Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Play Biting, Mouthy Puppies and How We Screw Them Up.

Parenting is a universal task we all take on in varying capacities. The hovering mother hen, the satellite spoiling aunts, uncles, grandparents, and the over burdened exhausted "there was an old woman who lived in a shoe. She had so many children, she didn't know what to do;" We each raise our kids with our own experiences, abilities and ideas in mind. We treat our pets in the same fashion. Our pets, like our children, are a reflection of this. 

As a veterinarian I feel that it is our duty and obligation to raise happy, acceptable, responsible members of society regardless of whether your kids have two or four legs. The over bearing, demanding barking parent who jerks on a choke chain beating his dog into submission is raising a powder keg of frustration who is likely to erupt into some unprovoked fight when he gets the chance away from angry militia man dad. I see it too often. I had a client last week yank the choke collar forcing his 100 pound dog to the floor cowering. He then stood over the dog screaming "He's Got To Learn!!" What was his dog doing that was so reprehensible? He was looking over the front counter at the dogs playing. He was being inquisitive without permission. It was met by anger and force.  The action caused gasps of disbelief amongst the staff and clients who witnessed it. This is not parenting, this is bullying. It breaks my heart that some people are so demanding, cruel and forceful. What are you trying to prove? That you are an abusive jerk? (Well, don't worry its apparent). Abuse elicits fear. Fear breeds more fear. Never ever be mean. It is counter productive. If you (the human) have an anger, control, abusive issues get help. Join a gym. Move to a deserted island (by yourself). 

In every puppy appointment I see I discuss both the health aspects of raising a puppy and the behavioral needs to transition confidently into adulthood. I am also the vet who swoons, kisses, snuggles, and offers treats the entire time with rare regard to pending meal times. The exam time is not just about the stethoscope stuff, I am watching your puppies responses to a stranger, a new place with lots of weird sounds and smells, and I am challenging them with restraint, interaction and emotional stability. Clients don't see this, but a good vet is always collecting data and always making notes about places we can help you and your puppy on the road to successful adulthood.

There is great debate about dogs, mouth parts, and appropriate puppy training. I am not a militia woman. I understand the consequences of training versus discouraging inquisitive behaviors. I also understand defining limits in a healthy productive positive fashion. 

Fingers in the mouth is an important part of understanding limits, greeting, and acceptance. Dogs are not human beings. They absorb and interact with the world differently. I know that many people are vehemently apposed to any kind of mouth interaction. I am not so hard lined for a few reasons. Knowing your dog, your breed tendencies, your abilities, your training aptitude, environment and how you influence your dogs growth are all key to this.

It is important to remember that as a veterinarian who sees lots of pets, lots of people, and a huge varied range of ways they each raise their pets. I have to adjust what I say, how I say it, and why I offer advice. My goal is simple and consistent across every step of the journey;

Maintain and strengthen the bonds between a pet and their parents.

Here is the string of conversations that went on between a Pawbly user and three of the Pawbly Pack experts;


We have a 4 month old Golden Retriever puppy. She likes to do what they call "play biting". We thought it would eventually start getting better but it is as bad now as when she was a month old. It is very annoying. Will she eventually grow out of this or is it something we may have to look forward too for sometime.

Here are the Pawbly Pack experts replies;

Laura answered:
"She won't stop on her own - just like with anything you'd like her to do, you need to train her to stop.  Immediate corrections work but you need to be consistent.  If you had her at 4 weeks, you have an extra bit of difficulty as she should have learned valuable social interactions from her litter mates and dam.

Have you planned to take her to training classes?  If not, I sounds like you would benefit from it."

My answer;
Krista Magnifico, DVM, Founder of Pawbly answered ...

"I don't discourage, nor get annoyed with play biting and I think it is incredibly important that puppies learn to explore the world, taste everyone and (almost) everything in it, and learn boundaries. A play bite is your puppies way of greeting, thanking and telling you that they love you. It is only to be discouraged if it is too hard. In which case a sharp "OUCH!" and walking away is appropriate. Telling your puppy to stop their expression of gratitude, curiosity, and friendship is disheartening. Please don't get annoyed she loves you and she is happy.

And yes she will grow out of it. She will also learn to explore the world through smell, sight and sound. The taste sense will decrease. I never ever want to curb or discourage a happy puppy, just teach boundaries. We ruin more puppies with ridiculous over bearing human demands. I just think it is tragic.

