Many a puppy owner has had to endure the torment of being chewed on with those razor sharp teeth. Of course one of the first questions that comes up, is: "How do I stop it?" The answer lies in the developmental psychology of the puppy. Simply discouraging biting can be detrimental to the dog and those around it later on in its life.

Puppy biting forms an integral part of play amongst siblings and in a pack setting, and it is perpetuated in a mature form during play throughout the dog's adult life. In the absence of siblings and a pack, the human owner becomes the often reluctant surrogate playmate.

The purpose of play biting (and the razor sharp teeth play an especially important role here) is to establish what is called bite inhibition, or from the puppy's perspective: "How hard can I bite before I hurt my playmate?" The answer to this question lies in the feedback the pup gets from each bite. The lessons learnt here will later impact any situation where the dog feels a bite is called for.

We as human surrogates thus need to engage in this activity, knowing that we are fulfilling a vital part in the puppy's development. In fact, it is important even if the pup has other canine playmates, because the puppy needs to learn bite inhibition towards humans as well as other dogs.

This will stay with the dog throughout its life, and may prove to be the difference between a bruise and an open wound if the dog ever gets to the point of biting someone. Knowing that, it is the puppy that doesn't bit, that one should be worried about, because if it doesn't bite, it won't learn this very important lesson. Such puppies should be encouraged to play bite during socialisation with both humans and other puppies.Puppy biting is an integral part of play

A common approach to stopping unwanted behaviour, such as biting, is retaliation. Actions such as slapping the puppy on the nose, pinching or squeezing the nose or muzzle, or simply slapping the puppy, are common. They may even be effective at stopping the biting, but there is a down side as well. Since the human hand, and more specifically the owner's hand, is involved, you run the risk of making the puppy, and later on the dog, hand-shy. The other unwanted possibility is that the dog will learn to see the hand as a 'target' due to the nature of the slapping motion - fast approach to the face, fast withdrawal.

How do we break the habit? By giving the puppy feedback. Initially you give verbal feedback that corresponds to the intensity of the bite: "Ouch!" for a light bite, "OUCH!!" for a harder one, and "OOOOUCH!!!!!" for a really painful bite. Through this process the puppy learns how much pressure it can apply before we react.

Now, as the puppy learns what is painful and what not, we start overreacting to every bite. A bite that would initially deserve an "Ouch!", should now get an "OOOOUCH!!!!!" so that the puppy comes to believe that you are extremely sensitive. With consistent application, you'll get to the point where the puppy simply mouths without applying any pressure, at which point you have won the battle.

If the puppy gets overly rambunctious, a good way of dealing with it is to 'throw a scene' and go off and 'sulk' for a few minutes, leaving the puppy alone. It mimics the behaviour a sibling would exhibit if it got hurt during play and conveys the very clear and unambiguous message that "this was too much". Then go back and make up by resuming play, showing that there are no hard feelings. Note that 'putting the puppy away, i.e. into confinement' is not the same as 'leaving the puppy alone', and does not have desired the effect.

All this also works well with adult dogs who need regular reinforcement. I would certainly not initiate this kind of play with an adult dog I don't know and trust, such as a newly acquired rescue dog or a dog with existing aggression issues. In such cases I would enlist the assistance of an experienced behaviourist.
Dogtown South Africa
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