You’ll often read it as “play biting” but this is a gross assumption in terms of diagnosis and what is actually motivating the puppy to grab, bite or mouth. For some owners, it is a real problem. Those needle teeth hurt, for a start. It can negatively affect the bond formed from the new owner towards their puppy and can result in owners using methods the puppy finds scary or unpleasant to try to stop the behaviour. This then has a detrimental effect on the relationship from the puppy’s perspective too.
There are different motivations underlying puppy biting, grabbing and mouthing behaviour and we’ll explore some of these here. But to start with, let’s go right back and start with the importance of choosing your breed wisely. If you choose a breed or a breed-line that is used for protection work or sports that include bite-work, you’re going to have a bitey puppy. If you’re the right home for that breed, that will probably fill you with joy. If you want a pet dog, best to stay away from these breeds or breed-lines.
Next up – your breeder. If your dog is going to be a pet, maybe in a home with children (who can be noisy and move around fast), think about breeders who will rear the puppies in a home environment (rather than an outbuilding, barn, shed etc) with plenty of novel and interesting items provided to the puppies regularly. They will gain reinforcement from chewing on, ripping up and playing with appropriate items from an early age, are likely to be less anxious about noise and activity and more resilient (see relevance of that to biting behaviour further on). If you have children, I’d recommend either a breeder with children OR one you can visit regularly with your kids until your puppy is due to come home – so the puppies are used to erratic noise and behaviour of small people (though it’s also important they not been sensitised to being handled due to rough man-handling!).
We want to pre-empt biting behaviour as much as possible. It is very commonly exhibited once a puppy becomes tired (so if they have been awake for around 1½ -2 hours without a nap, or towards the end of the day – often known as ‘the witching hour’). Be aware that young puppies need up to 20 hours of sleep in a 24 hour period and some puppies need help switching off. You can download your FREE handout ‘How to calm your dog’ here for tips to help with this (which is also followed by email advice giving you more in-depth tips). It is important that you don’t leave your puppy in a distressed state if you do need to pop them somewhere to encourage them to settle down – ensure they have been trained to like their ‘safe area’ and provide them with a chew or something to lick at to help them wind down.
Arousal and excitement will often lead to grabby land-shark behaviours, so if possible try to keep things calm (increase the expectation of your children if relevant here!). Play should not involve pulling toys up in the air or teasing puppies. Be aware that games of tug might not be appropriate whilst your puppy is teething either. Encouraging children to hide food or toys for puppy to find is a great game that generally keeps arousal levels low. If you are playing with your puppy and notice their arousal levels start to change for the worst, do a little food scatter and end the game. In the long-term, teaching a reliable ‘drop’ cue and self-control when aroused are brilliant tools (these exercises covered in my webinars available here).
Puppies can sometimes bite and grab on walks at the lead, clothing or people – this may be play/predatory behaviour triggered by the movement of the lead or loose clothing hanging near them or it may be a symptom that they are tired, overwhelmed, over-aroused, frustrated about being restrained on the lead or anxious about activity going on around them. Remember first walks aren’t actually much of a walk at all. They’re little investigative mooches – see previous blog post here (and also covered in the webinars!).
Puppies (and even older dogs) may jump up and grab when they are feeling anxious, frightened, frustrated or relieved. This takes us back to the importance of the breeder and we need to deal with the underlying emotions in order to address the undesirable behaviour. In these cases, speak to your vet and seek advice from a clinical or veterinary behaviourist.
One of the most common triggers, in my experience, and probably the hardest for new owners to appreciate, is being touched. New puppy parents want nothing more than to touch and cuddle their new bundle of fluff – but often this is at a time the puppy does not want it. Indeed, they are learning SO much about the world that sometimes us touching them is way too much for them to cope with on top of everything else they are trying to process. Sometimes it is to do with the way we are touching them (e.g. is our hand going over their head which triggers mouthing behaviour? What happens if we tickle their chest instead?). When touching them triggers the unwanted behaviour, listen to your puppy’s requests to be left alone. Use a consent test – offer your hand and start touching them for a few seconds then stop – does your puppy re-initiate the contact again? If not (or mouthing/biting starts), respect that and leave them alone. The same behaviour is frequently reported with grooming (“my dog/puppy grabs the brush”) – this is your dog asking for you to stop. You can build up handling and grooming tolerance in small periods when your puppy is most receptive and heavily reinforce them for remaining calm as you do so.
It is perfectly normal puppy behaviour for them to pick up and explore items with their mouths and enjoy destroying things. They haven’t got hands to explore things – they use their mouths. Provide them with plenty of items they can destroy and investigate (from cardboard to celery), and if they find some other stolen treasure just leave them to it if it’s not valuable to you or dangerous to them. Taking items straight from them can lead to grabbing behaviour which overtime can lead to more possessive behaviour. If it is valuable or dangerous, swap it with something – drop a few pieces of food or distract with a toy and pick up the stolen item without your puppy seeing you do it (as this can inadvertently build value in the item, so they want to keep hold of something more the next time they are in possession of something). Ideally we want to teach puppies that bringing items TO you is heavily reinforced and that items are not always taken from them.
Some puppies literally just bite and grab from the moment they are awake. You’re walking around the house, everything is calm, they are well-rested, they have loads of appropriate items to chew and destroy but they just gain so much reinforcement from biting you. Firstly, always ensure you don’t have flapping clothing that triggers a play/predatory response, and wrap up in thick clothing to protect yourself – wear wellies if you need to. Use management in the form of a pen or babygates to give you all a break, when you need to get stuff done or when the kids are around. Practice food trails – placing pieces of their dry food on the floor as you walk around and your puppy follows you, so you’re passively rewarding pup for calmly walking around with you & you’re pre-empting any biting & grabbing. Teaching them to settle and stay put somewhere is also invaluable.
It is really important to avoid being tempted by any advice that you might find online or given to you by well-meaning friends or family to squeal (this can either startle them or wind them up even more), scold them (which will increase frustration and lead to further problems), smack them (keep your hands associated with good stuff only), use strong smelling or aversive tasting substances (your puppy’s sense of smell is up to 100,000x stronger than ours and we don’t want to create conflict about being with us), or any other advice designed to suppress the expression of the behaviour rather than dealing with the underlying cause. Stop what you are doing, redirect them and work out what might be driving the behaviour. If you’re struggling, remote puppy consults are available for pups up to 14 weeks of age. We can discuss your own individual scenario, identify what is causing the behaviour and hopefully give you specific advice to help address the underlying cause.