen as early as 6 weeks, however many times it can be challenging to distinguish normal puppy behavior from abnormal.
Recording the pup's behavior and showing it to a professional is important for an accurate assessment.
Warning signs of trouble are puppies who are stiffening, growling and biting in specific contexts such as when they are protecting a food, toy or sleeping area, when they are being approached, restrained, handled, groomed, moved or picked up, when they are exposed to unknown people or children.
If you notice this type of defensive biting, prevent exposing your puppy to triggers that evoke the behavior, inform your breeder (if reputable, he/she should want to know when there’s an issue with one of their pups) and consult with a force-free dog trainer/behavior professional (you can find one on the Pet Professional Guild website).
In the meanwhile, if dealing with puppies nipping due to not wanting to be touched or picked up, read these articles on how to get puppies used to handling and used to being picked up and have a professional help you out in person.
If dealing with resource guarding read the book "Mine" by Jean Donaldson. The author explains how to identify and handle resource guarding. Also, read how to stop a puppy from biting when taking something away.
Last but not least, consider that the saying "prevention is worth a pound of cure" goes a long way. Even if your puppy is not guarding his food, you may find it helpful to take steps to prevent resource guarding in puppies.
How to Stop a Puppy From Play Biting Roughly
Now that you better understand your puppy's behaviors and his underlying motives, it's time to roll up the sleeves and work on trying to reduce this form of biting.
Of course, these tips are for the less serious forms of biting. Once again, for more serious biting, you want to enlist the help of a professional so to prevent things from getting out of hand.
Avoid Any Form of Punishment
Punishment-based corrections such as grabbing the puppy's muzzle, tapping on the nose, delivering a scruff shake, pushing the puppy away or even yelling or grabbing the puppy by the collar or picking him up and placing him in a crate may turn a puppy's playful biting into defensive biting with all its troublesome repercussions (a puppy who was biting just for play, now starts biting defensively).
Teach Them That Hands Aren't For Biting
Puppies learn what you teach them. If you allow a puppy to play roughly with your hands and feet, he'll come to seek this type of interaction. Instead, start from the right paw by not encouraging your puppy to play roughly with your hands or at least teach him to interact with your hands in more gentle ways.
Hand targeting is a great way to teach your puppy that hands aren't for biting. If you want to play with your puppy, teach games that don't specifically involve roughly biting your hands, but catching and biting toys instead (fetching, tug-of-war, etc.).
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Remove any Temptations
You want to set your puppy up for success by preventing him from rehearsing the over-the-top nipping behaviors. Don't sit on the floor with your puppy if that makes him continuously grab your shirt. Don't wear shoes with shoelaces, pants with loose ends or long skirts.
If you really want your ankle-biter to stop biting your feet, ankles, and legs, wear tall rubber boots which are hard to grab and most pups will lose interest eventually.
Become Boring Like a Tree
Puppies, as mentioned, are attracted by movement. Every time your puppy bites your hand or leg, you'll likely move because it's painful. Your movement though attracts your puppy more and soon a vicious cycle is established and you just turn into a fun pin-cushion that squeaks in pain.
To prevent this, the moment you see your puppy approaching you with the intent to bite, become boring like a tree. In other words, freeze and stand still.
Easier said than done though with those sharp puppy teeth! To keep your skin safe from teeth scratches and bite marks, wear long sleeves and tall rubber boots. The rubber boots provide nothing to grab on and puppies may quickly lose interest.
Redirect to Something Enticing
Many puppy owners try redirecting to toys, but they don't always succeed. This, once again, is because toys are static when puppies seek movement and resistance.
Instead, try redirecting to something that moves (a tossed ball, a flirt pole) or toss some kibble to chase or offer an edible long-lasting chew (bully stick, Whimzees chews for puppies or a peanut butter stuffed Kong) to keep him busy. Keep these redirection items always handy so that you can redirect your puppy at a moment's notice.
Some puppy owners redirect to remote control cars and drones. The key is providing something that keeps your puppy engaged rather than ignoring it and coming back to bite you.
