Should you discourage, or even stop, your dog’s Play biting and/or rough play? When is rough play too rough and when does a play bite just become a bite?
How Puppies Learn
In order to really understand your dog’s instincts behind play biting, let’s go back to when your pup was still living with it’s brothers and sisters. Life was and still is a steep learning curve in a wonderful, strange world of new sounds, tempting smells and incredible tastes. Until your pup learns exactly what these things are in his world, everything (and we mean everything!) is ‘tested’ with its mouth to see how it ‘feels’ (hard/soft or wet/dry) and whether it’s something to be enjoyed or something to be avoided.
Through this ‘testing’ pups quickly learn what can be gently squeezed, what can be tossed around and what can be bitten or chewed on. Oftentimes, their litter or playmates serve as unsuspecting guinea pigs and a quick squeal will encourage or discourage a particular behaviour as either good or bad!
Another critical stage for your puppy to focus on chewing EVERYTHING is when they go through Teething. This is when puppies start losing their puppy teeth for their adult teeth to come through and they just seem to want to chew EVERYTHING! This dog behaviour is very natural as their little gums are in pain and they attempt to soothe the pain through chewing. Chewing is so important during this stage because it releases endorphins (a ‘feel good’ hormone) from the puppy’s brain to help it cope with the discomfort of new teeth coming through.
During this teething process, make sure your puppy has a variety of interesting toys to chew on; preferably made from soft materials and non-toxic rubber. Toys made of plastic, foam or anything that can be pulled or chewed off in chunks (and potentially swallowed) should never be given to puppies. There are a lot of safe puppy teething and chewing toys out there, so do a little research and buy a high-quality toy that will last under your puppy’s sharp teeth! I would highly recommend Kongs as great rubber chew toys for your pup. Why not put your pups kong in the freezer for a short spell. It will keep the treats or food inside for longer and the cold will help cool your pups gums too!
Is all Play Biting Bad?
It’s fine for your puppy to play bite and play rough with his toys or other puppies or dogs (always supervised!), but puppy biting on you or other’s hands, feet and articles of clothing should never be allowed to happen in the first place. Puppies usually learn naturally that adult dogs do not get involved in play fights, they get chased off or get a growl of caution when they go too far. Puppies then learn they need to be invited to play in the adults space.
Teaching your puppy, young dog or even an older dog to focus his chewing on something acceptable (that can take the abuse!) is the golden rule of dog behaviour. Re-direct excitable jaws with a toy, a treat or anything he is allowed to chew, except you! Throw toys in the opposite direction or wave the treats in front of his nose and teach him to sit. Re-focus his attention on good/acceptable doggie behaviour and consistently reinforce – and reward! – his good habits. It’s so much easier to establish and reward good behaviour with your dog than breaking negative and destructive behaviour.
But what if your puppy is already play biting or trailing around on the ends of your trouser leg? Or even worse, he is no longer a puppy, but still using his teeth on your hands, arms or articles of clothing (especially your designer leather shoes)?
It’s time to Teach the Rules of the Game!
Rule 1: Eye Contact and Speaking are rewards to your puppy, If your dog is getting overexcited with play biting or playing rough, do not look or speak to them when you are re-directing their behaviour. Any attention you may give them at this critical time will be misinterpreted as encouragement to continue the unacceptable behaviour. Why should your puppy stop when it gets your attention?
Rule 2: Be consistent with your message of what is acceptable behaviour! If you only stick to the rules every now and then and letting your puppy get away with play biting or getting too rough more often than not, then it is going to take a whole lot longer to get through to your puppy what is and isn’t allowed. Your inconsistency only causes your dog to be confused and unsure of what it is you really want. Be consistent and see how quickly your smart puppy gets it!
Rule 3: Timeouts, This is a very effective tool to address and damper your puppy’s over-excited behaviour by encouraging them to “chill out.” At the same time, it also gives you the space and time to avoid becoming frustrated, red-faced and hysterical as things are blown out of all proportion. Timeouts are never done in a negative way; remember, do not look or speak to your puppy when they are in “time-out.”
Timeouts for Smaller Puppies. Remember those litter mates who got bitten too hard, turned their backs and stalked off? You are basically doing the same thing! You can say ‘Aow!’ if your puppy bites, get up and walk away. Do not say anything else. A few attempts with this same response will soon have your puppy thinking, ‘ok, how do I get her to stay instead of go?’ Congratulations, they’re learning the acceptable behaviour!
If you have small children around (they always gets puppies overexcited), think about investing in, or making, a puppy pen. These small metal or mesh enclosures are sold to help puppy owners wrangle their small charges and keep them safe when you just can’t keep an eye on them; for instance, when you’re making dinner or the kids are doing their homework. If puppy gets too nippy, in he/ she goes (without a word, remember!) and leave them for a few minutes until they calm down. You can use the same idea when you leave the room to avoid worrying about what wires your little sweetie could be chewing on!
Puppy pens also teach your puppy a little independence; they can still hear and see you, but not get under your feet when you’re busy. They stay occupied and safe with their toys until you are ready to play.
Timeouts for bigger puppies or older dogs – Adult canine teeth are bigger and stronger than puppy teeth, so you really don’t want your puppy still play biting when these come through! For bigger puppies and adult dogs designate a ‘Timeout Space’ somewhere in your house. Usually it’s best to keep it close to where your dog typically spends its day; so a utility room, a downstairs bathroom, whatever works. If you have limited space or an open planned home, then a large crate with a blanket thrown over the top will work just as well. Just like with the younger puppies, when your bigger puppy or older dog starts getting too rough, quietly and gently put them in their ‘Timeout Space’ for a few minutes and let them cool off and calm down. (Remember, no eye contact or speaking as that causes more excitement.) With consistency, your dog will learn that getting overexcited and rough gets them nowhere except alone on their own. Exactly not what they want since they only want to be with you.
Again, I can’t highlight enough how quickly this unacceptable behaviour will begin to improve if you stay consistent with your game rules, each and every day. An additional benefit is that you are teaching your puppy to learn on its own and behaviours that a dog learns on its own are more likely to become a natural, lifelong habit.
Remember- Speaking or looking at your pup will be perceived as positive interaction by your dog and dilute the message you really want to get across. Let your assertive body language do the talking instead!
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