If you’ve spent time with puppies, you know they like to nibble on, well, everything. Toys, furniture, clothes, shoes – you name it, puppies will try to bite it. In fact, many puppies will even bite their favourite humans.
The good news? This is perfectly normal puppy behaviour, especially when they’re arriving in a new home. The less fun news? It’s important to quickly and expertly discourage the habit before tiny puppy nips become full-grown dog bites.
From causes to prevention to intervention, here’s everything you need to know about how to stop a puppy from biting.
Why is my puppy biting me?
So, why are puppies so prone to biting, anyway? It’s a simple question with an even simpler answer: biting things is fun and it feels good.
Similar to human babies, puppies learn a lot about the world by tasting and gnawing everything they can get their little paws on. Additionally, like babies, they go through a teething period where chewing soothes their sore gums.
“Puppies are going to test-chew everything — at first, they’re exploring, then later, they’re teething,” says Sarah Hodgson, a certified professional dog trainer, behaviour consultant, and bestselling author of numerous books on puppy rearing, including “Puppies For Dummies.” “Nipping is very common at this stage.”
Puppies tend to nip more when they’re overly excited or have an unmet need, notes Hodgson. Similar to a crying baby, a nipping puppy may signal that it’s time to go for a walk, eat dinner, have a nap, use the bathroom, or play.
Nipping and destructive chewing often improve when puppies are done teething. However, it’s important to remember that teething is a lengthy process for puppies.
“Many people believe that puppy teething is only something that lasts the first few months of puppyhood,” says Lisa Mullinax, a Seattle-based Certified Dog Behavior Consultant. “However, puppies go through two teething phases: the first is between 3-6 weeks, and the longest begins at 12 weeks and lasts until 24 weeks, as adult teeth emerge.”
How to stop your puppy from biting
Even though nips are normal, it’s important to discourage your puppy from their biting behaviour before it becomes dangerous, and before it becomes ingrained because it's harder to stop adult dogs from biting. Depending on your individual puppy, and on the cause of the biting, there are a number of strategies for addressing the behaviour.
Establish a routine
Just like babies, puppies thrive on predictable routines. When routines break down, they can melt down.
To prevent an over-tired, hungry, thirsty, or bored puppy from nipping for your attention, be sure to establish (and stick to!) a daily routine, stresses Mullinax. By anticipating your pet’s needs, you can potentially avoid the unwanted behaviour altogether. A daily routine will be beneficial for other aspects of your puppy’s development, too, including toilet training.
Reward good behavior
Rewarding good behaviour is highly preferable to punishing unwanted behaviour. Numerous studies have shown that positive reinforcement training methods are both more effective and better for dogs’ mental health.
To encourage good habits, keep small training treats or bits of kibble on-hand to reward positive interactions. If your puppy is calmly accepting pets with no mouthing, offer praise and a treat. If they are nipping but then releasing, say “yes!” and toss the treat for them to retrieve.
Chewing is a natural puppy behaviour, and many pups can’t resist nibbling at hands (after all, hands are super interesting - and they’re connected to you!). Your job as a pet parent isn’t necessarily to stop the biting, but to redirect it to something more appropriate. Stock up on plenty of fun-to-chew toys, and introduce them immediately whenever your pup gets nippy.
“Create a comfort station with chew toys in every room the puppy uses, and invest in some bones that he’ll really like to chew,” advises Hodgson.
Make sure the toys are appropriate for your puppy’s size, and don’t include any small parts or choking hazards. To make toys extra alluring, try popping them in the freezer – cold objects can be soothing for sore gums.
Remove yourself from the situation
During playtime, puppies naturally nip at each other. If they bite too hard, their littermates or mother will inform them with a sharp “yelp!” to let them know they went too far.
Known as “bite inhibition”, learning not to chomp on friends (both canine and human) is an important skill for a well-socialised pet. While some trainers recommend making a similar “yelp!” to discourage bites, others warn that yelping actually “rewards” the pup with a fun reaction from you.
Instead, Mullinax recommends leaving the room – a reaction your puppy definitely doesn’t want to cause. “Calmly walk to the nearest gate or door, close it, and stay on the other side for 10 seconds or so,” she advises.
When you return to the room, remain positive and avoid another nipping incident by working on a fun training skill, playing with a toy, or offering calm pets.
