Puppy biting and destructive chewing are 2 of the biggest problems when bringing a new puppy into your home. Biting and chewing are completely natural behaviors hardwired into every dogs DNA. In the same way human toddlers explore everything with their hands, puppies explore everything with their mouths. One of the biggest misunderstandings about puppy biting is people think it is aggressive behavior, when in reality they are communicating with us as if we were dogs. When you think about it dog language is the only language they know when we first bring them home. Let’s look into canine social behavior to learn more about why puppies bite and chew and what we can do about.
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Dogs learn how to be dogs from about 3 weeks of age until 8 weeks of age, this is why it is never recommended to take a puppy from its litter any sooner than 8 weeks. Puppies learn bite inhibition from their litter mates, when a puppy bites another puppy too hard, the puppy that got bit will yelp to communicate with the other puppy that play was too rough. When dogs play with each other they are taking turns of playing prey and predator. The one being chased is prey the chaser is the predator. Healthy play is when dogs take equal turns and one is not always prey and the other is not always predator. Mother dogs and littermates correct puppies as soon as they really start interacting with each other during the socialization phase (4-12 weeks) the important thing to note is that a relationship between them has been established, in my opinion we must first establish a relationship with our puppies before we immediately resort to more forceful techniques. Developing a relationship to me really means to start the training process, have some communication with your puppy, manage every aspect of their lives and provide for their needs. See my article on pack structure and leadership.
The first technique I like to try is interrupting the biting by doing anything that is mildly startling to stop the biting, then redirecting the puppy to appropriate toys. We don’t want to be too startling at such a young age due to the fear imprint period, (from 8-11 weeks) something like whistling, hand clapping, kissy noises and even a high pitch yelp if you can consistently find the range will work. Creating a positive interrupter can also help here. A positive interrupter is when you condition a sound by pairing it with food, this gives the sound meaning, do the conditioning separately. For example, make a kissy noise then give food and repeat until the dog associates the sound with food, after this association is made, do the kissy noise, when the dog stops the behavior, mark the lack of biting with a verbal yes and then redirect them to a toy. After the interruption it is important to redirect your dog to something appropriate to play with. I believe you have to be clear with your interrupter to signify to the dog that this behavior is incorrect, be clear and be consistent. To go along with this technique I can’t stress enough the importance of exercising your dogs body and mind. The more time you spend doing constructive things with your dog, the less energy they will have to bite you. If your puppy continues to bite, put them in a crate, playpen or even better step over a gate and remove yourself from the room. This will show your dog that you go away when they bite.
So for some owners and dogs this technique is ineffective, this is why it is important to have many tools in your tool box. The following are my secondary options to this issue:
If your puppy is small enough you can give a verbal “no” when they bite and put your hands under their armpits, lift your dogs front paws off the ground and immobilize them by holding them away from you. Once they are calm, put them down and calmly praise them, then redirect to a toy
The muzzle grab technique; say “no” and place your non dominant hand on the dogs scruff, grab your dogs muzzle with your dominant hand firmly but not firm enough to cause pain. Your dog will try to wriggle away from you, it is important that you don’t let go until your dog calms down, once your dog is calm massage their ears and scruff to relax them, then you can redirect them to a toy.
Some dogs respond really quickly to pressing on their tongue with your thumb, they just don’t like the feeling of it. To make this more effective you can put something bitter or spicy on your thumb. This will require some preparation. Once they stop biting, calmly praise them then redirect them to a toy.
Use a bonker, a bonker is a rolled up towel with rubber bands around each end. When your dog bites say “no” and bonk your dog with the towel. This does not hurt the dog and is effective at getting your point across. Again calmly praise when they are not biting and then redirect them to a toy.
Lastly, if all of these other techniques fail a correction with a prong collar is our last resort. When your dog is biting say “no” and follow through with a correction with the prong collar. After the correction, calmly praise them and then redirect them to a toy.
The most important thing is that we are fair to the dog and understand that puppy biting is almost never a form of aggression and is normally play related and the only way they know how to initially communicate with us is through dog language. It is our job to teach our dog how to adapt to our human lifestyle and communication.
Destructive chewing goes hand in hand with puppyhood, again puppies explore their surroundings with their mouths. A key component to dealing with chewing is management. I believe in using crates, playpens, gates, leashes and tethering. Put simply, when you cannot pay attention to your puppy they should be put away in a safe location with appropriate chew items. To go hand in hand with with management make sure your dog gets plenty of mental and physical exercise. This means training, walking and structured play. I suggest having your puppy drag a leash when they are in the house, this gives you more control and the ability to prevent your dog from chewing. You can remove the leash once your dog is fully trained.
