White puppy biting a man's arm

Q: My puppy bites me all the time. The bites aren't hard, but I really want to break her of this habit. Any suggestions?

A:  Your puppy uses her mouth to explore her environment, since she doesn’t have opposable thumbs to grab items. As part of this exploration, the puppy learns how hard she can bite when interacting with people and other dogs. If a puppy uses her mouth too hard while nursing, it’s likely her mother will stand up and walk away, thus delaying a meal. Or if she bites too hard while playing with another puppy, the hurt puppy will likely stop playing.

Learning to use bite strength properly in puppyhood is called bite inhibition and is crucial to developing a well-socialized dog. Though practicing with their teeth serves a purpose, puppies need to be taught how to politely use their mouths with humans.

Playtime Is Learning Time

Allowing your puppy to socialize with other vaccinated, well-mannered puppies and tolerant adult dogs will help her use her mouth more carefully. Although humans can help a puppy to learn bite inhibition, it is best taught by other canines. A well-run puppy class can be an excellent resource for puppy play. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior recommends that a puppy can start classes as soon as seven to eight weeks of age, as long as she has had her first set of vaccinations seven days prior to the start of class and has been given her first deworming.  

While puppy play is agreed to be a good way to teach your dog how to use her teeth, there is a mixed consensus on how puppies should be allowed to use their teeth with humans. Certain trainers don’t allow puppies to use their teeth on human skin at all, but I believe allowing puppies to mouth during playtime can be beneficial. Without the experience of learning how much force their mouth emits, if a dog ever is in a situation where she bites for real, she may not have proper knowledge about how hard she should bite, posing an increased risk for deeper, more damaging wounds.

Be Your Puppy's Teacher

I like to allow puppy teeth on skin when hand wrestling during a designated play time. Play the game in a dog-proofed area, such as within a doggy fence. Give the hand wrestling game a specific cue, such as “let’s play!" when you initiate it, so that your puppy understands the game is only during a specific time and cannot be played anytime she wishes. Although the game serves the purpose of fun and bonding with your puppy, the ultimate goal is to teach your dog to use her teeth gently on your skin.  

Anytime during the game that your dog bites you hard enough to cause pain, immediately let out a yelp or an “ouch” and let your hand go limp. Avoid pulling your hand away, which may excite your puppy more and cause them to lunge for your hand. After 10 to 20 seconds, resume play again. If she bites you hard again, repeat the process. If your puppy is especially resistant to lessening her bite strength, you may need to do a more dramatic time out by yelping or saying “ouch” and leaving the dog-proofed area for 30 to 60 seconds. Essentially you are playing the part of another puppy during a play session, one who also would stop playing anytime the biting becomes painful.

Once your puppy inhibits the more painful bites, you can start to yelp for the moderately painful bites, then the mild bites and so on, until your puppy can place her teeth on your skin without any pressure used at all. Avoid overly rough play with your puppy, such as knocking her over on her sides or back, which may make your puppy too overly aroused and unable to use her mouth in a controlled manner. Instead, use calmer play with slower movements.

One word of caution: Only adults should play this game with the puppy. Seniors should avoid hand wrestling; otherwise they should use gardening gloves on their hands since elderly skin is thinner and tends to tear more easily.

Give Your Puppy Something Else to Chew

Outside of playing the mouthing game, your dog should be taught to replace her mouthing of humans with a chew or toy (watch this helpful video on curbing bad chewing behavior). Whenever your puppy tries to mouth your skin or clothes, freeze in place and stop all movement until your puppy lets go. The more still you are, the less fun you are, and thus the more likely the mouthing will stop. As soon as your puppy lets go, direct her to a dog toy or food toy she can chew on instead. Puppies sometimes mouth humans because they learn it earns them attention, so be sure to praise your puppy for calm behavior and appropriate play with toys rather than reacting to the mouthing.

Finally, give your puppy plenty of naps throughout the day. Without adequate sleep, it’s more difficult for a puppy to control her impulses, and she will be more likely to mouth you.