First, you have to examine the bite...are all bites treated the same? I'm currently 5 months in with our newest furry family member. He’s a beautiful Silver Lab named Levi. Recently, I've noticed that his teething-puppy-biting style has changed a bit. Sure it's still there but there are other biting actions going on too. I find myself evaluating every time I reprimand his biting but also oddly curious as to if this biting might be another way of exploring, communicating, or configuring his way into the hierarchy that is his new pack. Sometimes when I reprimand or give him verbal redirects he gets frustrated and claps his jaws at me, not biting at me but clapping to make a specific noise. When the behaviour persists and he ignores my cue he barks at me, not viciously but in frustration or retaliation. So maybe Levi’s biting is more than just teething or fresh behaviour? So I ventured online and started my research and there it was, plain and simple and there’s actually a term for it, my puppy is mouthing.
Like most typical teething puppies we took all appropriate steps to facilitate our dog’s teething and biting needs. We froze toys, utilized a Kong with peanut butter, please note: not all peanut butter is created equal, see ” Everything You Should Know About Peanut Butter and Your Dog.”, we verbally redirect him when he does bite his human pack members, and immediately replace the human body part with an acceptable chew toy. With little results in his behaviour, he actually started to retaliate with jaw clapping and barking. Neither of his replies seemed threatening or mean, instead it seemed as if he was frustrated or perhaps stubbornly holding his ground. If he’s not biting to relieve teething discomfort than why? What I discovered was an action by puppies called mouthing. Mouthing can be a puppy's way of communicating with his mother and other puppies in the litter. It can convey what he wants or place him in a hierarchy of the puppy pack, distinguishing him as an alpha, or less mouthy puppies are predominantly betas and are more submissive.
From the time puppies start mouthing the mother dog starts teaching them what is acceptable biting and what is not. This taught behaviour is usually passed on to the new puppy owners, especially if your new furry family member may be a more dominant pooch. Typically the biting is more aggressive and may even continue after the dog outgrows the puppy stage if your dog is an alpha personality. While this behaviour may be inherent to your dog’s nature and is useful in a wild pack, it is not acceptable for him in a human-run pack. Therefore it is extremely important to teach your dog bite inhibition. Bite inhibition is your dog's ability to control the force of his mouthing. Ultimately the goal will be to stop the dogs mouthing entirely.
To teach your dog that mouthing is not acceptable you have to remain the alpha in his pack. This means you need to be diligent in redirecting the behaviour. Just like the mother dog, you have to remain in control. An animal control officer once told me the simplest way to show dominance over your puppy is to mimic the behaviour of the mother dog. If a puppy needs reprimanding by the mother dog she will take the pup by the skin at the back of the neck and gently push the puppy to the ground, in a submissive position. This action shows that the mother is the dominant role model and the puppy has to respect that. In addition to maintaining redirection alternatives and dominant verbal commands, you must teach bite inhibition techniques before biting becomes hurtful. The Animal Humane Society has a resourceful bulleted list that you can reference depending on your dog’s needs.
So is Levi’s bark worse than his bite? At this point, the consensus is no. Both are treated equally. But while barking is an acceptable communication tool for your dog, mouthing, and biting are not. Your dog needs to learn that biting to communicate or to lay claim to his alpha role in his human pack is not acceptable. Be the alpha, be persistent, be patient, and always use kind training techniques.