Nipping, biting and mouthing - a common puppy problem

Have you been on the receiving end of those sharp, pointy puppy teeth? They can be quite painful, even if your puppy is only intending to play. Your pup needs to learn it is not appropriate to bite or mouth people while he/she is young. Adult teeth in much stronger jaws can do significantly more damage; so teaching appropriate behaviour now is in everyone's best interest.

Why do puppies bite?

Mouthing and nipping in most instances is common and a normal behavior of puppy play.  Puppies explore much of their world with their mouths. They also play with other puppies by biting and mouthing. Those pointy teeth are also a great way of attracting attention if things seem a bit on the quiet side. A little nip is often a surefire way to get people to start moving around and games to start!

How can you prevent inappropriate mouthing and biting?

Sometimes the simple act of standing still like a statue (with arms folded) will cause a puppy to settle quietly. This technique is particularly useful for children and once settled and calm you can direct your puppy towards a more favourable activity.

You can also add verbal sounds to the action. When your puppy goes to nip your hand, before withdrawing your hand, add a high pitched "ouch". Then stand like a statue and direct your pup to another activity once he/she is settled.

Encouraging your puppy to undertake other chewing activities when you know your puppy is at risk, is also a good action to try. For example, if your puppy is at risk of nipping and tugging when you go outside to hang washing on the line, you can plan ahead. Put a stuffed Kong on top of the washing basket and toss that for your puppy when you go outside. That will direct that chew energy to a suitable item and keep you both happy. Planning ahead can avoid all sorts of behavior problems; so make a list of high risk times for biting and make some strategies for everyone in the household to use. 

Encouraging 'Good chewing'  

You can set up a game to teach your puppy to chew and bite appropriately.

My favourite toys

Have a few toys with you and start to play with your puppy in a reasonably small area such as a laundry.
If your pup chews and plays with toys use verbal praise to reward him/her. If he/she mouths on anyone, immediately redirect their attention to a toy. If your puppy doesn't instantly redirect his/her mouth then say "too bad".
Scoop up the toys and leave the room. Leave your pup alone for about 20 seconds.
Then return and immediately make the toys inviting again. Repeat the process over and over. In time your pup will learn that if she chews on her toys, then good things happen. If she chews on people then she is ignored and all her toys disappear.

The treat game

Another game can also help to reduce the biting that your pup might do when you offer a food treat. Give your pup a treat from your hand. Then offer another but close your fist before your pup can take it. He/she is likely to sniff /lick/paw at your closed fist. As soon as he/she withdraws slightly from your fist, then toss a treat from your other hand.
After many repetitions your pup will no longer attempt to snatch the food from your hand, even when your fist is open. Practice with both hands. You can give a cue such as "gentle" to remind him/her to take anything from your hand gently.

A note on inappropriate training methods

You want your pup to welcome the approach of human hands, not come to fear them. Never use your hands to punish your puppy, such as holding the pup's mouth tight. You may have heard suggestions to prevent biting such us blowing in your puppy's face, flicking your puppy on the nose or smacking him/her. These are also poor choices that will have further ramifications.

Pet type(s): 
Life stage(s): 
Young
Pet library topic(s): 
Behaviour