There are so many varying degrees of placing the teeth onto human skin or clothing, and the intent behind such an action can also vary greatly as you may be experiencing anything from a sore gummed puppy chew, through to a dog that is attempting to control you via biting to nipping behaviour.
In my view, it's not acceptable for teeth to touch clothes or skin at all at any time, regardless of the age of the dog. This is a simple black and white rule (dogs respond well to black and white rules as they're easy to comprehend) that all family members and of course the dog can come to understand.
Why Does My Puppy Bite?
Puppies explore and test with their mouths as it is the front most part of the body that interacts with items, other people or dogs. Being taught bite inhibition should start at an early age so that the puppy learns that use of the mouth and teeth is not rewarding or acceptable as a means of play with people. For the first few months, puppies have sore gums and chewing can help alleviate this. Acceptable levels of mouthing with another family dog is fine, though this too should be supervised.
The word nipping is normally associated with puppies. Puppies can in some cases be surprisingly hard mouthed when they arrive at your home, this can be a result of rough play with siblings in the litter pack, or even a lack of interaction with people when at the breeder's property. Sometimes this is unwittingly encouraged by tug type games with children in the new home, or dads that like to rough it up with the young dog.
Teach the puppy calmness and good manners and this will become the norm. If not correctly addressed, nipping and rough behaviour can progress into biting, and then the biting can be hard and holding onto skin or clothing. In any event, it is wise to address these issues early on to prevent unwanted progression.
Aggressive Puppy Biting. How Do We Stop It?
One way that puppies explore the world is by mouthing items around them and as they know that you are the source of nice things such as food, attention, walks and play, they will mouth, nip and sometimes bite to get your attention and to interact with you.
In my experience, puppies will become more ‘mouthy’ in keeping with how excited they are and so winding the puppy up in the home with highly excitable play is not to be encouraged. I have seen many owners push their young dog away from them in what is meant to be a clear way, only to find that the puppy loves the sound and feel of the game and come back in for more and harder too! This can be exasperating for an owner with a new puppy that feels they’re doing their best to tell the puppy to stop this rough behaviour, but the puppy, in fact, thinks it's a game and keeps coming back for more.
In my nearly 20 years as a dog behaviour specialist looking at all behaviours in all breeds and ages, I have been taken aback on a number of occasions at how very naughty some puppies can be! They can create sheer panic in some adults as they just can’t see a way forward to stop such behaviour, but also cannot get over bad such behaviour in the first place. In my early days, I used to charge a third of the fees of adult behaviour visits thinking I’d be in and out in no time…but oh no. Now I charge the same as adult visits as they often take just as long; especially when we comb through everything as a routine across the day as well as look at specific behaviours the owner might be struggling with.
In the absence of having a two-way conversation with you, the reader, I shall offer some effective methods that could get you out of a fix:
- A training line on in the home for control.
- Only to be used when you’re present, but a simple thin line about 6-10’ in length can allow you to stand on and then lift up this line to redirect or control your puppy at any time.
- Useful if you see a developing habit of running to the front door with visitors for example.
It can also give you control if you see your puppy going behind the TV, furniture that you don’t want him behind and so on.
- A training line will allow you to remove the puppy from the room without having to chase him (he may well think that’s a great game) and implement a ‘Time Out’ for 60 seconds in a quiet utility room or similar, for becoming excessive and trying to repeatedly run at you, leap at your face, tear at your sleeves and hands and do all the things puppies can (sometimes) do.
- The loud ‘Ouch’ method. This involves an instance whereby your puppy may be too rough with you and nips or bites you. You left out a clear ‘Ouch!’ sound as you hold your hand and then stop the game to walk away. On many occasions, I have heard from new owners to be told that they have been diligently following this method and that they found the puppy would become even more excited as a result! Try it and see for yourself. If it does work, great. If you find it does excite your puppy even further then stop it and use my ‘Time out’ method as described in the above paragraph.
- Remember to stop the games before it gets out of hand (avoid rogh games of tug for example) and indulges your puppy in the act of chewing. Chewing is normal, but it should be on appropriate toys that will allow you to gently rub your puppy, whilst he chews down on something that he is allowed to such as a rope chew.
