Puppies have to learn at a very early age that they cannot put their teeth onto our skin, clothing or body in any way. This is called teaching them a 'soft mouth'. Normally puppies learn to develop this soft mouth from their mother and siblings through feeding, play and mock fighting. If puppies are taken from "bite school" too soon then they come into our homes without the required knowledge so we have to pick up where Mom and siblings left off. In addition, often children and adults accidentally encourage biting by inappropriately playing with small cute puppies. This only becomes a problem when larger teeth grow in and/or the puppy's jaws strengthen and your sweet pup hasn't learned the necessary bite inhibition.
The following are some simple guidelines for owners concerned that they have a puppy that is biting inappropriately.
First we address puppy biting during petting. We will assume we are dealing with a normal puppy and not one that is resistant to human contact of a "normal" nature. Since puppies normally enjoy petting we will rely on the puppy learning behaviors that earn them things they enjoy like petting and treats. Puppies not only bite, they mouth. For a young puppy we first need to focus on the biting. Initially we will allow our puppy to 'mouth', but they must not apply any pressure or cause pain. This is a 'soft mouth'.
As soon as we have a good soft mouth then we can work toward controlling the mouthing with a 'leave it' or 'off' command. The goal is to teach the puppy that they cannot use their teeth to grasp, manipulate or gain control over a human hand or in fact any other item other than their toys. Once we have a cue for no biting (our 'leave it' or 'off' command) we can use it if the puppy is biting during restraint or play and we will reward them when they release or stop the biting.
Part 1 - Teaching Puppy Not to Bite
- When petting the puppy and he is exploring and using his mouth, as soon as he applies any pressure with his mouth or teeth say 'OUCH'. If the puppy stops then lure them into a sit using a nice treat and reward them with the treat.
- If 'ouch' does not do the job then you will have to create some false pain and associated noises. I recommend a high pitch yelp (much like the sound one of his siblings might make) and pull back your hand. Remove yourself from your puppy's access and stop interacting with the puppy. This is exactly what a sibling would do if nipped too hard.
- Return to your puppy after 30 seconds and continue playing. Repeat the above step if/when your puppy nips or uses his teeth. Your puppy will learn very quickly that nips stop the game and fun ends.
- Use a level, even tone and pitch appropriate to get results, do not frighten or traumatize the puppy.
- Do not allow the puppy to play-bite anything other than toys. They cannot differentiate between your hands, your clothes or your furniture.
Playing with a puppy that has a soft mouth is an important part of their development; they need to learn inhibit biting. If we scare or punish them into stopping any mouth contact at all then we have not done our job teaching them and enabling them to develop good mouth control.
Part 2 - Teaching Puppy Not To Mouth
Once your puppy has stopped biting and applying pressure with their teeth then we need to teach them that they should not mouth skin or clothes. We are now ready to teach them an "off' or 'leave it' cue. To your puppy this cue means "remove your mouth from us completely". The cue also doubles as a cue for the puppy to ignore or move away from something else of interest that you consider dangerous or inappropriate.