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As fun as it is to play games with our dogs, most people prefer not to be bitten by dogs while we’re playing. The trouble is, dogs like playing with their teeth. If you watch dogs or puppies play, it’s a lot of biting, snapping, clawing, and body-slamming. Just because dogs like playing this way doesn’t mean we have to put up with it, but it does mean we need to be understanding as we work on finding a play style that works for both us and our dogs.
In many cases, dogs that won’t stop biting hands are a mixture of excited, playful, and a bit frustrated. They want to play, they don’t know how to get a response, and they get mouthier and mouthier as they get frustrated. Human attempts to dissuade them by pulling our hands away, scolding the dog, or ignoring the dog can all be interpreted as more play or simply a reason to try harder.
As we try desperately to get the dog to stop biting our hands, we may cycle through these approaches: scolding, ignoring, and pushing the dog away in turn. We may try cuing them to sit or offering them a toy. All of this can contribute to confusion on the dog’s part. Pushing, scolding, and offering toys can all amp them up further, while ignoring them is downright frustrating for many dogs.
So what do we do?
We’ll use a two-pronged approach for teaching your dog to stop biting your hands. Our first job is to recognize the root of the problem: when does your dog do this? What are they trying to accomplish? Can we predict when this will happen?
Once we have an understanding of the root of the dog’s behavior, we can start to prevent it.
For example, your dog might start biting at your hands when they’re excited about a guest coming over or eager to go for a walk. In this case, we might scatter a big fistful of food on the ground at exciting times before the dog starts biting to encourage the dog to put their head down and eat until they’re calm. It would also be important to physically separate the dog using a baby gate to help the dog truly calm down before coming in contact with your hands.
Or perhaps your dog starts jumping and biting at your hands and clothes when you’re playing. In this case, perhaps it’s better to start playing with a toy in your hand and end playtime before your dog gets too amped up. Adding in the ready-set-down game may help as well.
A friend’s foster dog bites at her hands when it’s bedtime; I suggested a snuffle mat or treat scatter, potentially paired with a baby gate or tether, to keep the dog distracted and distanced during bedtime.
In either case, it’s important to understand what situations cause your dog to to bite at your hands and then attempt to head those situations off.
The steps above are the most important steps; prevention is the key to success! However, there will also be times where things get out of hand (so to speak) and your dog starts biting at your hands.
I generally recommend calmly removing yourself from the situation by putting a door or baby gate between you and the dog. The emphasis here is calmly.
We want your dog to learn that it is inevitable that attempts to bite at hands result in the hands being completely removed from his vicinity.
It’s helpful not to mix methods too much here; if one person in your household scolds and pushes the dog down, another tries a treat scatter, and you are removing yourself, it’s very unlikely that this problem will resolve because your dog can’t decipher a pattern of how to respond.
Kayla founded Journey Dog Training in 2013 to provide high-quality and affordable dog behavior advice. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant who’s worked with hundreds of private clients, thousands of shelter dogs, and dozens of working detection dogs. Kayla’s dog and cat behavior advice has been featured in NPR, the Chicago Tribune, and Pet MD. She’s an avid adventurer who is currently doing #vanlife on the Pan-American Highway with her two border collies and a cat. Aside from running Journey Dog Training, Kayla also runs the nonprofit K9 Conservationists, where she and the dogs work as conservation detection dog teams. You can get 1:1 advice with a Journey Dog Training team member here.