Do you have a puppy teething that would rather use your arm than a bone as a chew toy? While it is normal for puppies to use their mouths when playing with each other, this behavior becomes a problem when it carries over into their interactions with us. You might think of mouthing as being a behavior exclusive to young puppies, but some overexcited mature dogs do it, too.
Many breeds are genetically inclined to use their mouths to do a job. Sporting breeds are the retrievers and the carriers of items. Working and the Herding breeds use their mouths to control the movements of humans or other animals. Terrier breeds are motion-activated and will chase anything they perceive as small rodents, including your feet. Understanding these tendencies in your own puppy, whether a mixed breed or purebred, can help in dealing with the problem of mouthing.
What is Mouthing?
“Mouthing is when a dog puts his teeth and mouth over a person’s skin while using little or no pressure from his jaw.” says dog trainer and expert Mikkel Becker on Vetstreet.com. “It’s not to be mistaken for aggressive biting, which is done out of fear or frustration.”
Mouthing is a natural behavior for dogs and an important part of the way they explore the world. While mouthing may not be an aggressive behavior, it can still sometimes be frustrating and your dog could unintentionally hurt or scare someone, or the behavior could escalate into a bite.
Certified pet behaviorist and author Amy Shojai suggests using a two-pronged approach to curbing your dog’s mouthing behavior, starting with teaching “bite inhibition.”
“Bite inhibition is a dog’s ability to control the force of nipping and mouthing,” according to Vetstreet.com. “A dog who hasn’t learned bite inhibition doesn’t recognize the sensitivity of human skin, so the dog nips and mouths too hard, even when playing.”
Puppies and young dogs typically learn bite inhibition during play with other dogs, according to author and dog expert Jennifer Bridell. When dogs play, they frequently use their mouths. If one dog bites too hard, the bite victim yelps and stops playing. This usually gives the biting dog pause. This is how dogs learn to control the force of their bites. Biting too hard means playtime stops, and no one wants that to happen. This is one of the most important lessons puppies carry into adulthood, especially concerning their relationship with people.
Amy Shojai recommends people use a similar approach when trying to teach their dog bite inhibition. The basic idea is to reward the desired behavior and redirect or ignore the unwanted behavior. This training will take patience and time, and the best results might come with working with a Certified Professional Dog Trainer or behaviorist.
Teaching Bite Inhibition
As a new puppy owner, it is necessary to establish what is and isn’t acceptable behavior from the very first day. Puppies benefit from expectations that are consistently enforced. When do puppies stop teething? It lasts from four to six months, so it is quite common then. If it has not gotten under control by the time the puppy enters adolescence at six months, not only will you have a less cooperative teenager to handle, but a larger, stronger jaw to deal with as well. It can become a way for your puppy to try to control you, allowing him to take that first step towards assuming a leadership role within your home.
Initially, a puppy will use his mouth to investigate his environment. Throughout the teething process, it gives a puppy relief to chew on all manner of items, soft and hard. Providing appropriate items for your puppy to focus his attentions on can sometimes be a simple way of solving a mouthing problem. Indestructible chew toys like large nylon bones or hard rubber KongsTM can provide a positive outlet for mouthing. Large rawhide bones and carrots can be placed in the freezer and given to a teething puppy. Braided fiber knotted tugs dipped in chicken broth or water and then frozen are also a good option.
People can use strategies similar to puppy play to teach their dogs bite inhibition:
- Allow your dog to mouth you during playtime.
- Continue playtime until he bites hard.
- When he bites hard, let out a puppy-style yelp, and then promptly stop “playing” by letting your hand go limp.
- This should cause your dog to pause. When he does, praise him enthusiastically and resume play as normal.
- Repeating this over and over should help him get the message. If it doesn’t, you can introduce brief time-outs by stopping play altogether and walking away after you yelp. After 20 seconds or so of calm behavior from your cutie, return to him and play with him again. This helps teach him that painful play is “bad,” and gentle play is “good.” Gentle play buys him more playtime, while painful play ends it. No fun there.
- Continue this sequence. You should notice your dog’s bites progressively getting gentler and gentler – until they have little to no pressure.
- After you’ve helped your dog learn to be gentle with his mouth, it’s time to teach him not to mouth people at all.
