Managing Play-Biting

by Lisa Lafferty

...Dogs don't have hands, but they do have a mouth full of teeth and they just love to explore their world with those big white choppers.  Whether it's your hands, your child's hair or clothing, or your heels as you walk on by, this article will teach you how to show your dog how to control himself when he wants to wildly nip and play with you as if you are another dog...


All dogs play using their teeth, and this can be a large concern to pet owners.  Whether it be a very young puppy incessantly chewing on hands or an older dog that grabs pant legs or shirt sleeves, it can be an extremely annoying behavior to pet owners and the people who encounter the dog.  At worst, it can escalate into more severe issues that are much harder to deal with.  In any case, training is necessary and advisable for any dog, no matter what the size or breed, so that he can learn to behave appropriately.


One of the most common issues for new puppy owners is how to handle their puppy’s needle-sharp teeth.  Parents of small children feel the greatest brunt of the problem.  The children run around, the puppy gets excited, and the next thing you know the puppy is hanging off the pants or hair of a child that is screaming in pain.  Although the puppy is not trying to hurt anyone, its needle-sharp teeth easily break the skin.  Many a puppy has been re-homed or put down because it has put scratches or holes in a child’s face.  Adult owners of new puppies often feel frustrated because they cannot interact with their new pet without having hands bitten and clothes torn.  No matter what they do, it always ends painfully, and they start to think the puppy is “bad” or “doesn’t like them” and they might even wonder if the mouthing will lead to serious biting when the dog grows up.


Older dogs who mouth a lot scare strangers who aren’t sure if the dog is behaving aggressively.  Also, dogs who mouth their owners a lot are often confused about the leadership structure in the household (and think they might have a shot at being the boss, which can lead to multiple serious problems). 


For these reasons, dog owners should know what mouthing is, reasons why it needs to be thoughtfully and seriously managed, and how to teach a dog appropriate use of its mouth among humans. 


What is play-biting or mouthing?


All dogs play and interact using their jaws, teeth and tongue. Called “mouthing” or “play-biting” (very different from aggressive biting), it is their instinctual programming to play with their littermates and other dogs by jaw-wrestling and inhibited biting.  Most dogs attempt to play with humans in this way as well, especially during puppyhood when the urge to use their mouth is strongest.


Play-biting serves an important purpose in a dog’s life.  Because dogs use their mouths to interact with their world (unlike humans, who usually use their hands) it is crucial that a dog keeps this sensory organ in good shape with lots of exercise.  Jaw-wrestling and inhibited biting are important parts of a dog’s social behavior, and much rehearsal is necessary for these social behaviors to become honed to the point where the dog can function properly in doggie society.  So, dogs mouth and play-bite throughout their lives to learn how hard or soft they should bite, and to keep their mouths speedy and functional.


Young puppies learn a great deal about how to appropriately use their mouths from their mother and littermates from four weeks of age.  The mother dog will quickly and firmly discipline a puppy for mouthing too hard or too much, and the littermates will also teach each other when things have gone too far.  People who don’t know any better often feel that because the puppies are weaned (happens at around 4 weeks old) and because the mother is becoming “mad” or “rough” with the puppies, that it’s time to send them on to their homes.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Puppies need that experience in order to develop proper inhibition.  Puppies that are taken away earlier than 7 weeks often mouth excessively and harder, and have more difficulty learning appropriate use of their mouth.  Because play-biting is part of the social repertoire, dogs taken away too early can have more trouble than average when interacting with other dogs.


Why does mouthing need to be managed?


Dogs have to live with people.  For this reason it is critical for dogs to learn appropriate use of their mouths with people.  Because dogs can bite with great force, even in play, it is crucial to get a management plan and thoughtfully teach your dog what is appropriate, and what isn’t.


In particular, great care needs to be taken with dogs and children, who present the ultimate in excitement for a canine.  They move quickly, they like to have fun, and best of all…they SQUEAK when bitten, better than the best squeaky toy on the pet store shelf!  A child’s natural reaction to painful puppy teeth is to back or run away screaming shrilly.  This stimulates the puppy to higher excitement levels and harder, more intense mouthing.  An adult dog can badly bruise a child while innocently trying to play, and at the extreme worst, become so stimulated that they see the child as prey (especially when they hear that rabbit-like squeal and see the child running away).


Children like to “horse around” physically with dogs and often actually encourage the mouthing (until it gets too hard, at which point they “squeak”).  This can lead to ripped clothing, bruises, broken skin.  In the worst case, it can lead the dog to believe that the child is similar in status to a littermate or another dog that is lower in status.  Dogs readily discipline dogs that are lower in status. A dog that has been allowed to mouth children can unintentionally learn that it’s OK to discipline a child for wrongdoings such as bumping into them, disturbing the dog while it is resting, trying to put the leash on and off, and for coming to close to anything the dog “owns.” 


