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Help – My Puppy Keeps Play Biting Me! Is This Normal?

Aggression By Kayla Fratt 10 min read May 24, 2021 11 Comments

why-puppies-play-bite

Puppies have very sharp teeth – which makes play biting one of the worst parts of puppy ownership… but wrestling with your new pup is just so fun!

It’s hard to strike that balance between teaching your puppy not to play bite, and having fun with your dog.

Some puppies seem to bite more than others, though. This can lead to a lot of questions. How much play biting is normal? Why do they do it? How do I teach my puppy how to not play bite – or at least be gentle?

As with almost all things in life, there’s no straightforward answer. Let’s go through each of these questions one by one. First, though, know this: all puppies play bite, and this is normal.

If your pup nips at you when playing, don’t freak out – this alone doesn’t mean you have aggressive puppy on your hands!

However, you have to draw the line somewhere. If your puppy isn’t taught proper boundaries, she will continue to play bite into adulthood.

Why Do Dogs Play Bite?

Puppies explore their worlds with their mouths – they don’t have hands, after all! While we can’t know exactly why your puppy play bites, there are a lot of reasons that dogs play bite.

Play biting teaches bite inhibition. With those super-sharp puppy teeth, play biting can hurt a lot. When a mother dog or siblings feel that one puppy is biting too hard, they will stop playing with the puppy. This form of punishment is very effective at teaching puppies that play biting shouldn’t hurt. Dogs that learn how to control the pressure of their teeth are said to have bite inhibition.

You’ll learn how to teach your puppy good bite inhibition in a few minutes.

 Play biting feels good. When puppies are teething, it feels good to gnaw on things. While it’s ideal for your puppy to gnaw on things like Nylabones, Kongs, and other chew toys, many puppies still choose to play bite. They will put fingers, toes, and just about anything in their mouth because it feels good on their growing teeth.

Help curb this sort of play biting by giving your puppy better things to chew on – like chew toys designed specifically for teething puppies!

 Play biting is a game. Play is an important part of growing up for dogs. Puppies learn how to chase, tackle, and bite their “prey” by practicing on their littermates – and you!

pups-playing-and-biting

This isn’t sinister, though – your puppy is just practicing life skills that were important for her ancestors. Human skin is much more sensitive than dog skin, so it hurts more for you than it would for your puppy’s mother or siblings.

In short, play biting is an entirely normal puppy behavior. Adult dogs also play bite, since dogs are one of those species that continues to play into adulthood (although you probably won’t find them taking improv classes).

Adult dogs play bite because it’s a fun game (in doggie world, not always in human world).

How Much Play Biting Is Normal?

You’re going to hate me for saying this, but the answer is, “It depends.”

Before you leave, hear me out!

Dogs are all individuals, just like humans. They have their own preferences, play styles, and comfort levels.

Take human roughhousing, as a comparative example. Not all humans love pummeling the life out of each other – but some do. Some humans like just a bit of roughhousing, some only like roughhousing in certain situations, and others hate all of it. Dogs are the same – with one big extra caveat.

Dog breeds that were bred for fighting, hunting, or carrying things will play bite more, and might bite harder, than other breeds. Let’s look at four examples of big-time play biters, and one example of a less-bitey breed.

Remember that all dogs will play bite, and most dogs will engage in all sorts of biting. These examples just highlight the extremes of dog play biting behavior.

The Grab-and-Hold Biter: Belgian Malinois

Belgian-Malinois

There’s a reason that Belgian Malinois are often called “maligators.”

These dogs are bred to be super-tenacious biting machines that take down police suspects and trespassers. Their “bite-hard-and-hold-on” instinct is some of the most extreme out there.

If you’ve always had almost any other breed and just got your first Belgian Malinois, hang tight and know that extreme biting is very normal for the breed.

Other grab-and-holders include: Bulldogs, Pit Bulls, and Rottweilers.

