Puppy Play Should be Playful not Painful

It goes without saying that when you get your cute new puppy, engaging in puppy play should be playful, not painful. But that’s not always the case.

Many new puppy owners and their children are sorely disappointed when their new puppy begins to literally bite the hand that feeds it.

Recently a new puppy owner contacted me with concerns about her 14 week old puppy:

“My 14 week old Jack Russell is really nipping. I have tried the redirecting to a toy, “yelping,” ignoring and again redirecting to a toy…nothing seems to work. He just hangs on and growls.”

Puppy Play Should be Playful not Painful

At 16 weeks, he was still biting her and at other family members when they pick him up. She was frustrated. We talked about the amount of time it would take and the importance of regular daily play exercises.

Additionally we discussed not picking him up as that may tend to put him in the defense mode of “flight/fight” and since he couldn’t take flight, he resorted to biting.

Biting does tend to throw everyone into a panic wondering why “their” puppy is biting so much and so hard when they try to play and pet their new puppy! They automatically jump to the conclusion they have a puppy that is aggressive!

The reality is, a puppy’s world pretty much consists of eating and sleeping and spending a lot of time playing – which includes using their mouths on you. That’s how his life was with his litter mates and it’s an activity carried over to you and your family from his schooling in the litter.

If you have a new puppy that is biting in puppy play, and you are wondering why, let’s take a look at the benefits of play as seen through the eyes of your puppy. This will help you not be so concerned.

You will see why your puppy instinctively carries out his biting in play with you as he did his litter mates.

Here are some puppy benefits of playing

Playing allows your puppy to compare himself with his litter mates – size himself up. Who’s stronger? Who can take control of things?

Playing allows your puppy to work on bite inhibition and bond with his litter mates who can take those razor-sharp teeth much better than our pound of flesh!

Playing is a stress-reliever for your puppy – after which he can relax and sleep – waking up just in time to eat again.

Playing also gives your puppy a chance to hone his skills to stay alive or hunt and kill his next meal. Thank goodness food is in the pantry now and he’s in a safe home, so those skills are no longer needed. But the instincts are still there and instincts drive his play.

Now let’s look at types of play

You can break puppy play down into two types of play: Playing with objects (articles of play like tug toys, chew bones, balls, etc.) and physical play with his littermates or you.

While puppies need to play with you nicely, he probably won’t at first. Take the time to condition your puppy to playing with stuffies or other toys when you first bring him home. These will be great redirects when he gets mouthy with you.

The more “play toy” conditioning your puppy received in the litter starting at about 4 weeks of age, the more he will naturally gravitate to the toys in your home. If he missed that in the litter, keep up the conditioning, it’s not too late – especially if you start right when you bring him home.

Rules for play with your puppy

If your puppy never gets to bite your hand, how will he ever learn how hard is too hard or never bite at all? And of course it would make good sense that the “test hand” be yours and not your children’s. Most puppies learn this lesson quickly.

Teach him biting hurts. Play with your puppy and if he bites, then “yelp” and redirect to a sit, praise and treat. You want to make sure he knows that you are in control of the play session.

When teaching your puppy not to bite, do it gradually. Work on achieving softer bites first, then just mouthing and finally no bites at all.

One more lesson is to teach your puppy is to respond to the word “Off!” which means stop what you’re doing. This way you have a correction word to use so that you can redirect his activity to a toy or chew bone.

Another activity that tends to provoke some puppies to bite is being picked up. I mentioned that earlier. If this is the case with your pup, then refrain from picking him up.

Instead, gradually desensitize him to being picked up. Simply associate food treats with picking him up briefly and then back on the floor he goes. Try and extend the handling time gradually using food treats.

Begin teaching your puppy obedience training. Sits and downs are great “redirects” if you can’t get your hands on a toy.

Don’t expect things to change overnight. It will get better, I promise. You just have to persevere and be consistent with your feedback to your puppy. What you do today will shape the future behavior of your puppy as an adolescent and adult dog. Make it a good experience.

I’m always curious about your input – it’s important to me.  

We’re always learning and there’s a bunch of you out there we are grateful to be able to serve and learn from.  

I’m really interested in your thoughts and opinions on this.  I’m here to help.

“Together, We Can Raise a Happy and Obedient Dog”

Jim Burwell, professional dog trainer for 25+ years, serving 8700+ clients, has a profound understanding of dog behavior and the many things, we as humans, do that influence that behavior – good or bad.  Jim has the ability to not only steer dogs and puppies down the right path but to also train the owners to understand their part in having a great dog. 

Your puppy comes to you as a blank slate.   How you fill in those blanks gives you a great puppy or a puppy with problems.  His Nose to Tail Puppy Training  is the culmination of these years of training into an easy, step-by-step process so that your puppy understands what you expect of him, you empower him to be able to give you the behavior you want and you empower him to be successful at living in a human home.

9 replies
  1. leila_admin
    leila_admin says:

    Kevin: You should set the time for play, not your dog. Ignore his demands for rough play. Ideally you should send him to “his place” and have him lay there until you release him.

    That way you are controlling what is going on in the relationship with your dog—not him

  2. Kevin K.
    Kevin K. says:

    Thanks Jim as always you are very helpful an the article on tug o war did help. When he wants to play rough and gets mouthy should I just walk away and ignore him. Or should I find another way to play? Thanks I am just not sure the best way to end this type of play.

    Thanks again,
    Kevin K.

  3. Kevin K.
    Kevin K. says:

    Hi Jim, first of all thanks for the great articles. My dog is now 14 months old and he still bites my hands when we play or I should say mouths my hands but a little too hard and aggressive. I think I am the root if the problem because I have played a bit too hard with him at times and let him mouth me. But I fear he might do this to someone else that doesn’t want it. How can I curb this type of play in Kozmo and not have him put his mouth on me or anyone else. It only seems to be me he does it with.
    Thanks, Kevin K.

  4. leila_admin
    leila_admin says:

    Donna: So happy you like the Nose To Tail Puppy Training DVD. In this article you will see where it speaks about tethering the puppy so he can’t follow you and nip. Also running
    around outside with the puppy will definitely kick in his prey drive which to him means, jump, bite, nip. When you encourage his chasing you are giving him a mixed message and he
    will defer to his natural behavior. No chasing would be best. Biting softly means more of a “mouthing” from the puppy, no pressure with the teeth

  5. Elizabeth Sprune
    Elizabeth Sprune says:

    Thanks so much for this. I’ve been so worried that our puppy was aggressive and I didn’t know what I was going to do as our kids love him. Now I understand what’s going on and a better way to handle this.

  6. Donna
    Donna says:

    Dear Mr Burwell,

    We bought your Nose to Tail Puppy Training DVD….it’s has been very helpful. We also like the email information you send. Thank you. We brought our puppy Tucker home at 8 1/2 weeks and he is now 3 months. But I didn’t know what to do with the biting until now….I just saw this email which helps but I have some questions. We have been redirecting Tucker with a toy but that doesn’t always work. So we would turn our back on him to leave the play area which causes him to bite our pants. He was riped four of my sons pants and two of mine and one of my husbands when they were outside running. What can I do to help him not do that any more? I also saw where you wrote we should let him bite us softly….so does that mean you don’t yelp or do anything when he does a soft bit?

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