Another key component to dealing with destructive chewing is making sure you are prepared by having treats and toys on you at all times. As annoying as this may be, it is very important. Dogs pick up things in their mouths all the time, I suggest training the “out” command to trade them for what they picked up. Dogs can view even the most disgusting of objects as having very high value, your dog will lose trust in you and potentially develop a habit of resource guarding if you pry their mouths open and take objects from them. For those reasons, it is important to begin teaching the “out” command by offering them something of higher value. Think about it this way, if you have $20 bucks and your brother rips it out of your hand and takes it from you, you will not trust him anymore and develop some less than trustworthy feelings about him. On the other hand if your brother comes up to you and says I’ll trade you this $100 dollar bill for your $20, you’d gladly accept this offer every time.
To begin training the “out” command say the word out while you dog has a toy in their mouth and put a piece of high value food right up to your dogs nostrils. Your dog will drop the toy in order to eat the food. At the exact moment your dog drops the toy, mark with a verbal “yes” and feed your dog. Over time your dog will drop the toy just by you saying out. After the age of 14 weeks we can correct our puppies for not dropping the toy on command. There are many ways to correct for not responding to a known command. You could give a quick pop with a slip lead or prong collar, use compressed air and spray your dogs side with it, use a shaker can filled with pennies etc… If your dog values the item he has in his mouth more than what you are offering or what your out command was built on he will not drop the item. I like to break this down like a math equation to make this easier to understand. Let’s say you have trained your dog the out command with food that has a value of 8 on a scale of 1-10 and the object in their mouth has a value of 9, your correction must have a value higher than 9 in order for your dog to drop the object. It is also worth mentioning that values can change depending on factors such as, how hungry the dog is, novelty off the item they have, location they are in and distractions present at the moment. Following pack structure and leadership protocols has an overall effect on behavior as well, think of it this way, if your dog clearly views you as his leader and has a high level of respect for you they are more likely to listen to you.
The “leave it” command is also very important to train when dealing with destructive chewing. Training the “out” command is great for when they already have an object in there mouth, “leave it” is the cue to give when you see them going towards an object to pick up. To begin training “leave it” put some lower value food (kibble, biscuit) in you dominant hand and make a closed fist, Say “leave it” and then put your closed hand right up to your dogs nose, your dog will attempt to get the food from your hand by nibbling and pawing at your hand, wait them out until they stop, mark with a yes when they stop and feed them a high value reward ( ex, freeze dried meat) with your other hand, repeat these steps until your dog is doing this automatically. The next step here is to wait until your dog gives you eye contact, repeat the same steps above but now withhold your mark and reward until your dog gives you eye contact. I find it best for your dog to give the eye contact on their own, but if your dog is struggling it is ok to give them a verbal prompt such as a kissy noise or a whistle to help them look at you and make eye contact. From this point I start changing the position of the food, say “leave it”, put the food on the floor and cover it with your hand blocking every attempt by your dog to get it, when they stop, mark and reward. Once they are doing this well wait for eye contact then mark and reward. From this point I do the same steps described above but I use food in an open hand from a little further distance and then exposed food on the floor. I train with my dog on a leash so they can never get the exposed food. Next you will want them to leave a variety of things such as high value food, toys, you can even use “leave it” to redirect your dogs attention from people and other dogs.
Another tip to add here is the use of a chewing deterrent. I commonly hear people say that these don’t work and that their dogs like the taste of them. While i’m not doubting that some dogs like them, I do however question if they are being used correctly. To use a chewing deterrent such as bitter apple spray correctly we must first expose our dog to the taste correctly. To do this, soak a cotton ball in the chewing deterrent and put it in you dogs mouth, this will overwhelm their sense off taste and smell with the unpleasant bitter taste, then spray the chewing deterrent on things that you don’t want to be chewed on such as, table and chair legs, shoes, remote controls and walls etc.. The smell off the deterrent will bring back that unpleasant experience with the cotton ball and they will avoid chewing those objects.
If you follow all of these steps you will eliminate puppy biting and chewing in no time. Remember to be patient and be fair to your dogs. Understand that it is a hard transition for a puppy to make going from their litter to our homes as the only language they know is dog language and to dogs chewing and biting are completely normal acceptable behaviors. It is our dogs who are adapting to our human way of life not the other way around and nearly every natural behavior a dog does we humans find annoying and want to stop. If you think about it, barking, biting, chewing, whining, running away etc are all natural dog behaviors but, we want to stop them all. Must be hard being a puppy making this transition