You’ve brought home a new puppy. Congratulations! You now have an adorable ball of fluff who will be the perfect companion, right? Maybe not quite yet. Unfortunately, puppies come equipped with teeth, and they are too young to understand when and how to use them. That means you, your shoes, your couch, and even your baseboards may wind up suffering, first as your puppy explores things (“Does it fit in my mouth? I wonder what it tastes like!”) and then as they go through the pain of teething* and their needle-sharp baby teeth are replaced by larger adult teeth. At times it may feel like the biting will never end!
* Teething usually starts somewhere between about 12 and 16 weeks of age and ends by the time the puppy is about 24 weeks old.
The good news is that both puppy biting and excessive chewing are phases that most puppies grow out of… but you can make things better or worse by how you react. Here are some tips to help you get through these tough periods as quickly (and painlessly and inexpensively) as possible.
Start by managing the environment
If your dog is chewing on things you would rather not have chewed, you must start by managing the problem. That means keeping important, dangerous, and valuable items out of your puppy’s reach. Use ex-pens, baby gates, or just plain doors to limit your puppy’s access to things. You can even put a piece of furniture or other valuable item inside an ex-pen and make sure the puppy stays outside the pen (I have clients do this with antique furniture that they don’t use daily, for example). If your puppy can’t reach it, your puppy can’t chew on it.
But he has my Manolo Blahniks!
If your puppy steals something valuable and runs off with it in front of you, sit tight. Most dogs love to play chase, so if you run after your puppy every time he or she steals something, you will actually encourage the stealing behavior. Once your puppy learns that stealing your valuables leads to a fun race around the house, the puppy will steal even more stuff. It’s hard to fight the urge to chase, but I promise it’s the right thing to do.
Teach your dog to give things up on cue
Teach your puppy a cued "drop it" behavior. Begin with boring items that your puppy is willing to give up, and exchange them for treats or fun toys. Gradually build up to more desirable items, always either giving them back after the puppy has dropped them or exchanging them for something even better. A dog with a well-trained "drop it" is willing to drop even exciting items since they know you will give them something awesome in return.
Two important tips
1. Most things your puppy picks up are neither dangerous nor important. If you ignore the puppy’s picking those things up, the puppy will generally drop them within a few seconds anyway. If, on the other hand, you go out of your way to grab them out of your puppy’s mouth, your puppy will learn either to run away once he’s grabbed something (see “fun race around the house” above), or swallow the item (because then you can’t get it back, right?). Neither of these are good outcomes. When I see a puppy pick something up, I ignore it literally 99% of the time.
2. Only use “drop it” if the item is truly dangerous to your puppy’s health, since your puppy will expect you to trade lots of treats to get the item back. That means if you cue “drop it” about everything, your puppy will soon learn to steal stuff just to make you say “drop it” (so the puppy can drop the item and make treats appear). If you’re thinking you can get around that by cueing drop it and then not feeding treats, I have bad news for you: If you completely stop rewarding your puppy when he drops items on cue, your puppy will soon stop listening to the cue and fall back on the “run away or swallow” options mentioned above.
Give your puppy “legal” chewing options
Chewing is a natural and normal dog behavior. Asking your puppy not to chew at all is like asking a child not to speak ever again. It’s not reasonable! But it is reasonable to ask your puppy to aim her chewing at things you prefer her to chew on. Provide lots of chew toys for your puppy, and pay attention to her likes and dislikes (which may shift over time) so you can give her things you know she likes to chew on. Consider commonly available chew toys as well as alternative chew items such as Himalayan yak chews.
My puppy likes me better than any of his chew toys, though
Puppy biting is another normal behavior. Puppies regularly bite their littermates and their mothers while they are playing. Unfortunately, our skin is not as tough a dog’s skin, so what may be tolerable and even fun among dogs is far from painless for us humans. The good news is that puppy biting tends to fade in time, as long as we don’t accidentally encourage it. Here are some tips that may help.
Start by ignoring the biting, when you can
This can be hard, but for many puppies biting is about getting a reaction. If you don’t react, it’s not fun for them. I do my best to pretend the puppy is not even there. I also wear thick clothing and shoes around puppies so it’s easier to ignore the flashing fangs. Note that “don’t react,” means no reaction at all – not speaking, and not even looking at the puppy. Talking to the puppy, even to scold, often encourages more biting since the puppy got a reaction.
Next, grab a toy to hand to the puppy
You may have to make the toy super-enticing, by wiggling it around and making it seem alive. You can even play tug or fetch with the toy. You can also try tying a piece of twine around the toy and dragging it around, so it sort of looks like an animal crawling along the floor (which many puppies find quite exciting). The key is to get the puppy’s teeth on the toy, rather than your skin or clothes.
What if the puppy keeps biting me, rather than the toy?
If the puppy keeps biting you no matter how exciting you make the toy, put a barrier between you and the puppy. If at all possible, move yourself rather than moving the puppy. I literally step over baby gates or out of (or into) ex-pens to put a barrier between me and the puppy. I recommend moving yourself rather than the puppy for a couple of reasons. One is that puppies often continue to bite while you are moving them. The other is that the attention and handling the puppy gets while you are moving him can encourage future biting. After all, the puppy got lots of attention after he bit you, while you were carrying him to the barrier, so why wouldn’t he try that strategy again?
Give your puppy 30 seconds to cool down, and then…
Once you have put a barrier between you and your puppy, wait about 30 seconds before coming back into the puppy’s area. If you wait longer than that, your puppy is likely to forget what happened before and have trouble “connecting the dots.” When you do re-enter, walk in holding a toy. Encourage the puppy to play with the toy as you approach, so he’s more focused on the toy than you, and less likely to start biting you again.
NOTE: You may need to repeat the “put a barrier between you and the puppy and then come back 30 seconds later with a toy” routine a few times before your puppy gets the message, but most puppies figure it out after a few repetitions.
I tried this, but my puppy is still biting me
If your puppy keeps biting you even after a few 30-second breaks with you behind a barrier, and will not redirect onto a toy, he may need something but not know how to tell you politely. Ask yourself the following questions:
• Is the puppy hungry? If so, feed him!
• Does the puppy need to potty? If so, take him outside!
• Is the puppy overstimulated? Is so, take him to a quiet area to calm down.
• Is the puppy overtired? If so, put him in his crate or pen for a nap.
Puppies naturally chew and bite. Just as you wouldn’t expect a two-year old child to be able to sit still for a one-hour lecture, you shouldn’t expect your puppy to wake up tomorrow and stop using her teeth. It will take time for your puppy to learn what to bite and chew on. The good news is that puppies become adults after a year or two, and all the inappropriate biting and chewing will soon be a distant memory.