Got a nippy puppy? Were you hoping for Lassie but feel like you're living with Jaws?
· Dogs use their mouths to explore & manipulate their environment.
· Physical play is essential for puppies’ development.
· Dogs use their mouths in play, it is natural. It takes time for them to learn we don’t like it and to adapt to a more human play style.
· Chewing is a normal and essential behaviour.
· If you are concerned your puppy is biting out of fear and/or is being genuinely ‘aggressive’ (using biting as a way to repel you) seek professional help immediately.
Focus on prevention first:
If all the following needs are met your puppy is much less likely to be hanging off your sleeve or gnawing on your big toe….
1. Play time. Give your puppy focused, one on one attention. Take the time to understand how they like to play and what they enjoy doing. Do this at least twice a day.
2. Suitable items to chew. Your puppy is going to chew things, there’s no way around it. Make sure you are providing items that are safe for chewing and aren’t your antique furniture. Pay attention to what your pup chooses to chew (fabric? wood? plastic?) and choose safe puppy appropriate chews that have similar textures. You can make their chew toys more interesting by smearing with some tasty food too.
3. Mental stimulation. Puppies get bored easily. But they also get tired easily. They need lots of little activities to keep them entertained. If you don’t provide the entertainment, they’ll make their own. Start doing some basic training at home daily. Use puzzle feeders, spread their meals out into small amounts fed in enrichment through the day.
Puppies aren’t that different to children. Sometimes they are just having too much fun and you can tell it’s all getting a bit too silly and its going to end in tears. When pups get over aroused, they are more likely to get too rough, bite harder and generally get carried away. If you can see your puppy getting over excited turn their attention to a low arousal, ‘calming’ activity to help bring them down again. Scent work is great for this. Even something simple like scattering food in the grass or giving them a snuffle mat so everyone can have some quiet time.
Dogs naturally have two peaks of activity during they day, one in the morning and one in the evening. For most dog’s the evening peak is the biggest. And again, like humans, youngsters tend to be more active than adults. So, if you know your puppy’s witching hour is just around the corner engage them in some appropriate play before they start causing mischief. Then follow it with a puzzle feeder, some enrichment or something to have a good chew on to settle them back down for the evening.
How to encourage ‘appropriate play’:
When dogs play together using their mouths is perfectly acceptable. However, when they play with humans, we tend to prefer that they don’t use their mouths on our clothing or skin. Puppies are not born understanding this difference, we need to teach them.
The most important thing if you take one thing away from this is…. DO NOT ENCOURAGE A BEHAVIOUR WHICH YOU WILL NOT LIKE WHEN YOUR DOG IS FULLY GROWN! This is the most common mistake people make. When puppies are tiny it’s cute and funny that they hang off your trouser leg. If you encourage this, make it into a game, laugh and give them attention when they do it, they will continue. You probably won’t find it so funny when they are 30kg and keeping pulling people off their feet.
Start playing structured games from an early age. When pups start mouthing on your hand or tugging your sleeve offer them a fun toy instead and encourage a game of tug, chase or fetch. Remember your dog will often want to play with you, not just a toy. So, you need to be actively involved in the game. Using toys on a rope or bungee can be helpful as the bit the dog is biting is at a distance from your hands. This reduces the temptation to give you a little nibble. The more they have fun biting and tugging on the toy the more likely they are to keep repeating this behaviour.
Give children structured when interacting with your puppy. Lots of kids like to hug and roll around on the floor with their puppy. Some pups will find this too much, others will think it is really fun! But it is encouraging very physical rough and tumble play, which for dogs involves mouthing, growling, biting, pulling. Give your children things like ‘chasers’ or ‘flirt poles’ (basically giant cat toys) to play with your dog with instead. This keeps the bitey bits away from sensitive skin and little hands. Try to discourage high pitched squealing too. This can make some dogs get really excited!
How to react when mouthing and biting does occur:
You won’t make it through puppyhood without a few mouthy episodes. How you react and handle these is really important.
- Stay calm.
- Do not grab your puppy, hold it’s collar or pull it off.
- Do not shout, smack, or punish your puppy.
- Use high value treats or a really fun toy to distract them and call them away.
- If the target was an adult or older child encourage them to engage the puppy in more appropriate play.
- If it’s all getting too silly or the person the puppy was targeting doesn’t want to continue to engage with them make sure you give your puppy something calm to do such as a chew or snuffle mat.
- Do not try to stroke or cuddle your puppy. Keep your hands out of the way. Those bitey little teeth just won’t be able to resist a chomp if they are already over excited.
- If you just need a break from the silliness leave your puppy with something to do. Do not shut them outside or in their crate as using these areas as punishment (from the pup’s point of view) will mean they are less likely to enjoy spending time in them in the future.
Last of all, don’t forget, they aren’t doing it to be dominant, to try and hurt you, or to intentionally be a pain in the bum. More likely than not they are just trying to have fun but don’t know the rules of the game yet.