Why Do Puppies Bite Your Face?

Puppies bite your face in most cases out of play. If you watch a litter of puppies playing, you will notice how they spend most of their time playing, and sometimes, roughly too. Although play in puppies is innocent, it's a good idea to redirect this behavior and start training the puppy that human skin is extra sensitive, and that there are other fun, and more constructive ways to engage with their owners.

Puppies bite your face, and they can be quite persistent in doing so, if the issue isn't tackled. In order to better understand this behavior, it helps to take a glance into what puppies do when they are in the litter with their littermates and moms. 

Sure we are not dogs, but we must consider a puppy's background and how it impacts the puppy's behavior once welcomed into our homes. Some puppies may be more persistent than others and some may be quite rough. Fortunately, there are several ways to teach puppies other ways to interact. 

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Puppies engage in a lot of play biting and this often involves the face

A Strong Urge to Play 

When puppy owners adopt a new puppy they often envision a cute bundle of joy who follows them around, loves chasing his tail and plays with the quintessential toilet paper roll. That's what you may see in movies and commercials though. Reality is often a whole different story.

Many new puppy owners are in for a rude wake-up call when they notice that, all their puppies want to do, is bite. And when they do, they bite quite hard too. Puppies given cutesy names such as Bailey, Murphy or Boots, therefore, end up being nicknamed "Dogzilla" or "Crocopup."

If you find yourself sharing your home with a "puppy monster" who engages in obnoxious behaviors and appears to be on a mission to eat you hands, legs and face, bit-by-bit, rest assured you are not alone. Countless puppy owners endure this puppy biting stage, but the good news is that puppies tend to outgrow this phase eventually, just as they outgrow chasing their tails. Most dog owners fortunately survive this stage with their noses intact.

But why do puppies bite so much? Often this behavior is misunderstood for the simple fact that puppy owners are missing out on a whole chapter of the pup's earlier life. Here's just a little recap.

During a puppy's first few days of life, most of the time is spent sleeping and nursing. Then, once their eyes open, they start to move around (albeit still being a bit wobbly). As the weeks go by, they start getting more and more agile actively walking, trying to escape the whelping box and playing, playing and playing (and often driving the breeders nuts!).

Now, puppies don't play cutesy games with dolls or play-doh like children do. What they do instead is engage in very physical wrestling games which include pinning other puppies down and biting their ears, tails and faces. Rough play often causes puppies to hurt each other because they are equipped with very sharp, needle-like teeth.

Fortunately though, by the time the puppies are ready to go to their new homes, most have learned to a good extent to play gentler, courtesy of repeated feedback provided by their siblings. Here's what happened. When a pup's playmates felt those sharp teeth, they squealed and withdrew from play. Play session after play session, bitey pups learned to bite with less and less pressure, which is called "bite inhibition."

Now fast forward to when the pups are brought into their new homes. No more puppies to play with, yet the urge to explore the world with their mouths and play bite is very strong.  Puppies need to play just as children dog, but who will they play bite with?

 Hmmm.. how about the legs of a chair? Yes, feels nice on the teeth, but they don't move. How about the curtains? Yes, they may lead to a fun game of tug-of-war, but they get boring after a while. Hey, what about humans? Human are fun and move around too! Too bad though that humans are often annoyed and have really sensitive skin compared to their littermates. What a bummer! 

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A puppy biting your face constantly isn't a very pleasant interaction

Why Do Puppies Bite Your Face?

Back to when puppies were in the litter, puppies engaged in a variety of forms of play. For example, they often enjoyed biting the legs of other puppies (and even latch onto them for a fun ride!) or they may have loved to chase tails. 

Another big favorite is biting the face. This form of play has also a name: "bitey face." Many dogs enjoy this form of playing which involves grabbing onto each others ears, cheeks and the loose skin of the neck. This form of play is often accompanied by teeth-showing displays and growls. As much as this may seem scary to watch, most of the times the two dogs are having a great time.

 With humans, attempts to bite the face are often seen when the owners bend down towards the puppy, when the puppy is picked up or when the owner sits down on the floor to interact with the puppy. These behavior share a common factor: they put human faces at easy reach. 

Puppies are known to have poor social skills and they often engage in rough, obnoxious behaviors. They don't know that we can get hurt by their sharp teeth and that we do not enjoy this type of interaction simply because this is what they have done all the time since they were in the litter and were capable of playing.

