How to Keep a Puppy From Biting & Mouthing
One of the worst fears people have is that their cute, orally-fixated puppy will grow up to be a problem biter. Believe it or not, the most effective solution is just the opposite of what you might think!
Does your puppy like to mouth and play-bite? It hurts, doesn't it? Those puppy teeth can be awfully sharp.
What can you do to save your skin?
Just say, "Ow!"
Here are the five ways a puppy will use his teeth on others:
Mouthing—which is done to bond emotionally.
Nipping—which is done to initiate, or perpetuate play.
Grabbing or Gripping—can be part of play, or may be used by the pup to move your hands away from a part of her body she doesn't want you to touch.
Snapping—which is a precursor to actual biting, and
Biting—which is only done in self-defense when a pup is frightened.
None of these behaviors is bad or wrong, at least not when viewed in their proper context.
In Natural Dog Training (the best book ever written about dogs) Kevin Behan writes:
A big concern for puppy owner is what to do when their puppy grabs them or someone else by the jaws. Is this the beginning of a [vicious dog]? Certainly not; if the puppy didn't have a healthy temperament he wouldn't [feel free to express himself orally]. It is the reticent dog that is more likely to grow up to bite. I've raised a number of puppies and I've never taught them not to bite. They've [all] simply outgrown their oral phase in their own due time just as human babies outgrow their oral phase. I let them grab my hands and bite as much as they want while I stay perfectly still. It isn't long before their teeth can exact an excruciating crunch. When that happens, I yelp in pain. The puppy is more shocked than I am, and his flow of pleasure stops. After the shock wears off, should he persist [in biting too hard], I simply stop interacting with him. Now, if we're around strangers and the pup gets excited, I can expect him to grab a coat sleeve or nibble a finger, [so] I keep him on a lead until his drive subsides, or until I've deflected it into ball playing or sitting for a treat. The worst thing to do is to confront him, say No, or hit him. This is only going to make him defensive and produce the very behavior you're trying to inhibit. When I consult with owners who have a puppy that is biting too hard, it's always because they fought him over this urge.
Ian Dunbar writes, "The more dogs bite as puppies, the softer and safer their jaws in adulthood."
Meanwhile, Kevin Behan's approach to teaching your up the difference between soft and hard bites makes sense on so many levels. From a Freudian point of view, saying "No" to a natural drive, especially during a developmental phase, is a sure way to create neurotic behavior later on in life. From a Pavlovian or Skinnerian standpoint, how better to reinforce your puppy's desire to feel connected to you than by allowing him to softly mouth your hand? (Normally enjoyable for both parties.) And what nicer way to correct him for biting too hard than to simply say "Ow!" or, if the puppy persists, temporarily eliminating all contact? And from a dog's point of view, this approach is completely natural and just feels right.
Puppies are always biting and chewing on their littermates. When a puppy bites too hard on a brother or sister, the other pup always yelps, which interrupts the first pup's behavior and his "flow of pleasure" (as Kevin Behan calls it). And while it's true that the offended pup may bite back, or at least snap at his bitey brother, as human beings we don't need to imitate that part of the equation. We would only end up scaring the pup (you don't ever want your puppy to be afraid of you) or getting bit on the nose. Besides, it's just silly to train dogs by imitating all their behaviors, no matter what some of the training books say.
When you say "Ow!" properly—as if you've been hurt, not as if you're mad at the dog—the puppy will almost always start licking you instead. In fact, licking is often a way of sublimating the urge to bite. So another helpful technique is to teach the puppy how to transform its oral impulses from biting into licking.
Do this by teaching the puppy a word or phrase, such as "Kisses" or "Lick, lick". Then when he gets into a bitey mood, use the command and have him lick you instead. If the puppy keeps mouthing, it’s usually because he’s too wound up and needs a time-out. Remember what Kevin says, “should he persist I simply stop interacting with him.” A puppy’s desire for contact is so strong that he’ll quickly learn to moderate his oral impulses.