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Maybe you’ve been playing frisbee with your dog in the backyard, or you’ve just come home from work and Fido greets you with an excited, whole body wiggle, ready to play. You get down on all fours to wrestle and roughhouse, and then it happens - your fingers or hand end up in his mouth and he just can’t stop nibbling. Dogs learn to bite their owners’ hands in a variety of ways. Puppies curiously explore the world with their mouths, young dogs might give a quick nip to get attention from their owners, and sometimes your dog might be interested in your salty skin or the remnants of the pizza you just ate.
It doesn’t matter how biting hands has become a habit, it’s important to put a stop to it before it becomes an issue and especially before your puppy moves on to the practice of biting your face, or begins to get too rough with the kids. Breaking the hand-biting habit takes some commitment, especially if your dog is a bit older, but with dedication, your dog will soon understand that people are not for biting.
Teaching your dog not to bite your hands is important to ensure your friends and family feel comfortable around your best friend, and to ensure the habit doesn’t develop into anything more serious. Before you start, you should make sure you know why your dog is biting your hands. If it truly is for play or attention, his mouth and body will be relaxed. His tail will be wagging and he may even stick it in the air as a sign of play.
However, some dogs will bite or nip out of fear or aggression. If your dog looks nervous or curls his lip in an unfriendly way before he bites, you should seek help from a trainer or behaviorist immediately to curb this bad behavior. Dogs might also nip if they are in pain, so make sure your dog doesn’t have any tender lumps, bumps, or joint pain. If you suspect your dog might be biting because he is in pain, make an appointment with your vet to assess any treatment needs.
To learn how to stop a dog from biting, you first need to determine why the pattern of your dog nipping is forming. Once you’ve determined that the hand biting is a playful bad habit and not a more serious issue, you can begin teaching your dog to stop biting your hands. Most dogs learn through play and experience, so playtime with your dog is the perfect time to start. You will need:
- Treats or rewards to give him when he reacts well
- A chew toy to distract him
- Bitter tasting dog spray or lotion to put on your hands; make sure it is made specifically for dogs
- Consistency to make sure he learns that biting your hand is never a good option
There are several methods you can try to stop the naughty but frisky behavior of puppy play biting. Methods like giving verbal cues work best for puppies and young dogs, while providing a chewy alternative is sometimes more effective for older dogs. Whichever method you choose, start early, and your best buddy will learn an important lesson that will help him interact with people and dogs the rest of his life.
The Deterrent Method
Understand his motivation
One of the reasons your dog may bite your hands is because he likes how you taste. Salty skin mixed with food or flavors from your day may be irresistible to your dog. If you teach your dog that you don’t taste very good, they will be less likely to bite or nibble.
Find a bitter deterrent spray or lotion
Dog trainers have long used flavors that dogs hate to prevent a puppy from chewing during teething, or an older dog from gnawing furniture or other household items. You can pick up an anti-chewing spray at your local pet store, just make sure whatever you choose is safe for pets.
Apply to your hands
Before you start to play with your dog, or before you walk into your house, make sure to coat your hands with the bitter spray or lotion.
Greet or play with your dog
Play with or greet your dog like you usually do. When he begins to bite your hands in play, he’ll quickly release your terrible tasting hand. Continue playing to show that you still want to interact. Hopefully, it will only take one or two mouthfuls of the bitter taste for your dog to learn that your hands are not fun to bite.
It may take several sessions of play or greetings for your dog to remember that human hands make for an unpleasant taste. If there are several family members or friends who play with your dog, ask them to put the spray or lotion on too. This way your dog learns quickly that all human hands are unpalatable.
Wash your hands
Make sure to wash your hands with soap and water before giving your dog treats, especially to reward him for good behavior. You don’t want him to associate that bad taste with rewards.
The Redirect With a Toy Method
Understand the method
Sometimes dogs bite or nip because they are mouthy, have excess energy, or they get too excited while playing. You can change this behavior by giving them a toy to chew on instead of your hand. If your dog grew out of puppyhood with a biting or nipping habit, this method could work for you.
Does your dog give your fingers a nibble when your attention is on other things? Does he excitedly nip your hands when you walk in the door? Maybe he gets over excited during play time and uses his mouth to play. Determine which situations trigger this bad habit so you can be ready to redirect him with a toy.
Have a chew toy ready
After you’ve determined when your pup is most likely to bite your hands, make sure you have a chew toy like a flavored bone, rawhide, or fabric rope accessible. You’ll have to act fast to replace his hand biting habit with a toy chewing behavior.
Praise your dog
Tell your dog he’s a good boy once he takes the toy and begins playing with it. Soon he’ll learn that chewing the toy is more fun than nibbling on your hands.
Consider alternative activities
If your dog continues to get carried away when playing or wrestling, consider activities that bring you in less physical contact with your dog. Playing fetch with a chuck-it or frisbee is a fun way to exercise and interact with your dog with little risk of him getting carried away and biting your hands.
The Verbal Cue Method
Understand the method
This method may be easier to use on puppies who are still developing social behaviors, but adult dogs who never learned that their owners aren’t chew toys can still benefit from this method. The basic idea is to use your voice as a verbal cue to let your dog know that biting your hands isn’t the right way to play.
Give a loud "yelp" as soon as she bites
When you’re playing with your puppy, make a loud ‘yelp’ when her mouth touches your hand and stop playing. She should startle at the sound and stop biting.
Let your hand go limp
After you yelp, let your hand go limp in her mouth. When you relax your hand you stop the play. If you tug your hand away, your dog might still think it’s ok to play bite your hand.
Briefly stop play
Your puppy was having a ball before she bit down on your fingers. If you stop play for 15 to 20 seconds, she’ll quickly come to realize that biting your hands means all the fun stops, and she doesn’t want that.
After a brief stop, go right back to playing with your puppy. When she bites your hands the next time, repeat the same yelping sound and stop playing for a few seconds again. If you are consistent with your reactions, your puppy should learn within a few weeks that biting hands means play stops.
Give a time out
If you have an older puppy or dog, you may need to up the consequences for biting your hands during play to make sure they understand that this is not an acceptable behavior. If your dog continues to bite your hands or increases how much she bites, give her a time out. When her mouth closes on your hands, say a stern “No,” and walk away from play. Don’t start playing again for five or ten minutes.
By Amy Caldwell
Published: 12/29/2017, edited: 01/08/2021