Out of all the things we teach our Golden Retrievers through all stages of their lives, none is more important than teaching your Golden Retriever puppy to bite softly. Managing biting in a puppy cannot be overemphasized in importance.
Puppies have a window early in their lives where they can learn what is appropriate for biting. They should know this long before the jaw develops the strength to do damage as an adult. All owners need to be proactive early on to ensure their Golden Retriever puppies learn to bite softly.
Golden Retriever puppies must learn to decrease bite force and frequency by no later than 18 weeks of age and should no longer make skin contact by six months. Puppy biting should be progressively eliminated using a two-stage training process that decreases biting force and frequency.
How essential is bite inhibition to learn for your Golden Retriever puppy? According to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, bad behavior is responsible for more deaths than infectious diseases for dogs under three years of age. As well, behavioral problems are the number one reason dogs are relinquished to shelter.
While biting is not the only behavioral problem, it is the most severe and the most likely reason for a dog to be put down.
Before addressing how to teach your Golden Retriever puppy to inhibit the force and frequency of its bite, we’ll address a few commonly asked questions about puppy biting.
Do All Golden Retriever Puppies Bite?
So, just like going potty, eating, and sleeping is normal for puppies (and us), biting is a normal and natural part of all puppy behavior, including Golden Retriever puppies.
Why Do Golden Retriever Puppies Bite So Much?
Puppies are not unlike toddlers, who often bite, chew, or put things in their mouths to gather information about the world or help with teething. The main difference is that human children have hands which whereas puppies do not Puppies have teeth.
Golden Retriever puppies bite frequently because it’s part of their normal developmental behavior. Puppies bite to initiate and engage in play, to get feedback about their environment, to receive feedback on bite pressure, and because they are teething.
So, ultimately the only way a puppy can engage the world – be it for play or learning – is through its mouth, and for developing puppies, that means a lot of biting. Mother nature put it there for a reason. So, the key is to work with the behavior instead of stopping something as natural to a puppy as eating, sleeping, and going potty.
At What Age Do Golden Retriever Puppies Start Biting?
The first opportunity that most Golden Retriever owners have with their puppy consistently is at eight weeks. At eight weeks, owners are quick to realize that puppies at this age like to play, and play biting is a normal part of that play.
But play biting among puppies starts much earlier than that.
Golden Retriever puppies start play biting between weeks five to eight. During this period, puppies begin to learn critical socialization skills, including bite inhibition. Play biting with its mother and littermates provides the puppy its first opportunity to learn appropriate levels of bite pressure.
A Golden Retriever puppy should not be removed from the litter before eight weeks of age. Doing so compromise the early stages of bite inhibition training and socialization that your puppy requires.
Should I Stop My Golden Retriever Puppy From Biting?
Quite often, homeowners punish a puppy for play biting. After all, their sharp puppy piranha teeth hurt human skin, and an exuberant puppy has not yet learned what is appropriate. However, punishing the puppy for play biting is a mistake.
Do NOT stop your Golden Retriever puppy from biting. Biting is normal and natural for puppies. When puppy biting stops, so does the opportunity for bite inhibition training. The more your Golden Retriever puppy play bites and receives appropriate feedback, the safer its jaws will be in adulthood.
Consider an adult dog that has not been taught bite inhibition as a puppy. It seems friendly and has never bitten anyone. However, when this friendly dog is threatened, startled, or injured (like when a child accidentally steps on its tail), it may react by biting and without the necessary skill to control its bite pressure.
A well-socialized dog with good bite inhibition often does not bite at all when startled, threatened, or injured, and even if the teeth do make skin contact, it does not break the skin.
In his book “After You Get Your Puppy,” animal behaviorist, veterinarian, and legendary dog trainer Dr. Ian Dunbar says punishing a puppy to stop biting is a big mistake. With no opportunities to play-bite, the puppy never learns how to inhibit bite force or frequency.
“All is fine until someone accidentally treads on the dog’s foot or shuts the car door on his tail, whereupon the dog bites and the bite punctures the skin because there has been insufficient bite inhibition”, says Dr. Dunbar.
Let your puppy play-bite but teach it what is acceptable so it can develop a soft mouth and gentle pressure.
This bite inhibition behavior taught early then becomes ingrained as a puppy and well before adolescence, when the dog has developed significant and powerful jaw pressure.
What Is Acquired Bite Inhibition?
