All puppies like to explore their environment with their mouths and when playing with other puppies they do this constantly. Unfortunately, when playing with their human companions, this can be painful, as we don’t have the fur to protect us from those sharp teeth and our clothing can seem so very fun to pull on!
When puppies are under 16 weeks of age, they are learning what is called ‘bite inhibition’. This means understanding how to use their mouth in contact with other living things, without biting too hard. This is best taught to them by another puppy, which will respond with a high-pitched squeak when the playmate bites down too hard. The puppy brain is hard wired to understand this sound and lighten the pressure. If they don’t, the other puppy will stop playing with them, teaching them that if they don’t play nicely – they don’t get to play at all. Owners can use these same strategies; squeak when the puppy bites too hard, and leave the area when they won’t stop. One very important element that has to be added in for human/puppy play is redirecting the puppy’s mouth from the skin to a SOFT toy, where they get the same sensation as playing with a puppy. Make the toy more interesting by flopping it around, so that the puppy wants to grab it, not you.
There will be times when the puppy just gets overexcited and can no longer think clearly – they go into what I call the shark stage! This is notable for non-stop grabbing at hands and clothes, possibly vocalizing and being unresponsive to anything you say. There is no point at this stage in trying to discipline, or even interact with the puppy, as they are too aroused to learn anything. Any type of physical intervention, such as grabbing the muzzle, or holding them down on their back, will usually result in a more aggressive response from the puppy. The best thing to do at this point is to either remove your self from the room that the puppy is in, or put them calmly in their crate to settle down. This is NOT meant to be punishment and they can have a busy toy, such as a stuffed Kong in the crate to help settle them down. They need to be quietly in there for at least 10 to 15 minutes and then when releasing them, be sure to be very calm with them so that you don’t get them all excited again.
Take note of when this happens most frequently, as there is usually a pattern. Often if a play session is too long or too exciting, the puppy gets over-stimulated. Be sure to have pause in play, where you work at just gently petting them, so that they learn to quiet nicely. End of day and just before bed are other likely times, as the pup is tired and more likely to act inappropriately – just like a tired baby! Anticipate this and have a good busy toy ready to give them in a quiet place, before they get riled up.