Most puppies nip and mouth their owners’ hands, ankles, pant legs, and even small children’s behinds, to at least some extent. This behavior can seem cute (the Coppertone bottles with the little girl and her terrier pup come to mind) when a puppy is small, but when he’s 100, 80, or even 20 pounds and has sharp adult teeth, the same behavior can be downright dangerous. Puppies will not just “grow out of” mouthing and nipping when their adult teeth come in. They must be taught to inhibit their bites and avoid mouthing humans in any way unless asked to do so.
For puppies raised with their mother and littermates, bite inhibition begins around eight weeks of age. This is one reason that it’s critically important never to remove a pup from its litter or mother before eight to nine weeks unless it’s a medical necessity. When puppies reach this age, they begin to play more roughly with littermates, and their tiny needle-like teeth begin to hurt when they sink into other puppies’ ears and tails. Soon they learn that, when they nip hard, their siblings will nip back. This is a lesson it’s very difficult for humans to teach. So, again, never separate a puppy from its litter too early unless absolutely necessary, and don’t buy a puppy that was removed from its siblings before eight weeks unless you’re very confident in your training skills.
To help your puppy continue to learn bite inhibition once it’s left its litter and joined your family, make a hard and fast rule, and ensure that every family member follows it: If the puppy’s teeth hurt a human, the game is over. Even very small children can understand this rule. If your puppy nips or mouths hard enough to hurt even a little bit, say, “Ouch!” in a high-pitched, yelping tone, and leave the room immediately, turning your back on the puppy.
The Final Step
The final part of bite inhibition training is teaching the puppy, once it understands nipping is a no-no, what level of tooth pressure is acceptable. There will always be certain situations where a dog must mouth a human hand. For example, some small children give dogs treats by holding them in a fist, rather than on their palm. A careless dog could easily nip such a child while grabbing the snack.
When you’re confident that your puppy understands that the consequence of painful mouthing is that you will end playtime and leave the room, sit down with the puppy and encourage him or her to gently lick and mouth your hands. Don’t shove your hands in the pup’s mouth or wrestle with him or her. Wrestling causes too much excitement. Remember, you want to set the dog up to succeed, not fail. Do this several times a day for at least a couple of weeks. If the puppy’s mouth is used gently, the attention and petting continues. If the teeth hurt, you yelp, turn your back, and leave the room for about 30 seconds, then start over.
Why That Last Step?
Why teach a dog to safely mouth your hands, instead of teaching it never to put its mouth around a human hand? There’s the reason mentioned earlier– all dog mouths contact human hands eventually– but the most important reason is that all dogs can be triggered to bite. What if your dog’s tail is stepped on? The pain would make any animal quite reasonably inclined to snap, but a dog who’s been encouraged to always inhibit his bite from the moment he joined his human family is much more likely to turn and mouth the human stepping on his tail gently than to inflict a painful bite.
If your dog bites even once, even if provoked, his life could be endangered and you could be liable for monetary damages. Teach bite inhibition early and reinforce it often. It’s your best line of defense against everything from puppy nibbles to serious bites.