Dogs don’t have hands. They have teeth. They pick things up with their teeth, play with their teeth, explore their worlds with their teeth, and defend themselves with their teeth.
Our responsibility as dog owners is to teach our puppies that humans are not dogs and we are sensitive and fragile beings. Dogs learn to moderate bite pressure and frequency through acquired bite inhibition or ABI.
Acquired Bite inhibition (ABI) is a dog’s ability to inhibit its jaw pressure and use its mouth softly with people and animals. Puppies must be taught to decrease bite force and frequency towards people, dogs, and other animals.
If a dog is threatened, scared, or in pain, a dog can often bite. However, doing so doesn’t make it a bad dog. Every dog can bite, and it’s just a normal part of being a dog.
When we teach bite inhibition to our puppies, it grows up to be an adult dog that is much better equipped to moderate its bite force even when it feels necessary to bite, like getting stepped on or closing a door in its tail.
Timing is critical in teaching ABI, as discussed in the next section, and you must teach it during early puppyhood. I cannot emphasize this enough.
In fact, bite inhibition training is so important, says Dr. Ian Dunbar, that “teaching bite inhibition is the most important part of your puppy’s entire education.”
Dr. Dunbar further notes that bite inhibition does not mean a dog will never bite. Instead, it means that bite inhibition just decreases the likelihood that a teeth-on-skin bite will occur. If one does happen to occur, it will cause no, or very little, damage.
Hold up. If you’re interested in what constitutes a reactive, aggressive, and dangerous dog (spoiler alert: they’re not the same thing), and when biting is a concern, then take a few minutes to check out this article: Dangerous Dogs: Are Golden Retrievers One of Them?
How Do I Teach a Golden Retriever Puppy Bite Inhibition?
There are two stages of bite inhibition training: force and frequency.
A Golden Retriever puppy needs to be trained to decrease the force and frequency of bites in two stages and four steps. First, the puppy must learn to bite softly and then with no pressure (force). Next, a puppy must learn to stop biting upon cue and finally to never touch human skin with teeth (frequency).
The window for the puppy to learn ABI is within the first 4.5 months. The ability to control its bite becomes locked in during this window provided bite inhibition is taught. Beyond that window, nothing can be done.
ABI must be locked in within the first 18 weeks, or the window for ABI closes permanently. In contrast, frequency has no such window.
Therefore, decreased frequency can be taught anytime; however, it is advisable to reduce frequency by six months before an adolescent Golden Retriever has fully developed its jaw strength and all or most of its permanent teeth.
Stage 1: Decrease Force
As a first step, you should always consider hand-feeding some of food at mealtimes to your puppy. Hand feeding helps your puppy get used to human hands around food, and it begins to associate your hands with good things…food!
When you’re puppy bites too hard, let out a high-pitched squeal or howl. Keep your hand in the puppy’s mouth – do not pull it out.
You want the puppy to release the pressure, and pulling it out removes that opportunity. It hurts, so be prepared. Your squeal and howl may actually be real.
The vast majority of puppies will stop biting if you let out a high-pitched squeal or howl. When your puppy releases pressure, praise the puppy and restart the play session. Continue playing and repeating the process of squeal, praise, and reward for pressure release, and so forth.
The puppy will catch on after a while, learning that you’re sensitive and that it must ease off on the bite pressure.
You may encounter an overstimulated puppy or tired puppy in some circumstances, and they will not stop biting. In contrast, they will escalate the biting. As a result, the puppy may have a look and act like a demon dog from hell.
You may find that is escalation occurs at specific times of the day. Most notably, the puppy witching hour, which is usually in the early evening.
STOP PLAYING if your puppy does not want to stop biting.
Remove all attention by leaving the room. Go to another room and do not let your puppy in, even if it follows. You are teaching it that play of this magnitude is inappropriate, and the consequence is you will leave and not play. In other rewards, play is a reward, and it’s been removed.
Wait a few minutes, return and call your puppy over; ask for sit if it knows it. When your puppy seems calm, you can try playing again. If the puppy escalates, repeat the process or end the game until some other time.
As a quick side note, you should be playing with your puppy in a confinement area, so it cannot follow when you leave. Puppies should not have free access to the house, and a playpen or a gated-off room works well.
In this way, you can leave, and your puppy is confined to its designated area, where it cannot follow.
Why do we leave the room instead of removing the puppy instead? Because physically restraining the puppy and then forcibly removing it when the dog is already in a state of escalation is not ideal, nor is it quick enough.
