Why Do Dogs Bite When Playing With Their Owners?

Many dogs bite when playing with their owners. Discover why dogs do this and what you can do to prevent turning your hands, legs and arms into a pin cushion.

Let's face it: playing with dogs is fun, but when those teeth make contact with skin, all the fun ends. Too bad, that often, the more you move or push the puppy away, the more he wants to grab your arms and legs, as you have turned into a human impersonation of a fun tug toy.

 And if you add a few squeaks here and there, you risk becoming even more fun. "Wow, a tug toy that squeaks, this must be my lucky day!" says Rover. So why do dogs bite when playing with their owners? The short answer is because it's fun, the longer answer entails understanding various reasons why dogs play bite in the first place.  

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Play biting is a natural, instinctive way puppies play.

In Search of Playmates

Watch a group of dogs play and you will notice how most play entails some type of mouth play. There are dogs who are after the legs of other dogs, attempting to grasp them every step the other dog makes, there are dogs who go for the neck, and then there are dogs fixated on ears and tails.

It's a fact: puppies and young dogs often use their mouths in play and things have been this way ever since they were puppies in the litter. Mouth play starts in the litter before the puppies are 4-weeks old. By this time, the puppies' eyes are open, they can hear and they are better coordinated (albeit, still wobbly) and capable of standing up and walking around. Play is all about puppies learning social skills and important life skills (many elements of play adopt elements of hunting, fleeing, fighting and even courtship behaviors). 

Biting when playing with owners is therefore a very normal activity most commonly seen in puppies and dogs under the age of 2. If you just bought home a puppy, it's therefore very typical (and expected!) that he will try to interact with you by mouthing and nipping. 

With no more puppies to play with, once introduced to their new homes, puppies will be seeking out play with the humans they share their homes with. 

It's not unusual for children to be the preferred nipping targets by puppies and young dogs. Moving erratically, running and screaming, children act a lot like dogs and their body movements are perceived as an irresistible invitation to play.

Puppies and young dogs in most cases, are well-meaning and have no ill intent to hurt. They are just rehearsing behaviors that come natural to them and play among animals can be quite rough. It's just unfortunate that puppies and dogs are equipped with sharp teeth while humans are equipped with thin skin lacking that extra layer of protection known as "fur."

Did you know? Some dog breeds are more predisposed to biting because of their past history. Border collies, German shepherds, Australian cattle dogs, Old English sheepdogs, shelties and other dogs selectively bred for herding are particularly nippy due to their history as herding dogs.

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Puppies explore with their mouths and bite almost everything that moves. 

Lack of Impulse Control

In an ideal situation, puppies learn the ABC's of bite inhibition when they are in the litter with their mothers and siblings. Bite inhibition is simply a dog's ability to gauge the force of their bites.

When play mouthing in the litter, puppies receive constant feedback by their mothers and siblings. Should they mouth gently, their behavior is reinforced with continuous play. Should they bite hard, their behavior is punished by the other puppy yelping and withdrawing from play. 

 Interaction after interaction, puppies learn that, in order to play, they must nip gently. Puppies soon learn the ABC's of bite inhibition, and therefore, become more capable of controlling their impulses and gauging their bite pressure. 

Puppies who are removed from their litters too early or singleton puppies (the only pups in a litter) may therefore pose some challenges as they haven't had the opportunity to learn much bite inhibition.  

Another challenge is posed by the aggravating effect of emotions. As puppies and dogs get more and more excited, they tend to lose their ability to control their bites. Puppies and dogs get particularly excited when people are running around. It's therefore, easy for them to get so worked up, they forget all about their restraint. This leads to dogs jumping, mouthing and biting. 

Last but not least, puppies can get particularly nippy when they are cranky and tired. If your puppy had a long and busy day, accompany him to his crate or play pen and give him a safe chew toy. Most puppies will fall soundly asleep after chewing.

Not Really Play Biting 

Sometimes, things may be deceiving: you may think your dog is play biting when your dog in reality is simply trying to tell that the way you are interacting with him is not appreciated. Because dogs cannot use their arms and hands to make you stop, they'll use their mouths instead. 

For instances, many puppies and dogs do not like having their feet touched, and will readily bite when handled this way. By biting it's as if they were saying: "Hey, leave my footsies alone, will you?"

Sometimes, dog owners grab their puppies' and dogs' muzzles to stop them from biting, but this can make them bite more and may even trigger defensive aggression in the long run.  

Many dogs nip when their ears or tails are pulled or when they are pinned to the ground, even if the owner does so playfully. Many of these dogs are being nice by nipping gently, but sometimes dogs may mean business at some point and will growl or learn to gradually bite harder. 

There may be a thin line between playing roughly and doing something that the dog perceives as unpleasant and wants you to stop. Some dogs are good at communicating their discomfort and will start yawning, lip licking or scratching or licking an imaginary itch (displacement behavior) before biting while others may growl. Not all dog owners recognize these signs, leading to the belief that dogs "bite out of the blue" when in reality they were doing their best to communicate their discomfort.

Did you know? Growling is an important piece of information that you do not want to suppress. Punishing a dog for growling will backfire as you will end up with a dog who bites without warning.

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Use intermediary tools like tug ropes to redirect your nippy dog.

Now That You Know...

As seen, dogs bite when playing with their owners for various reasons. Whether your puppy or dog bites because he thinks you're a fun playmate, because he's overly excited by movement or he's trying to tell you to stop, it's important knowing what to do. Following are some tips to tackle dog biting when playing:

  • Once in their new homes, puppies need to learn to further refine their bite as humans have very sensitive skin. This is done by providing puppies with feedback. One way to do so is by adopting the method of saying  "ouch!" and withdrawing from play (turn your back or even leave the room) as seen in litters of puppies. However, while this may sometimes work, some puppies get more excited when they hear humans yelp and see them quickly withdraw their feet and legs  and walk away (those who end up having a land shark attached to their leg while walking away know what I am talking about!).
  • A better option may be investing in intermediary tools to use in lieu of arms and hands. Redirect your puppy's or dog's intent to bite body parts to biting tug toys, ropes and towels. Praise him when he makes choices. Teach your dog to play tug though by following these dog tug-toy rules. 
  • Teach your puppy alternate ways to interact with you. You can, for instance, train a fun replacement behavior to replace the biting. You have several options as to what replacement behaviors to use but a great one is hand targeting as it teaches dogs a better way to interact with hands rather than nipping them. Other options are asking the dog to sit or down and rewarding by tossing treats or a ball the opposite way. 
  • Teach your puppy to develop a soft mouth by keeping a treat in your closed fist and releasing it only when the pup is gentle with his mouth. 
  • Last but not least, provide more mental stimulation and brain games. Choose toys that allow your dog to get rewards out of them (such as a Kong Wobbler or Buster Cube) so your hands and legs become pretty boring in comparison.
  • And of course, if your dog ever shows signs of aggression or bites hard, please consult with a behavior professional using force-free and humane behavior modification. 
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