Puppies can be wonderful in so many ways. They’re tiny, cuddly, and you likely have big dreams of shaping them into the perfect family pet as they grow. So, when your puppy starts acting like a tiny land-shark determined to sink their razor sharp teeth into everything, it can be confusing and frustrating to deal with! One of the biggest concerns we hear from new puppy parents usually involves wanting to curb biting, mouthing, and chewing behavior from their new puppy. Why do puppies bite and chew so much, and what should we do about it?!
Before we get into tactics to manage and reduce biting behavior in puppies, let's talk about reasons why they bite in the first place:
1. Puppies explore the world and communicate by using their mouths
It is biologically appropriate to have a puppy that wants to pick everything up, get into stuff they shouldn't, and chew on your hands, feet, and clothes as a means to play and communicate. It’s a big factor in how they take in the world around them in early stages of life!
2. Your puppy's breed may be a factor in the amount and frequency of biting behavior you see.
You'll likely start seeing these behaviors right away even in puppyhood. Research the breed you chose and learn about their behavioral tendencies, if your breed’s original purpose is known to retrieve, herd, or be commonly used for sports that require them to use their mouths, you may see an increased amount of biting or “orally fixated” behavior in puppyhood and beyond.
3. Before coming into your home, your puppy used their mouth to communicate with and interact with their doggie siblings.
It's a big adjustment for them to go from living with mom and siblings, to living in their new home with their new human family. Additionally, if you have a puppy who was taken early from their siblings and mom (any age less than 8-9+ weeks), you may see an increased frequency in mouthy behavior with you and other pets in the home.
4. Puppies struggle with uncomfortable teething phases, just like a human baby!
If your puppy is in a teething phase, be prepared for extra sharky behavior, and other signs of discomfort like increased "zoomies" and frustration-related behavior. It’s important to have empathy for your puppy during this time- they are uncomfortable and don’t know how to relieve it!
5. Puppies often resort to using their mouths when frustrated or seeking your attention.
Puppies naturally struggle with impulse control or having a lengthened attention span. For many, resorting to using their mouths to relieve frustration or reduce feelings of overstimulation is the only tool they know! It’s important to understand that mouthy behavior can have roots in being over-stimulated, over-tired, uncomfortable, stressed, and frustrated. It’s not always just rough play! LET'S BUST SOME PUPPY BITING MYTHS
There are also many myths out there around puppy biting, so it’s important to identify what information is good, and what may be rooted in pseudoscience or old-school thinking. Some common myths about puppy biting tend to often include:
MYTH 1: Your puppy needs to be “corrected” or punished for biting.
Physical and verbal punishments are unlikely to be effective, and can be damaging to your relationship with your puppy as well as may increase the frequency of the biting behavior over time (even if the tactic “works” in the moment). Avoid following advice that encourages you to use discomfort or startle tactics like "bopping" your puppy on the nose, clamping their mouth shut, yelling "no!" or putting your puppy on their back. If the advice feels off to you, don’t do it!
MYTH 2: Your puppy is trying to be “dominant” over you by mouthing or biting you.
Your puppy is not mouthing or biting you because they are being dominant or trying to be the "alpha." This is an old school way of thinking based in debunked science from a study done back in the 1930's, that ended up being deeply flawed and not indicative of how domesticated dogs live socially with humans in our homes. In reality, dogs tend to have a fluid hierarchy that changes frequently depending on the context they’re interacting in, and this even varies further when adding human interaction into the mix. Your puppy is just being a puppy!
MYTH 3: Puppies bite and mouth because they need more obedience training.
Puppy biting is not from a lack of obedience or simply just a matter of training. While proactive training and management ARE going to help you teach your puppy to be less and less mouthy as they age, it's not possible to "quickly fix" puppy biting with a 1, 2, 3 step training method. Time, consistency, and being proactive are all your friends!
USING MANAGEMENT TO REDUCE CHEWING ON INAPPROPRIATE ITEMS
When it comes to a puppy who is chewing on inappropriate items, try dividing up your home with baby gates and restricting access to spots with furniture or items your dog is likely to chew by keeping them in an ex-pen, crate (for short periods), or a "puppy proofed" room when you cannot actively watch what they are doing. If it's within your puppy's reach and it's something you don't want them to put their teeth on, it should be stored away. This goes for ANYWHERE in your home that the puppy is allowed to roam. All items you wouldn't want in their mouth should be stored or placed out of their reach for now until they mature and you see this behavior reduce. Make sure your puppy has appropriate chewing outlets (bully sticks, yak chews, hooves, chew toys, etc), and needs for exercise and mental stimulation are being met before leaving your puppy to entertain themselves. We see a lot of excessive chewing from bored puppies and dogs, make sure your dog has had an opportunity to move their body, work their brain, and get appropriate amounts of sleep when determining why you're seeing excessive destructive behavior from your puppy. This can include puzzle feeding, training sessions, play sessions, short exploratory walks (think: walking on a long line, sniffing, playing in an open space instead of asking a young puppy to march down the street on a short leash), and destruction/dissection enrichment. Additionally, you can have your puppy drag a lightweight leash around the house when supervising. If you see them going to chew an inappropriate item, pick up the leash and gently move them away and redirect them onto something interesting that they are allowed to chew instead. If your puppy tries to go back to the inappropriate item, it should be put away so the puppy cannot continue to access it. If the item cannot be put away (furniture, baseboards, etc), then continue to rinse and repeat redirecting your puppy until they find something else to entertain themselves with, or remove your puppy and place them in a management setup with appropriate chewing items. Be consistent and don't escalate, even if your frustration grows.
