When getting a new puppy, most owners expect a bit of biting to occur. Later on, those same owners are wondering why they let this tiny, furry shark into their homes after those sharp, needle-like teeth have latched onto their hands, shoes, furniture, hair, clothes, remotes - everything!
Mouthing and biting is a completely normal and necessary part of canine development - excessive mouthiness should only be considered a behavioral problem when it persists into adolescence or adulthood. Luckily this is a rare occurrence, and the vast majority of puppy owners can rejoice to know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, usually around the 6-7 month mark (the point at which all the adult teeth have emerged). Until you finally reach that point, however, rest assured that your puppy is doing exactly what nature intended - in fact, a lack of mouthiness would be a larger cause for concern! Puppies exhibit mouthing behavior for a large variety of reasons:
Why Is My Puppy Biting & Mouthing?
1. Because They Are Teething
Puppies go from 28 baby teeth to 42 adult teeth - that’s a lot of shifting around in there and it can be very painful at times! Mouthing on things helps relieve that uncomfortable tension your pup is feeling on their sore gums, making the behavior self-reinforcing. In other words, mouthing feels good for your pup whether they’re doing it on a toy or your arms!
When mouthing on anything feels rewarding, your pup will continue to try and mouth on everything around them, whether we think it’s appropriate or not.
2. To Learn The World Around Them
Just like human babies, puppies explore their new world and all of its exciting tastes and textures by putting things in their mouths! This is part of why nothing seems off-limits to your curious, mouthy pup, even when you feel like you’ve bought all the toys in the world to try to satisfy their urges.
Puppies play with their mouths! If you’ve ever watched a group of dogs play together, teeth are almost always involved. Dog toys are a human invention, and until your pup learns to channel all their playful urges into them, their first instinct is to play with their mouths.
3. When Their Needs Aren't Met
Puppies will sometimes be extra mouthy when their needs are not being met. A tired, hungry, thirsty, overstimulated, under-exercised, or attention-deprived puppy is much more likely to be excessively mouthy than a puppy whose needs have all been met.
Puppies will quickly figure out that mouthing gets them attention, and whether it’s positive or negative doesn’t matter much to a puppy who only knows that you’re looking at them, talking to them, and touching them. This can become a fun game for a playful puppy who learns that mouthing makes you interact with them in some way!
4. It Could Be There Breed
Some breeds are more disposed to mouthiness than others. Think of herding breeds, such as Australian cattle dogs (aka heelers), whose primary job was to nip at the heels of a cow to move it from one spot to the other. While it’s normal for any breed to mouth, these types of dogs were selectively bred to bite and nip, and fighting genetic impulses aren’t the easiest thing to do!
5. Being Taken Home Too Soon
When a puppy is separated from its mom and littermates too soon, they never get crucial feedback about bite inhibition and are much more likely to be excessively mouthy as a result. In a litter, a puppy will yelp and stop playing if its sibling bites them too hard, teaching the one who bit that what they did was too rough and they need to be more gentle in the future for play to continue. Mom will also correct her puppies that bite too hard or uncontrollably, a vital lesson for puppies learning to use their mouths.
Always make sure that your puppy stays with its mother and siblings until at least 8 weeks of age, although in a perfect world 10 weeks would be preferable!
How To Resolve Mouthing Issues
So what can be done? Even though mouthing is normal and will resolve on its own with age, it doesn’t mean we should let puppies bite anything they want, when they want. Luckily there are many solutions to help manage and train away from the behavior.
1. Be Empathetic & Patient
Remember, you’re the one who decided to bring a puppy into your home, and this is a part of owning a puppy. Know that this behavior will not last forever, and know that your pup is not doing it on purpose to frustrate or annoy you - they’re just expressing their natural instincts. Punishing a puppy for mouthing (by “alpha rolling,” putting fingers down its throat, hitting its nose, shaking its scruff, etc) is not only cruel, but it’s also confusing for a puppy who needs to bite in order to explore, relieve pain, play, communicate needs, etc.
Punishing these behaviors may seem to work at the moment, but it doesn’t teach your puppy what they should be doing instead and it will lead to more problems later on, such as defensive aggression, fear biting, and a lack of trust in you.
2. Set Yourself Up For Success
It won’t have to be like this forever, but until those adult teeth come in it’s not your puppy’s fault that they shredded your favorite pair of shoes - it’s your fault for not putting the shoes away, out of your puppy’s reach.
Your home should be puppy-proofed so your pup doesn't have access to the things you don’t want them to mouth on.
For items you can’t put away, like table legs, apply deterrents like Bitter Apple spray to dissuade your puppy from chewing these objects. It won’t hurt your puppy but it tastes terrible, teaching them that table legs aren’t very fun to chew on.
Avoid wearing your hair down or wearing baggy clothes that invite your pup to nip.
Have some teething toys always ready in the freezer for when you need to bring them out (the cold can help soothe sore gums).
If your puppy likes mouthing on certain textures, try to find an appropriate mouthing option that fulfills the need for that texture. For example, if your puppy is obsessed with biting at skin or leather shoes, consider buying a leather toy for them so they can relieve their need to bite that texture in an appropriate way.
Just like humans, puppies have their own individual preferences, so be ready for some trial and error to figure out what they enjoy. Once you do know, be ready with those favored toys, chews, and treats (keeping them on your person or in easy-to-reach spots) so you can redirect your puppy onto an appropriate mouthing outlet or into alternative behaviors.
3. Meet Your Puppy's Needs
Make sure you are being proactive with your puppy’s needs for water, food, exercise, rest (they need 18-20 hours of rest a day!), attention, etc. If you are on top of your puppy’s needs, this reduces the chances that your puppy is mouthing you to communicate to you that they need something or that they’re “cranky” because their needs aren’t being met.
