“HELP! My puppy is biting my toddler!”

Today I have the great fortune of having a guest blog writer – my dear friend and expert dog trainer Samantha Fogg!  Thank you so much Samantha for this column and your expertise!  Here is what Samantha writes in response to a very common problem:

“HELP! My puppy is biting my toddler!!!”

I can’t count the number of times I’ve gotten a phone call from a panicked parent who is considering sending their new puppy back to the breeder or to a shelter because the puppy is biting them, their child, and they think that perhaps their pup is aggressive, or bad, or that they can’t handle a puppy in a house with children.  Sometimes the parent has contacted other trainers who haven’t offered any help, but who have said things like “never leave a puppy and a young child together unsupervised” and the parent took this to me that combining puppies and children is dangerous.  Puppies and children CAN co-exist in the same household, but it will take a bit of work and understanding, and yes supervision.  But really, I don’t recommend leaving young children unsupervised, whether or not there is a puppy in the mix.

Puppies bite everything.  Human babies do this too.  Remember when your child stuck everything into his or her mouth?  Puppies are learning about their world, and they are exploring, and everything, including your fingers and your child’s hands, are things your pup wants to learn about so into the mouth they go.  Puppies don’t have hands, so where your human baby patted things, and rolled things in his or her hands, your pup can only use his or her mouth.

It may seem like a cruel joke that puppies are at their most oral at the same time that their teeth are the sharpest, and yes puppy teeth hurt.  Dogs need to have exquisite control over their mouths.  They need to be able to exert the precise amount of control to gently lift and carry fragile items, and also to be able to rip and tear food.  Super sharp puppy teeth guarantee that the pup will get lots of feed back about how much pressure s/he is exerting.  When puppies play with each other they wrestle, and bite, and grab onto each other.  If one puppy bites another puppy too hard, the hurt pup will give a high pitched yelp and go a bit limp.  The biting pup should immediately back off.  If the biting pup persists with biting too hard, the one being bitten will refuse to play with the biter.  Thus puppies learn exactly how hard they can bite each other without hurting, and they gain control of their mouths.

The longer a pup stays with Mom and littermates, the farther along in their bite inhibition training they will be, but even a 12 week old pup won’t have mastered his or her mouth so you’ll need to take over where Mom and the littermates left off.  Some people punish a dog for using his or her mouth, and while in the short term this may solve the problem of sore hands, in the long term, the dog doesn’t learn sufficient bite inhibition.  Hurt dogs defend themselves by biting, and if something terrible happens, say your toddler hurts your dog badly, you want the dog to know that humans are fragile, and to be able to restrain himself and only put his mouth on your child, and not scar your child.  Bite inhibition is critical.  To teach this, you (depending on the age of your children, you likely do not want them to do this)  want to solicit play with your hands.  When the puppy bites you too hard yelp like a hurt puppy and let your hand go limp.  Your pup should immediately back off.  When the pup backs off, start the game again.  If the pup is over-stimulated, or overly tired, the pup may have a bit of a temper tantrum, and may repeatedly bite too hard.  If this happens, your goal should be to calm your pup down, perhaps by giving the pup some time away from people, or using gentle friendly restraint.  When you yelp, a small percentage of puppies will react as though your hand is prey, and will attack more, if this happens, cease playing with the pup and ignore the pup for a couple minutes every single time the pup bites too hard.  As with most things in dog training, repetition is important.  The more frequently you work on this with your puppy the sooner your puppy will learn to control his mouth.

Once your pup is able to play with you gently, it is time to let the puppy know that they can only play with your hands if they are invited to do so.  If the pup isn’t invited to play and grabs at your hands, either yelp like a hurt puppy again, or simply walk away.  In the beginning you’ll want to initiate the game a lot so that your puppy can learn the difference between being invited to play (puppy gets to play), and not being invited to play (puppy doesn’t get to play).  Once your pup understands that teeth can only touch human skin if invited to do so, you can gradually stop asking your puppy to play this game at all.

In addition to teaching your pup about bite inhibition, you want to provide your puppy with plenty of puppy-safe toys to chew.  Stuffed kongs, especially ones that are frozen, are a great toy for pups, but take a look at your local pet supply store, and try things out (see www.kongcompany.com for kongs and stuffing ideas!).  Ideally you should get enough toys so that you can rotate the toys out.  Toys that a dog hasn’t seen in a couple weeks are far more exciting than toys that the dog sees on a daily basis.  Remember — puppies NEED to chew, so if you don’t provide things for the pup to chew on, your pup will find things to chew on, and you won’t like your puppy’s choices.

