Sure, your pup is darn cute and full of canine charm – but ouch! His little pointed teeth can hurt and even break skin. And, without being taught the safe and acceptable way to interact with people, your dog’s playful biting behavior can evolve into a more serious issue: play aggression.
“Play aggression is playful behavior, but with over-exuberance and without adequate (bite) inhibition,” notes Pamela Perry, DVM, Ph.D., a veterinary behaviorist at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine’s Animal Behavior Clinic in Ithaca, NY. “Uncontrolled play is dangerous because the dog can knock people down or injure them with their teeth.”
It is important to recognize that playful mouthing and nipping is normal behavior among fast-growing puppies. Play mouthing starts to develop in puppies between 2 and 4 weeks of age and accelerates between 4 and 14 weeks of age as they learn the proper play etiquette with their littermates. When one puppy accidentally bites down too hard on another or jumps on him too hard, the other lets out a painful yelp. This is a signal to the first puppy to tone down his play.
“Puppies learn from their littermates that overly exuberant play (growling, biting and wrestling) is not tolerated,” says Dr. Perry. “This is very important that puppies have adequate socialization with littermates or with other puppies of similar age so that they learn to inhibit their bites.”
But sometimes, a puppy is separated from his littermates before learning the canine rules of bite inhibition. He needs your help in learning how to play politely.
Dr. Perry offers these strategies to help you tone down your dog’s mouthing and nipping actions:
• Head to school. Enroll your young pup (after he has completed his round of puppy vaccinations) in a class taught by a professional dog trainer. During these supervised classes, your puppy gets to learn how to play properly with other puppies of his own age.
• Select the right toys. Your fast-growing puppy is teething and transitioning to permanent adult teeth. His gums may ache. Provide him with appropriate chew toys to satisfy his oral needs.
• Choose your interactive games wisely. Two safe games to engage with your puppy are fetch and tug-of-war. When done properly, these games provide an acceptable outlet for your puppy’s innate urges to grab and pull on things with his mouth. Ideal fetch toys include tennis balls and nylon floppy discs. Fetch provides a safe distance between you and your puppy. For tug-of-war play, choose a tug toy that is at least three feet in length to give a safe distance between your hand and your dog’s mouth. Teach your dog to drop the tug toy on cue so he learns that you start and end all fun games.
• Avoid hand wrestling with your puppy. Never tease your puppy by placing your hand over his muzzle in a friendly game of wrestling. Don’t permit him to nibble or pounce on your toes, either. Unintentionally, you are encouraging his mouthy behavior. • Don’t hit or pin your puppy. Resist smacking your puppy’s muzzle or holding his mouth closed if he nips you as these punitive tactics can backfire and cause him to bite more, and harder.
• Teach your dog to be gentle during play. If your puppy’s teeth contact your skin, make a high-pitched yelp to let him know it hurts. Don’t quickly yank your hand from his mouth because this rapid movement can trigger his play drive. Instead, let your hand go limp as you move it away from his mouth.
• Know when to stand up and end play. Employ time outs to teach your puppy that fun playtime ends when he becomes too mouthy or nippy. Do this by abruptly yet calmly standing up, turning around and walking away. This technique teaches your puppy that gentle interactive play reaps your attention and overly aggressive actions halts playtime. Resume play with your puppy when he is calm.
“As soon as the puppy will calmly sit for the owner, play may resume,” adds Dr. Perry. “In general, puppy mouthing can be prevented or managed by giving the puppy lots of exercise, play dates with other puppies and obedience training to teach appropriate behaviors.”
Start teaching your puppy the proper play rules from Day 1 while he is still young and his bites are not as harmful. Dr. Perry also recommends teaching your puppy to learn to sit on cue before any interactions with people: greeting visitors to the home, engaging in fetch or other games or getting ready to go on a leashed walk.
Be on the lookout for warning signs that over-exuberant play mouthing has evolved into canine aggression that warrants seeking the help of a veterinary behaviorist. Some dogs may start biting out of frustration or fear.
“Things that indicate the play aggression is progressing to something more serious include stiff body postures, staring, or prolonged deep-toned growling,” says Dr. Perry. “Inadvertent reinforcement of mouthing behavior, inconsistent interactions, or use of physical punishment (hitting the puppy) can exacerbate the problem and lead to fear- or conflict-related aggression.”
By Sarah Zumhofe