When Puppy Play Goes Too Far
I took my dog to the dog park a few days ago, where he found a kindred spirit to play with. Apollo likes nothing more than to wrestle and "fight" with other dogs. Some dogs (and some owners) don’t appreciate his exuberance and strength, but when he finds a friend that does, it’s a thing of beauty. Goofy grins and exhausted dogs all around.
Apollo usually comes home covered with slobber, dirt, and occasionally sporting a few abrasions from when the play got a little too enthusiastic. He doesn’t seem to mind, and I don’t either, as long as his rough play remains focused on willing dogs and not towards people.
Thankfully, Apollo is able to differentiate how he can interact with other dogs and how he should play with people. He brings it down several notches when wrestling with my husband, who doesn’t mind getting rough and tumble with him; several notches more with me, since I prefer a more "dignified" play session; and he’s downright gentle with my five-year-old daughter. Apollo’s a gem, no doubt about it.
Some dogs, especially young puppies that are still learning the house rules, have difficulty making these types of distinctions, however. Of course, people will have different ideas about what is appropriate play and what crosses the line, but teaching a dog that it is unacceptable to put his teeth on human skin, no matter how gently, can prevent future conflicts with friends, neighbors, and strangers.
The best way to teach a dog that play biting is not going to be tolerated is to act like another dog would when mouthing gets too rough. When your dog puts his teeth on you, shriek as if you have been mortally wounded and immediately walk away and ignore him for a minute. If you have to close a door between the two of you to prevent interaction, do so.
After his "time out," engage him in some play that is unlikely to elicit a bite. Ball tossing is a good choice as long as your dog will drop the toy at your feet (offering a treat in exchange for the ball while saying "drop" is a good way to teach this).
If everyone in the house consistently reacts in this manner when "bitten," your dog will quickly modify his behavior. After all, dogs want to play with people because it is fun and brings them a lot of attention. Removing the reward for a behavior is the best ways to stop it.
Never hit, shake, pin, or hold a dog’s muzzle closed in response to play biting. Your dog will see any form of physical retaliation (short of abuse) as continued play and will treat it as an invitation to be even rougher.
Consistency is key. Dogs can easily learn that it is never okay to bite a person in play, but it takes an exceptional individual (like Apollo :)) to learn subtle differences between what is acceptable and what is not.
Dr. Jennifer Coates