Depending on the age of your children, you’ll need to involve them in this process to a greater or lesser degree, but unless your child is a baby, your child will need to participate in the bite inhibition training.  Fortunately for many children their initial instinct when nipped by a puppy is to scream in a high pitched voice, and to refuse to play with the puppy.  But you still want to practice.  Start before your puppy arrives (or if you already have a puppy, start with the pup out of the room).  Have your child practice yelping like a hurt puppy.  Make this a fun game.  Also have them practice freezing, and going limp.  Make sure that your child does NOT hit the puppy, or get aggressive toward the puppy.

More important than teaching the child what to do when nipped, you want to set puppy and child up for successful interactions.  A great game to help with this is the Invisible Dog Game. You’ll need lots of dog treats for this.  The rules are as follows:

1. Dog must be on a leash no longer than 6 feet, and the leash must be held by an adult.

2. Dogs who are in a down position are VISIBLE.  Dogs who are doing ANYTHING except lying down, are INVISIBLE.

3. Dogs who are VISIBLE can be patted, talked to, and given treats.  Dogs who are INVISIBLE must be ignored.

4. Don’t talk to the dog or tell the dog what to do.  Just stick to the above rules, your dog will figure it out.

When you first play this game, your pup may have a hard time coming up with the idea to lie down.  That is OK, but you want to make sure that your child stays engaged, so talk to your child about how the dog is invisible and where is the dog, and so forth.  Try to avoid becoming so animated that the dog has fun with this.

As soon as your dog becomes visible (lies down), make a big deal about it.  “Oh, there is the dog!” and immediately give the dog treats.  If the dog leaps back up — and many will in the beginning — the dog is invisible again “where did the dog go?  Wasn’t the dog just here?”  As your dog gets the hang of this, your dog will spend longer, and longer in the down position and you’ll have the opportunity to do things like — “where is the dog’s tail” and as soon as the child touches the dog’s tail, give the dog a cookie, and “how many paws does the dog have?” and give the dog a cookie each time the child touches a paw.  When the dog gets even better the child can sit with the dog, patting the dog and telling the dog stories.

Quit the game before dog and child get tired of the game.

Of course, puppies are learning a lot more than just about how to control their mouths, and puppies, like small children, can have temper tantrums or lose control of themselves.  Puppies who get overly tired, or over -stimulated, may nip more, may fling themselves about, may even air snap.  Puppies benefit from having a rhythm to their days, and to having plenty of nap time.  Puppies tend to be energetic in bursts, and then need to sleep.  Puppies who miss naps are often fussy, and grumpy.  Make sure that your pup is getting plenty of down time.  Puppies who don’t get enough exercise also have trouble controlling themselves.  You don’t want to go on overly long walks, or runs with your pup, but you do want them to have plenty of off-leash play time.

To recap — spend a lot of time teaching your puppy about bite inhibition, give your pup plenty of things to chew, teach your children what to do if the puppy nips them but try to avoid the pup nipping the children as much as you can, play games that teach positive ways for child and pup to interact, have a rhythm to your day that includes both active times and quiet times for the puppy.

Samantha Fogg

work+play positive dog training

Atlanta, GA (The next Babies+Dogs class will start in October!)

http://workplaydogs.com

Thank you again, Samantha!

Carrie

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30 thoughts on ““HELP! My puppy is biting my toddler!”

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  3. I cant believe such things would happen as the idea of a puppy biting a toddler. My mind thought of a huge great dane biting a child or something.. Great write up though. Very interesting and good to know.

  4. What a fantastic article! Attachment and Waldorf leaning parents who are interested in getting a dog or a puppy should spend a lot of time reading up on clicker training and/or positive reinforcement training (I think everyone interested in a dog should do this, but attachment/waldorfy types will really “get” it.) Sue Ailsby has a fantastic eBook called The Training Levels and clickertraining.com is fantastic as well. The Visible/Invisible game is classic positive reinforcement – reward what you want, ignore (with no judgement or punishment) what you don’t like. Enjoy your puppy! Like babies, they’re only that little for a while :)

  5. I just welcomed a 5 month old peer bred pitbull into my home, she is very loving to my husband and I, but when it comes to my two year old she tenses up and bites at her whenever my daughter tries to pet her or just touch her, I can tell she’s nervous around my daughter. But the fact is she has bit my daughter in the hands and face obviously I’m VERY upset that I brought home a dog that isn’t fond of my two year old. I really need help to get this to stop NOW. I was really excited to bring her home, but will not tolerate such a extream behavior. I really need to know how to make this stop.

    • Melodie,

      Pitbulls are very territorial and protective of what they consider their “pack”. What is likely happening is that your new puppy is trying to figure out where she is in the hierarchy of things and is trying to exert her dominance over others in the pack. As you have said, this is not acceptable and not something you should tolerate. Pitbulls can be VERY loving dogs, but need a firm hand to raise. Because this puppy is already 5 months old, you really need to start now. I cannot stress enough finding a good trainer, one who uses positive reinforcement (treats and/or clicker training) versus one who uses negative reinforcement (scolding, hitting) and one who has a lot of experience in training pitbulls. This really isn’t something that you should try and do alone. Make sure the trainer understands that you have a small child and in fact, in many cases, trainers should have the child be a part of the training.

