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Play Biting


 Dog Behavior Library

Puppy Biting

Puppy Exploration Biting

The definition of a puppy, is that it still has puppy canine teeth. A puppy may bite someone in an attempt to explore the world. Part of this exploration is to see what happens when he bites harder. If this is the case, the best thing to do is to allow some gentle mouthing at first (gentle exploration), then when the biting becomes even slightly uncomfortable, get up and move away from the pup. This communicates you are withholding attention from him. This is what happens if the pup were exploring with littermates. Try to communicate that it is the harder bite that causes you to want to stop playing. After several seconds, return to the pup, and allow gentle mouthing again. He may not understand at first that it is the pressure that caused you to move away. Keep repeating the cycle until the pup has a chance to understand the situation.

Teaching the puppy to bite gently is called, "Bite Inhibition"

In most cases, the removal of attention is the only punishment needed for this type of biting. Escalate the punishment if you are sure the pup understands what you want, yet is ignoring your request. (Insubordination)

Another strategy for puppy exploration biting is to redirect the chewing into a proper chew toy. If you do this, allow at least 10 seconds between your exit and whimpering, and delivering the toy. Otherwise the pup may think it got a toy as a result of biting you ("unintentional reward").

The best thing to do is to allow some gentle mouthing at first (gentle exploration), then when the biting becomes even slightly uncomfortable, get up and move away from the pup. Puppy learns that play stops if biting is too hard.

Puppy Play Biting

This biting starts out as a playful nip. It means the puppy is asking you to play with it. Another posture to look for is the "play bow" gesture. This is when a dog slaps their front legs on the ground with their rump up and tail wagging. This gesture, with or without a play nip means "Please play with me."

If the pattern includes a nip, the correct response is to not play. If you do, you are teaching the pup it is not only okay to bite you, but it is a good way to get your attention. In addition to stopping play, move away (withhold attention). If you begin this pattern early, biting is easy to correct. If this has been developed into a habit, it gets harder and harder to correct.

A common mistake is to gradually escalate the punishment

The problem with gradual escalation is that the pup does not perceive the response as a punishment, only as rougher play. This not only does not solve the problem, but encourages the pup to bite (play) even harder.

Puppy Serious Biting (not from fear)

This is when the puppy is saying, "You can't do that, and I'm going to punish you." This typically occurs in older puppies who are bred as guard dogs, and have not been properly socialized and handled. This is a serious symptom of a dog that may become uncontrollably aggressive in the future if steps are not taken immediately. The younger you start with this type of symptom, the easier it will be to resolve. The best time to start is when the puppy is six to eight weeks of age.

If you respond with too aggressively, you may increase the aggressive nature of the dog. This personality will continue to protect you and your house. The question becomes, "Can you stop aggression when you want to?" The goal is to be able to control your own dog, and be seen by your dog as a leader. If the pup is biting you, it may a symptom the pup does not perceive you as leader.

Start with these non-physical methods:

  • Start with hand feeding, and only giving food if it is taken gently. (Close your hand if the puppy acts rough, open it if he's gentle.) It is okay to withhold food up to 24 hours in a pup over eight weeks of age for the purpose of increasing motivation. Let the pup know you control the food. Begin to exchange food for the right to handle and control the pup. Reward only what you want: calm acceptance of your leadership.
  • Begin Leadership and Gentling Exercises. Instructions are available from the same source as this page.
  • Don't "play fight" (box) with the dog. This gives the message it is okay to growl and bite your hands.
  • Gently close the muzzle closed as needed. This also works if the pup is barking inappropriately in your presence. The best way to do this is to use a Gentle Leader (brand of head collar) on the pup.  Use the leash to pull up and close the muzzle.

Puppy Serious Fearful Biting

This type of biting is common in puppies that are either naturally fearful, or in those that have not been properly socialized and gentled. They may periodically become very tense, and actively show fearful postures such as crouching and trying to get away. The puppy is biting to try to make you go away because it is afraid you are going to harm it. Moving away rewards the fearful behavior, so the behavior is strengthened and increased. Never coddle and try to soothe the pup. Reward calm, relaxed behaviors with verbal attention and treats.

Don't punish fear biting. It only makes the pup more fearful

Since the puppy wants to get away from you, the strategy of moving away doesn't work; in fact, it rewards the biting. He misinterprets this as confirmation that you were threatening. If this is the type of biting you are experiencing, don't try to force anything. Act relaxed and initially ignore the behavior, but don't intentionally move away. Hand feed as much as possible, and only give attention when the pup is acting confident or playful. If the puppy is acting fearful, instead of moving away, a better response is to act "Jolly" or very happy. The idea is to show the puppy that as leader, you don't see anything to be afraid of.
Other strategies are to begin the Elevation and Gentling Exercises described in other pages available from the same source as this information.

Escalating Steps Responding To Puppy Biting, not fear motivated

  • Stop attention and move away if Exploration Biting
  • Whimper and leave if Play Biting. You are communicating that the bite hurt, and the pup used too much pressure. Stop play and move away from the pup for several seconds until it quiets down.

  • Begin to demonstrate Leadership Exercises, including requiring a SIT before any food or attention, and do daily gentle massages as part of the Leadership and Gentling strategy.
  • If other techniques don't work, stop and consult a behaviorist.

If Fearful

Don't use any physical correction, it only makes the fear worse! If you use verbal corrections, watch for any submissive sign and stop when you see them. Submission signs are cowering, lowered ears and tail and a "I'm sorry" posture. As soon as you see submission, stop since continuing will cause the pup to misunderstand and not trust you.

Remember that after verbal punishment, allow five seconds of silence to "wash" the pup's memory, then call it to you and praise it lavishly because it just did COME when you asked. (The Make up)

If the pup urinates when after correction or when greeting you, don't punish at all. Instead implement the Gentling Exercises. If urinating when greeting, at first ignore the pup until it is less excited, and crouch down, look away, and allow it to greet you more casually. If this problem continues, obtain the information of "Submissive Urination" from the same source as this handout.

The key to dealing with a fearful dog is to build its confidence

Do this by gradually inducing the situation that normally causes fear. Cause enough to see the first signs of fear. (Wide eyes, tense muscle tone.) Don't allow a panic attack. Then wait at that level of stimulus and begin praising and rewarding any relaxed or confident posture. Once the pet ignores the stimulus, move it closer, and go very slowly over many days of therapy. If in doubt, consult a behaviorist knowledgeable in systematic desensitization and counter conditioning.

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