USING MANAGEMENT TO REDUCE BITING ON PEOPLE OR CLOTHES
If your puppy is having a sharky moment and is wanting to bite repeatedly at you or your clothes, this is where being prepared with management really comes in handy. There are certain times of day that puppies are more inclined to be mouthy than others. Some puppies will have a "witching hour" that happens in the evening, others will seem like they’re going absolutely wild when they are overstimulated or overly tired.
If you know your puppy is not going to be successful in refraining from mouthing or grabbing at you as you’re going through your day to day routine, prevent them from rehearsing the behavior by briefly removing their access to you (not to be confused with a punishment). Your puppy can be placed behind a baby gate, in an ex-pen, on a tether to a piece of furniture, or briefly in a crate (if comfortable and acclimated to crating only). Once you've removed their access to biting on you, your clothes, feet, etc, give them something appropriate that they CAN bite on instead. Try giving edible chews like a bully stick or a himalayan yak chew, a favorite stuffed toy for them to bite at and de-stuff, or a stuffed enrichment item like a lick mat, Kong or Toppl with peanut butter, pumpkin, yogurt, canned puppy food, etc spread inside. You can also stand on the other side of the containment barrier and have a short training session with treats with your puppy, working on rewarding calm behaviors, four on the floor, basic behaviors (sit, touch, etc), or going to settle on their bed. This prevents the puppy from being able to bite at you, but still allows them to interact with you for rewards in calm ways to model the behavior you’d like instead and preventing the containment from being “punishing” to the puppy.
Here is an example of a training session you can have to teach your puppy to model calm behavior while in a containment setup:
GIVE YOUR PUPPY A VARIETY OF OUTLETS TO USE THEIR MOUTH
Sometimes we think getting our puppy a handful of toys is sufficient to keep them entertained throughout puppyhood. If you've tried this, you may have quickly already realized that this is not enough for most pups! Those few toys sitting out all the time are likely not very entertaining anymore, and there's so much more to explore in your house that may be more interesting to put in their mouth instead.
Make sure you have a rotation and a variety of chewing outlets available to your puppy at all times. This means picking up toys and replacing them with something new and exciting, while waiting a few days to bring the old toys back out as something fresh and exciting again. Keeping your toys and chews on a rotation (and even saving a couple special chews for special occasions) will make sure that your chewing outlets will be fresh and interesting time and time again, and will be more enticing for your puppy to entertain themselves with over your new pair of sandals or your coffee table leg. If you find your puppy gravitating to wanting to chew on specific textures, try to find a couple of toys that match that texture for them to chew on instead.
Some chewing outlets we recommend include:
Himalayan Yak Chews
Puppy teething rings
Soft, plush toys with squeakers
Rubber toys (Kong, West Paw, or Soda Pup products, for example)
Washcloth soaked in bone broth (no onion or garlic) or goats milk, tied in a knot, and frozen- given when supervised only
Textured chew toys for soothing the teething toothaches
Rolling toys like a rubber ball or tennis ball
WHAT TO DO IN THE MOMENT IF YOUR PUPPY BITES YOU
If your puppy approaches you and starts biting at you, you may first try to “redirect” their attention by interrupting the biting with kissy sounds, saying their name, tapping them gently, etc, and then offering them a chew, toy, or other item they can entertain themselves with when they release and look to you. This is effective mostly for puppies who are just looking for something to gnaw or chew on, but may not work if your puppy is overly amped up or biting at you to seek attention.
If your puppy continues to bite you, you need to ignore the behavior and get up and remove yourself from the scenario. Don't make a huge fuss, yelp, or scold. Some puppies may find this behavior exciting and even more stimulating! Simply be consistent in preventing your puppy from rehearsing mouthy behavior on people. This is again, where having management (baby gates, ex pens, etc) in place can be very helpful for removing yourself from the situation (are you noticing a theme, here?!)
After getting a handle on the situation in the moment, make a note to yourself (it may help to keep a journal) of when and why the mouthy moment happened. Is your puppy more inclined to be bitey at specific times of day? Are you noticing mouthy behavior in certain contexts like more exciting times of day vs quieter parts of the day, or vice versa? Do you need to increase your puppy’s daily exercise and enrichment? Have you done enough training proactively helping your puppy learn to settle and self soothe? Puppies may overall display more frustration-based, mouthy behavior both if they are understimulated, and if they are over-tired. So, it’s important to make sure your routine with your puppy is right in the middle of ensuring their needs are met while making sure you aren’t overly wearing them out.