The same is true when adults horse around with a dog and allow mouthing.  Dogs that are allowed to use their mouths on humans will sometimes get the idea that they are equal to or higher in status, and certainly will feel free to whip around and mouth during necessary handling or other times when the dog disagrees with what’s going on. For instance, when dogs are lying on the couch and the human tries to get them to move over, the dog that has been extensively allowed to mouth might choose to snap or even bite (the same thing he would do if a lesser-status dog made the brazen move of trying to push him out of his comfy spot).  Putting on or taking off the leash becomes a struggle to stay out of the way of the dog’s teeth.  Vet visits become a nightmare and nail clipping virtually impossible.


The dog learns that sometimes when it bites, it can cause a human to flinch, move away or stop.  This is a very dangerous thing for a dog to learn.  Dogs do what works.  If snapping or biting has worked for them in the past, they will continue to try it in the future.  For example, a dog that has whipped around and snapped during leashing will certainly escalate to actual biting in the future if the whipping around and snapping made the person even slightly flinch (and it’s almost impossible NOT to flinch under those circumstances).


This disciplinary behavior can no longer be called “play-biting.”  It is the real use of force and aggression to get their way, and definitely stems from the dog thinking it is allowed to use its mouth on people. 


Another reason for thoughtful management of play-biting is how dogs act with people outside the immediate family home. If the dog encounters a stranger and tries to play-bite it can easily be misconstrued as aggression, which is dangerous to the dog.  Often, dogs rip people’s clothing in an attempt to play.  It’s easy for a dog to bruise or break skin while playing. All it takes is a person or two that claims the dog “bit” them to send the dog on a one-way trip to the vet’s office.


For all of these reasons, it is inadvisable to allow your puppy or dog to play with you using its mouth on your skin, clothing or hair. 


When dogs play together, they usually play-bite and mouth.  Often there is a great deal of growling and “imitation” aggression which can look and sound like true aggression—loud and scary!  This is usually nothing to be worried about—it’s practice for dog/dog social behavior, and you shouldn’t interfere unless one of the dogs is much larger than the other, much more physically fit (as in puppy/old dog situations) or much shyer.  If you see desperate attempts to get away, it’s a good time to break it up.  If the tone of the wrestling play begins to look more serious, it might be a good time for a break to allow the excitement levels to die down a bit before continuing play.  Otherwise, play-biting between dogs is a nice way for the dogs to enjoy themselves, and is really important for maintenance of social skills. Generally it is not something to be concerned about and will not lead to dog/dog or dog/human aggression.


How is play-biting managed?


Fortunately, managing excessive mouthing is a simple exercise that gives speedy results and is very easy for the dog to learn.  Dogs readily learn to distinguish between appropriate dog/dog play and appropriate dog/person play.  Whether it’s a new puppy, a new older dog, or a dog that is already in your household, the methods for management are the same.  Prevention, Redirection, and Punishment.


Prevention:  Prevention of the mouthing is the first priority.  Do not horse around with the dog and encourage it to mouth.  It is difficult for the dog to learn that mouthing is only appropriate SOMETIMES.  Consistency is the key.  Also, be aware that as the excitement level of play gets higher, the tendency to mouth goes up exponentially.  This means that if you are playing with your dog and he begins to get really excited, he will probably mouth you. Predict this fact and try to make a break in the play BEFORE the excitement levels go too high. In dog/child interactions, parents should carefully observe the puppy and break up the play before it gets out of hand. 


Also be aware that as excitement levels increase, playful mouthing can easily become very hard biting or true aggression that is meant to do harm.  Dogs that get to a really high level of excitement lose bite control/inhibition and can actually “click over” into aggressive mode.  This is why it is particularly important to monitor excitement levels in play, and try to keep things to a medium or lower level.


Remember that dogs learn to do things by rehearsing the behavior over and over.  If the dog needs to learn to sit on command, the learning takes place by doing it again and again, and the dog gets better and better at it.  So if the dog is allowed to play-bite again and again, he will definitely get better at it.  The best way to teach a dog to mouth/play-bite is to allow him to do it! Prevention of this kind of learning is the first (and most crucial) step in managing this issue.


Redirection:  A great way to play with your dog without encouraging mouthing is to use a toy or bone.  In this way you can physically play with a dog, allow them to use their mouth, yet teach them that there is to be no contact with human skin, hair or clothing.  You can get the same fun down on the floor horsing around allowing the pup to chew on a bone you are holding in your hand, a tug toy, or a stuffed animal.  


The human must control the game, NOT the dog.  Never start a game because the dog brought you the toy--keep fun toys up off the floor, and get them out only when you want to interact with the dog (you can of course leave some chewing items down).  Then initiate the game and have a great time!  To end the game, simply take the dog’s collar, hold him still, and let go of the toy.  Wait for the dog to drop the toy, give a treat or praise, and put the toy away. 


If a dog begins to mouth you, and you have a toy nearby, you can firmly say NO, then pick up the toy and encourage play while praising.  This shows the dog that teeth on skin or clothes is a no-no but teeth on toy is fine.


