Puppies bite. They do so often and for so many different reasons. Puppy biting is probably the symptom with the most possible underlying cause. It comes to little surprise, then, that it is also the topic most people have questions about. In this guide, we’ll go over every single reason a puppy can put its teeth on you or your things and how to mitigate or stop the biting.
Puppy biting is normal, but can still be a sign of a serious problem
All puppies will exhibit this behavior. Some will do it a lot, some won’t. The big issue is that not all reasons for biting are created equal. Most of them are rather tame and it’s only a matter of time before it passes. Others, if ignored or not dealt with properly, can get worse and lead to actual bites further down the line.
If you got here because you can’t stand the biting anymore, we recommend you read every one of the reasons below before making a judgment on why your puppy is biting. Some reasons can look quite similar on the surface but have vastly different solutions. This is a huge guide, but we wanted you to have pretty much all the answers, so here they are!
1 – Attention Seeking
Puppies quickly figure out that some actions get our attention very reliably: barking at us, jumping, stealing shoes…and biting. They do so because they want something from us and, well, they get it!
What it looks like:
Your puppy comes to you. You aren’t already interacting with the dog, you’re minding your own business and then the biting starts. This could be on the couch watching TV, while you’re working from home or at the dinner table.
The important distinction here is that attention-seeking bites most often happen while you aren’t already interacting with the dog, and they usually don’t stop until you’ve given them what they want.
What to do:
- First, acknowledge that your puppy has needs and will communicate those. You can’t stop that, no matter how hard you try.
- Then, figure out what your dog wants when the biting happens: does it want food, pets, play, to go outside?
- Finally, teach your new friend how to obtain those things before the biting happens.
Let’s go with an example:
If your puppy comes and bites your ankles while you work because it wants to play, you’ll want to ask it to bring you a toy or to sit every time it walks up to you, before any biting starts. When the puppy does what you asked, play with it!
The order of events matters! You want to ask your dog for proper behavior before they bite, not after. If you only ask for a sit after your ankles start bleeding, your dog will learn that biting you means you’ll ask for a sit and then we play. Not good.
Over time (and many repetitions!) your dog will learn that sitting is the way to ask politely how to play!
What if I don’t have time to play with my puppy every time it asks?
The most important thing with dogs, and more so puppies, is to set them up for success. If you can’t be attentive enough to catch your dog before they bite you, don’t give them the opportunity to do the bad behavior! Use a crate or pen, possibly even leaving your puppy in another room combined with burning your dog out and mental stimulation.
2 – Teething (chewing on your stuff)
Sometimes your dog eating shoes is a way to get your attention. Most of the time, it’s the need for chewing that’s rearing its head.
What it looks like:
This type of biting is more so just eating things. Your dog won’t be biting you at all, opting instead for your phone charger, the table legs, or the corner of the couch. If your dog grabs a shoe and prances it around in front of you before starting to chew, it’s more likely attention-seeking.
What to do:
Puppies and adult dogs need to chew. This need flares up when they teeth and calms down afterwards, but even adult dogs benefit greatly and need to chew regularly. Some need to do so very often, some less so.
Your only viable course of action here is to orient this need onto appropriate objects and remove as many “bad” options as possible.
1. Remove all valuables from the pup’s reach
- Don’t worry, this is temporary.
- Put your shoes in the closet, your phone charger on the table except when you’re using it, hide or block away all wires, etc.
- Don’t worry about big items like your couch and table, we’ll take care of those below!
2. Offer interesting chewing options
- People often buy plastic-rubbery toys to help with teething. While those technically do help, they’re not as interesting to your dog as something that breaks down into pieces or has a bunch of different flavors (i.e.: your shoes, a table leg)
- Opt for edible options such as bully sticks, beef hooves, or chicken legs (bought at a pet store, made for dogs, never cooked!). Make tests to find out what your puppy really likes.
3. Help your dog build the healthy habit
- Place these chewables close to the items you couldn’t hide: tables, moldings, couch, etc. Don’t just stack them in the crate, they need to be quickly accessible!
- When your puppy seems like it wants to chew on something that isn’t one of its bones or bully stick, call it and orient it towards the proper option.
4. Start adding back the items you removed
- Once your puppy almost always goes for the proper items when the need to chew arises, add back one item in the house. Shoes, for instance.
