A common complaint among new puppy owners is that their puppies are constantly biting their hands. Although this behavior can be alarming or overwhelming, it’s extremely natural.
Puppies understand the world around them by putting things into their mouth. Biting and mouthing are normal puppy behavior and aren’t generally a cause for alarm or concern, and it certainly doesn’t mean your puppy is aggressive. Some puppies (and breeds) are naturally mouthier than others, but all puppies should be taught not to bite or mouth people, and in general to be gentle with their mouth, also known as bite inhibition.
A common reason that puppies will chew on you is because they are teething. Just like teething is frustrating and overwhelming for human children, the same is true for puppies. When teething, puppies may feel uncomfortable and irritable, and most are looking for ways to try to soothe the discomfort in their mouths. Puppies have 28 baby teeth and, by the time they are adults, they will have 42 teeth. It can take up to six months for puppies to finish teething, during which time puppies can be extra mouthy. To support a teething puppy, make sure they have access to safe chews and toys and redirect them to those toys when they start biting you.
Mouthing, chewing, and biting are part of natural play behavior for puppies and dogs. If you were able to visit your puppy at your breeder, you likely saw your puppy mouthing as part of play with littermates or even with their mom. Although this play is completely natural for puppies when playing with one another, it’s less fun when your puppy uses the same playing style with your hand. An easy way to prevent your puppy from getting into the habit of biting your hand is to avoid using your hands to play with them and instead use a toy. By keeping a toy between you and your puppy, you will help your puppy make the association that playing means toys before they ever build a habit of mouthing your hand in play.
Most puppies learn bite inhibition when their mother gets upset if they nurse too roughly, or if their littermates cry and don’t want to play with them because they’ve bitten too hard. Bite inhibition means that puppies learn to be gentle or “soft” with their mouth when engaging with others. This is an important skill for dogs to develop. That said, some mothers won’t correct their puppies, and puppies without littermates tend to have more issues with mouthiness.
How to Prevent Biting
If your puppy starts to mouth or chew at you while you’re playing with or petting them, make a squealing noise or say “ouch!” in a calm but loud and high-pitched voice and remove your hand from their mouth. At this point, stop playtime for a few seconds, so the puppy makes the association that when they bite at your hand, the game they like stops.
When you are ready to play again, re-engage your puppy in play with a toy instead of your hand. Don’t ever yell at your puppy, hit them, smack their nose, or otherwise punish them for biting your hand. Remember, this behavior is natural for your puppy, so they just need to gently learn when and where mouthing is appropriate. By crying out when your puppy bites or mouths at your hand, they should quickly realize that playing roughly by mouthing or biting you ends the game. Our puppies want to play with us and so they will quickly adapt their playing style to be more gentle.
Sometimes, you’ll need to leave the room to give your dog time out if the “ouch” technique doesn’t work. In addition, make sure your puppy is getting plenty of exercise.
Keep Little Mouths Busy
A key to decreasing the frequency of your puppy chewing on your hand, clothes, and shoes is to make sure that they have plenty of puppy-safe chews and toys accessible at all times. Giving your puppy opportunities to keep their mouth busy and occupied will deter them from biting your hands and other things.
If you’re ever concerned about your puppy’s behavior, it’s always appropriate to ask your vet for support, and to work with a positive reinforcement trainer in your area. Signing up for puppy kindergarten or an AKC STAR Puppy course is a great way to get professional support with your puppy’s hand chewing, and connect with other puppy owners who are struggling with the same natural puppy behaviors.