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Coping with puppy biting and jumping

Question: My twelve week old Labrador puppy keeps biting us, albeit playfully, and jumping up to myself, my husband and our two children. Is there anything we can do to train him out of these unwanted habits.

Answer: It comes as a great surprise to many puppy owners that their cute fluffy puppy arrives with a set of teeth that the average shark would be proud of! Worst of all, the puppy likes to test out these needle-sharp points on humans!

Biting during play is normal for all puppies, but you need to take action to stop it. Puppies have sharp teeth for one reason only – so that when they bite, it hurts! This helps them to discover what is alive and what is not.

Puppy biting teaches a pup just how hard it can bite other living things. Clearly he can exert a huge amount of pressure on a lifeless object such as a toy without causing any kind of reaction, while trying the same behaviour on another puppy, or on us, will most certainly result in a big response! Watching puppies play together makes this obvious. They play by biting each other’s ears, tail, legs and any other part that they can get hold of! This is accepted quite happily – until the pressure becomes too hard. Then the victim is likely to yelp and stop playing for a short while, leaving the pup who bit too hard to realise that there were consequences to his actions.

This process is known as learning ‘bite inhibition’ and it is vital that all puppies learn how to moderate how hard they bite before they lose their puppy teeth at around 18 weeks of age.

Once home, pups continue to learn about how hard they can bite by practising on us. This is normal and should not be treated as aggression. However it is not acceptable for dogs to bite people – and puppies need to be given education in how to moderate their biting.

What to do:

  1. Your puppy needs to know that biting hurts! Every time he mouths your hands or clothes, yelp loudly or give a big “ouch” or shout.
  2. Immediately turn away as if to nurse your wounds, and ignore your pup. Your puppy will probably look a little bewildered.
  3. Ignore your pup for about 20 seconds, and then continue interacting. Repeat the “ouch” and turn away each time you feel his teeth.
  4. Biting will not stop immediately. It should become less and less hard over a period of about three to four weeks. At this point, your pup will realise that he cannot put any pressure on you at all, and then you can yelp even if he puts his mouth on you gently – finally teaching him that he cannot bite you ever.
  5. Do not play rough and tumble games with your puppy, or play any game where the pup grabs your clothes, skin of hair. This is giving your puppy permission to bite and will set back all your other efforts.

This process works well for the vast majority of puppies. However, there are exceptions such as puppies that are already well over 14 weeks old and puppies that have learned to bite for attention! If you find that yelping and turning away has had no effect, despite total consistency for a fortnight, or if your puppy seems to be more excited and snappy if you yelp, you may need a different strategy. Take all the fun out of biting - go quiet and stand still. No laughing, squealing, biting or shouting, and ignore your pup. As soon as your dog puts his mouth on you, even in play, say “wrong” in a normal voice and put him in the kitchen or behind a door or baby gate. This isolation should only last about two minutes, then he can rejoin the family. If your puppy gets excited by being picked up, say “wrong” and leave the room yourself, shutting the door behind you. Children can do this easily. Be consistent. It will take lots of repetitions before your puppy understands that biting is no fun.

Jumping Up

Nearly all puppies want to jump up. This is not a bid to dominate you but to greet you and be friendly! The one reason why dogs persist in this habit is that they get rewarded for the behaviour – because people either pet or scold their dog when he does it – both highly rewarding responses!

Suggestion: Start training your family and friends straight away! Each and every time your puppy jumps up, turn your back and fold your arms. Do not talk to, touch, or look at your puppy until he has all four feet on the floor, or chooses to sit. Then and only then can you greet him and give him a treat or praise. This needs to be consistent! If you have even one person that pets the dog for jumping, your mission will fail!

Beware visitors who say “I don’t mind!” If you know one of these, then have a Kong toy or a hollow bone, stuffed with food, ready by the front door. As they come in, hand your visitor the Kong and tell them that your puppy can only have the toy when he is sitting. Your visitor will instantly become a dog trainer and will insist that your pup sits before giving him the reward. Problem solved!

For some puppies, especially gundogs, carrying a toy in their mouths has the magical effect of preventing them from jumping up. If yours is one of these, send your dog to get a toy to bring to visitors – it increase control and looks cute as well!