- For the next few days, have the chewables close to the shoes and watch carefully when your dog goes near them. If it seems a little too interested in the footwear, encourage it to go chew on its bully stick instead.
- Repeat with another item once the shoes are safe!
A word about safety:
There are many different opinions on what is healthy or safe to give a dog or puppy to chew on. We won’t get too deep into this here, but here are our guidelines:
- Opt for natural items, avoid processed items such as rawhide.
- No matter what you give your dog, how old or how reliable your dog is, always carefully supervise the first few times they get this new item to make sure they don’t hurt themselves with it.
- Allergies, preferences and safety are always relative to each dog. Find what works best for yours!
3 – Mistakes during play
Amongst other things, dogs pretend to fight when they play. This usually involves their teeth.
What it looks like:
You’re already playing or have initiated play and your puppy lets go of the toy, voluntarily or not, and bites you instead.
Or your puppy grabs onto your pant leg and starts tugging on it, leaving you no choice but to grab onto your side of the pants to get them free, giving your dog exactly what it wants in the process.
What to do:
There are many, many ways to play with your dog. Playing tug of war or “play fighting” are two of those games, but they need very clear rules to avoid mistakes, accidents, or forced play by way of pant-grabbing. We’ll have a post about all the different ways one can play with a dog eventually, but let’s focus on the “tugging” aspect for now, which is usually where this type of biting occurs most:
Clear, obligatory rules.
The way to fix this problem is to have very clear directives for tugging with a human. Here are the four rules to respect at all times, both for your dog and yourself:
The four rules of playing tug-o-war with a dog:
- No tugging until I say so
- Have a word that initiates play, such as “Play!” or “Get it!”. Say this word before offering the toy to your dog and initiating play.
- Once you’ve practiced this a few times, the rule is simple: if your dog grabs onto a toy in a human’s hand without having heard that word, play never happens.
- Your puppy is still allowed to play by itself without this command. It only applies to things held or attached to a person.
- This rule helps a lot with the pant-grabbing part of the problem and helps prevent your dog from seeing a child’s hanging mittens and going “LET’S GOOOOO!”
- When I say it’s done, it’s done
- Teach your puppy a solid “Drop it” and use it during play.
- If your dog refuses to drop the toy, you immediately drop it and stop playing.
- Breaks. Many, many breaks
- Overstimulation causes Zoomies (the next reason for biting) and can often lead to the dog getting excited more quickly in the future. We want to prevent that.
- Play for about a minute or two, then ask for a “drop it” and take a short break. A minute or more, depending on how much time your pup takes to cool down.
- During this break, you can still keep your dog busy! Ask for some simple behaviors to help your dog return to calm.
- Once the energy level has gone down a bit, we can start again.
- Try and completely stop the game before your dog loses control. Usually, you’ll find where that line is rather quickly through trial and error.
- When the dog bites, we act accordingly
- With an adult dog: zero tolerance
- As soon as teeth touch skin, the game stops for a minute or two.
- With a puppy: a teaching opportunity
- Your puppy will make mistakes, that’s normal. We will use that opportunity to try and teach it a very important skill: bite inhibition.
- When your dog bites you during play, willingly or not, ask yourself “How much did that hurt?” If it was a rather light bite compared to normal, keep playing but redirect onto the toy. If, on the other hand, it was quite a big one, stop the game completely for a minute or two.
- The goal here is to teach your pup that how hard it bites matters.
- With an adult dog: zero tolerance
A word on growling during play
While they play, dogs may growl. That is perfectly normal and should not worry you in the slightest.
I am strictly talking about the situation where you are happily playing and growling occurs, not when you approach your dog or when you touch it. Those are very bad signs and we’ll talk about them in a bit.
4 – Zoomies
Ever feel like your puppy has two personalities: adorable and the devil incarnate? That’s Zoomies.
What it looks like:
You feel like your dog just decided it hates you and wants nothing but to murder you. It spins, it growls, it bites everything and anything it can find. Nothing you can do will appease the beast that hungers. It won’t sit, it won’t grab a toy, it won’t do anything. This happens after walks, late a night, after playing, or seemingly at random times throughout the day.
Zoomies are the affectionate name we give to dogs who lose control due to over-stimulation or over-tiredness. What qualifies as being “too stimulated” or “too tired” for a puppy can be very, very little.
