Puppies play biting - why they do it and how to handle it best.
Pretty much every new puppy I’m called to train has been play-biting with their humans. Sometimes moderately but often times, excessively. Excessive play-biting is one of the main behaviors that causes people who otherwise wouldn’t seek professional help to reach out to me.
Puppies play-biting is a very important topic to tackle when they’re little and can be taught easily, with little risk of real harm to people. Biting obviously can’t continue as pup gets older, so now is the time to address the problem. They’re not teething, it’s not normal and they won’t “grow out of it”. It needs to be addressed.
To be successful, you have to first understand - what we call “play-biting” isn’t really play at all. It’s your puppy trying to establish his or her place in their new “pack”.
If you’ve been reading the internet or you just don’t believe me on this, the truth may be staring you in the face. Usually, by the time I show up, pup has already decided that biting one or two members of the family is a bad idea. This is usually Mom or Dad. The kids are usually getting bitten on a regular basis.
If “play-biting” is just play, or teething or “normal”, then why do they do it with some family members and not others? The answer is pretty simple. They’ve already started to learn the family pack order. Why do they pick the kids? Again - simple answer… kids play with puppies as if they’re littermates. They love to get down on the floor and play with puppies! They love to run around and let pup chase them. They love to chase pup around the house too!
If you ever get a chance, watch a litter of puppies “play”. You’ll see the similarities immediately.
There are a few easy answers to this whole dilemma.
First, teach your kids to respect your puppy for the living, breathing opportunistic predator it’s about to become. No rolling around on the floor, pulling pup’s tail or generally antagonizing them. No encouraging pup to chase or be chased. Children need to learn how to appropriately approach and gently pet pup, while both pup and child are under the full control of a parent. If you have a child or children with a low degree of impulse control or compliance, I can’t stress this enough, keep them clear of your new puppy. Antagonistic children tend to teach puppies that biting is a good way to defend themselves. Something like ⅔ of dog bites are to children under the age of 14, many of those to the face. Obviously - we don’t want your new puppy learning that it’s OK to bite anyone, much less a biting child in the face! The children’s behavior is as important, if not more important here than that of your puppy! If they learn your kids are going to scare or hurt them - they will “play-bite” which usually sends the child screaming in the other direction. Later in life when a similar situation presents itself, that “play-bite” may be much more serious. It’s only intended as a warning but, having warned the child many times over, your dog will probably show a bit more intent. It doesn’t take much to seriously hurt a young child and it happens way more often than it should.
Second, prevention is worth a lot in this situation. Keep your pup on a leash and collar attached to an adult. That adult's job is to constantly and consistently teach pup good behavior. It’s also to ensure that pup is treated with respect and handled properly by the kids (and other adults as the case may be).
Make sure pup has a crate placed in a central, but quiet area of the house so they can get a nap from time to time. Nothing like a little sleep deprivation to make them (and me) ornery. Be sure to establish firm house rules. When the pup is sleeping or eating - kids stay away!
The real key to this often challenging behavior is for adults to take the lead and control the interaction between themselves, the new puppy and the kids. If you’re having a problem with play-biting and don’t know how to properly address it, please reach out to a qualified trainer in your area for advice. An ounce of prevention is worth many pounds of cure when a child’s face may be the price of being complacent.