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So your new puppy’s needle teeth graze you every time you play with his squeaky plush alligator toy. His teeth almost feel as painful as the baby alligator’s would.
Or your adult dog’s teeth keep scratching you when you play ball.
You want to keep playing with your beloved canine. But it’s very frustrating when you keep being bruised or scratched by your pup’s teeth.
I love to play with my pup, but how do I stop my dog from play biting?
There are many ways you can end the constant daggers from puncturing your flesh during those exciting (for your pup) play sessions.
First, it’s important to determine whether the dog is really being playful. Also, the age of the dog will help determine what methods to use.
How To Determine Whether It’s Play or Aggression
When puppies play, they use their teeth to hold a toy or tug with it. Sometimes when they grab it, their sharp little teeth inadvertently scratch us. Or catch a thumb.
Sometimes they even want to play with our hands. And their puppy teeth can really hurt!
With young puppies up to about five months old, play biting is just that: play. It’s very rarely aggression.
Most puppies have a loose body language:
- Mouth with tongue out
- Softly looking at us
- Loose body language
- Happily wagging tail
A playful pup may even do a play bow, where his front dips down to the floor, while his rear end stays up, happily wagging his tail.
Even older puppies up to a year old have the same body language, although they may be a little rougher.
How quickly a dog ages depends on what his size will be as an adult and his breed. Smaller breeds like Maltese or chihuahuas mature more quickly than larger breeds like golden retrievers.
A toy breed may be considered an adult at a year old, whereas a large or giant breed may not be considered to be an adult until two years of age.
As a puppy approaches maturity, he may become more independent and may challenge you more. But that doesn’t mean he’s necessarily aggressive.
Also, some dogs, like field-bred retrievers, often naturally have what’s called a “soft mouth,” in which they control the pressure when teeth meet something.
They were bred to pick up prey that’s been downed without damaging it. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have to work with them.
Training helps communication and sets limits with all dogs.
Unlike the body language of a playful dog, an aggressive dog may show the following: raised hackles (hair on the back of the neck), tense face with wrinkled muzzle, lips pulled back to expose teeth, tense body language, ears set forward, and a hard stare.
Whereas a puppy may have a soft play growl, an older dog that’s aggressive may have a deep-throated growl.
An aggressive dog may snap and lunge in a menacing manner.
If there’s any doubt, I recommend getting the help of a qualified, positive-reinforcement trainer or behavior consultant.
As service dog puppy raisers we mostly work with golden retrievers and labrador retrievers, two of the most mouthy dog breeds on the planet. From day 1 we work on teaching our puppies what is appropriate (toys, chews, etc) and inappropriate to bite (hands, feet, legs, etc).
Teaching Bite Inhibition
Of course, no one wants to be bitten. But when a dog has proper bite inhibition, he’s learned to control the force of his mouthing and to be gentle.
A dog with bite inhibition usually won’t break skin.
It’s easier to teach bite inhibition to a younger puppy than to an adult dog.
Young puppies are routinely corrected by their littermates and mother when they bite too hard.
A littermate who’s bitten too hard in play will usually scream a high-pitched yelp. And the puppy who was too rough will back off and will have learned to be gentler with his teeth in the future.
Then the play will continue with littermates learning not to bite too hard if they want to continue interacting and playing.
The puppy’s mother will also correct a puppy that bites too hard. From this information, the puppy learns what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable.
Then, you bring your sweet furry bundle of joy home. He explores the world with his mouth.
And our hands seem like such fun play things–the way we wave them around and wriggle our fingers. It’s just a big toy to him inviting him to explore it with his mouth.
But when his needle-like teeth touch our skin, we feel pain. To help teach a younger puppy to back off and have bite inhibition, we may yelp like a littermate would.
The puppy should back off. If he does, immediately praise him and redirect him to a toy or chewie to occupy him.
Depending on the dog, you can try this with an older puppy who’s just mouthy. After you yelp (OW!!!), if he backs off praise and redirect to a toy or chewie.
My sheltie Murphy is the poster dog for bite inhibition. He learned as a young puppy not to put pressure with his mouth on my skin.
When I yelped (OWWW!!), he immediately backed off and learned that interaction and play with me ended if he was rough with his teeth on my skin.
Within a short time, he learned not to put his teeth on my skin. He’s eight now, and playtime with him is a joy.
