Teaching a Puppy Not to Bite

Understandably, the number one concern of puppy owners is what to do about puppy mouthy-ness since canine aggression is every owner’s number one fear. However, DO NOT TEACH YOUR PUPPY NOT TO BITE. RUN, don’t walk from such advice. Do not fall into this trap and have this fear become a self-fulfilling prophecy.


First of all, nine out of ten dogs, no matter how they are raised and trained (outside of outright abuse), will grow up and not be biters. And then on the other hand, one out of ten will grow up to bite because their nature has not been honored, and so they therefore do not trust human beings. They become aggressive either because of how they were raised and/or trained, or even more likely, because they have been overly stimulated during their formative months.

I have raised a number of German shepherds imported from Germany that over many generations were selectively bred to be police and sheep herding dogs by the most accomplished breeders in the world. They were prized for being biting machines because this fundamental impulse in the right hands can be channeled into any number of working expressions. Yet, despite raising puppies of such prodigious emotional horsepower, I’ve never had to teach a single one of my puppies not to bite, not to jump, not to counter surf and so on – because I’ve raised them “naturally”. I have raised them gently, lovingly, calmly, but more importantly, slowly. For the first year of their life I did not over-stimulate them by putting them in unnatural settings and then demanding they behave a certain way. Just like I didn’t put my children in a candy store and demand they honor the food pyramid.

For example, I did not come home and greet my dog upon my return. Dogs don’t have a sense of time, therefore they do not need to acknowledge the comings and goings of other beings. One moment you’re here, and then another moment you’re here again. No big deal – unless we have a need to make it one. When I came home I immediately let my puppy outside as indeed my arrival had excited him, and then only after he’s taken in his surroundings and calmed himself naturally by virtue of being in the emotionally conductive setting of the outdoors, do I pet and coo to him in a soothing tone. He doesn’t get excited and so he doesn’t jump on me or bite my fingers or pant legs because he was given a chance to get it out of his system naturally and without causing me any annoyance or pain. He looked around the yard and found a stick or leaf to make prey on. I allowed him the time and space to learn how to calm himself. I didn’t allow my arrival to knock him out of his nature.

In the same vein, when my children came home from school and of course were all excited to see our new puppy (that is still in its crate and beginning to whine in frustration), I asked them to change their clothes, get something to eat if they’re hungry, use the bathroom and only when we’re all ready to go outside, do I open the crate so that the puppy immediately shoots out the back door. Then we all catch up and proceed to the wide open space of the backyard. There, we stand around quietly as the pup again naturally calms himself. The puppy doesn’t jump up or grab at their clothes because when he feels like moving, he has plenty of space to do so and if he feels like biting something, there are plenty of sticks and leaves to choose from. I taught my children to move slowly and not make any kind of fuss until the puppy was settled down, at which point he can be touched, petted and lavished with love and in such a setting he won’t get himself twisted into an emotional knot of frustration.

Because he has calmed himself naturally he can actually feel the children’s touch as something pleasurable, and he innately disciplines himself to be still so that he can induce them to keep on petting and maximizing his pleasure. As he matures over the coming months, it becomes easy for him to run alongside the kids as they play and he has no temptation to do any of the things my clients are constantly hiring me to help them solve. It is because even under this level of excitement, the puppy can still feel the kids. If the puppy gets too rowdy, since that doesn’t feel good to my kids, it doesn’t feel good for him either as well.

Why would I allow my children or their friends to run around screaming in the presence of a puppy? I wouldn’t allow them to tease a cat, to run around in a paddock or through a stable of horses or around cows in a field. Why can’t children learn to honor the nature of a puppy just as we insist they learn to honor the nature of all other animals?

With these practical points in mind, let’s talk about biting from a wider perspective. Puppies use their teeth and jaws to explore and apprehend the world around them, just as children use their fingers and hands to explore their surroundings. Furthermore, dogs are the most social animal on earth. They do not have to be taught to be social any more than children have to be taught how to imagine. The entire scope of a dog’s social development is a function of learning how, when, where, why and what to bite and dogs don’t learn any of these lessons by learning not to bite. Dogs don’t learn to be social as a function of learning what not to bite. I never taught my children not to rob banks or not to hit people over the head and take their money when they are broke. They learned naturally that money is something to be earned or politely asked for, and that’s the only way they expect to get the money they want.

In the dog’s mind, the use of its mouth is synonymous with wanting something. Even when they don’t actually grab something in their jaws, they nonetheless feel the energetic essence of whatever they’re attracted to just as if it’s in their jaws. (As in: “I want it so bad I can taste it.”) Therefore, whenever a puppy gets excited for whatever reason, like kids coming home from school or the owner coming through the door, it’s instinctual computer commands “BITE something”. This is how every behavioral system and neurological circuit is constructed in their body and brain. Whatever else may happen to the dog after the fact (such as an owner’s correction) doesn’t register on the deepest plane of canine consciousness. What matters most to a puppy is that it “heard” an internally generated command to bite whatever it was that got it all excited. This command is millions of years old and there is no human reason that can neutralize it, such as “I am your pack leader”—“You are a bad dog” and so on. However, what allows a dog to resist an instinctual impulse to bite, and fortunately is an even stronger energy that arises from an even deeper aspect of its nature, is a feeling. So if a dog is raised and trained in regards to what and how it feels, then it will be able to go by feel in a critical moment rather than by instinct. The number one mistake puppy owners are making is overly stimulating their puppy, usually by showering it with attention as a measure of their love, and then when they don’t like the instincts this triggers, they then set out to teach it how to be social by correcting these instincts. This short circuit then becomes the basis of how the personality of the puppy then develops. Nine out of ten times it won’t become an aggressive behavior, but you can clearly see it via “that look in its eye”.

