No matter how you phrase it, puppy nipping, biting or mouthing hurts! Mouthing is a normal behavior for a pup and they often nip to greet people or as an initiation to play. In fact, I actually like it when I see a puppy nipping because it is by nipping that a pup learns bite inhibition, or when and how hard to bite. A puppy that never nips isn’t getting any practice in learning how to inhibit his bite. Uncontrolled however, the behavior can get worse (you could even be encouraging it by inadvertently rewarding the behavior) because the puppy thinks nipping is an acceptable way to greet people. I’ve said this many times… just because a behavior is “normal” it doesn’t mean it is “desirable” so how do we deal with those sharp little puppy mouths?
- Turn your focus to the positive and teach what you want your puppy TO do not what you want them NOT to do. Redirect your pup from the behavior you do not like and give him something else to do that will allow him to get attention and greet people. It’s great if your puppy is social and wants to greet people (your family included) so let’s teach him an appropriate greeting behavior that doesn’t involve his teeth. Even the youngest of pups can learn a “sit.” Teach him to sit quietly for a treat when you pet or greet him. You may also distract his mouth with an appropriate chew toy when he approaches you to nip. The trick here is to be ready and get ahead of the situation so that you can set your pup up for success.
- Minimize inappropriate behavior. Do not give your puppy ANY attention for behaviors you do not like. I know a lot of my colleagues teach the “say ouch in a high, sharp tone when he nips” but frankly, I have rarely seen this method work. In theory, it should work but in order for it to do so, the “ouch” would need to be quite shocking and perfectly timed. I have not had much success personally, nor have I seen my clients have success in using this technique so I do not recommend it. In my mind, negative attention (“no, stop, ouch!”) is still attention so if you react in any way your dog has been successful in getting your attention from doing the behavior you do not want and consequently, you have reinforced that behavior. If your pup grabs and nips you or your clothes, freeze (nothing moving=no fun), cross your arms, turn/look away or walk away (not too far) so that he learns that nipping gets no response or attention from you. Ignore the nipping then give a replacement behavior (preferably one that is physically incompatible with nipping), “sit” or grabbing an appropriate toy.
- Don’t punish by hitting, kicking or and other physical means. This sort of punishment can cause aggression and/or fear and could even make the problem worse. This type of “correction” often increases the pup’s intensity level therefore increasing the pressure and ferocity of the bite.
- Manage, manage, manage! If you are fortunate enough to get your dog as a young puppy the biggest advantage you have is the ability to set him up for future success. Get ahead of the problem – take note of when your pup is most likely to get mouthy (hint: dusk and dawn are usually prime times!) and set him up. Make sure his needs have been met – take him out to potty, play with toys and and then have a stuffed KONG ready with his meal or a snack so he can settle with that (keeping his teeth occupied).
Lots of my clients with puppies are concerned with “training” and want to teach their pup sit, down, leave it, come etc. and while yes, we do start covering those cues at an age appropriate level, I believe how you manage your puppy, teaching him appropriate behaviors, how to focus on you and helping him to learn to settle in busy environments are actually most beneficial lessons at this time. I can not overestimate how these skills will help you immensely once your dog hits adolescence (a favorite time for all species!). For more management techniques read this.
- Play with humans should never involve hands (no wrestling!) so use toys when playing with a puppy. Always put a toy between human body parts and puppy teeth when engaging in play. If you play with your hands, you may be teaching your puppy to play with his equivalent body part which is his mouth, which is full of those sharp teeth!
Dealing with a puppy takes a LOT of patience and consistency. Everyone in the household should interact with the puppy in the same way to teach new behaviors. The more consistency your pup receives for his behavior the faster he will learn.
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