The Grab-and-Carry Biter: Labrador Retrievers

labrador-retriever

A good, field-bred Labrador Retriever puppy will instinctively want to carry things around with her everywhere. She may play bit a lot – but she often will be very gentle compared to a Malinois. Labradors often need more training on when to bite than most dogs.

Other grab-and-carriers include: Golden Retrievers, Pointers, and Setters.

The Chase-and-Nip Biter: Australian Cattle Dogs

Australian cattle dog for hiking

Also known as Blue or Red Heelers, Cattle Dogs are bred for chasing after herds of cattle and controlling their movements by nipping at their heels.

This gives Cattle Dogs the strong instinctive desire to chase and bite moving objects. Your new Cattle Dog puppy is very normal if this is her favorite “game.”

Other chase-and-nippers include: Border Collies, Australian Shepherds, and Corgis.

The Pounce-and-Shake Biter: Jack Russell Terriers

jack-russell-terrier

Most terriers are bred to sniff out, chase, catch, and kill rats. That makes them really driven to grab and shake things – including your toes and pant legs.

Giving your terrier another outlet for this instinct will help save your fingers and toes from painful bites!

Other pounce-and-shakers include: Shiba Inus, Rat Terriers, and Schipperkes.

 The No-So Biter: Lap Dogs

shih-tzu

On the other end of the spectrum, some breeds are really just bred to be lap dogs.

While all dogs still enjoy play biting, many of the lap dog breeds are simply less interested in biting than the breeds listed above. Lap dogs include many of the small, white, and fluffy breeds like Shih Tzus and Havanese as well as dogs like Pugs and toy breeds.

Other not-so-bitey breeds include: Hounds and Livestock Guardian breeds.

You should expect different levels of “normal” for different dogs. Even if you’ve had Belgian Malinois all your life, you might one day get the strange “maligator” that doesn’t love gnawing on arms. You also might end up with that one Pug that just loves chewing on fingers.

Keep your dog’s breed and personality in mind when setting expectations for play biting – but just because you have a “maligator” doesn’t mean you have to put up with constantly bloodied forearms.

How Much Biting Is Too Much?

What constitutes “too much” play biting is a matter of personal preference. When I worked at the animal shelter, I sometimes met new owners who were thrilled that their 120-pound American Bulldog loved jumping up and pulling on their sleeves. They thought it was cute – I thought it was rude and a bit scary. Their “just right” play biting was my “way, way too much!”

I’ve also had puppy owners call me in tears, saying that their new puppy was “vicious and aggressive.” When I met the puppy, it fit well into my definition of “a normal, healthy puppy with a mouth.” These puppies were engaging in regular, appropriate dog play, but the families were just used to puppies that were extremely gentle – or had never had a puppy before.

puppy-play-biting-hand

If your dog or puppy is biting hard enough to break skin, you need to work on teaching her to control her mouth immediately. Even if your puppy is playing, this is not an appropriate way to interact with people. Start teaching your puppy to control her bite inhibition right away.

How Do I Teach My Puppy to Control Her Play Biting?

Now that we know your puppy probably falls on a spectrum of play biting, it’s time to talk about how to control play biting.

Even if you love wrestling with your pup and don’t mind a bit of roughhousing, rules around teeth are imperative for the safety and fun of all.

The good news is, it’s pretty easy to teach most puppies how to control their play biting. Here are a few basic tips to get you started:

1. Set rules and stick to them.

If you aren’t sure of your rules regarding play, how on earth can your puppy learn them? Some common rules for puppy play might be:

  1. We only play when I start the game. Many owners like play biting in moderation. If you, the owner, always control when the game starts, you’ll have more control over when your dog play bites.
  2. You only use your mouth on toys – not hands. When playing with puppies or dogs, come armed with a toy. When your dog gets too mouthy, redirect her to play with the toy instead of your hands.
  3. Playtime ends if you bite me too hard. This goes for non-traditional playtime, too. If your puppy is chewing on your toes while you read this blog, or your adult dog likes to nip at your sleeves while you run, leave the situation. Your dog will quickly learn that rude play biting makes the fun stop.