Don’t elicit biting
You don’t want to get bit, of course. But your puppy's play style may be inadvertently encouraging nips, says Hodgson. Quick-moving hands are fun for puppies to chase — and to eventually catch in their teeth. “This style of confrontational play can make nipping and rough-housing worse,” she warns.
Instead, move your hands slowly and smoothly while playing (basically, the opposite of a darting squirrel). And of course, never grab a chew toy or treat from a puppy’s mouth when they’re busy gnawing.
Try more exercise
Puppies who are excessively prone to biting may need more exercise, both physical and mental. For puppies, biting and chewing leads to attention and entertainment – so the key is to provide something more fun as an alternative.
If you’ve tried the above methods and your puppy is still nipping, try heading outside for an interactive game of fetch, suggests Shelby Semel, a New York City-based trainer and canine behaviour expert. “They can have their fun outdoors instead,” she says.
Hire a trainer
If you’re having trouble nipping the nipping, consider working with a professional trainer who has experience with young dogs. Training is a great way to improve your communication, strengthen your bond, and ensure that you’re setting your pet up for success.
“You don’t want to encourage bad behaviour without knowing,” says Semel. “The new puppy is your new housemate, so you want to make sure they have the proper socialisation and behaviour to adapt to their new life with you.”
Why might your puppy be biting you aggressively?
Does your puppy’s biting seem more purposeful than playful?
Some puppies may engage in an aggressive behaviour known as “resource guarding,” during which they growl, lunge, or even bite when you reach for their most prized possessions (usually food or toys). While a snarly puppy guarding a favourite stuffed animal might be funny, down the line, aggression can lead to serious consequences. In addition to causing injuries, dogs who bite risk being isolated, surrendered, and even euthanized.
“Millions of people are bitten by dogs every year,” says Marissa Sunny, senior dog lifesaving specialist at Best Friends Animal Society. “The majority of these bites, if not all, are preventable.”
Sunny offers the following tips for preventing and troubleshooting aggressive behaviour:
Make a veterinary appointment. Dogs in pain may act aggressively to keep people away and avoid being touched in tender areas. If your puppy suddenly becomes aggressive or reacts negatively to being touched or held, make an appointment with your veterinarian immediately. “Behaviour changes can sometimes be a symptom of a medical problem,” cautions Sunny.
Work with a trainer. “A certified trainer can help you teach your dog appropriate behaviours in a humane, effective, and ethical way,” says Sunny. Training is available in person and online in most places, she notes.
Socialise early and often. Make it a point to expose your puppy to a variety of people, places, and experiences. “Dogs also need to be socialised beyond your family and home,” notes Sunny. “They need to be comfortable in the world.”
Prioritise your pup. Before adding a puppy to your family, make sure your schedule allows for lots of time together. “As social animals, dogs thrive on social interaction and love to be a part of the family,” says Sunny. “A happy dog is a good dog.”
Pet insurance could help you manage the cost of any veterinary treatments, and even some behavioural training courses, that your puppy needs to address its biting behaviour. Explore your puppy insurance options to find a policy that works for you and your pup.
What not to do when your puppy bites you
Biting can be frustrating, and even painful. However, it’s important to remain calm and positive. Yelling might stop the behaviour in the moment, but it won’t teach your puppy not to bite in the future. In fact, yelling can even lead to worse biting.
“Yelling is a release for you, but it leads to more problems down the road,” says Hodgson.
Similarly, you should never hit your puppy for biting – not even a “gentle” tap. Known as “aversive” training, methods that use leash jerks, shock collars, and other pain-inducing punishments have been proven ineffective and harmful. A study by researchers in Portugal found that dogs who underwent aversive training displayed significantly higher levels of stress-related behaviours than dogs trained using reward-based methods.
Instead, commit to rewarding good behaviour instead of punishing undesirable habits, and make sure the entire household is clear on the plan.
“Read up on positive reinforcement training techniques and get your whole family involved,” says Sunny. “Make a game for the family of spotting and reinforcing desirable behaviour in your dog.”
Puppy biting: A common problem with proven solutions
Puppy biting can, well, bite. But with a little patience, a little know-how, and possibly some professional help, you can teach your four-legged friend how to wield their teeth safely and responsibly. Best of luck to you and your pup!