Biting versus nipping: Is my puppy being aggressive?

It’s National Dog Bite Prevention Week, and I thought I’d take the opportunity to talk about the differences between aggressive biting and normal puppy mouthing and nipping, as it seems there can be some confusion for people in these realms, as well as how to address and teach puppies proper bite inhibition.

Throughout my career training dogs, I’ve had inquiries come in from new puppy parents concerned about their puppy’s mouthing, even going as far as to say their puppy is being aggressive. It is very unusual for young puppies to display aggressive behaviors; when I hear these complaints, one of my first questions to the person is, “Have you talked about this with your vet?” Aggressive displays at a young age always send off the alarm that there could be an underlying medical reason; however, in most cases, they’re actually experiencing normal puppy mouthing and nipping, and just need a little guidance to understand and deal with it.

Puppies are a lot like human babies—they put EVERYTHING into their mouths! It’s how they investigate the world, relieve boredom and teething pain, and learn how to actually inhibit their bite. Puppies are also very new to the world and do not have self-control so when they are aroused, excited and playful, it is very normal for them to get nippy. They will find your hands, limbs and clothing with those little sharp teeth, too! Sometimes they may even seem to be relentless, which is why some view their puppy as potentially aggressive.

Chew on this, Desmond! :)
Chew on this, Desmond! 🙂

It’s important for puppies to learn bite inhibition—VERY important. If your puppy learns this and is well-socialized, he will be set up for a life of success with little risk of biting others. Patience is key as puppies do teeth and it takes time for them to learn to control their impulses. A common mistake people make is pushing the dog away–using your hands like that is indicating to the dog, from their perspective, that you WANT to play, so do not use that as it will only work against you. Here are some tips for dealing with those adorable “puppy piranhas.”

  • Have PLENTY of alternatives for your dog to chew. When you get your new puppy, besides having food bowls, beds, crates, leashes and such, make sure you have myriad approved chew items. Dental chews, bully sticks and other all-natural animal-based chews (we tend to stay away from rawhide), Kongs and other treat-dispensing/fillable items, and a variety of tug toys of appropriate sizes can be your life saver! Remember to always supervise first, and never leave items alone with your puppy that could be a choking hazard (such as rope toys). Frozen Kongs can be a very wonderful alternative as the cold can help soothe the mouths of those puppies who are teething. You cannot have too many of these, and use them often to prevent and redirect your puppy’s teeth from inappropriate to appropriate outlets.
  • Teach your puppy to be gentle. You will not be able to prevent each time your dog puts his mouth on you, and it’s not a bad thing to have soft mouthing occur, as this helps teach proper bite inhibition. However, if you’re getting teeth—remove your hand or whatever those teeth are on, and redirect to an appropriate chew toy! If I’m handling a puppy and they are mouthing at me gently, that’s fine, but once I feel those teeth, I end that situation. If I’m consistent, the puppy will learn that a soft mouth is okay, but a hard mouth is not! I don’t squeal or make any noise, but I make sure I have a treat, toy or chew at hand to substitute for my hand or whatever the puppy may be mouthing, especially if the puppy is very excited, as it can be hard for them to turn their excitement off. Then I can trade my shirt for an appropriate chew item, for instance. Having an alternative ready is important.
  • Teach calm behavior. In addition to having clear signals about what is appropriate and not, teaching your dog to be calm when your hand approaches or around other triggers that may excite and cause him to nip at you or your clothing is important. For instance, if my pants are very loose and my puppy wants to chase and nip at them, I will have lots of treats on me and walk very slowly, rewarding my puppy for not nipping as they walk beside/around me. In this way, they’ll learn that it’s much better to be calmly walking with me while I have those pants on, rather than to nip and possibly tear them. Over time I will increase how quickly I am walking, and therefore increase the excitement level. If the puppy gets too excited, then I need to lower my criteria and be less exciting so I can get the behavior I want and reinforce it, and build from there. I love this video from Emily Larlham that teaches such techniques.
  • Use crates, Xpens and other management. Crate training and using gates, Xpens, etc., to help manage your puppy and teach them how to find that “off” switch are also important. These should never be used in a punitive way, but if you’re busy and your dog has had adequate activity and you don’t want to deal with the nipping, you can place your dog in one of these areas with a safe chew alternative to prevent them from nipping at you, and to help them calm on their own. I view this as very similar to human children–going to your room for a break to unwind!
  • Teaching settle behavior. Doing mat work is invaluable, and I teach this to a lot of clients very often. The mat itself is a cue to relax, and if you do this effectively, can be a tool you can take with you anywhere to help foster calm and focus. A simple door mat suffices; a non-slip backing and flat top will be best, and it doesn’t have to be extremely large (even if you own a Great Dane). It’s not meant to be a bed, but when the mat is there, the dog should be reinforced for first stepping on it and focusing on it, not you, then for sitting, lying down, and then being even more relaxed, like rocking onto the hip, having a calm tail, softer eyes, resting the chin. If you time treats to mark these behaviors, your dog will get it, and learn a good default settle on the mat. There are many protocols out there for teaching going to the mat, etc., but one of my very favorites is that of Nan Arthur, who wrote a great book called Chill Out Fido; I also love this video from Emily Larlham on capturing calmness in dogs.

Aggressive biting is very different from normal puppy mouthing and nipping. Most aggression I have seen, and most bite cases I have worked on, stem from fear or the inability to control impulses coupled with never having learned appropriate bite inhibition. Fearful dogs usually show other signs of discomfort before they escalate to a bite and it’s important to learn how to read body language; this is a great guide on learning more about signs to understand.

If you truly believe your dog is being aggressive, or shows signs of fear, anxiety and overarousal/inability to control their impulses, you should consult a professional well-versed in using desensitization and counterconditioning protocols and teaching calm using positive, rewards-based methods. You should NEVER punish the dog, restrain him forcefully or roll him, or grab the muzzle or scruff. These are confrontational methods that will confuse and possibly upset the dog and make things worse. The earlier you intervene, the greater your chances of long-term success. There is no substitute for getting help from a caring, knowledgeable trainer/dog behavior consultant!

Let us know how we can help,
Owner, Delightful Doggies

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