Why do pups play bite?
It has been said that play biting is how dogs learn to inhibit their bite. When playing with the litter, if a pup bites too hard, the bitten one yelps and walks away. The biter then learns that the fun stops if he bites too hard and this helps deter future hard play biting so that play can continue. This, apparently, helps dogs to bite more softly if they ever need to bite. Dr. Ian Dunbar suggests that there is a finite time for pups to learn bite inhibition and that is approximately 18 weeks old. Therefore, allowing pups to learn soft mouthing is OK and hard mouthing is not, is a very important lesson.
When does play biting become a problem?
When the pup does it persistently, doesn’t let go when biting, growls angrily whilst biting, or clamps down really hard when play biting. It can be particularly unpleasant also if the pup launches at you and then bites, as the puppy teeth dragging down on skin can and does cause some nasty injuries especially in the young or elderly.
How do I know it is play biting and not aggression?
If the biting takes place after an incident (such as removing a toy from him, or after/ during removal of a toy) he bites you, this could be considered resource guarding or it might be that the pup was trying to maintain play. Play is usually free flowing so the pup moves fluidly with a soft waving or circling tail (like a helicopter). If play, the lips are drawn right back in a very exaggerated way, often with sneezing, the eyes remain soft (also known as “play face”). If aggression, the body stiffens, the tail might go high (or very low), the pup might freeze (go still briefly), the eyes are hard or appear very reflective; this is more likely to be an aggressive response; especially if accompanied by an aggressive growl.
Growling can be play or aggression but it usually sounds different. Play growls can be higher, of shorter duration and repetitive, whilst aggressive growls are lower, longer and less repetitive sounding as they can last longer (Farago et al, 2010). The aggressive growl can be accompanied by stillness.
Aggression can lead to harder bites, but so can any form of heightened arousal in dogs. Dogs develop what is called “ a hard mouth” when very excited, agitated or cross.
What factors can lead to excessive biting and how do I prevent these?
Sleep: Puppies, like human toddlers, need a lot of sleep. If they become over tired, they can become cranky and bad tempered which can lead to harder and more excessive play biting. In Gwen Bailey’s excellent book, “How to Train a Super Pup” she suggests a sleep routine for pups. In my experience some pups need more sleep than others but following this advice, I have found that roughly two hours awake for young pups should be followed by roughly two hours asleep. Conversely, if a pup gets too much sleep, this can also lead to excessive play biting as they store up explosive energy. Often owners who leave a young pup for several hours are greeted by explosive bitey puppies.
Play: Humans (typically the male of the species-sorry chaps) can produce bitey puppies by playing too roughly with them. It’s very important to use play as a means to teach pups to go to the edge of excitement and then come back to earth all of their own accord. Many human males get the pup totally revved up and then run away from it leading to a chase and bite game. Overly rough play should be avoided in the young puppies as this is the age at which they are learning play strategy and this approach can be wired into young pups. This can make it very difficult to teach pups self control in my experience. However, it is not just my opinion, Bruce Fogle referred to this in his book, The Dog’s Mind. Frustration can increase the desire to bite in puppies and rough play often leaves them feeling frustrated.
Chase: Chasing breeds of dogs and terriers can also tend to get excited with fast moving things which many can then “bite”. For example, the pups that chase feet, trouser legs etc.
Individual personality: Some pups are just plain more excitable than others and these pups need more help to learn self-control. Until they have learned self-control they can be a handful. Increased excitement can lead to increased play biting.
Tips for managing excessive play biting:
Energy Budget: Try to manage the pup’s energy budget throughout the day. Ideally, pups should have about two hours active followed by about two hours asleep. Using a cage ensures the pup will have to sleep as they simply can’t continue to get involved in everything that is going on. Make sure the cage is in a quiet part of the home so pup has a chance of sleep. They are naturally nosey, if too much is going on they can’t sleep.
Food: Some foods are loaded with sugar and food colouring. It is best to avoid these foods as they can lead to excessive energy in pups (Shannon et al., 2015, Mc Cann et al., 2007). Look for foods that do not contain sugar and colourants, there is now a huge amount of choice of good puppy foods. Also, if you do not have a puppy that is “working”, don’t feed pup a working food. Working foods are designed to produce more energy in dogs doing huge amounts of activity. The average family pet simply does not need that, even though it is tempting as it is V.A.T free!
Gentle training: On waking, make sure the pup is having some input from you. After toileting, do some gentle training. Good things to teach the excitable puppy are: stay, leave, drop an object, on your mat, and gentle body inspections. Where you teach “Stay” should have particular emphasis in those places pup is most excitable, such as by the front door. If pup can learn to be calm in these places when there is nothing exciting going on, it is easier to teach them later when there is a visitor coming which would create more excitement.
Directed chase: For chasing dogs it is best NOT to practice too much chase at a young age as this can, according to David Ryan in his book "Stop," lead to strengthening of the chase motor patterns. In other words, the result is likely to be a very chasey dog! In the puppy stages, if you have a pup that bites your feet, it is better to walk more slowly so the chase drive is not triggered. If you anticipate your pup will chase you, stand still. Perhaps if you have to do a lot of fast moving about, leave your pup with a stuffed Kong, or scatter feed him with a handful of kibble in the garden so you can move about without being "hunted". After about six months of age, you can start to add in directed chase exercises such as chasing a ball, Frisbee, or bubbles. It is important to realise that high chase drive dogs will not stop chasing so it is best to give them a legitimate and controllable chase target. If you don't want a high chase drive dog, choose your breed carefully!
Self-occupation: Leave pup with an activity toy such as a treat ball, stuffed Kong, or other activity toys that will encourage pup to do some work on his own without demanding your constant attention. Anecdotally, I have noticed that often, the very bitey puppies are also the highly demanding puppies. Teaching pups to be self-occupied takes some of the pressure off the relationship.
Most biting in puppies is exploratory and not aggressive. If we become cross and frustrated with the puppy, this can then lead to a more aggressive response from him. In these cases, professional guidance from a positive trainer/behaviourist is advisable at the earliest opportunity.
Bailey, G. How to Train a Super Pup.
Farago, T, Pongracz, P, Range, F. Viryani, Z and Miklosi, A. (2010). The bone is mine: affective and referential aspects of dog growls. Animal Behaviour, 79, pp 917-925.
Fogle, B. The Dog's Mind.
Marwitz, S., Woodie, L. and Blythe, S. (2015). Western-style diet induces insulin insensitivity and hyperactivity in adolescent male rats. Physiology and Behaviour. 1, pp 147-154.
McCann, D, Barrett, A.Cooper, A., Crumpler, D.. Dalen, L., Grimshaw, K, et al. (2007). Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. The Lancet. 99 1560-1567.
Ryan, D. "Stop".