What to do:
Keep in mind that everything is new for your dog: sounds, smells, sights, surfaces, tastes, etc. Overloading is quite easy for puppies. Zoomies tend to happen less and less as the dog ages, as these events become more and more mundane.
Unfortunately, that’s your only real “solution” to this problem: waiting. Once the zoomies start, you have to wait them out. They usually only last a few minutes and then the dog calms down.
There are, however, things you can do to help:
- Don’t add more stimulation to the situation
- Trying to play or interact with the puppy to stop zoomies only adds more oil to the fire.
- Put your dog to bed before it gets too tired
- Much like children, puppies have a hard time calming down and going to bed by themselves. If we let them do their own thing, they’re likely going to stay up too long and lose control.
- If you notice that zoomies always happen around 8 pm, try and have your dog in its crate before that time!
- Take shorter or calmer walks
- A common trigger for Zoomies is taking walks that are too long or too stimulating.
- Try and find the right dosage: take shorter walks, but more often throughout the day or walk through calmer streets.
- Don’t play or train for too long
- Playing just five minutes is usually enough to tire your pup out for a bit and will avoid zoomies. Remember to take breaks within that five minutes!
- Encourage calm through chewing
- Gnawing on things is an extremely relaxing activity for dogs. It’s a great way to calm things down, but you have to do that before zoomies happen.
As your dog ages, you’ll be able to do more, for longer without having to deal with the beast inside. Until then, short bursts!
5 – Communicating Discomfort
If you were worried your dog might become aggressive, this is the one reason why you could be right. Correctly identifying this problem and fixing it as soon as possible is one of the most important things to do with your puppy.
What it looks like:
You approach your dog and touch it or something it has (toy, ear, paw, try to pick up the dog, pet) and then the biting starts.
This is not your puppy starting zoomies. This is not your puppy trying to play. This is not your puppy asking for food or to go outside.
This is your puppy telling you to stop.
Dogs don’t have many ways to communicate when they’re unhappy with a situation. One of them is walking away, which they often feel like they can’t do even if it is physically possible. Another is growling or showing teeth. The last resort is putting said teeth onto whatever is bothering them.
Now don’t panic, your puppy likely isn’t aggressive at this point, it’s still in the early stages of “Hey man, can you like, not?”. Ignoring or continuing to push the boundary is how we get to the really bad stuff.
Not sure that’s what’s going on when you pet your dog? Stop and see. Does the biting also stop? If yes, what you were doing was the issue.
If your dog wanted more pets, it’ll come back towards your hand to demand you continue.
What to do:
This type of biting can have different causes: resource guarding, grooming issues, not wanting to be pet or picked up, needing more space when cuddling, and more. Going over how to train each and every one of these issues would make this post a little more complicated than it is meant to be, but don’t worry, those are also on the list of guides we’ll be writing in the future. You may not want to wait that long though.
First, stop forcing things you don’t have to force unless safety or well-being is at stake
- Petting your dog is not a necessity. If it doesn’t want you to pet it, don’t do it.
- Cutting your dog’s nails can wait a week or two.
- Drying your dog’s paws can be done by laying a towel down and having it walk over it chasing a treat.
- Leave the puppy on the floor, unless you have to pick it up for a car ride or something similar.
- Don’t bother your dog when it eats or has a bone.
Make things that you have to do as fun as possible:
When you don’t have a choice, use very high-value food to heavily distract your dog while you do the thing.
Your white dog is brown after a walk through the mud, but it hates being washed? Spread all-natural peanut butter on a plate and quickly wash your puppy as it licks all of it.
This trick is a very temporary solution and won’t work for everything. Eventually, your dog will see you approach with the plate of food and know exactly what you’re up to.
Then, train each issue individually
We’ll have guides for grooming, learning to be picked up, liking being petted and resource guarding at some point. In the meantime, you would be best served by contacting a dog trainer as those can become quite serious quite quickly, especially if the dog is exposed to children regularly.
Patience and understanding are key
None of the issues listed in this post are going to be resolved in a matter of two or three attempts. Consistency is the only way you’re going to teach your dog good habits. When it comes to puppy biting, people tend to give up on solutions very quickly and that just ends up prolonging how long you have to live with holes in your pants. Keep at it!
Still need help? Get in touch with us!
written by Stephen Fiset, dog trainer
Mis à jour le August 16, 2023