Why do puppies mouth and play bite?
It's because puppies investigate the world using their mouths so it’s perfectly natural to expect them to nibble and bite fingers and hands when they are young. Puppies also need to use their mouths and teeth a great deal to find out how this important part of their anatomy works. Puppies will typically attempt to play with humans by mouthing and play biting. It is something that they did in the litter with their siblings (and usually mum) and it’s a very normal part of learning how to play with dogs.
It’s also important to remember that puppies will be experiencing some discomfort during the teething period in the same way that children do, so make sure that you give them lots of opportunities to relieve this by providing chew toys.
Why do puppies chew?
All puppies enjoy and need to chew. This is partly to relieve some of the discomfort they experience during teething (between three and seven months of age) and also to help facilitate the removal of the puppy teeth and the eruption of the adult set. Puppies also have a huge desire to explore their environment and as they don’t have hands, picking things up and chewing is one of the ways they like to find out about the world in which they live in!
When do puppies start mouthing?
Puppies often start to do this when they come to live with us – usually they are doing this as they want to play and haven’t yet learnt that this isn’t much fun for us! Some puppies, particularly those from working breeds, seem to play bite more or harder, and this is probably because they tend to be more energetic.
The most important thing to remember is that for the vast majority of puppies, mouthing or play biting is a phase that they will typically grow out of once they reach between three and five months of age.
Try not to think of it as something that must be prevented entirely – think of it as something that will get better over a short period of time if managed well. Just like very young children who go through all sorts of difficult phases as they grow up, puppies need our patience, support and guidance during this time to help them understand that people should be treated gently.
How to stop mouthing and biting
Redirect play biting and mouthing
Keep a variety of toys to hand so you can redirect play biting safely. If your puppy begins to mouth your hands, try not to move your hands away or squeal (this will excite your puppy and encourage more vigorous play!) Instead, gently transfer them onto a toy by animating it and allow them to play with that instead.
Don’t be afraid to play fun tug games with your puppy – it’s a very enjoyable game to play together. Big soft toys are usually best, as your puppy will have a large surface area to bite and they are less likely to grab your hands by mistake. For puppies who are teething, provide chews or puppy teething rings to help them ease the discomfort they will be feeling.
For some puppies, just providing them with an outlet for play biting or mouthing will be enough, and they will learn over several weeks that playing with or chewing toys is very satisfying indeed and will be far less likely to mouth people.
Learn what triggers your puppy to mouth
It’s often helpful to write down the times and events that trigger the behaviour – this way you can do your best to give your puppy an outlet to reduce play biting and mouthing.
This might be playtime with toys, a training session or a satisfying walk to tire them out. For tired puppies, you might want to offer a long-lasting chew if they need some down time.
Take away temptations
Loose clothing, fluffy slippers and dressing gown ties can be irresistible to some puppies, especially when they move around as you walk around the house.
Until your puppy has learnt how much fun he can have with toys and less of a desire to play and tug on absolutely everything, you might want to take these temptations away from them for a short time!
Mouthing puppies and children
If you have children, puppy mouthing can be a real issue as it’s hard for them to react calmly if they are the target.
Puppy teeth are sharp and it’s not reasonable to expect children to deal with play biting on their own, in fact often their reactions are likely to encourage more mouthing! You’ll need to manage interactions carefully and actively supervise, and if you can’t then temporary separation within the home is a must – this is where stair gates are extremely useful.
Why rest, regular meals and exercise will help
Make sure your puppy gets a lot of rest – puppies need a great deal of sleep, often a lot more than they think they do! Just like babies and small children, young puppies can get excitable or irritable if overtired and this may trigger play biting. If you have a reluctant napper, you may need to schedule in quiet time for your puppy to encourage them to switch off at regular intervals during the day.
Give your puppy regular meals and make sure they are getting the right amount of food for their age. Puppies have tiny tummies and need to eat several meals throughout the day. Again just like people, hunger can make them irritable, which may trigger mouthing.
Try to keep your puppy satisfied, both mentally and physically, during the day. Although it’s important to ensure your puppy isn’t over exercised for their breed and age, they need plenty of opportunities to play, run, explore and learn about the world they live in. A bored, under-stimulated puppy is far more likely to play bite than a puppy who has all their needs met.
What if all of this doesn’t work?
For persistent play biters, you may have to attach a lightweight lead to their collar so that you can easily lead them to another room (behind a stair gate is a good idea) for a short time apart from you. Make sure you attach this prior to any episodes as it won't be any fun trying to attach the lead to a wriggly and mouthing puppy.
If they do mouth hard calmly pick up the end of the lead and take them to your chosen area (a room nearby is best). Leave them here for no longer than 30 seconds, usually until they are calm enough to join you again - any longer and your puppy won’t make the connection. Repeat if your puppy bites hard again. Do not use a puppy crate for this training as this should be a safe place for relaxing.
Your puppy should eventually learn that biting stops any attention from you (which is the opposite of what they want). Make sure you revisit the tips on helping your puppy through this phase and also look to see if there is a pattern to the mouthing. It’s also important to remember and appreciate that some puppies, just like us have bad days and their behaviour will be far from perfect. Try not to dwell on the bad days and remember, most importantly, that mouthing is just a phase and will be over before you know it!
Things to avoid when teaching your puppy not to play bite and mouth
- Don’t encourage play biting with fingers. As cute as it might seem when your small puppy is chomping on your fingers, you really don’t want your puppy growing up learning that play biting is an appropriate way of interacting with people – as your puppy grows, this habit can be very problematic and painful.
- Avoid using high-pitched squealing or similar noises in an attempt to let your puppy know they have hurt you – this tends to excite puppies which can often encourage more biting.
- Don’t tell your dog off. Although it might be painful when your puppy play bites you, you don’t want to frighten them as they may begin to lose trust in you. It’s better to expect and anticipate mouthing episodes, and then manage them in a safe and helpful way.