Many puppies fail to understand our signs of displeasure and may misinterpret our attempts to send the puppy away from our faces. Any physical interventions such as  pushing the puppy away or quickly withdrawing the face risk being interpreted as engagement. Indeed, if you carefully watch puppies play, you will notice how moving away often evokes more grabbing and chasing. 

Vocalizations such as yelping or saying "ouch" and quickly withdrawing from play by turning around or leaving the room, may work for mild cases. Some puppies though may get more overstimulated by such vocalizations or may view them as a fun challenge.

They may think along the terms of: "cool a human tug toy that squeaks too!" or they may feel the need to bite more in hopes of getting the human to move and interact again. Hence why you often see puppy owners leaving the room with a "crocopup" attached to their leg!

Now That You Know...

As seen, puppies often engage in biting because they want to play. All pups bite as that’s what pups do. They are playing, discovering the world through their mouths, and on top of that, they are also teething. Puppies also quickly learn that biting grants them attention. 

When all is quiet in the evening and mom is watching TV, dad is checking emails and the kids are playing video games, a bored puppy will try to find a way to get his family engaged and this often obtained through biting.

Biting targeted towards the face should be discouraged considering the potential for injuries and the risks in a puppy growing up and continuing this dangerous behavior. The behavior can be particularly problematic which children who are at a dog's face level. Following are some tips to stop puppies from biting the face.

  • Be patient. Biting in puppies is part of a developmental stage and it may last anywhere between 5 and 9 months (or more in some cases) from birth. It won't be fixed overnight. Consistency under the form of clear feedback and repetition is required throughout this puppy period.
  • Consider that many puppies get overly excited (and more nippy!) when you’re down at their level such as sitting on the floor, on a low chair or bending over. You will need to gradually teach your puppy to stay calm at that level. You can therefore start practicing the training suggested below by first sitting in a chair, then on a low footstool, then on the ground.
  • Try initially sitting down on a chair and offering your hands to interact with so that your pup is less attracted to your face. When you see your puppy approaching you and you are sitting down at his level, stretch your arm out and offer your hand. "Hands are both pretty durable and yet quiet sensitive. This gives us the opportunity to gauge the pressure of a pup’s bite quite well, without enduring lots of damage," explains Kelly Gorman Dunbar, Director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior on Dog Star Daily.
  • Train an alternate behavior. Teach your puppy to touch your hand with his nose and toss a treat every time your dog does these nose touches. This exercise is known as "nose targeting." By tossing the treat rather than hand feeding, you also provide your puppy a fun workout.
  • Once your puppy does this exercise well while sitting on the chair, start practicing sitting on the footstool and then on the ground.
  • Provide stuff to gnaw on (bully sticks, stuffed Kongs) and ample of puppy-safe chew toys of different textures. Make sure to rotate chew toys so that they maintain a certain level of novelty.
  • Ensure your puppy receives ample of opportunities for mental stimulation and exercise, encouraging fun brain games and games that incorporate training such as teaching the puppy to sit before a ball is tossed.
  • Use caution to not inadvertently encourage jumping and biting the face area when you play with your puppy. Try to play with your dog using a tug-toy or flirt pole making sure to keeping the toy as close to the ground as possible.
  • If you have long hair, keep it up to prevent your puppy from being tempted to play with your hair.
  • Enroll your puppy in puppy classes. These are great to provide your puppy socialization and further refinement of bite inhibition through play with other puppies.
  • Ensure your puppy is receiving enough sleep. Young puppies need to sleep a lot and just like human children, they may get cranky when they are tired. If your puppy is misbehaving, chances are he just needs a nap. Provide a crate in a quiet area and let your puppy have a safe chew toy in there. Cover the crate with a blanket if your puppy finds it difficult to sleep.
  • Consider that dealing with puppy biting takes a multifaceted approach. Puppies need to be provided with outlets for pent-up energy, positive feedback for performing desirable behaviors and lots of chew toys. You should generally see a decrease in biting after the age of 5 months.
  • Seek the help of a professional. Puppy play biting is an innocent game most of the time, even though it may seem rough, but sometimes there may be more going on. If you are dealing with a stubborn case or you suspect that the face biting may stem from fear or aggression, please seek the help of a dog behavior professional using force-free behavior modification methods.
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