If you cannot grow to love the hand and mouth try a chew toy or some option for her to play with.

I totally agree with Laura about training and you cannot ever understand the importance of socialization. Although this breed is naturally very social,, hence the play biting.

Very best of luck"

PK Dennis, Terrier lover, Cairn rescue foster home, Feeds Raw answered ...

"She will NOT grow out of it!  You need to teach her that doing this us unacceptable to you!  Zak George has a great video on YouTube that shows you how to teach your girl not to put your teeth on you."

Krista Magnifico, DVM, Founder of Pawbly answered ...

"Let me clarify..biting has a negative connotation and needs to be addressed if it is truly biting. Being a mouthy puppy is normal and not equivalent to biting. It is normal interactive play for a puppy learning to understand the world. Your vet can help identify one versus the other. The overwhelming majority of puppies of this breed at this age are playing. They progress to biting because they are not being given adequate time and exercise. Then they are reprimanded which exacerbates their frustration and worsens their demand for time and play. I agree that Biting needs to be addressed and boundaries need to be established. But Discouraging mouth play and interaction (which is what I see overwhelmingly) is equivalent in your puppies eyes as being dismissed and treated as annoying.

This terrible advice to manage every second of a puppies life and extinguish their love and curiosity is making our puppies crazy and turn into them into unsocialized fearful anxious dogs. Parents drive puppies into corners where only bad things result and surrenders to shelters become reality. It takes time and a change in perspective to teach pet parents how to raise happy healthy socialized pets. Most of the time they mess it up unknowingly and unintentionally.

So if your puppy is biting they are trying to tell you something. Seeing that display of need as annoying concerns me deeply that you aren't understanding what she is trying to tell you. I see it everyday in practice and the statistics for pet surrenders prove it. If you have had her for two months and she has turned into a biter you have missed the expression and need she has been trying to express to you. She needs more of something and she is biting to try to get it. Reprimanding her for a failure of your understanding of her need will worsen the relationship you have with her.

I recommend that you find a positive reinforcement trainer to help meet her needs and assist her j to growing up as a happy healthy socially responsible member of her community."

Now I know these other two experts. They are truly experts. They have dedicated their lives to dogs. Their dogs are the picture of model dog behavior in every sense. They come to the training table with the highest of standards in place and a firm ability to implement and train almost any dog with any problem.

Here's where I differ in my approach; I have to do whatever I can to keep these dogs (almost ALL of them teenagers who have been screwed up by the unknowing mistakes of their misguided, over tired, under prepared pet parents) in the home, and get to the "happy place" as soon as possible. At 4 months old, if this person obtained this puppy at 4 weeks old, it is clear to me that this person has caused this problem by not knowing how to address it. How did that happen? They forgot to answer, or understand, their puppies needs and pleas. They are trying to extinguish a request in stead of understand and provide for it.

If I don't figure out how to bridge the gap between needs, expectations, and reality this puppy will end up being disposed of.

In my opinion of all the things pet parents need to improve upon behavior is the single greatest failure. (After we get this licked I am moving onto;
1. Sentient Beings. Animals understand us more than we give them credit for.
2. Spaying/neutering. 3 million dog and cat euthanasia's in the USA every year! What??.
3. Preventative Care. Want to save $$ and emergencies? Preventative care will help.
4. Responsible Ownership. Abuse, neglect should have real consequences. If you lack the ability to provide kindness please don't have a pet.

Then my work is done.

Oh, And there is still Pawbly. Pawbly is poised to help with all of these.... (note to self; eat more spinach, pace yourself).

If you have a pet question, or a pet related concern, please join us on We are here to help and always free.

I am also available for appointments and individual care at Jarrettsville Vet in Jarrettsville Maryland, or find me on Twitter @FreePetAdvice.

And YouTube has lots of videos on common conditions, treatment options, and at home care. Follow me there too!


  1. Humans also forget that human babies do the same thing. It is important to a child's development, as it is a puppy's, to mouth.

  2. Hi, Your blog is really neat. I want to be a vet when i grow up. I write a weekly blog, called 2 Blogging Cats, about my two cats, which were rescue cats. The latest post is about their visit to the vet, from their point of view. Here it is:
    We wish the neighbor would get his male cat castrated. He is always attacking our two cats, and scent marking on our porch and doors. It's a pain in the neck! From Zoe at 2 Blogging Cats.