Teaching Your Puppy Bite Inhibition
Bite inhibition simply means that your dog has learned to control his instinct to bite with the full force of his mouth. The best way to teach puppies bite inhibition is in four stages. These stages teach your puppy first to control the strength of his bite and then train him not to mouth on people at all.
Bite inhibition is an urgent training priority. Puppies must learn this critical lesson by the time they are sixteen weeks old. That’s just two months after most puppies meet their new owners and go to their new homes. If you are getting a puppy older than sixteen weeks, or if you have obtained an older puppy, ask the breeder (or maybe a volunteer with a rescue group who has helped to raise the pup) what has been done to teach the puppy bite inhibition.
The benefit of teaching your pup to stop mouthing in these four stages is that he will develop the ability to control his mouth and find a reason to do so. This will make him a safe adult dog ready to be part of a family and to be introduced to the community.
If a puppy is taught in one step not to bite or mouth on people at all, he will not learn how to control the strength of his mouth. Puppies naturally play with lots of mouthing, and getting punished for this instinct will not teach real bite inhibition.
Bite Inhibition Stage One: No Hard Bites.
At this stage, it is alright for your puppy to bite you. Strange as that seems it is essential actually to let the puppy bite you. Puppies have those needle-like teeth for just the purpose of learning bite inhibition. When those sharp, tiny teeth come in for the first time puppies will quickly learn that they can hurt. Mother-dog will immediately rebuke them for their not-so-gentle nursing, and siblings will cry in pain or retaliate for sharp bites.
If your puppy never bites you, he will never develop bite inhibition. In this step, you simply must not tolerate hard bites.
We are not addressing gentle mouthing, chewing, holding your hand in his mouth, and nipping yet. Respond only to the hard bites with a verbal signal of pain and the removal of your hand or yourself. Allow yourself to respond strongly enough to each hard bite that it startles the puppy and makes him back off for a second. You must get him to think about what he did, to recognize when he went too far. This is where the OUCH! Rule becomes useful.
Your pup will be ready to move on to each next step when she is responding well to your expectations. In Step One, you expect that she will not bite hard. This may mean you still receive uncomfortable bites because your dog is allowed to bite. It’s the hardest bites you want to address in this step.
The OUCH! Rule
A loud, sudden “Ouch!” should be your response to any painful mouthing at first (or pick a similar word). Puppies understand this swift verbal communication because their littermates would give the same signal of pain. When one puppy mouths too hard on another, the other will yelp!
Some trainers advise you to yelp like a puppy instead of using a word like a human. Though the concept is silly because dogs do not have any difficulty recognizing that you are human, the effect may be just as productive. However, words usually come more naturally to people, so it makes the most sense to choose a word to signal your pain and disapproval to your puppy.
Puppies often accompany a vocal signal of pain with a refusal to continue playing with the offending sibling. This is also an effective method for you to adopt. For instance, when your puppy decides to pursue your hand and bite it instead of the toy, this is the time to cry OUCH! and remove yourself from the game. Take a twenty-second break and then resume the game. It is essential to go back to the game and give your puppy another chance to do the right thing. This is how he will learn.
Stage Two: No Pressure at All.
Step two is the time to teach the puppy that all bites hurt. Now, understand that biting, using pressure and strength in combination with teeth, is different than just mouthing. Some puppies have the adorable habit of taking their owners’ hand in their mouth and holding it as if to say “You are mine, and you’re staying here with me.” In Stage Two, this kind of gentle mouthing is perfectly acceptable. However, biting using pressure is not acceptable. This includes nipping, the act of coming in quickly to take a tiny, painful bite at you and then jumping back.
Continue to use your verbal signal of pain, to remove your hand, and end a play session in Stage Two. This time use all those training tools any time your puppy bites you and applies pressure. His teeth are no longer allowed to cause you pain when they touch your skin. You will find more helpful tools for this stage in the next section, “Alternate Rules for Determined Biters.”
In Stage Two, it is also time to apply your signals when your puppy is mouthing your clothes and shoes. If you wear glasses then apply your signals anytime your puppy touches your glasses. It is time for the pup to learn that the things you wear are also fragile (like your skin).
Your expectation in Step Two should be that she won’t bite, though she is allowed to mouth. When your puppy appears to understand the difference in this, it is time to move on to Step Three.
Bite Inhibition for Determined Biters
Some puppies are determined biters, preferring to ignore the toys and bones that are appropriate for their mouthing needs and attack yourself instead. Often these puppies get very excited and lose control of themselves. Others don’t respond well to verbal signals of pain and won’t back down even if you yell OUCH!
End the Game & Take a Timeout
Use a deep tone of voice to say “No” to lower the excitement. The higher-pitch of a yelp or OUCH! may rouse some puppies further into their enthusiasm instead of causing them to second-guess their last action. Next, remove yourself from the game or cuddling session.
