DEALING WITH NIPPING AND PLAY BITING
Nipping - which is the playful biting and mouthing of
your hands and clothes by your dog - is particularly common among puppies,
but may also occur in older dogs that haven't been taught proper bite
It is natural for dogs to mouth and nip. They explore
the world with their mouths - to a dog, his mouth is as important as eyes
and hands are to us. Nipping is very different from true aggression: it is
really a form of communication, interaction, exploration, and play. From
birth, pups use their mouths to explore the den, their mother, and their
From just a few weeks old, they use their mouths to
play with their siblings: puppies play by biting and mouthing each other.
Some adult dogs - usually, the ones with owners who encourage rough play,
or who were removed from the litter at too early an age - retain these
same tendencies to nip during play and in moments of emotional duress.
Sibling play is actually how young pups learn the very
important lesson called bite inhibition. If a puppy bites another puppy
too hard, the other pup will yelp loudly in pain and stop playing with
him. This teaches the biter that such a degree of bite force results in an
outcome that is undesirable: social isolation. When other puppies bite
him, he learns what that pain feels like. (This is one reason that
puppies removed from the litter too early are often 'maladjusted' -
they've missed out on some important lessons their mother and littermates
have to teach).
Even pups that have learned basic bite inhibition from
their siblings often need to be reconditioned again upon entering their
new home: we humans are much more easily damaged than dogs, so it's
necessary for us to intervene and refine the puppy's bite pressure even
further. A dog without any concept of bite inhibition is annoying and
dangerous to have around: a harmless play session can rapidly turn into
Although their little teeth are razor sharp, puppies are not capable of
inflicting serious damage since their jaws are too weak to do much more
than elicit a trickle of blood. On the other hand an adult dog can
do a great deal more than just scratch the surface, and it makes very
little difference to a wounded human that the dog "didn't mean to do it"!
Teaching Bite Inhibition
Here's what to do to teach your dog good bite
inhibition. Note: this technique is also applicable to older dogs, though
the same results may take a little longer to attain.
- When playing with your puppy or dog, you'll need to
choose the level of mouthing that you're prepared to accept. Some owners
are content for their dogs to touch their hands with their teeth, as long
as no pressure is exerted; others (particularly those with large,
strong-jawed dogs) prefer to get the message across that no tooth-contact
is acceptable whatsoever.
- Whenever you reach your level of tolerance with your pup - he might give
you a good nip, or he might just grab your fingers gently in his mouth -
squeal shrilly and loudly in pain and immediately turn your entire body
away from him. Get up and walk a few paces away from him, keeping your
face and eyes averted. Don't speak to him, and don't touch him. The aim
here is for the puppy to be completely socially isolated for the next 20
to 30 seconds - long enough for the lesson to sink in, but not long enough
for him to forget what it was that elicited such a response and start
playing with something else. (Note: if there are other people present,
you'll need to ensure that they mimic your behavior here - don't allow
them to start playing with or otherwise paying attention to the puppy or
dog, or else all your good work will have been undone).
- Most young dogs, and some older ones, seem to have an innate need to
chew something - anything! - whenever they're being played with or petted.
To keep the focus off your hands, and prevent him from learning what a
delightful chew toy your fingers make, supply him with a more appropriate
chew: anything with a slight give to it should do the trick. Rawhide
bones, pigs' ears, or squeezy rubber toys all go down a treat.
- If he should start snapping for your hands or face while playing,
correct him quickly with a sharp, "No!", or "AH-ah-aaah!" He should stop,
startled. As soon as he stops, praise him (you're praising the stopping,
not the original behavior - don't be confused by their close proximity)
and then quickly redirect his attention to an appropriate chew. When his
jaws close around it, praise him again and give him a pat.
- Never use physical force to correct your dog for inappropriate chewing
or mouthing. Not only is it mostly unnecessary, but in most cases it will
actually encourage further nipping and biting. The cold-shoulder technique
(as outlined above) is the most effective, and humane, manner of conveying
your displeasure to your dog. He wants to please you: he just has to
figure out how to do so. He has a much better chance of doing so if you
refrain from corporal punishment and give him 30 seconds of isolation
- If your dog's getting really revved up and is making repeated attempts
to nip you, despite cold-shouldering him, he might need to cool down a
bit. In this case, the 'time out' method is appropriate: take him to his
crate, or to a small room by himself, and leave him there for five minutes
to chill out a bit. When it's time to bring him back into the heart of the
household, you can start playing again - just try to tone it down a notch
or two until you're sure he can tolerate the play without further nipping.
- For a dog that needs little encouragement to become overexcited and
mouthy (high-energy herding breeds in particular are prone to this),
choose non-contact play whenever feasible. Frisbee and fetch are great
choices; even tug-of-war, provided your dog knows a reliable 'drop it'
command, is suitable. Avoid rough play like slap-boxing (where you hit the
sides of a dog's face gently with open palms) and full-on wrestling at all
costs: these games encourage nipping, but also call a dog's instinctive
aggression into the mix, which is something to be avoided. Keep games
friendly and low-key instead.
For more information
For further information on typical doggie behavior, including a fantastic
resource for how-to training and loads of detailed information on
preventing and dealing with problem behaviors, check out
Written by a professional dog-trainer, it's an absorbing guide that deals
with all the subjects a responsible dog-owner could ever want to know
about - well worth a look.
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