- A word of encouragement if this sounds like your home. Puppies are far more resilient than you think. They can be corrected in the above way one minute and then be coiled up in your lap fast asleep the next. I would never encourage or condone shouting or being harsh with your young dog, but some owners seem to fall short on being that little bit quicker, that little bit firmer than they have been prior to my visit. Some owners think like this as they fear that they will damage their relationship with the puppy.
- Make your first mission to set regular, sensible boundaries with your puppy and then the love and affection elements will follow I assure you. Many cases I see in older dogs have their roots in the fact that their owner got it the wrong way round…they focussed on the love and giving first and then they realised later on down the line that they were too soft, too giving and not enough boundaries and sensible rules and then they had to seek help to find a way to go back in time so to speak, to set those rules in place after all.
Children and Puppies.
Be careful that you are not leaving young children that may still play with a young dog too excitedly or roughly, or begin to allow the puppy to indulge in what we might see as poor behaviour. Examples of this could be:
- Puppy leaping onto the child in a rough manner biting skin and clothing in the process.
- Puppy jumping up at the face and hands of the child, attempting to nip as they do so.
- Puppy grabbing at slippers and socks as the child enters the room or tries to leave.
- Puppy scrabbling onto the sofa with the child without permission to do so.
- Puppy toileting in the home as an adult is not supervising.
- Puppy entering the child’s bedroom without parental supervision.
This may all sound a little daunting to read, but the whole point here is to ensure that the puppy and child are not being left together in some idyllic idea that they will both rub along without any issues whatsoever. Prevention is always better than cure and you will need to be realistic and perhaps yes, perhaps a little over-over-cautious in the first few months until you feel truly satisfied that they can be left together for sensible periods of time and that you have full confidence in them both. Dogs mature quite quickly and children grow, so these situations generally evolve in good time, but equally quite a lot can go wrong in a five minute period.
So, avoid winding the puppy up to such an extent with tug toys or similar activities. It is perfectly okay to play with your puppy and to sometimes let off some steam via a more excitable approach to the play, but I would advise that this is carried out in the garden or in the playing fields with parental supervision - not in the home, where we should look to encourage calm and relaxing behaviours.
When with your puppy in the home, look for interactive games that can be seen as a more relaxing and brain engaging. Consider short training sessions working on the basics such as the Sit, Down, Stay and mini Recalls between family members. Engage your puppy in Brain Games for Puppies. Here’s a favourite book of mine that can be found in Amazon that will set out many ideas for you to engage with your dog in a way that bases your relationship on working together in a way that is more productive as you keep his/her brain and body going. Very young pups will enjoy easier games for short periods and then as they mature, you can extend the same games.
There are two other articles that may help you when it comes to puppies:
1. The 10 Best Dog Breeds For Families and Children
2. A Puppy Owner's Guide - 18 Things You Really Need to Know
Why Does My Adolescent or Adult Dog Bite?
Due to the potential seriousness of an adult dog nipping or biting at people, I should state early on that you may benefit from professional advice to establish specifically why your dog is doing this and more importantly how to make the dog safe and prevent it biting at all. Contact me here for help.
Aggression to people will put your dog in the spotlight of the Dangerous Dogs Act and if the behaviour is serious enough, you are likely to be reported for the offence of having a dog ‘Dangerously Out of Control in a Public Place’. You can then expect to be contacted by the police who will carry out an initial assessment and make decisions based on the severity of the attack, the behaviour of the dog when they visit your home and inevitably they will take into consideration the breed that they encounter. The dog may be allowed to stay with you, or the dog may be seized whilst the case is processed. This is a very rough outline of what you can expect. Much of this is covered in the Q&A section on my Dog Expert Witness service page.
In the meantime, we can still look at the most common reasons for such behaviour and to then progress to offering you initial advice. Broadly speaking, a dog will attempt to bite either another dog or a person. Aggression towards dogs is the more common in my experience, but dogs can be aggressive in their own home towards family members or visitors to the home. Dogs can also show aggressive behaviour when approached by strangers in public and if the behaviour is overt, or the dog is proving difficult to manage physically, you should consider the introduction of a muzzle in the first instance. Take a week or two to work on the introduction as then your dog can be walked with a muzzle, but not stressed by it at the same time.
