Puppies have very sharp teeth and they know how to use them. If you’ve been on the receiving end of a set of puppy canines, you’ll know how much they can hurt. Of course, your puppy doesn’t intentionally set out to hurt you. What starts as a game can quickly become painful playtime. Help keep playtime with your puppy fun, and teach them to play safe, with these handy tips.
Why do puppies bite?
It helps to understand just why puppies like to use their teeth. Like human babies, puppies explore their world by mouthing items they encounter. This means everything goes into their mouth, whether it’s appropriate or not - like human hands, feet, fingers and toes!
Puppies also like to play tough. With their littermates this involves rough-and-tumble play with lots of mouthing and biting. At first, the young pups have no teeth and mouthing doesn’t hurt. As their milk teeth come in, biting hurts but the pups can often tolerate this rough play, as they have thick skins and give as good as they get. As they gain in strength, the biting starts to hurt and the pups may start to squeal as they get bitten. This often has the effect of making the biting pup back off. Their mother may also tell them off when they nip her too.
Is rough-housing ever okay?
Many owners enjoy rough-housing, which describes playing in an energetic and very physical manner – with their puppies. This behaviour often becomes a lot less fun as your dog’s adult teeth come in. It can also be dangerous for those people whose skin may be more fragile, like the elderly or young children. It can be difficult for a pup to turn their energetic behaviour off, even when their owner considers the game is over.
Dr Jo’s rule
It’s never appropriate for puppies’ teeth to contact human flesh. Instead, this behaviour should be redirected towards toys.
Your pup needs to learn how to behave when they come to live with you, including how to play. Teaching ‘bite inhibition’ will help your pup have fun with people and with other dogs.
How to play with your pup without being bitten
Here are a few tried-and-tested methods to teach your pup bite inhibition – the ability to use their teeth without causing distress to others.
Toys, toys and more toys
It’s fine to play energetically with your dog and for your puppy to use their teeth, but this type of play should be directed on to appropriate play objects. It’s best to play with your puppy in a manner that’s less likely to hurt, right from the beginning. Have a variety of strong and sturdy toys on hand, when you start a play session. When your pup goes to use their teeth, push a toy into their mouth.
Another effective method can be to react as another dog might and let out a high-pitched yelp “Yeowwww!" when your pup uses their teeth. You can do this even when the bite doesn’t hurt and your pup has merely made contact with your skin. This squeal makes the pup back off for a few seconds, allowing you to withdraw your input in the game. It’s important you don’t react further to your pup and that the game ends, at least for a short time. When you resume, have toys handy to place in your pup’s mouth.
Teaching your pup a command like “leave it” can be useful and prevents them mouthing or eating items that are inappropriate. It often helps to do this away from the heat of the game; however, once your pup has mastered the command, you can use this during a play session. Reward your pup when they obey.
Punishing your dog will give them attention and may be more likely to encourage the very behaviour you do not wish to happen. It’s also likely to reduce the bind between yourself and your dog. Dogs that are punished, both physically and verbally, are more likely to retaliate with aggression.
When your pup plays well with you, remember to praise them. This will ensure they’re encouraged to play in a manner where everyone has fun.
What if my pup still bites?
It’s almost inevitable your pup will use their teeth on you at least once or twice. This is just their way of exploring their world, having fun or getting your attention. Continue training your pup to play in an appropriate manner. If your pup continues to be too rough, seek professional help. Older pups and adult dogs that continue to bite may also need their teeth and mouths examined.
See more tips on caring for teeth here.
About Dr Joanne Righetti
Dr Jo Righetti is an animal behaviourist, educating people in all aspects of the human–animal relationship. Her background is in zoology, with a PhD in animal behaviour and a counselling diploma – qualifications which enable her to work with all sorts of animals – including the human variety! Joanne likes to help pet owners understand their pet's behaviour and solve any pet behaviour problems. She consults with vet clinics, organisations, companies, councils, universities and media and is a regular guest on radio, with pet behaviour Q&As. Jo has also written a number of pet behaviour books and loves chatting to people on social media channels. Jo lives with a dog and 4 cats, as well as 3 sons and a husband. Find out more about Joanne at www.petproblemsolved.com.au.