Remember, a dog is not a person. Dogs are creatures of the immediate moment. They have no idea that you’ve been away all day and are now coming home from a long time at work. They have no idea that you are a person that needs to be acknowledged. We as people project this need onto them. Dogs don’t need to be acknowledged. Dogs just are. Now you are here and now here you are again, as always. That’s it. The calmer they feel as you come and go, the more they feel connected to you.

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Published June 1, 2009 by Kevin Behan

55 responses to “Teaching a Puppy Not to Bite”

  1. Ariel Goettinger says:

    Our pup is 4 months old and we just got him about 12 days ago. All of your advice suggests taking the pup for long quiet walks in the woods. What if the pup shows signs of being afraid outside of the backyard – i.e. hackles raised, skittish behavior, as well as a hyper interest in what’s “out there” – as if to find the danger or the negative….. vs. a curious/innocent interest? So far i’ve just been allowing him time to enjoy the backyard with us and attempting very short outings beyond the boundaries of the backyard, bringing a bite toy or food to see if his pipe is open (it has not been until yesterday). He seems to be developing more confidence with this slow approach. When his hackles go up, i turn back towards the house and they seem to go down. The other day he took the bite toy and ran all the way home with it in his mouth (only about 100 yards from the house). Is slow exposure to the outer world (even the outer world of nature) the way to go with him, rather than forcing the long quiet walks which he seems to be afraid of? OR……might he get over his fear if we could just get into the woods a little ways and he could start to acclimate and relax? My sense is to keep going slow and not push beyond his limits – even though a nice quiet walk sounds great to me…..

  2. Hi Ariel, Your sense is right, why ‘force’ him – that just may create MORE stress. Since you got your pup at nearly 4 months, you also do not really know what happened to him before that. Unless he was raised honoring his true nature as in Kevin’s method, it is quite possible he was already somewhat shut down when you got him.

    If it were me, I would just go slow – hang out with him where he is comfortable and not try to do too much of anything; let him lead the way. A little food, maybe sitting or lying down and letting him climb over you, strolling about the yard…crated in the house so you don’t have to frighten him into behaving. If he enjoys the bite toy, let him steal it from you and carry it around. It’s nice he carried it back to the house. As his temperament develops, he will be ready for more. You said it yourself – ‘he seems to be developing more confidence with this slow approach.’

    Not to worry about the fear of going into the woods; one thing I’ve learned from Kevin is that a really strong dog can exhibit such behavior and it is actually showing his strength – which over time can mature into a calm and watchful protectiveness. Good to also think seriously about not neutering if you still have that option.

    I’ve raised 2 high-drive dogs from puppyhood with Kevin as my teacher (since 1998) and most happy with how they turned out.

  3. Tim says:


    my name is Tim, we’ve got a 9 week old pit mastiff mix, given the size we’re very concerned about aggression, and I like your take on channelling the dogs natural energy. I’m curious however if this implies not playing with your dog, or if maybe it’s by degree? Fetch seems like an obviously good outlet though that usually demand that I be a little bit exciting, and tug of war even more so, and rough housing even more. But, I woul think that rough housing would be natural enough, could rough housing be ok as long as the puppy has somewhere else the channel his biting if he gets too wound up? In that case it would seem like these approaches aren’t mutually incompatible, but that your dog needs natural ways to release natural biting if he gets too wound up, and when playing it is good to give him feedback about what bites are too hard so he learns appropriate biting as well. Actually, looking at it now it seems that that fits well with your approach, though I can see where it differentiates from dunbars. What do uou think? Sorry this turned into a musing.


  4. Kevin Behan says:

    only play with an object, no rough housing sans toy. no play indoors. long quiet walks in woods. just follow article and my book and you will be good

  5. Frankie says:

    I love this, Kevin! Thanks for all the helpful biting + nip tips. ?

    So recently I found this list of the top 5 commands (sit, stay, etc) and how best to teach them

    It seems all the research I’ve come across in Google suggests the key for training our pups is to keep patient, and keep things fun and lighthearted… which is some of what you seem to be saying here. Am I right?

    Anyway, after reading some of your posts, I trust your expert opinion and wonder if you have anything to add to/comment on in those 5 basic commands. Any feedback is appreciated.

    Thanks again.. You’re awesome!

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Books about Natural Dog Training by Kevin Behan

In Your Dog Is Your Mirror, dog trainer Kevin Behan proposes a radical new model for understanding canine behavior: a dog’s behavior and emotion, indeed its very cognition, are driven by our emotion. The dog doesn’t respond to what the owner thinks, says, or does; it responds to what the owner feels. And in this way, dogs can actually put people back in touch with their own emotions. Behan demonstrates that dogs and humans are connected more profoundly than has ever been imagined — by heart — and that this approach to dog cognition can help us understand many of dogs’ most inscrutable behaviors. This groundbreaking, provocative book opens the door to a whole new understanding between species, and perhaps a whole new understanding of ourselves.
  Natural Dog Training is about how dogs see the world and what this means in regards to training. The first part of this book presents a new theory for the social behavior of canines, featuring the drive to hunt, not the pack instincts, as seminal to canine behavior. The second part reinterprets how dogs actually learn. The third section presents exercises and handling techniques to put this theory into practice with a puppy. The final section sets forth a training program with a special emphasis on coming when called.
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