How to Stop Puppy Biting
Have you ever tried acting like an alpha wolf in the comfort of your own home, growling, showing your teeth and snapping at those annoying you? Some trainers believe that this animalistic behaviour can put your heel-biting puppy into place right smart. Others, like online training sensation Doggy Dan, believe that biting behaviour can be nipped in the bud by encouraging your buddy to chow down on a soft toy or tea-towel instead of your fingers.
But what really is the best way to stop your puppy from biting? Dr. Ian Dunbar, veterinarian, animal behaviourist, dog trainer and author of ‘The Good Little Dog Book’ and ‘After You Get Your Puppy’, takes a different approach -- one that involves a pocket full of kibble, time and patience, and a flair for amateur dramatics.
Dr Dunbar believes that biting behaviour is essential, that learning to bite properly is too important to redirect to a toy, and that growling and snarling is only likely to get your puppy to bite people who are less intimidating, like children.
We’ll run through Dr Dunbar’s methods soon (with a guest appearance from my canine companion, Joe the Whippet), but first, let’s get our teeth into why the good doctor thinks that bite inhibition is the most important part of your new best friend’s entire education.
Toy Bones Can't Teach Bite Inhibition
While those needle-sharp teeth can be a real pain, puppy biting is a completely normal component of socialisation between dogs. And in Dr. Dunbar’s view, biting isn’t just necessary, it’s welcome.
Dunbar claims that when dogs fight, snarl and bite, 99% of the time there’s no puncture wounds on either party. That’s because the dogs have learned bite inhibition -- they know how to use their teeth to defend themselves without doing too much damage. In a more natural situation, puppies learn bite inhibition when they play-fight with their littermates. If their sibling yelps, they know they’ve gone too far, and play is suspended while the injured pup recouperates.
The trainer reminds us that even the calmest, most well behaved dog can bite when they feel truly under threat -- if a car door closes on its tail, for instance, or, in one memorable example from ‘After You Get Your Puppy’, if a small child dressed like Superman jumps from a table and lands their back.
If the startled animal has learned good bite inhibition, the result is most likely going to be a soft-mouthed, warning nip, the doggy-dental equivalent of a strong ‘back off’. If not, the damage can be far, far more serious. So while it might sting a bit when your puppy bites the hand that feeds, each nip is an opportunity to give your pup some important feedback.
It’s important to draw a distinction between play-biting and teething here -- a teething dog is more likely to gnaw than to nip, and your furniture and personal belongings are more likely to suffer from teething behaviour than your hands and feet. Teething behaviour is best redirected to a suitable toy, while biting will need to be endured for a while.
For more than a morsel on teething, take a look at our Teething Guide (How to Stop a Puppy From Chewing Everything).
The Method to Stop Puppy Biting
While Dr Dunbar generally contends that it’s easier to get a dog to learn the language and ways of humans than it is the other way around, he makes a notable exception for puppy biting. Some of you might have guessed what’s coming next -- when your puppy sinks their fangs into your skin, you need to yelp like a puppy yourself.
You don’t need to actually yelp or whine, of course, although you can if that’s what you’re comfortable with. But you need to communicate that you are hurt, preferably in an over-the-top and theatrical fashion.
This can be great fun. Joe the Whippet was the first dog I had owned as an adult, and when my more experienced partner shared this training tip with me (before I had ever read Dr Dunbar), I was delighted to think that the ill-fated drama class I stuttered through as a teenager might actually pay dividends.
So should you wail in woe every time that canine chompers find your fingers? Not quite. Like all good training, you need to start small and build your way up. At first, you need to save the waterworks for bites that actually hurt. And, like all good performances, you need to start off understated and save the true emotional weight for the climax.
Or to put it more succinctly, Dr. Dunbar has a three bite rule to start off with.
For the first painful bite, say ‘ouch’ or something similar.
The second bite requires a verbal indication of displeasure. Dr Dunbar suggests ‘that hurt, you bully!’ or ‘I’m injured, you miserable worm!’ I, to the scandal of my Catholic mother, regularly responded to bites with ‘Jesus, why have you forsaken me?’ Fortunately, Joe knew that he was not the Messiah, but a very naughty boy.
The third bite is where your inner drama queen can come out to play. Sob, wail, or launch into Ophelia’s monologue from Hamlet -- whatever you feel gets the point across.
A fourth bite should ideally result in you walking away, perhaps loudly bemoaning how your pup has ruined your play session. If that’s not possible, your dog should be calmly put into isolation. Dr Dunbar’s methods are all based on positive reinforcement, and he particularly cautions against punishing pups for biting -- the puppy will only redirect play-biting to those who can’t or won’t punish them.
Over time, you can step up the action, and voice your deep sadness and pain to eliminate bite-pressure entirely.
Don’t get angry, get sad. Your puppy doesn’t want to hurt you, and letting him know that you’re hurt is the best way to stop painful bites.
How to Deal with Puppy Mouthing
Is it that easy? Unfortunately, no. The melodrama is useful to inhibit the force of the bites, but won’t stop your puppy mouthing at you. Your puppy will be extra gentle with you now that he knows that humans are delicate flowers, but he still wants to play.
So how do you stop your pup latching on? This is where the ‘Off’ and ‘Take It’ commands come in. All of Dr Dunbar’s teachings are based on the ‘lure-reward’ method -- the puppy is shown food to encourage them to complete a task, then they are given the food to reward them.
