Biting hurts. And puppy biting can hurt a lot. It’s sometimes relentless and in some cases it’s pretty scary. But puppy biting is also 100% normal. In fact, it’s a necessary part of puppy development.
Young puppies who are clamping down on everything and everyone are learning the strength of their own mouths. It’s all play but there’s serious work going on here. They’re discovering how hard they have to bite to get a reaction from – another puppy, or the cat, or the older dog in your household, or you. This biting game teaches them a lesson they take well into their adult life: how hard do I have to bite if I absolutely need to resolve a serious conflict?
Here’s the cool part. We can influence this process. We can actually teach a puppy to inhibit her bite (it’s called acquired bite inhibition). Here’s how it works.
Puppies have very weak jaws and needle sharp teeth. When puppies play with each other or other adult dogs they play bite. The playmates let the puppy know when her little teeth have bitten down too hard. How? If the puppy bites too hard the other dog yelps and immediately ends the play session. The little puppy loses her playmate.
Watch puppies play and you’ll see this in action. Nothing is more upsetting to a young puppy than losing her chance to play. Those sharp teeth of hers ended the fun. Next time she’ll bite more softly. Now the little puppy is learning how fragile other dogs are.
You might find that other dogs can tolerate a little more from your puppy than you can. Human skin really is fragile. So we need to teach the puppy to bite softly. That’s different than teaching her not to bite at all. We want the puppy to experiment with us so she knows we injure easily. That way, if your puppy ever bites as an adult dog she’ll set her mouth at human strength not bone-crushing strength.
Let your puppy mouth your hand and harm playfully. Tolerate the soft biting. Before long she will try a little harder bite. Immediately let her know how much it hurt. There’s no need to act like a dog by yelping. But you may decide to play act a bit. Ham it up. Yell OUCH as convincingly and indignantly as you can. Then end the puppy’s play session by leaving the room for a minute. Keep this up until you find your puppy is biting more softly more often. In time, you will begin discouraging all puppy biting.
A lot of trainers say the most important thing you can teach a young puppy is acquired bite inhibition. I agree. We never know what tight spot our dog might find herself in years down the road. But we can do a lot now to set her up to succeed in the future without ever hurting anyone.