Puppies are cute for a reason. Those fluffy little jowls are hiding a set of razor-sharp, flesh-searing teeth, and between those floppy ears is a brain that is hard-wired to chew on everything in sight.
Teething puppies simply cannot help themselves. Most puppies have an insatiable urge to chew whatever they can get their paws on, and when they play, they have little regard for your delicate human skin. Children under ten or so, as well as people with long hair or flowing clothes, are the most vulnerable to these petite predators, but really, no one is safe from puppy teeth. It takes months for a dog’s adult teeth to come in, so it’s important to have a plan to combat biting and chewing as soon as your puppy comes home. Here are ways to ensure your puppy will learn to be polite with his teeth.
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Toys: The More, the Merrier
You can’t have enough toys. I’m talking about more than just one rope, one plush, and one treat-dispensing one. Wherever your puppy will be spending his time, he should have numerous toys in view at all times. Rotating toys is a great way to keep the toys interesting, provided that you leave at the very least six out per day.
Some puppies seem to gravitate to inappropriate “toys” such as shoes, while snubbing their actual toys. This is often due to your reaction to that toy. When the puppy picks up your shoe, everyone jumps up and starts running around frantically, playing a rousing game of can’t-catch-me. What fun! But when he pounces on his rope toy, no one seems to bat an eye. The solution is to add value to the appropriate toys. Whenever your puppy grabs his rope toy, jump up and start playing with him. That’s a toy he’ll want to pick up again!
Redirect to Appropriate Toys
To your puppy, everything is a potential chew toy. It’s your job not just to teach him “let’s not eat that table leg” but also “put this chewy in your mouth instead.” When your dog is in chewing-mode, he must have appropriate chew toys or edible chewies in front of him, so he can direct his attention to those. If (well, when) he mistakenly goes for the table leg instead, redirect him to an appropriate toy or chewy. You may have to do this over and over again in these first few months, but hang in there.
If your little one grabs your clothing or feet while you’re trying to walk, redirect him. Whenever you walk, carry a long toy, or cut off a long piece of fabric (think sweatshirt sleeve, tube sock, or pant leg), which you will drag behind you. This gives your puppy an appropriate item to sink his teeth into when he really just can’t help himself around a moving target. Instruct kids in the house to do the same, and you’ll have noticeably more peace between species.
Crate the Puppy... or your Stuff
With puppies, there are times when you just have to remove him from the situation. If your dog is in full-on chewing or biting mode and has ignored your redirections, it’s best to put him in his crate or pen for a few minutes with an appropriate chew toy. Your puppy should also be safely enclosed in a pen or small gated area when you’re not there to actively watch him. (You know that the minute you turn your back, he will either poop on your carpet or devour an heirloom.)
Even when you’re in the room supervising your puppy as he plays, you may want to crate your stuff. This means, if your puppy can’t resist a certain table leg, put a fence or other barrier around it, so he cannot have access to this forbidden delicacy. Management is a perfectly acceptable way to prevent your puppy from getting into trouble.
Teach Bite Inhibition
It’s never too early to learn polite play. By following a few rules for play, your puppy will learn what constitutes acceptable play behavior and what does not. All play should involve a toy; never roughhouse or wrestle with a puppy, as this encourages the very biting behavior that you are trying to stop. Be a good role model and set your dog up for success.
To start any game, wait for your puppy to sit. You don’t have to cue anything; just patiently wait for it. Sitting will become his way of saying “please.” Once he’s sat, start the game. Occasionally practice Drop It (see my article here) during the game, so he learns to listen to you even when he’s excited. If he accidentally bites you or your clothes, remove the toy and ignore him for five seconds or so. The consequence to his bite is that he loses his playmate for a moment. Then wait for him to sit before starting the game again.
Get His Energy Out
Proper socialization is a sprawling topic in itself, but I urge you to follow the advice of veterinary behaviorists (more info here), who recommend safe ways to get your puppy out in the world as early as possible. Trainer-led puppy kindergarten or play groups are the best avenue, as the facility should be sterilized, the vaccinations checked, and the play supervised. Short positive training sessions are also great for burning mental energy. A puppy who lives an enriched life with his physical and mental needs met will not have to resort to destructive chewing to pass the time.
You can do everything right and still have to deal with some puppy biting and chewing. Just remember that every little bit helps. Even if your puppy struggles to do the right thing with his teeth, the groundwork you’ve laid for polite play and a balanced lifestyle will benefit him as he matures into a well-rounded adult.
Kate Naito, CPDT-KA, MS, is an accomplished author and dog trainer with Doggie Academy in Brooklyn, NY. Her books, articles, and videos cover everything from house-training to leash aggression.