In other words, it makes things worse. It easy to lose your temper when your puppy behaves like an out-of-control hyena and is not listening. But, trust me, you will feel guilt as heck afterward if you allow the situation to escalate.
It is much more effective to put yourself in a timeout, so to speak. It teaches your puppy that the reward of play (you) is removed when it is misbehaving, and it also gives both of you a few minutes to cool down.
No Bite Pressure
After some time, your puppy will bite less hard or even softly. However, the goal is to decrease the bite pressure to no more than the puppy “mouthing” or “gumming” you. Some will almost suckle your hand. That’s all fine.
You will continue to follow the process but each time reducing the limit of what you find as sensitive. You want your puppy to think that humans are just so sensitive and fragile and can’t handle anything.
Move at a slow pace. With each successive bite, even if it is a very soft bite, squeal or howl. When the puppy reduces pressure, then praise. Continue the “squeal, praise, repeat” process until the puppy begins to mouth or gum your hand instead of bite.
Once the puppy is gumming or mouthing, you have reached the “no pressure” stage, and it’s time to move on to reducing the frequency.
Keep in mind that it may take some time to reach the no-pressure stage. Be patient but consistent. Don’t stop training. Never punish the puppy for biting. Never.
Stage 2: Decrease Frequency
Stop Biting on Cue
Next, we need to focus on decreasing frequency of biting.
Using a food lure works well for this exercise.
Start the session by saying a phrase such as “okay, let’s play.” Then, while the pup is mouthing you, say “stop biting” (or whatever term you want) and distract the puppy with a piece of food. Once the pup lets go, reward the pup with ample praise for stoping when asked.
If the pup doesn’t let go of your hand, then yelp and squeal “ouch,” and leave the room for a few minutes and close the door in the pups face.
Allow a few minutes for the pup to cool down, return, ask for a sit and begin again. However, you may need to stop the game for another timeout if your puppy doesn’t want to stop mouthing on repeated occasions.
With consistent repetitions your puppy should quickly learn to let go of your hand when asked.
When you want the play/training session to stop, you say “plays over” and give the puppy a chew toy—a chew bone or Kong toy with kibble inside are great chewing distractions for a puppy.
Watch Ian Stone teaching puppy bite inhibition in the video below.
Ian explains the importance of teaching bite inhibition and demonstrates bite inhibition training firsthand through all stages. Probably the best video on bite inhibition you’ll find.
No Mouth on Skin
At 5 months of age, your puppy should no longer be biting with pressure, and it should stop immediately when asked to do so, including no longer making contact with skin or clothing unless invited.
If your puppy has progressed through the previous three steps, it should be well equipped to bite with no pressure and stop when asked.
However, all puppies must continue to practice bite inhibition regularly throughout the rest of their lives.
According to Dr. Dunbar, bite inhibition worsens as a dog ages. And, the best way to ensure this does not happen is to hand-feed your dog and brush its teeth regularly.
I would also suggest you teach your puppy skills such as “let go,” “leave it,” and “take it.” These skills can be taught during tug-of-war and fetch games and reinforce impulse control behavior and cue-directed play sessions.
Your dog should also have regular access to playtime and socialization with other dogs and animals.
How Do I Teach My Golden Retriever Puppy Bite Inhibition With Other Dogs?
The good news is puppies teach each other bite inhibition when playing with each other.
Teaching your Golden Retriever puppy bite inhibition with other dogs requires that it be socialized with other puppies as early as possible. Puppies teach each other bite inhibition when playfighting. Once your puppy is vaccinated, enroll it in puppy classes, take it for walks, and to the dog park daily.
The bad news is until such time that your puppy is fully vaccinated, bite inhibition training must not be put on hold. That responsibility falls upon you. Most puppies are not fully vaccinated until 12 to 16 weeks of age, so you must begin teaching bite inhibition immediately when you bring the puppy home at eight weeks of age.
So, once your puppy is fully vaccinated then it’s time to play catch-up on socialization with other puppies and dogs.
Don’t stop your Golden Retriever puppy from biting, and focus on decreasing the force and frequency of biting before 4.5 to 5 months of age. The more your puppy bites, the more practice you have to teach it to bite softly.
Be consistent and make bite inhibition training the focus of your training in the first few months. Puppies love to bite while playing, so you should get ample opportunities to work on this. Just follow the steps above, and you’ll be fine.