You just got a new dog and you’re playing together nicely. You have a toy rope and he’s chasing after it, playing tug-o-war, and you two are having a grand ole time. Then, unsuspectingly, he switches his focus from the rope you’re holding in the air to your unoccupied hand and starts biting gently. You yelp out of surprise and realize it’s not as painful as you thought, just the feeling of pressure. Shocked by this behavior, you immediately stop playing in hopes that you won’t encourage it. Why on earth is your dog biting you? What happened to “don’t bite the hand that feeds you?”
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The Root of the Behavior
When a dog gently bites you while playing, it is called mouthing. If you’ve ever watched dogs play with each other, you’ll probably have seen them leaving their mouths open to bite each other. Mouthing allows dogs to fight without actually doing harm to each other. Even though their mouthing behavior only mimics a bite, it still applies pressure and could hurt, especially to a human. You’re Killer’s play buddy, so he’s initiating this behavior with you. Mouthing traces back to a dog’s ability to learn how to fight. From the time they are puppies, dogs practice fighting with friends and are gentle enough not to hurt each other. This gives them the skills for survival in the wild. Dogs of all sizes will mouth with each other, so they know how to control their bite. Some breeds are more aggressive and stronger than others. If you think of a Miniature Yorkie play biting your hands and a Saint Bernard play biting your hand, you’ll probably have very different reactions. Puppies, because of their size, will also not play bite as hard, but as they grow up their strength will naturally increase. When Killer initiates play biting, he is doing it because he’s having fun with you. He thinks you’re one of the guys and this is how you should play. It’s great to be a part of the gang, but it’s important to know the difference between play biting and aggression. If your dog is play biting, it’s a sign of affection; it’s gentle, he looks happy, and he might even be laying down. An aggressive dog, however, will growl, bark, or snarl, his body will be tense, and he’ll show his teeth. Aggressive bites are often faster than a play bite, and the big difference is you’ll feel it. Knowing the difference between aggression and playing is key to staying safe and keeping your hand. But not everyone wants to risk their favorite appendage and they may want to stop play biting.
Encouraging the Behavior
Some owners encourage play biting while others detest it. Play biting is natural for your dog, so it is good when he practices it. It strengthens your relationship because he sees you as a friend, not a threat. However, if you’re uncomfortable with it, you should find ways to reduce or stop the behavior. You might want to reduce or stop the behavior if you’re very social and you want your dog to interact with lots of people and other dogs. Killer could scare one of your friends if he play bites them. Your friend would be deterred from visiting you again, or you would have to crate or gate Killer when people come over. Strangers and friends probably can’t distinguish your dog’s playing vs. aggression. A play bite will cause alarm, and you might be approached with the conversation about how living with a dog who bites is dangerous. A good way to reduce or eliminate play biting with humans is training your dog. You can stop playing as soon as your dog starts play biting. Have a set amount of time without biting before you engage again. You can have a command word to stop the biting or use a toy to redirect this behavior.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Teaching a dog not to play bite can be tricky and it is best to call a trainer. Your trainer can help you distinguish signs of play and signs of aggression in your dog. He can also teach you the best method to stop your dog from play biting. It’s important that you and your dog have a healthy relationship and that your dog can be social with others, too. If you allow your dog to play bite your hands make sure Killer is up to date on his shots. If he ever breaks your skin, you want to be sure he’s healthy and you get the correct medical care. It’s important to tell your doctor what shots your dog has received so you can receive proper care.
You may not be a fan of play biting, but your dog is. Find a happy medium and a way to keep your pup playing. Even though he bites your hand, make sure you still feed him. And if he plays too ruff, take him to a trainer to find ways to calm him down.