It’s ok to put your puppy away in their crate or pen for some “down time” to sleep and/or calmly work on a chewing or licking activity. You’re not being mean for leaving them out - they need the rest!
Puppies also need more to mouth on than a few stuffed toys, so make sure you’re proactively meeting the chewing need itself. Providing different textures (a frozen rubber kong that feels good on sore gums vs. a rope toy) or something longer lasting that allows for sustained chewing behavior (like a bully stick) can make a big difference to a mouthy puppy.
4. Redirection & Boundaries
When your puppy mouths something they shouldn’t, the first thing we want to do is show them what they should choose to mouth on instead. Always redirect them to an appropriate mouthing option (like puppy-specific toys or chews that your puppy enjoys) when you know they need to bite. Repeatedly redirecting your puppy shows them what objects they should go find when they feel the need to mouth, rather than them trying to relieve the need on less appropriate objects (like chairs or human hands).
Keep some toys and chews up where your pup can’t get to them - redirecting them onto a “new” object is much more effective than trying to redirect them onto toys or chews they’ve grown bored of because they have access to them all the time.
This redirection process does take lots of consistent repetition before your puppy begins to make the connection and starts choosing appropriate chewing items on their own. If you feel like you redirected your puppy to his toys 20 different times in one day, that’s ok! The more time you spend redirecting undesirable behaviors into desirable behaviors now, the less you’ll have to deal with problem behaviors later on.
When your puppy doesn’t want to mouth on any of the things you are attempting to redirect them on to, then implement a short “time out” in their confinement area (ex. crate or pen) until they calm themselves (sitting or laying down) and then let them back out and give them another chance to mouth on the appropriate items or exhibit different desirable behaviors.
Similarly, if your puppy is mouthing on you and not any of the objects you provide to redirect them, you can get up and walk away silently to show them that this type of behavior makes you go away from them, rather than interact with them as they wanted. As with anything involving a puppy, be prepared to repeat these steps multiple times. Your puppy is learning to control their natural instincts and it takes lots of time, redirection, and repetition.
5. Basic Training
Training your puppy is one of the best things you can do, for so many reasons. You will strengthen your bond and learn how to communicate with your canine companion, and training will tire them out mentally and physically. Most importantly, you will also have more behaviors to redirect your puppy into when they are being mouthy.
Having several different “replacement behaviors” (whether it’s eye contact, touch, down, sit, place, etc) gives your pup things to do that are incompatible with mouthing.
Keep some reinforcers on you at all times (favorite toys, kibble, treats) so you’re ready when your puppy comes over with the intention to bite and be ready to redirect them into a replacement behavior. After they perform the replacement behavior, toss the toy or kibble away to give them the chance to burn off even more excess energy.
To help teach your puppy to take treats gently, push the treat toward them and only release it once their heads move back slightly. This is to help your puppy learn that the treat will come to them, rather than them being the ones that need to launch themselves forward to roughly grab it.
Along with this, only release the treat when they are nibbling at it gently, with control (letting it go when your entire hand is in their mouth will only reinforce mouthy behavior). If your puppy instantly goes into mouthing behavior when you reach to pet them, it’s important to work on handling skills. You want to build up a positive association with being touched all over so make sure you are getting your puppy used to being touched on the head, neck, back, belly, legs, paws, etc. Do not pet your puppy when they are actively trying to bite you - that’s not a behavior you want to reward!
Keep in mind that petting is sometimes overstimulating for some pups, especially when they are in an excitable mood, and it is ok to save petting for when they are sleepier and in the mood for it. Remember, your dog should also be given respect, and not just be treated like a stuffed animal!
6. Appropriate Play & Enrichment
Don’t use your hands or clothes to play with your puppy! This teaches them that mouthing on hands or clothes is an appropriate way to interact with you and other people when it shouldn’t be. It may be cute now, but it won’t be later. You don’t want to send mixed signals by sometimes rewarding your puppy biting you while discouraging the behavior at other times.
When playing with your puppy, employ a “two or more” toy method. When you throw one toy out for your puppy to chase, you should always have another in your hand that you’re ready to redirect your puppy onto if they abandon the first toy. Think of the toys as being your “shield” against your puppy’s needle sharp teeth!
Similarly, getting a toy like a flirt pole is a great option that keeps your puppy at a distance while playing with you (so that you’re taking hands out of the equation all together) as well as being a fantastic tool for teaching and practicing impulse control.
When your puppy mouths on you during a play session, the play time should immediately end for a few minutes to teach them that biting will not be rewarded with more play and give them a chance to calm down.
It's also important to provide ample enrichment options (aka activities that provide exercise and/or mental stimulation). Enrichment provides necessary outlets for puppies that have a lot of energy but nowhere good to put it. Enrichment toys also help keep your puppy’s interest for longer than a single piece of kibble or a non-interactive toy, helping to wear them out so they’re ready for a long nap.
A puppy who is busy with enrichment is a puppy who isn’t busy biting you!
All in all, having a puppy will feel like having a land-shark at times - there’s no avoiding it. But it’s important to keep in mind that biting and mouthing are normal behaviors that will go away in time. In the meantime, do your best to be patient, proactive, and work on teaching your pup how to appropriately interact with their surroundings. Live in the moment and celebrate that you get to watch your puppy grow up through this important time in their life (even if you won’t miss the mouthing).
Work With A Trainer
If you'd like to dive deeper into positive reinforcement training, consider working with a certified dog trainer! Use the link below to see if Busy Dog serves your area and book a free evaluation with your local trainer.