TRAINING THAT MAY HELP YOU REDUCE MOUTHY BEHAVIOR
While we do want to set the expectation that mouthy behavior is both biologically appropriate with puppies and not possible to entirely eradicate at young ages, there IS proactive training that you can do to help your puppy become less and less mouthy as they grow and develop. Teaching our puppies with positive reinforcement is a great way to show them the behaviors we would like for them to do instead.
1. The Name Game
There are very few things you’ll be able to do with your puppy if they can’t give you attention when you ask for it first! The name game is a foundational exercise that can be great to proactively teach your puppy to pay attention when you say their name. This helps with mouthy moments because you can use your puppy’s name (or attention cue) to interrupt the mouthy behavior as it’s happening, and then you’re able to reward them after the fact for leaving what they were biting on alone and paying attention to you instead! From here, you can then redirect your puppy’s attention onto something else. Tutorial here:
2. Leave It
Teaching your puppy a reliable “leave it” behavior is a great way to ask them to leave various items alone on cue. This can be applicable to many situations if you notice your puppy is about to start chewing on something they shouldn’t, or to ask them to leave alone your clothing, feet, etc. This behavior works best if trained in structured settings outside of the context of when you need it first, before built into day-to-day scenarios. Make sure you reward your puppy generously for making good choices to leave items alone! Tutorial here:
3. Train A "Find It" Cue
Sometimes puppies become excessively mouthy when they are experiencing frustration, overstimulation, or various other “big feelings” that they don’t know what to do with. In these situations, teaching your puppy to eat a treat scatter (“find it”) on cue can be incredibly helpful to redirect their attention off of biting you, and instead reinforcing them for putting their attention to the floor and sniffing out treats. Sniffing lowers the heart rate and is a calming activity for puppies, so this can help them emotionally regulate and reduce their biting behavior in the moment. To teach this behavior:
Start with several training treats or your puppy’s daily kibble, and your puppy in a low-distraction environment. It helps to have a treat pouch to carry many treats at a time.
Tell your puppy “find it!” and show them 1-2 treats. Then drop those treats right on the floor at your puppy’s feet where they can easily see and eat them.
Repeat this process many times in a row until your puppy is quickly looking down and noticeably expecting treats on the floor when they hear “find it!”
As your puppy learns, start scattering more and more treats, and increasing the difficulty of each scatter. Instead of dropping a couple treats right at their feet, start scattering more treats (4-5 at a time) farther apart on the ground so your puppy has to sniff and search with their nose and eyes to find each treat on the floor.
You’ll know your puppy understands the “find it” cue when they hear it and automatically start looking for treats on the floor with their eyes and nose. You can now keep “treat stations” around the house full of treats or kibble, and use this cue to ask your puppy to search for food with a scatter when they are overstimulated and likely to be mouthy.
To incorporate even more sniffing into this activity, you can look into teaching your puppy to use a snuffle mat and have them “find it” there instead of on a regular floor!
Positively Condition Your Puppy To Handling
There are many situations in which a puppy will become mouthy when being touched, petted, or handled because the sensation is either overstimulating, exciting, or even a bit uncomfortable to them! We often try to just “force” our puppies through handling even when they’re telling us they’re uncomfortable because they’re small and easy to physically handle at this age. But, teaching puppies that hands reaching for, touching, or handling them in various ways is a positive thing can be a great way to reduce their inclination to become mouthy or bite at hands when they’re being touched. Spend lots of time teaching your puppy to be comfortable with being touched all over in small approximations and pairing each repetition with high value treats to help them build a positive association with being touched. Here is an example of using small approximations to help a puppy be comfortable with her collar being touched and leash being clipped, while pairing each repetition with a treat to help her build positive associations with the experience.
WHEN SHOULD I BE WORRIED ABOUT PUPPY BITING?
Sometimes it can be tough to determine when your puppy's mouthy behavior is normal, and when it isn't. With higher energy puppies or puppies with big opinions, it may feel like their behavior is beyond the scope of just normal mouthy or frustration related behavior. So, how do you tell when your puppy isn't behaving normally with mouthiness?
Your puppy is now becoming an adult dog and the biting/mouthiness has not reduced or has gotten worse as they age.
Your puppy is growling, stiffening, biting, or lunging at you when they have a valuable resource like a toy, chew, stolen item, or meal.
Your puppy is constantly biting with intent and breaking skin/puncturing you, or biting with force and not letting go (opposed to just tugging on clothing, gnawing hands, etc)
Your puppy is barking at, growling at, or snapping at unfamiliar people.
If you’re ever in doubt about your puppy’s biting behavior and feel that it may be abnormal, please don’t hesitate to reach out to a certified, positive reinforcement-based training professional at the first sign of trouble for help. Many people dismiss these issues or put off seeking help because they feel the puppy will “just grow out of it” as they get older. In reality, the longer you wait, the more significant these behaviors are likely to become. If you need help with your puppy’s mouthy behavior in any capacity, please reach out to us. We are here to help set your puppy up for long term success!