Nip it in the bud: how to stop your puppy biting before it becomes a problem
Puppies like to nip – it’s natural behaviour and an expression of playful curiosity. They also like to chew, particularly when they are teething as it helps to reduce the pain. However, you will need to nip this behaviour in the bud, as a biting adult dog is a serious risk to people and other pets – and you run the risk of losing your pet for good if the behaviour persists into adolescence and beyond. Find out how to stop your puppy from giving you love bites with our simple guide
Why do puppies nip?
Puppies are born with needle-like teeth, but with very under-developed jaw muscles. One theory is that this allows puppies to safely establish with their siblings the acceptable limits of how hard they can nip their pack mates. This process is called bite inhibition and you can see it in action in the litter. When one puppy bites too hard, the recipient will give a yelp, and the play will stop. In this way, puppies learn how hard they can nip before their adult teeth and strong jaw muscles develop. Puppies also chew a lot when they’re teething, as it helps to reduce the pain.
Training puppies not to bite at all is just an extension of this natural socialisation process – but it still requires time and patience to make sure the training sticks. It goes without saying this is an exceptionally important element of puppy training, as a biting adult dog is a serious danger to other people – particularly children – and pets. Not only that, the law is very strict about biting dogs, and there is a very real risk that your dog will be taken from you and even destroyed.
Lesson 1: No hard biting
It’s tempting to try to cut out all biting and mouthing from the beginning. However, this will miss out a vital step – allowing your puppy to understand the limits of how hard he can press skin before it becomes painful. This is important to learn as it can mean that, later in life when stressed or scared, if a dog does lose control and attempts to nip a person, he will have an inbuilt inhibition against causing harm.
To teach your puppy not to bite hard, take your cues from natural puppy play. Gentle mouthing and nibbling is natural behaviour, so let you puppy indulge in this but, when you feel a hard bite, make a yelping sound and let your hand lie still. This will show your puppy that he’s gone too far, and he will learn to adjust. It’s important that everyone in the family adopt this same strategy, so that eventually your puppy will only be doing gentle mouthing, and no nipping or biting.
Lesson 2: No teeth on skin
Now that your puppy has learned the pain threshold for biting human skin, it’s time for the next lesson: no teeth on skin at all. You can do this by continuing with the previous technique, but slowly reducing the strength of bite that will induce you to yelp and go limp, showing your puppy that no level of teeth on skin is acceptable. You can reinforce this through treats: hold a treat in a closed hand, and only open your hand when your puppy is not mouthing, chewing or pawing at your fingers. The idea is to show them that mouths and skin do not go together – it may take some time and patience but puppies are like children – they’re programmed to learn and adapt!
Lesson 3: Toys are ok!
Chewing, mouthing and biting is natural behaviour for dogs, and we don’t want to discourage it completely. Puppies need to know early that chewing toys is fine, but chewing skin isn’t. While your puppy is learning lessons 1 and 2, make sure there are plenty of chewy toys around so she can understand that, while skin is a no-no, her toys can be chewed to her heart’s content.
Lesson 4: Walk away
Puppies and young children have many traits in common – both can find it hard to focus on lessons, particularly when they’re excited. Sometimes, the best thing to do is to give your puppy a little time to calm down in her playpen, perhaps with a nice chewy toy. This isn’t a punishment, simply a chance to calm down. Training can resume when things are a little more tranquil.
Lesson 5: Mind those ankles!
Some breeds of dog, such as Collies or Shetland Sheepdogs, have strong herding instincts, which can lead them to nip at ankles in an effort to keep the ‘herd’ moving. If your dog does this, stand still so that he understands that nipping ankles will have the opposite effect to what he intends. Only by not biting can your puppy keep the herd on the move!
Stay calm and focused!
Puppy training requires a lot of patience and perseverance. They may not get there straight away, but they should get there eventually, so try to stay calm and focused. Shouting at your puppy or scolding her may frighten or stress her, which can lead to exactly the behaviour you’re trying to prevent.
If you think that your puppy is not learning her lessons about biting, then it’s very important to take her to see a professional trainer. Dogs that bite are a danger to you and others around you, and ultimately it’s your responsibility to ensure that your dog is safe to be around.