Anyone who has ever owned or played with a puppy will understand that the puppy grabbing hold of your hand with their teeth or biting lightly in play is a normal part of development, although those needle-sharp puppy teeth can often be painful even when used in play! Biting is not always an aggressive behaviour, and dogs and particularly puppies use their mouths and teeth to explore the world around them and learn about taste, texture and communication. When playing with their littermates and learning about socialisation with their mother and other dogs, puppies begin to learn about the process of bite inhibition, and how to play nicely with others. In time, this means that your puppy, when correctly trained and handled, should outgrow the biting instinct altogether in safe and non-threatening play situations.
Bite inhibition is the learning process by which puppies begin to understand that biting and causing pain is bad, and can come in the forum of a firm put-down from their mother or another adult dog, or from the pained yelp that their littermates will give when biting goes too far. However, if a puppy does not learn sufficient bite inhibition or how to moderate their own behaviour with regards to their teeth and how they use them, many problems can develop further down the line. All dogs are considered to have a ‘bite inhibition threshold,’ which is an indicator of how quick they are to respond with their teeth! A dog with a low bite inhibition threshold is one that will snap or bite relatively easily, whereas a dog or puppy with a higher threshold will be much less likely to resort to biting in play or for attention. As a puppy grows up and learns about the world around them, their bite inhibition threshold should increase exponentially. Feeding treats by hand and teaching your puppy not to snap for the food but to take it gently is a good way of helping bite inhibition to develop, as is allowing play and socialisation with other dogs of a similar age, who will learn from each other by the responses that they elicit when they go too far!
While the development of bite inhibition is something that occurs naturally in puppies as they get older, how you react or don’t react to biting and nipping can have a great impact on the feedback process that your puppy’s behaviour elicits, and how they behave with regards to biting in the future.
If your puppy doesn’t seem to be learning bite inhibition very fast, or is particularly snappy and unable to differentiate between a soft play bite and one that might cause damage or harm, there are a few ways that you can address this.