If you have a new puppy, you probably have pulled up your sleeves to show your veterinarian teeth marks covering your forearms. Puppy bites are painful. And most people are shocked to discover the degree to which their puppy bites them.
For a puppy under the age of 5 months old, most biting is perfectly normal. Puppies need to bite to explore the world and to learn about social interactions with humans. A puppy who did not attempt to bite would be like a toddler who did not attempt to put things in her mouth. Just as the toddler is not being bad and in need of reprimand, your puppy is doing only what comes naturally as a part of his normal development.
But do not despair! The incredible thing is that you can meet your puppy’s normal behavioral need to bite while instilling in him the ability to make alternative choices to biting you. That’s kind of amazing when you think about it.
As you’ve discovered, puppy biting most commonly occurs when you attempt simply to pet your puppy. (There is also leash biting, biting at your clothing, biting your shoes and feet, biting at kids when they’re running or just sitting in a chair, and more—phew!—solutions to all of which you can find in Puppy Savvy.)
If your puppy bites your hands when you pet him, get relief starting today by assuming this will happen and proactively changing your interactions to the following:
- Attempt snuggle time only when your pup is very relaxed or even drowsy. Anything else will invite a bite fest.
- Before you settle in to snuggle, hold a plush toy twice the size of your puppy’s mouth. The pup will bite the toy while you pet him or her. Should the pup miss the toy and bite your hand, yelp once, quietly stand up and silently leave the room with the toy. Return after 15 seconds and try again (this usually works after three days of being consistent, and sometimes after just a few repetitions).
- Play with a toy attached to a line that you flick along the ground to keep teeth at a distance. Keep the toy touching the ground to prevent your pup injuring himself by leaping and landing awkwardly.
- Interact in constructive ways that bypass biting; teach the puppy fetch, find it, nose touch and come-when-called games.
If the puppy bites when you wrestle with him, pet his face, tussle his ears, or pat him on the head:
- Don’t touch him like that. I hate to say it, but that kind of touch explicitly invites biting; puppies get other puppies to bite and play with them by grabbing each other’s faces and ears. Instead, pet your puppy gently on the chest. Show others how to do this, and feed your pup a few treats to keep his mouth occupied while they pet him (that’s a great way to prevent leaping during greetings, too).
- Meantime, teach him to be relaxed about being touched on the head and face because, let’s face it, it’s going to happen when humans want to show affection or when your pup needs to be examined. Just do the super quick and easy body handling exercises in Puppy Savvy. Here is a one-minute video that shows how.
- No wrestling. Wrestling will sabotage a lot of important skills the puppy needs to get along well in the world, like accepting being touched, restrained, reached for, caught and calmly patted. Instead, get physcial by playing chase, tug, or and hide and seek games (the pup chases the person, never the other way around).
Notice which times of day your puppy is wired so that before the shark attack begins, you can initiate constructive activities or confine him with a chew toy. This simple but powerful change in your routine rewards the pup for behavior you like. Otherwise you risk not only his rehearsal of biting (ouch!), but also him being rewarded if you have been handing him a toy after he bites (gack!).
If you are consistent, you should be bite-free in about a week. Personally I think you should treat yourself to a reward for all that work…perhaps a new, short-sleeved top to show off those teethmark-free arms!