Nipping/Mouthy Behavior

Common Dog Behavior Problems – The Positive Solutions

Why Dogs Do This: Mouthing is NOT biting. Biting is an aggressive behavior prompted by fear or under-socialization. Mouthing is a normal play behavior in dogs – dogs use their mouths to explore the world likes humans use their hands. As dogs play and interact with other dogs and with humans, their excitement level increases, and they become more likely to engage in mouthy behavior as an element in their play. Dogs who get the opportunity to play with their littermates as puppies learn bite inhibition = how to adjust the strength of their mouthing so they don’t hurt their playmate. Humans, however, are much more sensitive to dog teeth than puppies or adult dogs, and must teach their dogs to adjust the strength, and then the frequency, of their mouthy behavior to prevent injury when playing with their dog.

How to Fix It: Remove the reward of playtime anytime your dog mouths. Begin playing gently with your dog, while he’s on a leash. The instant your dog puts his mouth on your body (skin, clothes, hair, shoes, ANYTHING), give a high-pitched and loud yelp like a hurt puppy does when his littermate mouths him painfully in play, and momentarily stop playing with your puppy. Once the dog removes his mouth from your body, resume the gentle play. If the dog mouths again, remove the dog from the play session for 30 seconds or a minute before trying again. With enough repetitions of this exercise, your dog will learn “my mouth on the human = end of the fun!” and the time between mouthing attempts will increase. When your dog can tolerate longer and longer sessions of gentle, low-intensity play without using his mouth at all, you can gradually increase the intensity of the play until he mouths, and repeat the play-mouth-end-play cycle. With time and patience, your dog will learn that using his mouth on humans ends all social interaction, and he WILL stop trying it.

What Your Dog Can Do Instead: You may find it helpful to redirect mouthing attempts to an appropriate chew toy, but your dog may find it difficult to differentiate the chew toy from your body. Also, since he’s playing with you, he may show no interest whatsoever in the toy and only attempt to chase your moving hand around – which is rewarding to him!

Training Tips:
DON’T use any other noise than a high-pitched yelp – it will be interpreted as barking, which is a play gesture that rewards mouthy behavior. Also, it’s never fun for a human to say “No!” and be ignored.

DON’T withdraw or run away from the dog’s mouth – this will reward your dog for mouthing by inciting him to chase you, probably with his already interested mouth!

DON’T be rough or angry with him when you remove him from the play session – to him, mouthing has always been an acceptable play behavior, and any negative feelings from you will increase his anxiety about you and will damage his bond with you.

Depending on your dog’s needs and personality, you may reach a threshold of play intensity where it is simply impossible for your dog to restrain himself from mouthing. If you hit a wall like this, it may be necessary to set your dog up for success and refrain from playing with him at that intensity.

More information from the ASPCA: Puppy Mouthing