There is a window of time when puppies learn all about life and how to function safely in the world. This "socialization period" occurs from approximately 3-weeks to 12-18-weeks-old (the exact timing is still up for debate). What is most important to know is that during this time, you have the power to help your dog grow up to be confident and friendly by giving him positive experiences with everything new:
Throw a chicken party when he's around kids for the first time.
Throw a hot-dog party when you touch his ears or face or tail or toes.
Throw a cookie party when strangers pet your pup.
Throw a tripe party at the vet (in the lobby, on the scale, in the exam room, on the table, while trimming his nails...).
Throw a parmesan cheese party when the vacuum cleaner is out.
Get the idea?
On the flip side, if your pup experiences something scary when a stranger comes up, he may become frightened of strangers. And here's the thing: One single bad experience with a stranger (or anything else) can change the pup's opinion for life.
So, it is vitally important to introduce puppies to as many people, children, animals, car rides, vet visits, and inanimate objects such as hats, scooters, strollers, umbrella, vacuum cleaners — really everything — as possible, and making the experiences especially enjoyable. It is much easier to teach your puppy that something he’s never seen before is great, than it is so teach your grown dog that something he is afraid of is actually safe.
Dogs learn by association and this is especially true when they are young puppies. Take advantage of this by throwing hot-dog parties around new stuff and giving the most wonderful belly rubs you’ve ever done.
Whatever you do, make sure you go at the puppy's pace. Visit our Body Language Gallery to see what dogs look like when they are happy and confident vs. when they are distressed. If you start to see yawning, lip licking, tail tucking, pup pulling away, etc., you're moving too fast.
Most puppies bite — a lot. It's how they explore their world! And they bite everything: arms, legs, shoes, chair legs, curtains, long hair, you name it. They practice this behavior with everyone who will allow it and most often, it comes out during play. Biting is a totally normal behavior for puppies, yet it is typically (and unsurprisingly) undesirable — especially when there are razor sharp teeth involved!
So, how do we stop puppies from biting?
Learning from other puppies One way is by letting puppies play with other puppies. When they play together, puppies teach one another when the bites are too hard — by yelping, barking, or growling, having a tucked tail, stopping play and moving away, and even by responding aggressively, such as snapping.
Play typically stops momentarily after a hard bite, which is not what either pup wants to happen. Because of this interruption of play, the biting puppy will learn that in order to keep play going, her mouth must be used in a gentle manner.
Plan play sessions with a variety of dogs who are known to be friendly to puppies.
Learning from people We don’t all have the luxury of raising multiple dogs of the same age from puppyhood or have access to someone else’s puppies for our little one to play with. This means that we have to teach our puppies ourselves how to appropriately use their mouths.
During their prime developmental ages (6-16 weeks), allow play biting to occur as long as it is not too hard. Hard bites should result in the interruption of play — or, play ending altogether.Say in an unthreatening tone, “ouch,” when the hard bite occurs, and stop playing. It will take a number of repetitions to get the job done, but if you stick with it, eventually your puppy will learn to use her mouth softly.
Note: Once your puppy is out of the socialization period, you can "ouch" all bites.
Is the puppy distressed? It's important to note that while the most common reason puppies bite is because they are puppies, you need to pay attention to the dog's body language to make sure he isn't distressed. A puppy who bites a vet tech during a painful procedure, for instance, is likely doing it because he is scared— not because he is exploring his environment. In this case, you would need to help the pup overcome his fears rather than teach him to bite more softly or not at all. And time is of the essence. As we say above, you want your puppy to have as many positive experiences he can have now, so that he is better equipped to handle adversity as an adult.
Puppies don't always do all of the standard tells that we look for in dogs to see if they are having fun or not when playing. They might not yet play-bow, self-handicap (pull their punches) or reverse roles (chaser becomes the chasee, etc.). And they might not have a wide variety of play activities (fight, flight, feeding, and courting).
But puppies still give us clues: Play-face and paw raise — both modeled beautiful by the adorable black-and-white Boston Terrier shown to the right — are two body-language tells.
With puppies who have been properly socialized to play with others and be handled by people, we can ask them if they want to keep playing and let them "vote with their feet." To do this, we gently nab the "perp pup" (the puppy doing the pinning or play-biting) by his hips and pull him back, to allow the other pup to leave if he wants to. If he sticks by the "perp" to play more, we know they're happy to continue.