These are just some examples. You might need to set fewer boundaries with some dogs or stricter boundaries with others – it all depends on that dog’s tendency to play bite or bite too hard.

2. Give your puppy appropriate things to chew on and bite.

Since all dogs instinctively like to bite, you need to give your dog things she’s allowed to bite and chew. This gives her an outlet for her instinctive energy and desire to bite. I suggest trying a variety of the following:

KONG 41938 Classic Dog Toy, Large, Red, KONG Classic Large

  • A flirt pole. These are great for dogs that like to chase and grab toys.
  • Bully sticks and pig’s ears. Give your dog an outlet for working her jaw muscles with a good dehydrated treat.
  • Kongs. Stuffed Kongs are a real lifesaver when your dog feels the need to use her mouth.
  • Tug toys. Playing tug with your dog is a great bonding activity and is a great way to teach your dog that it’s ok to play with her mouth – in the right circumstances.

I’ve also seen some breeders just tying a strip of polar fleece to a milk jug and letting the puppies run wild with that. Don’t be afraid to get creative!

3. End play when your puppy bites too hard.

This is one of the most effective ways to teach your puppy to control her mouth. If she learns that teeth on human skin (or clothes) make playtime end, she’ll learn that it’s worthwhile to control her mouth.

Don’t make a big fuss about it. When your puppy bites you, simply stand up and walk away, putting a baby gate or door between you for a few seconds.

When you return, come armed with a toy that your puppy can chew on instead.

4. Let other dogs teach your puppy some gentle but firm lessons.

You’re not a dog, so please don’t waste your time biting your puppy back or rolling her over “like her mother would.” Use the method above to teach your puppy not to play bite with people.

However, you can let dogs also teach her a few lessons if you have appropriate playmates for your puppy. Only do this if you know that the other dog won’t overreact and hurt or scare your puppy. Other dogs can be very effective communicators about letting your pup know when enough is enough!

puppies-playing-together

Just how young human children often learn a lot of social norms from interacting with their peers at school or in other group settings, puppies too can learn a lot from their playmates.

If you’re really struggling with teaching your puppy how to control her play biting, feel free to comment below or reach out to me at my dog training site – I will help you out either way!

Have you ever struggled with play biting from a pup? Share your stories and strategies in the comments!

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Written by

Kayla Fratt

Kayla Fratt is a dog behavior consultant and freelance writer. She is an Associate Certified Dog Behavior Consultant with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and is a member of Dog Writer’s Association of America. She travels full time with her border collie Barley and her boyfriend, Andrew. Before coming to K9 of Mine, Kayla worked at Denver Dumb Friends League as a Behavior Technician. She owns her own dog training business, Journey Dog Training and holds a degree in biology from Colorado College. When she’s not writing or training Barley, Kayla enjoys cross-country skiing, eating sushi, drinking cocktails, and going backpacking.

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11 Comments

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Roselle

I have a 3 months old belgian malinois and I’ve notice that he’s starting to nip harder. Sometime he nip me while in the middle of walk. I’d like to learn how to prevent him from nipping human as early as now before he gets older. Thank you very much.

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Ben Team

Hey, Roselle.
We have the perfect article for you!
Best of luck!

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Lila

Puppies in general are nippy. My Chocolate lab was a very mouthy dog and very nippy as a puppy but she was also very empathetic. If we yelped when she nipped us, she would stop. Our Malinois on the other hand was even more nippy and after having dealt with it before we knew it was a phase. The yelping when nipped didn’t work on her so well so we had to come up with another solution. We always had an acceptable chew toy at hand to offer her when she got nippy. And if she got overly excited, we just stopped playing for a bit to give her a chance to calm down. It’s important to have a variety of chew toys for puppies when they’re going through that ‘chew anything phase’. Soft cloth toys, hard rubber/nylon toys, bones like soup bones and squeaky toys! Even now, my 4 year old Malinois has at least 4 soup bones at any one time. We toss them after she’s had them awhile and appears to have lost interest. We also regularly replace her soft squeaky toys as she loves to chew them up. First she surgically dissects the squeakers then she works on shredding it.