      Unless you are very familiar with the breed and are a trainer, I don’t recommend doing this on your own. Professional trainers have excellent insight into dog behavior and how to address it. Also, since they are NOT part of the family, they have a perspective you may not…

      Good Luck!

    • Dear Melodie,

      Separate the dog and toddler NOW.

      If you have any hope of having this work out, you must find a professional trainer immediately. If you tell me where you are located, I can see if I know anyone that I can recommend. Without seeing your dog in person, I cannot properly assess this situation. Your description does make it sound as though your dog is afraid of your toddler – a very common challenge, given the fact that toddlers are uncoordinated and often unpredictable. Unfortunately, common and easy to fix are not one in the same. Fears can be challenging to overcome, and toddlers can be difficult to manage. Punishing behaviors that are caused by fear can make them significantly worse, and create a very dangerous situation.

      You did not mention the severity of the biting, and I hope that this means that there has not yet been blood or bruising. However, without more information, I cannot say how likely this is to escalate to the point where a more severe injury might occur. In order to protect BOTH your child and your dog, you must seek help immediately.

      I adore pit bulls, and think that they can be fantastic in homes with children, but what is important is not the breed, but the individual. A 5-month-old dog is no longer a baby puppy, but is a young adolescent. Your description does not sound typical of puppy mouthiness, but may in fact indicate a serious problem. Delaying addressing this could result in injury to your child, and/or, to your dog. Keep them completely separated until you can have the situation assessed by a professional.

  6. my 10 week old border collie/ spaniel mix puppy bites my 2 year old…. at first my son loved running around the house and yard while the puppy chased him and since border collies are bred to herd i thought this was completely normal but now as my son runs the puppy will chase, catch him and bite him sometimes to the point he breaks the skin. i just found out that i am pregnant again and im almost to the point of giving him back to the shelter because i cant have a puppy biting my newborn? i have 34 weeks to fix this or he has to go? help???

    • Dear Christen,

      It is normal for a 10 week old puppy to chase, and yes, they are also supposed to learn to use their mouths and this involves putting everything into their mouths. This is completely normal behavior. This does not; however, mean that intervention and training are not required. You need to decide now whether you are going to commit to working with this dog, and that will include signing up for training classes and doing homework, or whether, with everything else going on in your life, committing to the raising and training of a puppy right now is too much.

      It is far better to return the dog to the shelter NOW, than to wait for the puppy to further practice bad habits that will decrease the likelihood of your puppy finding a new home. 10 week old puppies have far better chances at finding good homes than do 5 month old puppies.

      You should NOT allow the puppy to chase and bite your son. You SHOULD teach your puppy and your son to play well together. You NEED a trainer who can see what is going on in person to help you through this.

      Best of luck, and congratulations on your new pregnancy.

      Samantha

  7. Excellant article I have a 4month old Cocker puppy and a 2 year old toddler and puppy has recently started to randomly bite and bruise her feet. Im guessing to initiate play and try to make her run and play chase (as they have done in past)! I shall certainly be putting the advice above into practice as my two year old is getting very upset about it! Many thanks.

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  9. Thanks so much for this article! Love the idea for the INVISIBLE game!! I can really understand how it would benefit my family, meaning the relationship between my toddlers and my our 11 wk old great dane. And Im sure my almost 2yo and 3yo will love it too! Can’t wait to get home from work and try it out today!

  10. OMG!!! I’m do very glad to have stumbled across this article!!! I have a 2yo and a new 3 month old lab/rott mix she is very sweet with my husband and I but she is unsure of my son. For the most part they play together well but it usually ends in my son upset, the only thing im really concerned about is she will jump on him from behind to knock him over and the try and bite his neck or head and that makes me super nervous is there anything special I should do or should I stick with the invisible game?

  11. OMG!!! Im so very glad to have stumbled across this article!!! I have a 2yo and a new 3 month old lab/rott mix she is very sweet with my husband and I but she is unsure of my son. For the most part they play together well but it usually ends in my son upset, the only thing im really concerned about is she will jump on him from behind to knock him over and the try and bite his neck or head and that makes me super nervous is there anything special I should do or should I stick with the invisible game?

  12. I am a foster parent and there are constantly new children in my home. We have a 4 month old chocolate lab that is constantly jumping on the kids or biting them. At this point he is big enough that he knocks the 3 and 4 year old down. They tend to “freeze” when he jumps on them but when we call his name firmly and tell him no to try and get him to stop he doesn’t and I usually end up having to go over and drag him off by his collar. He is a really sweet dog he’s just so overly rough when he plays. How can I keep him from attacking the kids whenever he sees them?

