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Teaching Bite Inhibition in Puppies

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and the author of "Brain Training for Dogs."

Teaching a puppy bite inhibition is important to its development.

Teaching a puppy bite inhibition is important to its development.

The Importance of Teaching Puppies Bite Inhibition

Among the plethora of desired behaviors and tricks your dog will ever learn in life, training bite inhibition in puppies is the most important. This cannot be emphasized enough. Sometimes it's the difference between life and death.

"Pet deaths caused by infectious, neoplastic and metabolic disease don't touch the number of pets killed because of behavior problems," claims Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist Karen Overall, Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.

And when it comes to serious behavioral problems in dogs, biting will have a primary role in the dog's assessment and prognosis. Does the dog have a bite history? And if so, under what level of bite does this dog's biting categorize?

Different Levels of Dog Bites

Most dog trainers and behavior consultants rely on some sort of bite scale that determines the severity of the bite. I like the official authorized version of Ian Dunbar's bite scale, released for professionals by the Association of Pet Dog Trainers.

If we look at this scale, we will notice that the severity of the bite ranges from level 1 to level 6. Fortunately, according to this scale, over 99 percent of dog bites fall under the category of level 1 and level 2.

But things get quite iffy and dangerous when dealing with bites past level 3 and quite critical at level 4. Dogs who bite at level 5 and 6 are at great risk for being put to sleep.

So what can be done to prevent such distressing outcomes? The good news is that problems to a great extent can be prevented by teaching dogs good bite inhibition from early puppyhood.

All puppies are born with teeth. Yes, they are sharp. Yes, they can hurt. But you can teach your puppy to gauge his bite pressure, so that when he grows, should he ever bite, he will do so in a way that doesn't cause major harm.

Puppies learn how to inhibit their biting when they in the litter and further refine it by playing with other puppies.

Puppies learn how to inhibit their biting when they in the litter and further refine it by playing with other puppies.

Understanding Bite Inhibition in Puppies

What exactly is bite inhibition? Bite inhibition is the dog's ability to gauge the pressure of his jaws when biting. You may be surprised to learn that the first bite inhibition lessons start quite early, when the puppy is still in the litter with his littermates and mom.

Between the ages of five and eight weeks, puppies are learning important social skills, and among these is bite inhibition. To allow these important life lessons to seep in, it's very important to to not remove puppies from the litter before they are eight weeks.

Often, when people call me about rowdy puppies that bite too hard, I find out that the pup was removed from the litter too early and failed to learn this very important skill. (For more information, I wrote an article about the risks of removing puppies too early from the litter.)

How Puppies Learn Bite Inhibition in the Litter

So what happens exactly in the litter during this time? If you watch the pups play, you may notice a pup bite too hard, causing the victim puppy to squeal and give a time-out, suddenly withdrawing from playing.

It's almost as if the puppy was saying "I won't play with you anymore, you're too rough for my taste!" For learning-theory junkies, this method is based on negative punishment; basically removing something the dog likes (in this case, play), in order to stop an undesirable behavior (biting hard).

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Withdrawal after withdrawal, the pup learns that, in order to play, he must play more gently. These rules are further enforced by mother dog; just watch what happens when a pup bites too hard when he's nursing! She'll likely get up and leave, which is how puppies are weaned.

It's Your Job to Continue Teaching Bite Inhibition

Once your puppy is in your home at eight weeks, you must take over the task and continue training bite inhibition. You can do this through several productive games, and also by allowing your puppy to play with other puppies (like at puppy classes) to further refine this skill in his interactions with other dogs.

An important note: you don't want to forbid your puppy from biting altogether. Doing so can be quite dangerous because the puppy will never learn how to gauge the pressure of his jaw. This means that, the day he will bite, whether because he's frightened or provoked, the bite will likely be painful and could potentially result in an injury.

It's therefore important to keep training your puppy in good bite inhibition. If you allow your puppy to persistently play rough with his mouth, you'll be stuck with a puppy that misses out this important skill.

So no roughhousing or rough wrestling games with the pups. These games tend to reinforce biting, as puppies are often highly aroused and when they are in this state of mind, it's more difficult controlling the force of their bites. On top of this, we don't want to encourage our dogs to play this way around children or when Grandma Lucy comes over to visit.

Appropriate play means not using body parts and not roughhousing or wrestling, which can stimulate overactive play that often includes mouth play.

— John Ciribassi, veterinary behaviorist


Exercises to Teach Bite Inhibition in Puppies

We can teach our puppies to be more gentle with their mouths, not unlike when they play with each other and they're giving each other feedback as to what is acceptable and what is not.

Humans need to teach puppies that our skin is more vulnerable, and therefore they further need to refine their biting compared to how they play with puppies.

Gentleness Pays

Place some tasty treats inside your closed hand and offer your hand to your puppy. Your puppy will likely try to bite, nip and eventually maybe nibble. Once your puppy is gentle with his mouth, mark the gentle behavior by saying "Yes!" and then open your hand and offer the treats.

If your puppy at any time bites hard enough to cause pain, say "Ouch!" and move your hand away, keeping it behind your back. Wait a few seconds and then present your hand again and offer the treats, contingent upon gentle mouthing behavior. This teaches your dog to take treats gently.

Calmness Pays

Do you have a puppy who likes to jump up and bite your hand when you are holding treats or food? If so, hold a treat between your fingers and lower your hand towards your puppy. If he jumps up and tries to bite, your hand goes back up. Do this several times as necessary.

If your puppy stays put nicely (maybe even sitting), then you can allow him to have the treat. Always make sure he's gentle with his mouth!

Tugging A Toy

Playing tug with a puppy offers several advantages. It's a fun game, it gives mouthy puppies an outlet for their biting, and it also can help teach bite inhibition as the pup gets to learn that there are consequences when he misses and bites our skin instead of the tug toy.

