Help my puppy bites! How to teach your dog to bite gently. And why teaching bite inhibition could one day save your dog’s life!
All puppies bite. They are not being aggressive or nasty or deliberately trying to hurt you. It’s just how they explore their world by using their mouth!
When your puppy is in a litter with mum and siblings, they learn what force of bite is acceptable. If they bite too hard their brothers and sisters will yelp and stop playing with them. Mum may even nip them or growl to tell them to stop. Puppies love play and attention so when this happens (and it will happen often!) it is a punishment for them. They soon learn how to moderate their bite force, so the play and fun continues.
But… I know what you’re thinking… that’s all very good that puppy biting is normal BUT those puppy teeth are needle sharp, and they hurt! Yes, they do!
Your puppy’s siblings and mum have harder hides than soft human skin. Now you need to teach your puppy what force of bite is acceptable with humans. Teaching puppies how to moderate their bite force is vital! Bite inhibition training could even save your dog’s life!
Why? All dogs will bite. Any dog no matter what breed or how they have been brought up can and will bite if placed in a situation where they are scared, hurt or feel trapped. It doesn’t make them aggressive. It makes them a dog! The only defence dogs have been equipped with to protect themselves is their teeth! They will bite to restore their own sense of safety.
When some dogs bite, they barely leave a mark on the skin whereas others cause serious injuries even in the same situation. Why the difference? If a dog has been punished and stopped from biting altogether then it does not know how to moderate the force of its bite with humans. Dogs that inflict a serious bite injury, whether it is the dog’s fault or not, are more likely to be put down. Hence, teaching your dog bite inhibition could literally save its life one day!
Dogs that learn bite inhibition as puppies are less likely to inflict serious injuries. Bite inhibition training teaches dogs that humans are delicate and fragile beings so when they do bite, the dog will believe that a soft bite will achieve the same effect as a hard bite.
So how do you teach bite inhibition? Don’t stop the biting altogether but teach your puppy to have a ‘soft mouth’ using the training steps below.
STEP 1 – Hard bites are not acceptable
• Never engage in play with your hands. Use toys for play so that your puppy learns that hands are not their play things.
• Teach your puppy that hard bites are not acceptable. When the puppy bites too hard loudly yelp and withdraw your hand away. Stop all play. Turn your back on your puppy and ignore them. Your puppy wants your attention and to play with you more than anything else in the world, so this is a punishment for your puppy.
• After about 20 seconds (puppies have short memories) then re-engage in play with your puppy but redirect it to play with toys. Literally surround yourself with toys so that you can quickly and easily give your puppy a toy to bite instead of you.
Please note: While most puppies respond to the yelp by stopping the biting or reducing the bite pressure, occasionally you will get a puppy that gets excited by the noise instead and bites harder. If this is the case, then growl and withdraw all play. After 20 seconds then re-engage with play using toys.
STEP 2 – Keep reducing the bite pressure
• Gradually let your puppy know that it needs to reduce the pressure of the bites. Where you first yelped for hard bites, now yelp for slightly softer bites.
• Keep doing this step until your puppy is now biting you so gently that there is no pressure at all. This gentle biting is often called mouthing and now your puppy has a soft mouth.
STEP 3 – No mouthing is allowed
• Once your puppy is gently mouthing you, it is now time to stop the mouthing altogether. Again, yelp and withdraw play and attention any time the puppy’s teeth touches your skin. The puppy will soon learn that any contact of teeth on your skin is unacceptable.
So, how long does it take? Bite inhibition can take some time to train depending on your puppy’s personality and breed. Some breeds such as Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers are notorious for mouthing. They have been bred to retrieve ducks and to have something in their mouth so may take up to 10 months or even more to reach Step 3. However, once trained they can have exceptionally soft mouths and even famous for carrying a raw egg in their mouth without cracking it! The training is well worth the effort!
Be consistent and patient with bite inhibition training so that your puppy learns how to be gentle with all humans, especially you!
Dr Erika Alacs is a biologist and professional dog trainer. Erika and her husband Phoenix are the developers of Brave Puppy app which is an innovative sound socialisation/training tool they developed to help their own dogs overcome their noise phobias and over-excitability.