Why is my puppy biting me? It hurts!
Nearly all nipping is your puppy’s way of getting your attention and trying to engage you in play. If you ever watch puppies or dogs play, you’ll notice that most of them naturally “play fight.” They chase, tackle, wrestle, and chew on each other as they play. Although most puppies and dogs learn not to bite too hard (we call that “bite inhibition”), those needle-like baby teeth can really hurt when you don’t have fur to protect you! Ouch!
It makes sense that your puppy should nip at you too. It’s playtime, so what’s the problem? Your puppy needs to learn that this is not appropriate play with people. We can’t expect him to know this automatically. Good play with people is an acquired skill.
What should I do?
Puppies primarily bite to get our attention to get us to interact with them. We need to be sure that we aren’t rewarding behavior that we don’t want repeated over and over again. When the behavior is rewarded, your puppy will continue to nip away.
If attention is the goal, then your attention is the reward. While some people will suggest that you yelp or say “ouch,” it’s important to realize that this doesn’t work very well for many puppies. Most hear that noise and think: “Great! Now we’re playing! Game on!” In fact, even looking at your puppy after he has nipped is allowing the behavior pay off. It’s attention he’s seeking and you just looked. If you yell, you’ve also unwittingly joined in the fun.
In response to nipping, keep your cool. Don’t look at your puppy, don’t talk to your puppy, and don’t yell at your puppy. You have a few other options. You can calmly get a toy, put it in his mouth, and engage in appropriate play. This says to your puppy: “No, you may not bite my hands (or feet or arms or…), but you can chew on this and I’ll give you my attention.” If no toy is nearby, you will want to simply get up and quietly walk away from your puppy to find a toy. Sometimes just walking away by itself will send a clear message.
What happens if my puppy keeps biting?
There may be times during the day when your puppy may become extremely excited, racing around and biting everything and everyone in sight. Looking away or initiating play with a toy is useless. You might think about this as being equivalent to that overly tired 2-year-old child who will scream, cry, hit, or throw a full-blown temper tantrum when what he really needs is to sleep—the exact opposite of what he is showing you. Puppies can also become overly tired and turn into crazy biting machines without any sense of bite inhibition. It’s as though he has turned into an alligator!
Time for a nap! If you are using a crate with your puppy or perhaps a small room blocked off with a baby gate, put your puppy in this space with a very high value treat, preferably something edible that he can lick or chew for an extended period of time. Good options are bully sticks or a delicious stuffed Kong (preferably one that has been frozen to make it last even longer). Most puppies will be sound asleep in five minutes. Be sure you don’t use your crate as a place of punishment. Always be sure to give your puppy that good treat in the crate.
Can training help?
Absolutely! Training can be very helpful. If your puppy learns to target your hand, you can use that “touch” to redirect your puppy to do something else. You can teach your puppy a solid “leave it” or "drop it" cue so that he will let go of hands, clothing, or anything else he has in his mouth. There are all sorts of ways of redirecting that puppy energy, so taking a class with your puppy will help you to better manage his nipping.
Reward the good things!
You may find yourself worn out by your puppy. House training and managing your puppy’s environment to keep him and your possessions safe is hard work. As a result, we tend to pay attention to our puppies and dogs only when they are doing something bad. But if you want your puppy to cut back on the biting, you need to be sure to reward the things that you like. Good quiet behavior should be rewarded. A puppy playing by himself should be rewarded. A puppy who brings you a toy or approaches without nipping should be given attention. He needs to know not only what you DON’T want, but also what you DO want instead. And don’t forget that puppies have a natural urge and need to chew, so be sure you give him lots of fun things that he is allowed to chew.
Stay one step ahead of your puppy
Instead of reacting to being bitten, see if you can head off the biting before it ever takes place. Make sure that every interaction with your puppy involves a toy. Going over to your puppy to pet him? Put a toy in front of his mouth in case he wants to put his mouth on something. See your puppy coming over to you? Hold out a toy. Don't wait for the bad thing to happen. Stay one step ahead.