Puppy Teeth: Helping Your Mouthy Pup Learn To Play Nice

Everyone loves puppies: their innocent eyes, baby noses, soft fur, and warm breath are irresistible. That is, until those needle-sharp puppy teeth close around a finger or a toe! Suddenly, junior isn’t quite so cute. The reality of Fido-the-landshark can feel like a splash of cold water in the midst of all that fun. Even more annoying is mouthiness in adolescent dogs. Play-biting is normal, but young dogs must learn boundaries and acceptable behaviors; their life depends on it.

Puppy teeth teach bite inhibition

Newborns explore their new world largely with their mouths. When their puppy teeth start erupting at three weeks, wielding and responding to these tiny new weapons are among a pup’s primary life lessons.

It seems counterintuitive, but research suggests that sharp teeth help teach youngsters not to bite too hard as they roughhouse with playmates and humans. They learn to correctly calibrate their bite through trial and error, ideally before the optimal socialization window closes at around 16 weeks. Successful bite inhibition makes all the difference in a dog’s future.

Very young pups learn the basics through frequent playtime with siblings and their mother, or a surrogate. They also need mouthy play with human caregivers–especially shy or soft-mouthed dogs. In a perfect world, as they get older their social circle grows beyond their littermates. Once they’re fully vaccinated, they’re ready to mingle.

Teaching good mouth manners

Caregivers should tailor their approach to the puppy’s age as well as personality.

Your  6-9-week-old

With babies, a little drama helps. First, encourage hands-on games. Then, when puppy teeth make contact with your skin, immediately squeal or yelp, using the universal expression of pain. Substituting your arm or shoe with a toy works well at this age.

Your 9-16-week-old

Mouthiness may increase, but now your older pup might draw the wrong conclusion if you distract with a toy each time. It reinforces the idea that mouthiness results in a game. Try ignoring them instead. Your pooch will learn self-control quickly if play-biting means losing your attention.

When play gets too rough, remove yourself. Calmly fold your arms, and, if necessary, turn or walk away. Take a 10-30 second break before resuming play. Remember, don’t give any verbal or physical response that reinforces the behavior. Even an angry voice or a push is rewarding to an excited pup.

Things to consider when troubleshooting:

  • Hungry puppies are extra mouthy. The first year, youngsters may need 3 feedings/day.
  • Intestinal parasites can increase mouthiness. Ensure your pooch is dewormed.
  • Teething is painful and lasts 2-3 months. Puppies gnaw to sooth aching gums. Chew toys help.
  • Bored pups mouth when initiating play. Add 10-20 minutes of daily obedience training and/or enrichment activities.
  • Some breeds are naturally soft-mouthed, others are extra toothy. Engage your pup’s natural instincts with safe activities, like chasing a flirt pole.
  • Check out these resources.
  • Ask a professional.

With practice and consistency, your puppy will learn that the only way to play with humans is to be gentle. Safe, enjoyable companionship will be your reward!