For puppies who have lost control of their energy and mouths, it can be helpful to give them a timeout. Quickly scoop the offending puppy up and deposit him in his crate or puppy-pen. Leave him there for two to ten minutes to calm down.
For very young and small puppies it may work to place the puppy in a hex pen while you lean over to play with him. The enclosure will allow you to quickly step away from a game when your puppy refuses to control his mouth. It removes the necessity for angry owners even to touch their puppy to remove themselves from the training session or to implement a timeout. Since anger will not aid your goal in teaching bite inhibition, it is best to set yourself up to avoid becoming angry or from having to handle your puppy when you are mad.
Playing Dead & Taking a Tumble
For some dogs, any quick, jerky movement to pull your hand away will cause them to chase the hand and bite it again. For these dogs, it is best to keep your hand still instead. Pretend your hand is playing dead. For some puppies, when your hand is no longer any fun, it is enough to cause them to stop biting.
If the pup refuses to let go of your hand, try moving your hand towards the puppy. Go ahead and give him a little shove. Send him on a bit of tumble with your shove, so you have a chance to stand up and refuse to play anymore with your rude pup. Some dogs are rough and rude without realizing it and must be given a signal, not to hurt them, but to show them their error so that they will learn.
*We do not advocate the use of pain or “alpha dominance” methods for correcting puppy biting. Because more gentle ways of leadership have been proven effective, even for determined biters, these are what we advise pet owners to utilize.
Get to Know Another Puppy
Giving your puppy time to play with another puppy is one of the easiest and most effective ways to help your puppy learn bite inhibition. Puppies naturally teach each other when they are getting too rough and how to control their mouths. So let another pup of about the same age and size take over some of the difficulty of teaching your puppy bite inhibition.
However, a word of warning, just letting your pup have time once or twice a week to play with another person’s puppy will not produce all four stages of bite inhibition that your puppy must learn. You will still have to work with your puppy and teach him to apply his self-control to people and clothing. Puppy playtimes may go a long way towards giving the pup the self-control he needs, but he won’t automatically apply that to people. You must still teach him to understand all four stages of bite inhibition with people.
Stage Three: Stop Mouthing on Command – Teaching “Off”
In Stage Three, your puppy needs to learn that all mouthing should stop when you say so. He is allowed to continue gently mouthing at your hand, but only until you state otherwise. For this step, you will need to pick a cue to teach your puppy. “Off” is a good choice as the word conveys the right image to your mind – the pup should take his mouth off of you and stay off.
To teach “Off” take a few small treats in your hand and show one to your puppy. Give him the first treat for free to get him interested if need-be. The other treat, however, he must not touch if he wants to have it. Hold the treat between your fingers so the puppy cannot take it, and hold it out in front of you to get his attention. When the pup makes contact with your hand loudly say “Off!” and bump his nose with your hand. Your puppy should back up and wait for even just two seconds. This is what you want him to do – restrain himself for only two seconds – and he should then get the treat.
Repeat that initial step in teaching “Off” three times before asking your pup to stay off your hand/the treat for a longer time. Ask for a few seconds more with every three treats your dog earns. Up the difficulty by saying “Off” and then moving your hands around excitedly. When your puppy begins to automatically stay off of the treat/your hand, even with you moving eagerly, then you will know he understands the command. Now you can start using it with Stage Three Mouthing.
For Step Three, your expectation should be that he should stop all mouthing when you say so.
Tire That Pup Out!
It is a common mistake to try to teach a puppy to stop biting when he is full of energy. An unexercised puppy is bursting with energy and excitement. He will be much less likely to control himself. Teaching bite inhibition to an unexercised puppy can feel like a nightmare. You’ll experience determined, repetitive biting and a lack of attention from your puppy.
There are two things you can do before having a ‘bite work session’ with your puppy: Exercise and play with a Flirt Pole. Exercise will play into your puppy’s ability to control his mouthing significantly. Allow your pup time to chase after a couple of balls, to chase you around the yard, or to explore the outdoors. After your puppy has had some exercise, it will be an excellent time to have a bite work session.
The use of a flirt pole is an excellent way to exercise puppies. This toy is a flexible pole with a rope, squeaky toy, or stuffed animal attached to the end. The flirt pole is a way to redirect your pup’s energy and mouthing to an appropriate outlet. This can be especially helpful if you have children who want to interact with the puppy.
It is acceptable to redirect your puppy’s mouthing to a toy. This is an excellent recourse for puppy biting problems because it will increase the likelihood that the pup will become toy obsessed. Toy obsession can be a good thing since dog toys are always appropriate outlets for energy and frustration. However, remember to keep even playtime with toys happening on your terms. See the section below on how to retrieve objects from your puppy that he shouldn’t have and how to teach a “Drop It” or “Give” command.
