One of the joys of dog ownership is spending time with him. Petting, snuggling, playing catch or tug of war and running around the park are all enjoyable parts of having a pet. However, at times when playing with a puppy or even adult dog, you may find him biting your hands during part of the interaction. Most mouthing behavior is normal, but it is important to discern if he is simply playing or if there is some aggression behind his behavior.
A playful pup will be relaxed and gentle but his nip can still be painful. It is important to teach him how to be gentle with his teeth. This is called bite inhibition. Dogs can be taught at any age how to control the force of their teeth so as not to hurt or harm their owners and other humans. If his biting your hand is painful and appears to be excessive or aggressive it is also important to nip the behavior in the bud. If your dog’s body is stiff, he is wrinkling his muzzle and exposing his teeth, his biting is more likely aggressive and not friendly play. In addition to teaching him bite inhibition, you also need to root out the source of his aggression and address that issue immediately.
The Root of the Behavior
Puppies have very sharp teeth and they want to mouth everything, whether it be toys, dog bones, furniture or even your hands. It is normal for them to spend a lot of time discovering their world with their mouths and using their teeth. If possible, teach your puppy bite inhibition so he knows how to be gentle with his canine canines. Often grown dogs have not been taught bite inhibition and can hurt you with their teeth even when they think they are playing. If as puppies they received positive reinforcement for biting they may feel it is ok with you to chomp away on your hands. Smacking them on the nose or telling them they are bad are forms of positive reinforcement as it gives them attention, so those tactics could have reinforced the behavior. They can also be easily excited, so if you jerk your hand away they may think it is more of a game and will look to bite your hand more.
Many dogs that bite people’s hands are labeled as aggressive so it is important to discern what the dog is actually trying to convey. If he is biting out of frustration, he may be coming from a point of aggression. If his body is stiff, he is growling with bared teeth and his hair is standing on end he is most likely being aggressive. He may also pick up the pace and intensity of his bites and they may hurt more. If you suspect your dog may be biting from aggression it is important to visit a veterinarian to rule out any medical problems that could be causing the aggression. It is also recommended you seek assistance from a dog trainer who has extensive training and education in working with a dog with aggressive behavior. It is important to find the cause of the aggression and train the dog to be gentle before his hand biting causes a serious wound to you or another pet or person.
Encouraging the Behavior
Teaching a puppy or grown dog bite inhibition needs to be a part of your dog training. You can start by encouraging other mouthing behaviors by covering your hands with sweet foods such as peanut butter or bananas and allowing him to lick your hands. You can teach him to touch your hands with his nose, rather than his teeth, by simply placing your hand by his face and when he turns his nuzzle into your hand you praise him highly. When he does nip or bite your hands, you can give a yelp of pain and move away from him, putting a door between the two of you. After a minute or two you can return to your pet and repeat the time out if he nips again. If the biting stops with the yelp, you can praise him for curbing his behavior. If it picks up again, continue the time out sequence. You could also place him in his crate to give him this brief time out. It is also important to provide him with plenty of time and opportunity to have normal chewing behaviors by showering him with things like chew toys, rawhides, Kongs and other dog treats he might enjoy gnawing on. Encouraging non-contact forms of play, such as fetch and tug of war can help him learn to deal with arousal without frustration.
You can also note when the biting behavior occurs, as there are usually specific times when he is more apt to nip. Often it is during play, but can also happen during times of heightened arousal like when you arrive home for the day, when he is over stimulated from playing or he is simply trying to get your attention. Once you can identify the environment you can focus your training to those times to curb the behavior and replace it with something more acceptable.
Other Solutions and Considerations
There are plenty of ways you can help your nipping pooch curb his canines that should be noted. Avoid waving your hands in his face in a playful manner and do not continue in aggressive play once he does bare his fangs. Avoid jerking your hands away from him because he may see that as even more of a game. Note that slapping or hitting a dog for playful mouthing may only cause him to bite harder and play more aggressively. Any punishment that may hurt or scare him is also greatly discouraged.
If your pooch wounds you, whether through play or aggression, it is important to take medical precautions. If he breaks, punctures or tears the skin you can be at risk for infection. Wash the wound immediately, apply an antibacterial ointment and cover it with a sterile bandage. Call a doctor if there is swelling, redness or pus; if the bite is deep or large or may need stitches; the wound is on your head, face, hands or neck, or the bleeding does not stop after a few minutes. If you have not had a recent tetanus shot or unaware of the dog’s vaccination status you should also seek medical attention.
Puppies and some dogs will bite your hands as a part of normal play. If it is too sharp or painful you need to nip it in the bud as soon as possible. Offer him other ways to connect with you through gentle touch or non-touch forms of play. Providing a pooch paradise of chew toys and proper training in bite inhibition can go a long way. Aggressive behavior combined with biting is not allowed and needs to be addressed by a vet and dog trainer immediately.