All dogs play and interact using their mouths – they don’t have hands! Play-biting is when they play with littermates or humans by biting or mouthing in a nonaggressive way, especially during puppyhood. Don’t be alarmed by this normal behavior, unless he’s too rough or doesn’t know when to quit.
Why They Do It
Dogs use their mouths to interact with and investigate the world. Pups instinctually play-bite with their littermates from an early age, strengthening the mouth and jaws. If a puppy is biting too hard during play, the bitten pup will yelp, and the biter learns how hard is too hard. Mom will firmly discipline a puppy for mouthing too hard or too much. As the puppy matures, he’ll know hard is too hard when he sets out to investigate or play with his humans.
When It Crosses the Line
Puppies like to play – with other puppies, toys and, of course, people. A puppy who hasn’t learned bite inhibition doesn’t recognize the sensitivity of human skin and bites too hard, even in play If your pup chews on your hands nonstop or grabs your pant legs, these can become habits that are hard to break. Worse, if your puppy is playing with a child who squeals and runs away, the pup can become overexcited and unintentionally bite too hard, and those needle-sharp teeth can hurt. Worse still, if a puppy is allowed to play-bite inappropriately, it’s possible the behavior can turn into aggressive biting.
How To Tell the Difference
Play-biting, especially between puppies, can look and sound like true aggression. This is usually nothing to worry about, but it can be hard to tell the difference between normal play-biting and aggression. Some dogs bite out of fear or frustration, and this can be cause for concern. A playful dog will have a relaxed face and body, while an aggressive dog’s body will look stiff. Aggressive bites will be quicker and clearly more painful. A playful dog might growl and bark, but he will be loose and wiggly rather than stiff and rigid. An aggressive dog will likely show his teeth.
Most play-biting is normal dog behavior and nothing to worry about. Don’t interfere unless one dog is much larger than the other, one is very shy, or one is really trying to get away. Prevention is the first line of attack, and training your dog is key to controlling any unwanted or inappropriate behavior. Don’t encourage rough play by horsing around and always observe your pet’s interactions with children. If play-biting becomes excessive or rough, redirect your dog’s attention to a toy or bone or use time-out training or a taste deterrent. If these suggestions aren’t effective, contact a certified professional dog trainer.
Leslie Darling has been a writer since 2003, writing regularly for "Mississippi Magazine" and "South Mississippi Living," specializing in food and wine, animals and pets, and all things Southern. She is a graduate of the University of New Orleans.