Bite Inhibition Stage Four: No Mouthing At All
When your pup takes his mouth off of you on that command, it is time to teach him that mouthing people is entirely unacceptable. All mouthing, nipping, and biting should be discouraged at this point with all the usual signals, most importantly, your “Off” command now.
Step Four is the final step and ends mostly with age and practice. You will naturally wean out of training for this step as your puppy accepts the new rule: no mouthing at all.
When your pup has successfully learned Stage Four, you will know that you now have a safe dog. A dog with a safe mouth will be more fit for whatever his job in life will be. Whether that job is as a family pet, a personal companion, a therapy dog, or a service dog, his lessons in bite inhibition will serve him well.
There is not much mercy for dogs who bite people and hurt them. Your dog will be safer for having learned bite inhibition because he will be unlikely to hurt someone and get himself into trouble. Unknowing pet owners often learn this the hard way when their dog unexpectedly bites the neighbors’ child or their veterinarian. These incidents are often accompanied with the famous last words, “My dog won’t bite.”
Teaching Your Puppy to “Give”
Puppies are notorious for putting everything in their mouths. Whether it is an inedible cotton ball or one of your shoes, your pup is going to grab many, many things that he should not chew on or eat. It will be necessary for you to teach your puppy to give these things back to you without having to pry his mouth open every time. It is also vital to avoid guarding behaviors as some puppies will learn to defend their toys and stolen items from their owners by growling and biting.
The first rule in teaching “Give” is to remain quiet. Yelling at the puppy, fussing at him, or shouting in surprise at what he’s dragging off across the room will quickly escalate your pup’s enthusiasm for the object into a defensive posture.
When you see your puppy carrying something he should not have, quietly get up and walk over to him. Avoid having more than one person in the house head towards the puppy to take the “toy” away, as crowding the pup will likely also cause the situation to escalate. Use a single firm “Give” command before taking the object from him.
During this phase in training, it is incredibly helpful for your puppy to be wearing a comfortable collar or harness. The collar/harness will allow you to gently grab the puppy and restrain him from running away with objects.
A traditional approach to teaching “Give” is to carry a small treat pouch or an enticing toy with you throughout the day. When your pup grabs something, trade him for the object with a treat or toy. Even better, quietly go after your puppy, use your “Give” command, take the item away, and then treat and praise! Feel free to make a small party out of the occasion. It is helpful if the dog learns to think that having things taken away means good things will come next. Be consistent with this reward though, and always have an appropriate toy on hand to engage your puppy with next.
You should have been consistently taking things away from your puppy for some time now. You will know you are making progress when your pup is less likely to run away from you with the object and when he starts to drop things for you voluntarily.
Now is an excellent time to add a hand signal. Use a finger to point from your dog’s mouth down to the ground when you say “Give” or “Drop it” to encourage the action of dropping things. You do not want to be forever sticking your hand down your dog’s mouth to retrieve stuff from him; he must learn to drop them for you.
Continue to reward well for objects your dog gives up. Always back up your command if your pup doesn’t immediately drop the object by taking it away in the manner previously described. The difference between when your dog drops the item voluntarily and when you must take it by force should now be marked with rewards. When the pup drops the thing for you reward immediately with a pleasant “Thank you! Good boy!” However, if you must remove the item from his mouth, a quick “All Done” is sufficient. Your pup will soon realize that dropping the item gets a better reward than hanging on to it.
Tips For Teaching “Give”
Puppies will try to instigate a game of chase when their owners run after them to take away forbidden belongings. Never give in to a round of chase. If your pup is prone to this, let him drag a leash during the day so you can grab him from a distance. Do not let him have full run of the house. Instead keep him in a room, pen or crate near you at all times. The runaway game is not only a bad behavior that must not become a habit, but it can also be hazardous.
For the puppy that one way or another manages to steal food that must be taken away, proceed with caution. Remember to remain quiet and use your single command and if necessary scoop the puppy up in one arm and use the other hand to take the food away gently. Often picking up a puppy is enough to curb their defensive posturing for the moment because they realize they are no longer in control. However, this is not always effective with all puppies. Some may become quite aggressive around food and require more careful handling to avoid injury to their owners.
If your puppy is defensive or aggressive around food, with strong reactions like bristling, growling, lunging and snapping, or biting, we recommend that you read professional dog trainer, Ian Dunbar’s book Before and After Getting Your Puppy. He has excellent advice on curbing food-aggressive behaviors that work well with puppies.
Check out Ian’s book, along with all our recommended puppy books!Puppy Raising & Training Resources