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Toni

We have a 7 month old cross pup. We think he is kelpie x whippet x border collie x. We have rehomed him 2 months ago. He is very mouthy but improving all the time. Our problem is he has started hell nipping other dogs, many of which are poodle x types which don’t seem to tell him off when it gets too much. I tend to remove him when this happens but that doesn’t seem to be changing the behavior. Any suggestions for others actions we can take.

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Agata

We have a 12 week old Belgian Malinois puppy. He is a sweetheart and super smart, but we’re having a hare time getting him to stop biting our young kids. He goes for their clothes and sometimes nips their skin through the clothes, and he will not let go of the bite. We’ve tried several strategies but we can’t figure it out. Any ideas?

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Bianca

Our Malinois is 11 weeks and we are going through the same thing. We have tried to redirect but no use.

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Gena

I recently took in a little Border Collie puppy. I am a rescue/rehabber and he had fallen and broken his leg. The breeder works with my husband and asked if I could take the pup. The other option was they would be putting him down. They didn’t have the money to treat him, then try and sell him for enough to make money to cover the bill, especially if it was a bad break. It ended up being a clean break and he’s doing great! I have a lot of experience with mouthy animals. I’ve had a lot of dogs, worked for several vets as well as raised, rescued and rehabbed exotic animals. River is now 13 weeks and one thing Borders are great at is beginning mouthy. I just broke his heeling instinct so my jeans will survive at least. When he bites, I will say OW loudly and sharply and he will immediately stop. He learned fetch in under an hour the other and I w’s able to break him of heeling me thru the house, so he’s not nipping ankles now lol. so if he’s mouthing my hands I will redirect him into a game of fetch or to his bone. Some dogs, especially certain breeds, like Borders are sensitive to tone of voice so it doesn’t take physical discipline. Raising your voice can really get to them, so that’s all I do for River . I give my dogs a ton of verbal and petting praise too, for things done right. Sometimes they get treats but they don’t need to get to where they rely on a treat to do good. I love reading different articles to see what I can learn and always try to encourage everyone with puppies to just be patient and just praise them when they do good. All they want to do is make us proud and love us. Thank you for this article it was a help. They always help remind me if there’s something I’m forgetting and if I’m going about my training the right way. At 13 weeks what is something that you would suggest doing with him that I might be missing? Thanks again!

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Hope keene

I have a 10 week old lab puppy..he is a massive nipper and has broken my skin..if i let him up on the couch and bites me instead if item allowed i put him down and i do this over and over.we try redirecting using toys..also if doesnt stop i put in crate for few minutes with a couple of his his teething toys,but soon as i open the door he back at it even if i have toys in han..at what age should he mellow out some on the hard biting? We play and use all kinds of toys and he is learning basic commands until can start training for service dog for me..we cuddle and play..just sometimes no matter what i do he wont stop..any suggestions?
Thanks

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Patricia Brooks

I have a 8 week old Pitt. He bites and even though he is playing he hurts. I am a foster for our county. I am trying all of your suggestions. I worry abt how aggressive he will be as he grows because I have 2 mini Doxies

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Denise

My rescue has recently started nipping me A LOT! He only does it t to me and not other humans in the house. He will nip the other dogs when he wants to play. I try playing with him when he comes to me but sometimes I can’t stop what I am doing so he pulls my clothes and nips my legs. Is this normal?

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Ben Team

Hey, Denise. It definitely sounds like your pupper is nipping a lot.
Not sure if Kayla will have time to respond directly to your question, but we’d recommend trying to implement the strategies she details above. If that doesn’t work, you should probably reach out to a private trainer, so you can nip this in the bud (apologies for the bad pun).
Best of luck!

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