To teach this, you need to hold a piece of food in your hand to distract your dog. Use the verbal command ‘Off’. If the puppy doesn’t touch the piece of food for one second, say ‘Take it’ and give the food to the puppy. You can build up the number of seconds over time, then start to randomise the food rewards, eventually removing them entirely.
Dr Dunbar also recommends making a habit of hand-feeding your puppy kibble. This will help him learn to be gentle with your hands, build trust, and get him used to getting small pieces of kibble (rather than more expensive and less nutritional treats) as a reward.
How fast can you stop your puppy from biting?
As with toilet training, sleep training, and leaving your puppy alone, there’s no real quick-fix method to stopping a puppy from biting. Believe it or not, you don’t really want to stop the biting too fast, as learning bite inhibition takes time.
So when do puppies stop biting? Puppy biting will be present as a behaviour by the time you bring your puppy home (usually at eight weeks old) and it’s important to start training bite inhibition quickly. Using the above method, painful bites should stop by twelve weeks, pressure should be gone by sixteen to eighteen weeks, and mouthing should stop entirely by the time your pup reaches five months.
Training is a marathon, not a sprint. If the method looks too good to be true, it probably is.
Aggressive Puppy Biting
Play biting is one thing, but what do you do if you’re faced with a snarling, snapping pup? First, you’ll need to find out what’s set your puppy off.
According to Dunbar, twenty percent of aggressive puppy bites happen when they’re grabbed by the scruff or collar. Dunbar calls this ‘grabitis’, and theorises that it’s caused by the puppy developing negative associations with being touched in that manner. Perhaps your puppy is always lead into isolation by the collar, or pulled out of places that they shouldn’t be.
There are a couple of ways you can stop this from happening. You could use a long or short line, as recommended by Doggy Dan, in order to catch your pup. This is a piece of rope between two and twenty meters long, which is attached to your puppy’s collar in order to make it easier to grab them from a distance. Or, you could get them to view being caught by the collar as a pleasant experience, randomly grabbing them and showering them with affection throughout the day.
Your puppy may also bite if they are valiantly defending an object that is important to them. To halt this behaviour, make sure that the puppy gets back any toys that you take from them -- they’ll hang on tight if they think they’ll never see that stuffed bear ever again. Dunbar also recommends exchanging toys for treats in the beginning.
If none of this applies, your puppy might be snapping because they feel especially fearful, a common problem with traumatised rescue dogs. In this case, it’s a good idea to consult a professional dog trainer. You may also want to investigate the environment to try and determine a cause -- your neighbours may be using a high sound frequency plug in to deter rodents, for example.
If you can’t figure out what’s making your dog aggressive, it’s best to seek professional advice.
Desperate Times, Desperate Measures - The Story of Rio
A friend, Maria, has a German Shepherd called Rio. In her puppy hood, Rio was known with a mixture of affection and exasperation as ‘the land-shark’. Rio was a latcher, and did not know her own strength -- Maria spend weeks fielding questions from concerned colleagues about the painful, red bite marks all over her hands and arms.
She tried Dr. Dunbar’s methods, along with redirection, all to no avail. Eventually, she began slightly pressing down on Rio’s tongue with her thumb every time she bit too hard. Neither pup nor person was happy about it, but it worked -- over time, the bites decreased in force and then stopped entirely.
Curious about how your dog’s breed affects their training? Take a look at our detailed breed guides.
How to Stop a Puppy from Biting your Feet
The phrase ‘nipping at your heels’ has entered common usage for a reason. Young puppies on their first few walks just love to bite at their owner’s ankles. Theoretically you can stop them with Dr. Dunbar’s methods, but some might balk at going full diva in public. If you don’t, go ahead -- who am I to stop you? Some people even do this with their toddlers.
If throwing a full tantrum in the park isn’t your thing, it may be worth taking a tip from Cesar Milan’s book and going for redirection. The Dog Whisperer recommends scattering kibble on the ground for your pup to snap up.
FAQ - Puppy Crying When Left Alone
My puppy doesn’t bite at all, what do I do?
If your puppy doesn’t go for play biting, they’re probably shy. You’ll need to put extra effort into socialising them with other dogs so that they’ll learn to use their teeth. Your puppy’s reluctance to say hi with their fangs might seem like a blessing now, but it’s essential for them to learn bite inhibition to prevent problems down the line.
Do I still use the method if my puppies’ bites don’t hurt?
Absolutely! Just because your pup can’t or won’t bite hard now, doesn’t mean they’re not going to be capable of using their jaws in the future. Hunting dogs, such as beagles and spaniels, naturally don’t bite down hard because they were bred to retrieve prey, and you might need to act just a little bit harder in order to teach them properly.
What is a soft mouth?
If you’re researching puppy biting, you’ll probably come across the term ‘soft’ mouth sooner or later. A dog is said to have a ‘soft mouth’ if they can hold things between their teeth and gums without biting down with pressure.
Can I use a nasty tasting cream on my hands to stop my puppy biting them?
Can you? Yes. Should you? Definitely not. Your puppy needs to bite, they’re going to bite someone, and it’s best that it’s you.
The Wrap Up
So there you have it -- a thorough (and fun!) way to stop puppy bites in the present and prevent trouble in the future. Need help in other areas of training? Chances are, we have a guide for you! Our Puppy Training Guide is a great place to start.
MJ Stokes is a freelance writer, editor and dog lover. They have previously written canine content for several sites including Wag!Walking. MJ shares their life with their five-year-old rescue whippet-greyhound cross Joe, master of physical comedy and definitely a sprinter, not a marathon runner. MJ brings well-researched content to the dog community.