Redirection allows the dog to play in the way nature intended, without harmful side effects.  The dog gets a mentally and physically entertaining experience and you get to “horse around” with your dog!


Punishment:  The dog needs to understand in very clear terms what IS allowed, and positive reinforcement should be used as much as possible, but at some point (especially in the case of puppies, who mouth much more than adult dogs) punishment will be necessary. 


What works best as punishment for mouthing is simply to end the game.  Have a baby gate or small room nearby to where you normally interact with your dog, and as soon as his teeth touch you, immediately stop and put him behind the baby gate or door for a time-out.  It must be done extremely quickly, the instant he touches you with his teeth.  Immediately drop eye contact, stop speaking to him, scoop him up or take him by the collar and good-bye doggie for a time-out from humans.  The whole thing should be unemotional and FAST. 


The play must be stopped and dog in the time-out area within 10 seconds of the mouthing for this to work.  In addition, it might be a good idea to intentionally stimulate mouthing (get down on the floor and horse around) over and over for 5-10 minutes so that you can quickly show him that not mouthing=continued play and mouthing=game over.  Many repetitions in a short period of time is the quickest way for a dog to learn.  With new puppies, doing this twice or three times a day will help them to understand more quickly. 


You needn’t be harsh or physical with your dog to teach him not to mouth—just consistent.  TOOTH CONTACT=TIME OUT.  No exceptions!


Using this method also produces a very beneficial side effect—it teaches the dog “who’s the boss” and reinforces that humans are the leaders.


Advanced Method:  Another method is to allow the dog to mouth your hands, and time him out as suggested above only when he bites too hard. 


HARD tooth contact=TIME OUT. The game is always initiated and ended by the human and not the dog.


It is theorized that this method teaches the dog that humans are much more delicate than dogs. Certainly dogs playfully bite one another much harder than our sensitive skin can tolerate.  Using this method, you might be able to get some “insurance” that the dog will realize that bites to humans need to be more inhibited, so that if the dog ever does bite fearfully (a possibility with any dog) hopefully the damage will not be as great as it could be.  This theory is of course impossible to prove, but makes a lot of sense.  Correct implementation of this method does not produce the harmful side effects of un-managed mouthing.


However, this method presents several challenges to its success and is not the best choice for dog trainers to advise to clients, or for inexperienced people to attempt.  It is difficult for a person to accurately judge just how hard is “too hard” on a consistent basis.  Most dogs are interacting with more than just one person in the family, and if Jimmy lets the dog mouth very hard before timing him out and Molly times him out for just a little pressure, there is so much inconsistency that it's difficult for the dog to learn.


This method requires extremely good judgment and timing.  Because most people are not experienced dog trainers, good success is difficult for the average home. In capable hands and with utter consistency, however, it is probably an ideal solution for managing mouthing.


I use this method successfully with my own dogs, but do not recommend it to most pet homes due to my experiences with a general lack of success in those situations.


Other Methods:


Dog books and internet sites widely promote many different methods for managing mouthing. Unfortunately, these methods don’t often work, sometimes make the mouthing worse, or cause unwanted side effects such as fear or aggression.


Forceful Methods:  These include slapping the muzzle, squeezing the mouth shut, forcefully shoving your hand down the dog’s throat, etc.  Sometimes these methods work to stop the mouthing, but usually produce unwanted side effects.  A dog with a soft temperament will usually stop mouthing, but has a good chance of becoming fearful, anxious, distrustful of his owner, or even become so fearful that he bites. With “harder” dogs, this method rarely works to stop the mouthing and will usually actually cause the mouthing to get worse.  With Labrador Retrievers, for example, this method is FUN.


Pushy, physical dogs actually take the physical contact as a “bring it on” signal and escalate the mouthing, or may try to bite you to discipline you for daring to push THEM around! 


Yelping:  Puppies and dogs often yelp when they are bitten too hard, causing the dog doing the biting to cease momentarily.  It is theorized that when the puppy bites, imitating this yelping or yelling OUCH in a high-pitched voice will make him stop.  The yelping/OUCH method sometimes work, but only with pups of a shyer or softer temperament.  Bolder pups can take it as an exciting “squeak” and become more excited which of course leads to more, harder mouthing.  If you wish to try this method, YELP loudly and sharply, and if the puppy stops mouthing, quietly and slowly stroke the puppy’s head and verbally praise as soon as they stop. 


Be aware that with any method you choose, puppies will be much more persistent in their mouthing attempts than adult dogs and require far more attention and consistency of handling in order to improve.  Certain breeds such as terriers and nearly all of the retriever breeds have extremely high “oral fixations” and puppies from these breeds usually need careful management for months before the concept is truly understood and accepted.


If your gut feeling is that the biting is coming from a motivation other than play, you might be right and should seek professional help for a solution.  The problem will not go away on its own and action needs to be taken to prevent further escalation


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