Mouthing and biting comes naturally to dogs; it is part of their natural behavioral repertoire. I, Stuart Fitzgerald of MyVetConsult.com, am always amazed by the array of punctures, scrapes, and scratches on the hands of my clients who present their new puppies for their first examination. Who would imagine that these cute little balls of fluff could inflict such injuries on their doting human parents? Obviously, these puppies are not dangerous or aggressive, they just have not learned the concept of bite inhibition.
If you observe puppies at play, you will see them tussling and wrestling, and occasionally biting each other. The victim of the bite will tolerate a gentle nip, but if the force of the bite is excessive, the pup will yelp. This will normally surprise the ‘assailant’, who will pause for a few seconds while he/she absorbs this episode. The next time the pup engages in playful biting, he may reduce the force of his bite to prevent the same thing happening again. He is learning to inhibit his bite to prevent interrupting his play.
So if biting is a normal behavior in young dogs, when does it become inappropriate? I would say any mouthing behavior is definitely inappropriate in a dog with adult teeth, as they have the potential to inflict serious injury. Therefore, we should aim to have eliminated this behavior in our puppies by 4 to 5 months of age. Biting that is anything other than playful is also not appropriate, even in a young pup, so look for any aggressive or dominant body language such as baring teeth, a wagging or upright tail, or a stiff posture while nipping or biting. If you do notice any of these indicators, you should contact a certified behaviorist at an early stage rather than allowing a serious problem to develop.
In the case of a pup that is engaging only in playful biting, you should discourage the behavior by speaking in a language the pup understands. Play with your pup, allowing gentle nips and bites. When he bites too hard, let out a high-pitched yelp and cease playing. If your yelp is convincing enough, your pup should be a little startled (you need to know you're getting your message across). Resume playing and repeat the process until you have yelped three times, at which point you should take a break from play. This technique is effective in the majority of young pups.
In older dogs (over six months), it may be necessary to use a 'time out' session. If you are nipped excessively hard, yelp and stubbornly ignore the dog for around 20 seconds. If he continues to nip or bite during this time walk away for the 20 seconds, and if necessary leave the room. With both the yelping and time out techniques, the aim is to gradually reduce the amount of bite pressure you are willing to tolerate, to the point where nipping should stop completely within a couple of weeks.
Play is vital in building a bond with your dog and if you find these techniques do not allow you to play safely or comfortably then you should seek the help of a behaviorist rather than avoiding playtime. Never hit your dog in response to a bite; a playful dog won't be able to resist nipping those dangling fingers, and an aggressive dog may be provoked into an attack.
This article was written by Stuart Fitzgerald, MVB. Stuart is available to answer questions on pet health and behavior at: http://www.myvetconsult.com.
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