Puppies usually–but not always–understand this language. Some puppies may not, such as those taken away from their mother or littermates when they’re too young. Puppies should stay with them until they are eight weeks old.
Adult dogs may respond to the yelp. Some may not back off. There are other ways to teach them not to be nippy.
Some older puppies or adult dogs may even become over-stimulated by the yelp and become more mouthy. Of course, don’t try this again with them.
Remember: any time you try to yelp to get the puppy to understand that he’s used too much pressure with his teeth on your hand, afterwards your hand should go limp.
Don’t wave your hand around and excite the puppy to grab it again. And don’t do the “yelp” exercise more than three times per session. If you see that it’s not working after one or two tries, don’t try this method again.
Instead, try one of the methods below to teach your dog to never put his teeth on you. After all, that’s the ultimate goal.
How To Stop Your Dog From Play Biting
After determining that your dog is play biting, not being aggressive, there are many ways to try to stop the mouthiness.
Some work better than others depending on the dog. The rules below apply to both puppies and adult dogs.
- Leave the dog for 20 to 30 seconds. When the dog is mouthy with you, turn away and give him no attention for 20 to 30 seconds. If that doesn’t work, leave the room for that amount of time.
Make sure before you leave that the room has been puppy-proofed so he can’t get in any trouble for that brief time.
I love the Extreme Kongs and freeze them stuffed with a pate dog food overnight. Most dogs love this and it keeps them occupied and focused on something other than play biting you.
Or you can have him perform an obedience command like sit and calmly praise and treat when he does.
If your dog is still too focused on you and mouthing when you return, leave again. And do the same routine when you return. Do this no more than three times.
If this doesn’t work, try something else.
Most dogs will start to understand that your attention–which they seek–goes away when they’re too rough.
- Time-out! Another way to withdraw your attention that teaches some dogs not to play bite is to take your dog to a safe space and leave him there for 20 to 30 seconds.
This can be taking him to another room and leaving him on the other side of a gate.
Then go back and release him to be with you again. Do it no more than three times. If it’s working, your pup will stop being mouthy when you return.
Tip: the place you use shouldn’t be his crate. You don’t want that to become a negative place.
PRO TRAINER TIP: Don’t use this method or leaving the room if your dog has separation anxiety or it may exacerbate that problem.
- Redirect your dog. When your dog wants to play with your hands, have a favorite to or chew for him to get.
You can teach him a “take it” command. As you give him the desired object, tell him “take it.”
Praise when he takes the new item. By doing this, you’re teaching him new rules of the game. He gets rewarded for listening and not touching your hands.
If he still attempts to go for your hands instead of the toy, throw the toy instead instead of handing it to him when you tell him to “take it.”
- Teach your dog to be calm when petting. Some dogs get mouthy when being petted. You can teach him to be calm when petted.
You can have him sit then give him treats from the other hand while petting him. Tell him “good petted” when he sits and doesn’t mouthe you.
Treats should be pea-sized tidbits. One of the treats I like are Cloud Star Tricky Trainers.
It also helps with some dogs to pet him under the chin, not on the top of the head.
PRO TRAINER TIP: Prior to working with your dog in any training practice, you want to set him up to succeed. Make sure that he’s been adequately exercised so that he dispels any pent-up energy.
Otherwise that extra energy might be directed to your hands! Take him for a walk or play fetch before doing your training session.
- Play nice! Stop rough-housing or wrestling with your dog. When you do that, you become a big toy in your dog’s mind.
He gets too excited and can’t help but mouthe you. So find other ways to play with him.
- Encourage non-contact forms of play. Play fetch or tug as long as he knows how to immediately release the toy when you tell him to.
- Work on impulse-control exercises. The more your dog’s able to be calm in any circumstance, the better his behavior will be.
Teach him basic dog training commands like sit, down, stay, wait, leave it, and settle.
- No playing footsie! Some dogs love to play with our feet or ankles–especially when we walk.
Puppies and herding breeds like border collies or shelties love to “herd” your feet.
When my sheltie Duffy was very young, he used to want to nip at my feet when I walked.
He wasn’t being aggressive. Instead, he was trying to herd me like a sheep! It was in his genes. I did the following to end this behavior
So make going away from your feet more fun than playing with them.
Have a toy ready to redirect “ankle biters.” Wave the toy around to excite them. Then either play tug or throw the toy, telling him to “get it.”
