One of the first things we need to teach our new puppies is how to control the force of their bite. This is known as “bite inhibition”. What’s important to understand is that we actually don’t want to teach our puppy to never put her teeth on us; rather we want to teach her how to put her teeth on us.
That may sound counter intuitive, but there’s a good reason for this. If we teach our puppy to never use her mouth at all, and then we accidentally step on her or kick her or scare her, or she injures herself, she’s far more likely to react with a forceful bite. But if we’ve taught her how to use her mouth and any of these things occur, she is more likely to control the force of that mouth contact and avoid causing us damage.
During high energy games such as Tug, the rule is “if you feel teeth, the game stops.” This includes biting our hands or even incidental contact as the puppy is aiming for the toy. This helps the dog to learn to watch where she puts her mouth relative to our hands. So, if you’re playing Tug and you feel teeth, say in an irritated tone “Ouch. I don’t like that” and drop the toy.
Pull your hands to your chest and look away from puppy. Make it clear that the game stopped. Count to 10 and then pick up the toy (or another one) and invite her to play again – with a little lower energy. If you feel teeth again, repeat the process. If you feel teeth a third time very quickly, change the game to something else such as fetch or even quiet time in her playpen with a chew toy.
Use long toys, 18-36 inches long. This allows you to drag the toy along the ground to create interest in the other end of the toy – away from your hand. It also allows you to hold the toy at each end with a large, central target. Where ever she grabs the toy, let go of the end she’s nearest so that you can play tug. If she begins to shift her bite to work her way toward the hand that’s playing, you can simply grab the other end of the toy and let go of the end she’s getting near so that the game can continue.
NOTE: Sometimes we need to wear protective gear when playing with puppies with very sharp teeth. I have worn cycling gloves to protect hands and long sleeves/long pants to protect arms and legs as necessary. Wearing such protections keeps puppies from breaking our skin, but we still need to respond as if it hurts and interrupt the interaction as described above.
During Quiet Time
When your puppy is relaxed and calm with you, you can pet her and occasionally offer your fingers near her mouth. If she puts her mouth on you gently, tell her, “Thank you. I like a gentle mouth.” I usually say this in a soft, soothing voice to avoid getting her rile up.
If she’s falling asleep and so her mouth is lingering on your hand, you can gently remove your hand and let her nap. But if she’s still awake and she starts to linger (and look at you to see your reaction), quietly tell her “I don’t like that” and remove your hand and count to 10 before trying again. If she shifts from using just her little front teeth to trying to use her whole mouth, even if it’s still basically gentle, tell her “I don’t like that” and remove your hand and count to 10 before trying again.
The aim with these exercises is to teach your puppy that during high energy activity, she should keep her mouth to herself and during calmer times, gentle mouth is appreciated.
Author - Jody Epstein
Jody Epstein is a certified behavior consultant, certified professional dog trainer, and holds a master’s degree in animal behavior from Tufts University. She has been training professionally for more than 12 years and is pleased to be part of the Academy of Pet Careers team, teaching the next generation of trainers. Look out for her blogs on all things dog training and animal behavior.