Here is a quick list on why your dog may be showing such behaviour in and out of the home. This differs from the types of aggression your dog may be showing.
In no particular order:
- A lack of socialisation. The best window for you to socialise your dog is initially the 8-16 week period and then you continue from that point. A poorly socialised dog can go on to display nervous aggressive behaviours due to fear.
- Poor breeding. Anyone can breed from two dogs and sell the pups. Some breeders are unscrupulous and will breed and sell anything using unsuitable parents that may already be showing behavioural problems.
- A lack of training. Providing a young dog with sensible boundaries and foundations go a very long way to creating a dog that is calm and biddable, allowing you to trust that dog in public spaces as well as your home.
- Overprotection or possessiveness. When you combine the above three elements in various degrees, it could easily become the case that your dog is able to not just look out for you but to not allow others into your personal space.
- Pain. Not common, but dogs can demonstrate poor behaviour when they have a health condition or is feeling pain. Side effects of some medications may also lead to various behaviour problems - aggression included. Always visit a vet if your dog is showing behaviour that is out of character. An average profiled dog for me is male, 2 years of age and the owner has seen the aggressive behaviour gradually build over that time. 99% of the dogs I see are as fit as a fiddle.
Aggressive Dog Biting. How Do We Stop It?
As already mentioned, due to the possible severity and numerous variables of this behaviour I won’t attempt to go into great detail here. What works for one dog may not work for another. Puppies are a little more straightforward, due to the fact that they are much narrower in their reasons and solutions for such behaviour.
As already mentioned, if you feel your dog could bite or nip another person in or out of your home, you should start to introduce a muzzle so that you can ward off the possibility of an actual nip or bite to an unsuspecting person. Baskerville Ultra muzzles have a loop under the chin to attach to the collar and an optional strap over and between the eyes to hold it in place. An excellent muzzle and my go-to for virtually all breeds and can be viewed here on Amazon.
A gentle word of warning - your dog does not have to bite to commit an offence under the Dangerous Dogs Act. It only needs to behave in a way that causes a person to be worried that it might injure them. So, if you own a dog that is lunging and looking threatening and a person fears for their safety, you’re potentially on thin ice. All the more reason for seeking professional help.
Once your dog is muzzled, you should then make an assessment on the equipment you are using. Be sure that all your leads and collars are strong enough to control your dog and for this, I prefer soft webbing style leads and collars. No check chains or prong collars, as they can damage the dog’s neck and cause additional stress in the dog when they are already being reactive in some way. It’s easy to get into a vicious cycle. If using a body harness, use a double ended lead, so that one end goes to a secure neck collar and the other to the body harness. You can then place an emphasis on either end depending on what your dog is doing.
To help you, I have selected the equipment I would often suggest for such control over at Amazon:
1. Happy at Heel Body Harness. These have been a revelation in the control stakes for difficult dogs or simply for pulling. Check sizing.
How we stop a dog from behaving aggressively greatly depends on the circumstances when the dog is exhibiting the various behaviours. Some dogs have very specific triggers, such as callers to the home, or possibly men with walking sticks in public. For another dog, it might be small white dogs, or another again could be large black dogs. The list is endless. Your dog may show poor behaviour in these very specific circumstances or the behaviour might be much broader.
Here are some keywords for you to consider when addressing reactive or aggressive behaviour in dogs towards a person or another dog:
- Desensitise you dog through gradual distance reduction and to reward positive experiences/behaviour.
- Positive experiences at safe distances are essential to build confidence and self-control.
- Physical control of your dog is important. I discuss leads and harnesses above.
- Safety. A muzzle should be used if you’re not confident in the dog’s behaviour.
- Gradually reduce the distances. As time progresses you can begin to make an effort to come closer to the object that your dog struggles with.
- Avoid avoiding. Be brave but safe. Stop walking your dog at 5 or 6am and begin to join in with busier locations and times of the day so that your dog has the opportunity to mix in a progressive way depending on what he or she can cope with.
- No accidents. It's important that we don’t allow the dog to ‘get at’ the object of its stress. Are you physically capable of managing your dog? If not, seek out an able helper as you carry out your walks aimed at improving the behaviour.