- Provide and rotate toys. If your dog has other fun things to do–including activity toys like the Tornado Puzzle Toy or Treat Tumble Puzzle Toy–he’ll be less likely to see you as one.
Rotating them every week keeps him from getting bored with them.
- Exercise your pooch. Dogs with too much excess energy are more likely to play bite. So make sure that yours has expended some before you expect him to be calm.
Take him for a walk. Play fetch. If he’s dog friendly, have him play with another dog he gets along with.
- Use taste deterrents. If your dog likes to play with your hands or clothes, put a spray deterrent like Bitter Apple on those areas prior to engaging with him.
If it works, you’ll see him make a face and back off immediately after he’s tasted it. Do this for about two weeks for him to form a new behavior.
- Be calm and boring when greeting your pup. To your dog, the party’s probably just started when you get home. He jumps up and down, tail wildly wagging. This is probably when he starts play biting.
We inadvertently encourage this. We may say in a high-pitched voice, waving our arms around to pet Fido: “Hiya sweetie! Mommie’s home! Come here!”
By then, your dog’s over-the-top excited and grabs your hand or clothes.
The scenario changes if you’re calm and boring when you come home. Just come in, ignore your dog and, when he’s calmed down in a few minutes, give him calm attention.
Or even turn around with your back to him.
Or have him sit and calmly praise and give him a small treat.
- Play a “find-it” game. If your dog’s bouncing off the walls and grabbing your hands or clothes when you come home, you can play a game.
A fun game is to have a few (five or so) small treats or pieces of kibble in your hand and toss them down as you greet your dog immediately telling him to “find it!”
This redirects his attention away from you and rewards him for not play biting.
- Teach your dog to sit when greeting. So many dogs get mouthy when greeting. They’re so excited they can’t contain themselves.
Teaching him to sit calmly when being greeted will resolve this issue.
- Teach hand targeting. If you teach your dog to calmly touch your hand with his nose rather than his teeth, you’ll resolve the mouthing issue.
- Socialize. Many dogs get overly excited when greeting new people. That’s when the play biting kicks in.
The more well-socialized your pup is to new places, experiences, and people, the less likely he is to be over-stimulated in those settings.
Don’t Do This at Home: What NOT To Do
There are some things that may work but that can have unwanted consequences. And some might not even be effective.
The following items should NOT be done in order to attempt to correct play biting.
They can ruin the bond with your dog and even lead to fearfulness or aggression.
- Don’t use any sort of time out for dogs with separation anxiety. The above method of leaving your dog or taking him away from you–even for 20 or 30 seconds–can exacerbate the distress a dog with separation anxiety feels.
And it can make them have worse separation anxiety behaviors overall too.
- Don’t use a crate as punishment. A crate should always be a positive experience for your dog.
- Don’t tease your dog with your fingers or toes–or any body part. Waving our arms or legs makes them very inviting to our dogs. We don’t want to be seen as a chew toy.
Also, don’t wave or jerk hands or feet away from the dog. Instead, have them go limp and become boring.
- Don’t do old-fashioned, cruel corrections. Years ago, many trainers engaged in harsh–even cruel–corrections. Some still do. But you don’t want to be cruel to your beloved companion.
Were they effective? Some were–at least in the short term. But they often ruined the bond with the dog’s owner. And created unwanted side effects of fear or aggression in the dog.
Some of these “corrections” were: pinning the dog; hitting the dog; scruff shaking him; sticking fingers down his throat; alpha rolling him; grabbing his muzzle; jerking his leash; or spraying him with water.
First of all, some dogs may run away from you in fear. And your bond of trust will be broken–maybe forever.
Other dogs may defend themselves and become aggressive.
You love your pup or you wouldn’t be taking the time to read this article. So don’t try these cruel, outdated methods.
Once you’ve determined that your dog is actually play biting and not being aggressive, there are many humane ways to fix that behavior.
Every dog is different. We listed 16 tips to help you stop your dog from play biting. If one doesn’t work, try another.
You may need to do a few, such as exercising your dog, training him to alternative behaviors, and redirecting him to treats or toys.
Hopefully at the end of the day you’ll find something that works for you and your dog.
One final thought. Training a dog takes time and patience, persistence, and consistency. We start training our puppies from 8 weeks old until 2 years of age before they start working as service dogs. As Daniel Tiger says: “keep trying, you’ll get better!”
How about you? Does your dog play bite?
If so, how did you stop your dog from play biting?
Tell us about your experiences in the comment section below.
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