Part I: “Help! My puppy is biting!”
You betchya! Your puppy doesn’t have 2 hands with 4 fingers and a thumb on each. They do have a mouth with needle sharp teeth, though, and that is what they know to use for interaction and communication. Puppies bite for all kinds of reasons: tired, hungry, playful, over-aroused/excited, fearful (usually preceded by stress signals, grumbles or growls), frustrated, teething, needing to potty, experiencing pain and more. It’s quite unrealistic to add one to your family and think you and your kids won’t experience their grasp – even with the most careful management.
We recently added a puppy to our family with three children. We don’t even have babies or toddlers anymore, but our youngest was 6. I am devoutly dedicated to implementing success stations (see Family Paws Parent Education for more information on success stations), and guiding interactions between dogs and young children or kids that need help safely and comfortably engaging. Our house has many gates, crates and tether stations for conducting supervised inclusion and building trusting relationships between our canines and kids. Our dogs are often dragging a leash the first 6 months to year of their lives when included in parent directed family activities. That leash gives me an easy way to stay near them and redirect quickly when needed. I am vigilant. I am proactive. I am committed to safety. Yet, we have all been bitten by our puppy! Even now, at 9 months, we all still encounter his adult teeth occasionally while playing.
Does that surprise you? If you’re like most people that call me, then it does! I cannot recall a single family that has not had second thoughts or been extremely frustrated with their puppy or adolescent dogs during one season or another. I’m convinced that these frustrations can be kept to a minimum if there was more exposure to and acceptance of the realistic and practical side of raising dogs. Yes, we “know” they poop and pee a lot, usually don’t sleep through the night right away, and use their mouths to play and eat. Yet, when the experience begins, the persistence of these things seems to take most people by surprise. Before getting a dog, accept that adding a pup to the family is probably not going to go according to your plan or expectations. That living being you’re bringing home is not a robot you can program. Your 16 – 104 week old (yep, that’s 2 years) puppy is not going to behave as the mature adult dog you envision.
Over and over I see people expecting things like: a 14 week old puppy to be 100% reliably potty trained, 16 week old to only use their mouths on appropriate items, and 20 week (5 months) old to have the obedience skills and impulse control of an adult dog. Frankly, those expectations are ridiculous! Just as surely as babies cry, puppies bite. A 6 month old puppy may be physically bigger, but they still have a great deal more of developing to do internally, underneath that hairy coat, as well as externally. Most dogs aren’t considered mature until they reach around 2 to 3 years of age. Until that time, they are constantly changing and developing. That is just one reason why puppy raising takes time and patience. Time is not only necessary for training the dog to learn what is appropriate in our homes, but it’s also imperative to allow time for their bodies and brains to fully develop. This is a key component that is overlooked and leaves many dumbfounded and irritated with their young dogs.
I’m not going to tell you how to make your puppy stop biting. We know biting, mouthing and chewing serves many important functions for our canine’s learning and development. Trying to stop it would be irresponsible and cruel! However, I will give you some insightful perspective and ideas for safely and kindly guiding your dog through the process of learning that teeth aren’t for touching people.
Firstly, play biting is normal but excessive puppy biting is often the result of other problems. I’m talking about relentless, tenacious, amped and incessant biting. You can minimize that type of biting by meeting your puppy’s needs and implementing smart management strategies. When you are frustrated, angry or hurt because of your puppy’s biting, stop and ask yourself a few questions. Think of it like a baby crying. Crying is a very normal part of human development and communication, but excessive crying is often a symptom and indicator of a different issue. Just as parents go through a basic checklist of helps to determine why a baby is crying and meet those needs, we can do the same for our puppy. For a crying baby, we ask ourselves things like: Has the baby been fed? Burped? Is their diaper clean? Are they too hot or cold? Are there tags or irritants on their clothes causing discomfort? For our puppies, ask yourself the following questions:
1. Does my puppy need to potty?
Dogs use their whole body to communicate. I often find that puppies in the process of being potty trained will start biting their people or getting mouthy when they need to get outside. I’ve noticed that is probably the most overlooked cause of puppy biting. If your puppy pops a squat after persistently biting at you, then start trying a trip to their toilet spot sooner. Not only does that serve as an easy redirection activity but provides opportunity for potty training success.
2. Is my puppy over tired?
Puppies need 15-20 hours of sleep per day. Lack of sleep affects the ability to play nicely. You may have to help facilitate that sleep by directing them to calmer, quieter places where they can rest uninterrupted. It helps to have them crated or gated away from the family for this. Using white noise or calming dog music and providing a relaxing chew can help pacify your pup and soothe them into sweet slumber. If your puppy often goes from a terrorizing tornado to sweetly snoozing, then start initiating that naptime sooner.
3. Is my puppy hungry?
It may seem obvious but getting something into their belly starts at the muzzle. Chewing/biting is part of the process that leads to a satisfied tummy. If you have a puppy who always seems ravenous and is an excessive biter, then talk to your vet about increasing their food intake or switching from two to three meals a day to meet that need.
4. Is my puppy teething?
This is probably the most common assumption if a puppy is under 6 months old and mouthy. Teething is painful and can make puppies feisty. Biting and chewing offer relief. Provide plenty of teething toys (ie. puppy Nylabone, bully stick, Himalayan chew) and cold chewing options (ie. frozen Kong or homemade pupcicles). Yes, teething may be the culprit, but as you can see, it’s not the only one that should be considered.
5. Has my puppy had exercise?
Dogs need a mix of physical and mental stimulation. Playing games like tug, gentle fetch, and follow me provide physical exercise to tire the body. Adding brain games like puzzles, find it, and hide n seek deliver mental enrichment to relax the mind. If both types of exercise are not a part of your puppy’s routine, then start them now! You’ll be surprised how these simple additions will affect your pup’s overall behavior.
6. Is my puppy overly excited?
When puppies play too long or too rough, or exciting things happen, dogs can get something that looks like an adrenaline rush or sugar high in people. Have you ever seen a kid that’s spazzed out on sweets? Self-control is gone. The thinking part of the brain is inhibited and making good choices is nearly impossible. For dogs, we refer to that self -control as impulse control, and it looks very similar when they are over excited or aroused. If your puppy seems to be hyper biting and can’t settle down, consider giving them frequent breaks. Try putting them on a schedule that allows for short times of exciting play followed by a calming mental enrichment activity and nap.
7. Am I provoking my puppy?
Dogs have this wonderful built in mechanism for defense and self -preservation. It’s called a mouth full of teeth. Usually, they do many things to communicate that they will be using that weapon if the situation doesn’t change. They express fear, frustration, and discomfort with body language before making contact with those pearly whites. Unfortunately, we often miss those messages. If you’re doing things that make your puppy uncomfortable, then you should not be surprised if your skin meets their teeth in an attempt to protect themselves. Things like: forcing cuddles, playing rough or taunting, picking puppy up without his consent, and taking items away with force or without trading up are all reasons your puppy might bite you defensively. If you’re missing, ignoring or unaware of the body language that tells you a dog is likely to bite, then invest in a professional trainer who will guide you in understanding and training your puppy. You can learn more about canine communication and dog aware skills on many of our blogs. Here’s a good place to start.
Now that you’ve asked the questions, come back soon for smart training solutions to your piranha puppy problems in Part II of Our Puppy Bites.