Practical Matters: Encourage proper play—not physical correction—to treat puppy biting

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Apr 01, 2009


John Ciribassi, DVM, DACVB
Seeing routine cases in my general practice and behavior cases in my referral behavior practice gives me a wonderful perspective on behavior issues we see on a day-to-day basis. One of these issues is puppy biting and how to best assist our clients in managing it.

Biting in puppies is a normal, though undesirable, behavior. Puppies often use their mouths for exploration and play, and this behavior can extend to the human family. My biggest concern in these situations is that owners may be using or are being told to use physical correction (alpha rolls, leash corrections, holding the mouth closed, pinching the tongue, hitting or tapping the muzzle) as a treatment strategy. Using physical correction can cause a fear response and can result in the puppy's using aggression in an escalating fashion. A better approach is to both address the biting at the time it occurs and prevent biting as an option for the pup.


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If excessive biting is occurring during an examination, consider supplying a treat-filled Kong (Kong Company) toy and allow the puppy to occupy itself with the toy. Use this time to discuss health and behavior issues with the client without distraction.

Assuming no physical abnormalities are contributing to the biting behavior, here are some ideas you can pass along to clients:
  • Work on simple obedience commands from Day 1. Having the pup sit, stay, and come multiple times during the day and using treat rewards for each repetition can give the puppy, and family members, something positive to work on and help give the puppy less time for biting.
  • Engage the pup in regularly scheduled bouts of appropriate play several times a day. Appropriate play means not using body parts and not roughhousing or wrestling, which can stimulate overactive play that often includes mouth play.
  • Take frequent short leash walks.
  • Redirect biting episodes to appropriate chew toys (toys that are firm, soft or plush, or treat-filled).
  • In my experience, tug of war does not cause aggression and is a fun, bonding game for most dogs. It can be played successfully as long as the owner gets final possession of the toy by using a "give it" cue and then rewards the pup with a treat and the toy for complying.1
  • Isolate the puppy when it becomes too active and will not respond to the above suggestions. Using a cage or gated area can be effective as long as family members are instructed to calmly place the puppy into it (the dog should not associate the confinement with punishment) and to not interact with the puppy when it is in time out.2
  • Suggest owners enroll the puppy in a proper puppy socialization class before it is 14 weeks old to take advantage of this critical socialization period (6 to 14 weeks old).3

The take-home message is to give appropriate advice to help owners get through this period of normal puppy development while discouraging more confrontational approaches. For more information, visit the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior's Web site ( http://www.avsabonline.org/), click on AVSAB Position Statements, and download statements on puppy socialization, punishment, and dominance.

If the biting problem persists, consider referring the client and pet to a veterinary behaviorist or a veterinarian who is comfortable managing these types of behaviors. Go to the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists' Web site ( http://www.dacvb.org/) for a list of board-certified veterinary behaviorists or to the AVSAB's Web site for a list of veterinarians with an interest in animal behavior.

John Ciribassi, DVM, DACVB
Chicagoland Veterinary Behavior Consultants
1042 Mountain Glen Way
Carol Stream, IL 60188

REFERENCES

1. Rooney NJ, Bradshaw JW. Links between play and dominance and attachment dimensions of dog-human relationships. J Appl Anim Welf Sci 2003;6(2):67-94.

2. Koda N. Inappropriate behavior of potential guide dogs for the blind and coping behavior of human raisers. Appl Anim Behav Sci 2001;72(1):79-87.

3. Seksel K, Mazurski EJ, Taylor A. Puppy socialization programs: short and long term behavioral effects. Appl Anim Behav Sci 1999;62:335-349.