Redirection works best if you are able to catch your puppy before he is actively biting, so redirect as soon as you notice an intent to bite. Once he has latched on, it may be too late, he may be having too much fun to pay attention.
Provide Relief for Teething
When puppies are teething, their gums are irritated and chewing helps them get relief. Coolness can help them feel better. You can try to feed frozen carrots, frozen strawberries and frozen bananas and/or stuffed frozen Kongs. Avoid giving ice cubes to chew as they can damage the pup's teeth.
Offering a variety of different toys of different textures can help too. Make sure to rotate them on a daily basis so that your puppy gets renewed interest in them.
Provide Enrichment and Training
When your puppy isn't crated or kept in his playpen, it is up to you to provide an environment that will keep your puppy busy and happy. Brain games, training, puppy-safe chews and food dispensers like the Kong Wobbler are great ways to keep your puppy entertained.
In particular, puppies thrive with a mix of highly simulating activities (like fetch, chase, play with other pups followed by low stimulation activities such as sniffing, treasure hunts and chewing on toys.
Provide Enough Downtime
Many puppies tend to bite more and more roughly when they are overly aroused and overstimulated. Rougher biting is often just a sign of higher arousal. This can happen when they are allowed prolonged free time in an overstimulating environment (too many exciting things going on, prolonged play).
Puppies, just like toddlers, struggle to regulate their emotions, so when they are overstimulated, overly excited or frustrated, they are more likely to lash out using their mouths and throw the equivalent of a child's tantrum.
Help set your puppy for success by giving him a break from overly exciting situations or prevent them from occurring by using management options such as keeping your puppy in a crate, tethered or in a playpen when there is too much activity going on.
Provide the Right Setting for a Nap
On top of overstimulation, many puppies get particularly nippy when they are cranky and in dire need of a nap. It can be difficult at times to balance between enough exercise and mental stimulation and sleep.
Ensure your pup gets an opportunity to nap every couple of hours and set a routine. Also, create the right setting for encouraging deep sleep. Puppies need a lot of sleep (like16-20 hours a day) especially the REM-type sleep which is the most restorative sleep of all.
If the room you keep your puppy in is noisy, chances are, he's missing out on the deep sleep he needs and his internal switch is still turned on. Provide a quiet area and consider covering the crate with a blanket so to help turn the pup's "awake switch" off.
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.
© 2021 Adrienne Farricelli
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on April 11, 2021:
This is a tough stage for both puppies and puppy parents! Those little teeth are so sharp, too. Luckily, we didn't have much issue with this. Always kept pups exercised so they wouldn't puppy bite out of boredom. And except for our first dog, we've always had an older mentor dog that helped keep junior occupied and aware of bad behavior.
Great topic that a lot of new puppy parents need to understand!
FlourishAnyway from USA on April 10, 2021:
Anything to prevent potential problems down the road is the right approach. I have been a bystander at a shelter when a citizen gave up a dog for resource guarding after the dog bit a child in the home. It was so sad to watch the dog shake like crazy. He seemed to know his fate. This shelter was a kill shelter and owner surrenders usually were euthanized within the hour because they were unwanted animals. I was simply there to donate items for the animals but had my heart broken watching that.
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on April 09, 2021:
Thank you for sharing your knowledge and the excellent advice, Adrienne, I’ll remember your instructions in case I get another puppy.
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on April 09, 2021:
alexadry this is a useful hub and many points that enlightens us of this problem with pups. They can be active and sometimes over active biting and being playful. Your hub is interesting and most helpful to anyone with dogs. A way to have a much easy day with a pup.
Sp Greaney from Ireland on April 09, 2021:
Puppies are really a handful.. I would never have though about the freezing limbs method or using motorized toys. That's so smart. I will pass this information on to any future prospective puupies owners.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 09, 2021:
We always provided items for them to chew, so never had much of a problem with biting issues. You have shown people how to respond if their dogs aggressively bite them. Your articles provide a great resource!