Teach Your Dog to Stop Mouthing
Discipline does not mean physical punishment, it means correcting an unwanted behavior and teaching a new, more desirable one. In this case, we want a puppy that understands by our reactions that his behavior is unacceptable. Since he may not look for as much guidance from you, the puppy needs to learn to accept you as a leader. The first step in letting a bossy puppy know you are in charge is to handle him in a variety of ways. Touching the paws and tail of a confident puppy often stimulates a mouthing response. Rather than forcing him to accept being handled, the goal is to increase his comfort level. Touch a toe and give a treat if he has not already mouthed you. If he does, use your “no mouth” or similar command and try again. Continue on until you are able to gently squeeze his paw in a non-threatening manner. This will help later with nail trimming as well.
The experts at Vetstreet.com recommend the following techniques for getting your dog to stop mouthing you and other people:
- Substitute a toy or chew bone when your dog mouths.
- When you stroke your dog, offer him tasty treats from your other hand to discourage mouthing you as you pet him.
- Encourage non-tactile games like tug-of-war instead of rough play, such as wrestling.
- Help your dog learn to manage his impulses through activities such as “Leave it” and “Sit.”
- If your dog likes to “ambush” your feet or ankles, stop moving as soon as he does this. Then, distract him with a toy. When he grabs the toy, continue moving.
- Provide your dog with regular playtime sessions alongside other well-behaved canines. This can tire him out and make him less interested in strenuous play (and therefore mouthing behaviors) with you.
As a prelude to good dental care, your puppy should also get used to fingers in his mouth. Begin by sliding your finger coated in tuna fish oil or one of the commercially prepared dog kinds of toothpaste, into the pouch created by his jowls on the side of his muzzle. Try to briefly massage his gums, praising all the while. If this presents no problem, slip back towards the molars, actually letting your finger run over the surface of the tooth. If, at this point, your puppy bites down too hard, use one of the corrections previously mentioned, again offering the back of your hand to lick.
With a puppy that is really being obnoxious, a more direct approach may be needed. For this method, your puppy should be wearing a well-fitted buckle collar. Should he begin to mouth you, slip your fingers under his collar just under the jaw on either side? Looking directly into his eyes, say “no mouth” or a similar command in a growly voice. Wait for him to look away or to put his ears back slightly as a sign of submission. Release him and walk away or briefly close him in another room for a few minutes as a “time out.” There is no need to shake or strike the puppy, he will get the message.
For the lunging, snapping puppy, you need to be aware of how you may be motivating him to mouth. Beware that movement inflames the behavior. Never encourage games involving your hands or feet as targets. Hold your leash so that it never dangles. Until you have started to retrain your puppy, it is a good idea to avoid wearing loose, flowing garments. It is natural to raise our arms when we feel physically threatened. Unfortunately with a lunging puppy, this may lure him closer to your face.
Instead of pulling your hand away when your puppy mouths you, push your hand a little further into the puppy’s mouth. This creates a bit of discomfort causing him to “spit” you out. You regain control of the situation by reversing his action. Once your hand has been released, praise. Spraying your hands and leash (cotton web preferably) with a commercially prepared, bitter-tasting spray can act as a deterrent. Diluted lemon juice can be used in a pinch.
If the above methods don’t work, you may need to become a “statue.” Instead of your puppy playing “tag, you’re it,” cross your arms across your chest, turn your back to your puppy, and become motionless. When you do not respond, your puppy gets no reward for his behavior. When done consistently, this should extinguish the “game.” This method also works for a puppy that tries to initiate games of “tug-o-war.” If the leash goes slack instead of pulling back, the fun goes out of it for the puppy.
If you are having a serious biting problem, especially with an older puppy, consult your veterinarian and consider bringing in a private trainer or behaviorist to help you solve the problem. To find a trainer, ask your veterinarian for a referral or call a local obedience club or humane society. Ask what methods they use and speak to former clients if possible. Contact The Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) at www.apdt.com for a list of trainers in your area. Rule out any trainer that advocates harsh corrections, as they can have a long-lasting negative effect on your relationship with your puppy. They could make matters worse. Guidance and consistency are key when training, even when those needle-sharp teeth are gnawing away at your patience. (ASPCA, Revised 2001)
It’s important to teach your dog to stop mouthing behavior for the safety and well-being of everyone in your life, animal or human. If you can’t seem to make any progress with the tips above, contact a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) who can help you make your dog’s mouthing issues a thing of the past.