    • A 4m old dog is a baby, even though he may seem big, he has no idea what he is doing. You need to teach him everything from his name, to appropriate greeting behavior. You need to manage his environment to set him up for success. If you give him the opportunity to leap on children, he will, and he’ll have fun, and he won’t understand that he is hurting anyone. If you let him leap, then punish him, he may become uncertain around children. You want to teach him the behaviors you wish for him to do around kids – sit or down – and then you need to practice, practice, practice.

      I highly recommend that you sign him up for a training class immediately. I don’t know where you are located, but you can look at the Association of Pet Dog Trainer’s website for trainers in your area.

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  15. I am so glad I stumbled upon this article. It’s terrific and couldn’t be better timing. We just adopted a 2 1/2 month old German Shepherd mix puppy from the Humane Society and now that he’s settled in as started biting and nipping at the everyone (adults and 3 year old twins) in the household excessively. We don’t start training for another two weeks so I am going to work on these tips in the meantime. I have been using the clicker to teach him sit and down and the kids love to click at the right time, so I think the invisible game will be a good tool to add.

    Thank you!

  16. I have an 11 week old Cavoodle and a 16 month old baby and I’m finding it REALLY hard to manage the relationship between these two. My baby loves the dog but he’s a solid little boy and he tries to sit on the puppy or grab her fur/skin to show affection. He doesn’t seem to understand why he’s not allowed to do it. The puppy bites all the time, almost every time I pat her she tries mouthing and biting my hand. I am getting somewhere with teaching my 4 year old daughter how to teach the puppy not to bite but I’m not sure what to do about my son. I don’t want them hurting each other. The puppy bites him in the face, but none of it seems to bother my boy. I like the idea of finding a more positive way for them to interact, he is a stubborn little boy and won’t let me guide his hand to show him to pat softly instead on whacking the puppy! Do you have a suggestion besides the game mentioned in this blog? I think Jimi is still too young to understand the game. Or can you please offer any other advice? I’ve booked in for obedience training but have to wait 3 weeks to start and I think the puppy is at a crucial developmental stage and I need to do something straight away…..I’ve tried separating them, but the puppy cries constantly because she wants to be with us. She seems to love the attention, want to play fight and also becomes annoyed with the kids though she doesn’t want to be alone! Arghhhh!!

  17. I have a staffy pup he is only 9 weeks old and a 5 year old daughter. My pup is exactly how you described in the article he has extremely playful bouts of energy in between long periods of sleep, and puts everything he finds in his mouth, including my daughters feet and hands. He does this to me and my partner too but seems to do it more to my daughter because she gets quite jittery around him. As soon as my daughter enters the room he’s at her feet trying to pull her socks off and bites onto the foot as well. He barks and jumps up at her sometimes to, is this an issue or just that he is extra playful with my daughter and it can be trained out of him.

  18. Pingback: Neat blog post about puppies and children - Golden Retrievers : Golden Retriever Dog Forums

  19. My daughter is only a year old and doesnt understand if I told her to scream when my 8week old puppy snaps at her. He doesnt do it with anyone else except her and its always to her hands and face. I really need advice on this please. Could u mail me x

    • Rheanne,
      One years of age is too little to follow this sort of training scenario. Separation, use of a crate, vigilant observation and interaction when the puppy is with your one year old is necessary.
      Blessings,
      Carrie

  20. help needed desperately. I think Ive made a terrible mistake. I have just bought a 12 week old Dog De Bordeaux and he is absolutely gorgeous but he is a REAL mouther. Anything that moves across his eyeline he will chase and nip and particularly my 2 year old. Her little legs are covered in nip marks and shes now so scared of him she hasn’t moved off the sofa for the entire weekend. Hes such a lovely natured puppy, house trained, crate trained, obedient in everything except this excessive nipping. He will air snap or nip himself also. He really likes to jump up and tug on clothing also. Im at the point of trying to find him a new home which# is NOT what I wanted to do. Also he and our older dog rough play all day long and it often gets too rough. The older dog puts him in his place but the puppy wont leave her alone. When it all kicks off my daughter goes to investigate and Im terrified she will get caught in the crossfire. I feel guilty that my daughter has suddenly lost her play space. Did I make a mistake?

    • Lisa,
      I don’t know much about this breed of dog. Have you employed a dog trainer who uses positive methods? You may need some in person help. Have you contacted the breeder of the dog? Sometimes they have very specific suggestions for the breed and their lines. I will see if the author of this guest post is available to make a few comments for you.
      Hang in there,
      Carrie

  21. I am really happy to have found this, we have a husky/alsatian puppy who is lovely but does well not so much nibble my kids more their jumpers or zips or their jumpers so will definitely be giving this a go thanks for this fab article!

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