In this exercise, play tug with your puppy. The moment he "misses" the toy and goes for your hands, get up and end the game. This makes it clear to your pup that tooth contact on your skin ends the game.

You can then resume the game after a minute, and if he keeps tugging at the toy, continue playing. If he does happen to bite your hand again, get up again and end the game. Rinse and repeat, but if a third strike occurs, get up and leave the area completely.

What About Squealing/Yelping?

Although the process of squealing/yelping has been recommended for many years, it has been found to overstimulate certain puppies leading them to biting more. This is especially true for the many shepherd pups out there. If you own a shepherd that gets very overstimulated and gives painful nips, you may find this read helpful: German shepherd puppy bite inhibition games.

Progressive Bite Inhibition for Puppies

As your puppy learns to inhibit the stronger bites, start working on the less strong bites. Even if they don't hurt much, just pretend they do. They'll help the puppy further refine his bite inhibition skills, so he'll go from learning to biting softly to learning to decrease the frequency of mouthing and finally to not mouth at all. Remember to praise when your puppy doesn't put pressure.

Have It Under Control by This Time Frame

It's never too early to learn bite inhibition! Start training as soon as you get your pup and get it down by the time his adult canines erupt, and definitively before the jaw develops its full potential. By five months, you should see progress in the pup softening its mouth, and by eight months he should no longer be putting his teeth on human skin.

A Word About Setbacks

Setbacks are normal when you are training bite inhibition. You may notice that when your puppy is over aroused and over threshold, he may bite harder. Don't be discouraged; keep working on the issue, and if he's too aroused, redirect his energy by giving him a toy, preferably before he thinks about biting. This will teach your dog that biting you is not fun and that biting the toy is fun.

The Importance of Sleep

Also, make sure that your puppy is getting enough sleep. I have many puppy owners tell me how, at the end of the day, their puppies are fired up and crazy. These puppies are not crazy, they are just exhausted! Only that they may be too overstimulated or just don't know how to self-soothe and take a nap.

Puppies need a lot of restorative REM sleep. This is when your puppy is breathing fast, twitching and paddling as if running around.

You can prevent your puppy from turning into a biting monster when tired by offering the right environment that's inviting to sleep. Place him in a quiet area, dim the lights and give him something to chew on. Chewing is a relaxing activity and many pups fall asleep eventually.

The Importance of Impulse Control

And don't forget to also teach puppies some good impulse control and frustration tolerance as puppies mature since puppies that bite a lot and persist very likely lack these very important elements.


Some Things to Avoid

What not to do when dealing with poor bite inhibition in puppies:

  • Don't try to teach your puppy bite inhibition if he bites very hard out of the play context (such as when you touch his food or try to remove a toy). If your puppy bites out of aggression, please consult with a professional.
  • Don't move your hand away quickly and start yelling; this may raise your pup's arousal and your fast hand movement may further excite him.
  • The only form of punishment you should use when your puppy bites is negative punishment (removing yourself from play). Other forms of punishment such as grabbing the pup's muzzle, tapping on his nose, giving an alpha roll or yelling at the pup is counterproductive. These methods increase arousal levels and may lead to defensive aggression.
  • Don't suppress any growling with punishment. If your puppy happens to ever growl at you, don't scold it; doing so may lead to a dog biting without warning. For more on this, read the article about risks of punishing growling.
  • Don't wrestle, tease your puppy by slapping him on the face, or push him to elicit play, and don't use your hands or feet as toys to grab during play.

Disclaimer: if you believe your dog's biting stems from fearful or aggressive behavior, don't try any strategies suggested above, but play it safe and consult with a dog behavior professional. In these cases, you will need a different approach tackling the underlying causes for the fear and aggression.

Ian Dunbar Explains Puppy Bite Inhibition

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.

© 2013 Adrienne Farricelli


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 14, 2013:

Some dogs aren't suited for this kind of play, and it's sad your brother didn't recognize this and your dog had to give him a tough lesson. I agree that most likely your dog gave lots of warning that went ignored. I like to "wrestle" as well with some dogs who show they like it, but in my case what I call 'wrestling' may not follow the real definition. When I "rough-house" I tend to use toys, and try to redirect away from hands and bodies--but that's my choice because as a behavior consultant I have seen too many incidents that ended with people getting hurt and dogs sadly losing their lives. For good, ethical reasons many dog behaviorists warn about rough handling as well--but then of course dog owners can do what they want, it's their call.

Marge on August 14, 2013:

My brother was one of those who loved to rough house with the dog. I always warned him to be careful and to not solicit this kind of rough play, until one day he bit him in the face when he had enough and my brother had to get stitches. I have learned that dogs as people also have their "off days" and that some dogs may not like to play rough. Too bad many owners are unable to read the signals dogs give when they have had enough or just assume that this form of play is good with a"any" dogs I have now taken over the care of Buster and never has he tried to bite me.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 19, 2013:

Kashmir, this article indeed is for dogs that DON'T have bite inhibition and need to refine their skills. I use my articles as handouts for my clients, so it would irresponsible and a big liability for me to tell owners of dogs who bite hard to go on and wrestle with them.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 19, 2013:

Hi Midget, thanks for stopping by and commenting!

Thomas Silvia from Massachusetts on May 19, 2013:

I think this information may be good for some dogs but not all dogs. I have had many dogs over the years and had wrestled with everyone of them and none of them ever tried to bite me . It all in how you bring them up and teach the right.

Michelle Liew from Singapore on May 19, 2013:

True, I think dogs should learn that the bite is mainly for play purposes. Thanks for sharing, Alexadry. I think there are better ways to play with dogs than playing tug-of -war or mock biting too. They tend to go overboard with those!

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