Puppy Mouthing and BitingMost canine behaviour “problems” are naturally occurring dog behaviours that are not a problem for the dog – but they ARE a problem for the dog’s people. Mouthing and biting by puppies certainly fits into this description as puppies naturally use their mouths to explore, they also bite & chew to relieve teething, and use their mouths and their teeth during play and in self-defence. The first thing you need to do is determine the reason your pup is using its teeth. You should ask – When does the dog use its teeth on people? Who does the dog use its teeth on? What have we done about it so far? And lastly, is our behaviour somehow increasing the likelihood of the puppy’s behaviour (in other words – are we accidentally encouraging behaviour we don’t want)? It’s not that we want the puppy to NEVER learn how to use his teeth – what we want is that they only use them appropriately – so rather than teach them not to put their teeth on people, we want to teach them to take them off without having ever done damage.
You should know that mouthing is very rarely related to dominance or aggression in any way and is most often a play behaviour that has gotten out of control. Remember, puppies & dogs will do whatever works best and is easiest. Physically punishing a puppy for this normal and friendly behaviour can be detrimental to your relationship and to your puppy’s trust in you. You may have been told to smack the puppy under the jaw, hold their mouth shut, to shove your hand down their throat, or flick them in the nose with your fingers – while in some cases any of these may work if your timing is bad or you are too harsh (only your puppy knows how you are making them feel) you can injure your puppy or worse, cause your puppy to fear you. The good news is there are lots of good solutions which are more effective and which will teach your puppy that you are safe, even if you are not a chew toy!
ExploringPuppies less than 5 months of age frequently explore their environment with their mouths. They like to taste everything and carry things and it feels good to chew, so they do. This can include chewing on you!
- Redirecting – put into the puppy’s mouth an appropriate toy, such as a rope tug or a Kong – and only play with the puppy while they have something else in their mouth. If the puppy drops the toy and wants only to chew on you, you may need to give them a time out so they can calm down before the mouthing gets too rough. Hold the puppy close to you until they calm down and resume play, or put them in their own space for a short time.
- Freezing – when you are playing with your puppy, or walking through your home and your puppy is trying to play with you – you can effectively change the interaction by standing completely still or “freezing”. Pay no attention to what your puppy is doing while they are gently using their teeth on you, but completely freeze as soon as you feel those teeth. If they take their teeth off you, you resume play/interaction/walking immediately without having said a word (this is how an adult dog would teach your puppy to be careful) – if their play continues to escalate you can try the “OUCH” explained next or give your puppy a time-out. If you are effective at freezing – your puppy will learn that you becoming still predicts that you are going to stop play next and your freezes should get shorter and shorter – and your puppy’s mouth more and more careful.
- You may have heard that saying “OUCH!” in a loud sharp voice can be effective – it CAN be – as long as you do it well. When you are playing with your puppy and you feel teeth – the OUCH! needs to be very sharp and startling to the puppy – it should cause the puppy to immediately take their mouth off you and should be instantly followed by a smiling happy you, and resumption of gentler, appropriate play continuing. If the puppy wants only to chew on you, you may need to give them a time out so they can calm down before the mouthing gets too rough.
TeethingBetween the age of 4 and 6 months, puppies begin to lose their puppy teeth as their adult teeth begin to erupt through the gums. This can be uncomfortable for puppies, just as it is for human children going through the same stage. Remember that your puppy’s mouth is sore as they are stressed during this time – be gentle and teach them what to do while doing what you can to make this life stage more tolerable.
Your young dog may be mouthing because it is teething if:
- They are between the age of 4 and 12 months.
- Looking in their mouth reveals gaps where puppy teeth have fallen out.
- Looking at the gum line reveals bumps where adult teeth are growing in.
- You notice blood on their toys or playmates from where their teeth have fallen out.
- Redirecting – put into the puppy’s mouth an appropriate toy, such as a rope tug or a Kong – and only play with the puppy while they have something else in their mouth.
- Take a washcloth, wet it and twist it – or a well-soaked tug rope – and put it in the freezer. Bring it out for the puppy to chew on, as the cold can help generic Xanax XR soothe sore gums.
- Freeze good treats in your Kong toys so the puppy has something to chew on to relieve and soothe those sore gums. Frozen carrots and ice cubes may also be a good solution.
- Rub your puppy’s gums with your fingers when they are tired and relaxing as a part of your regular body handling routine.
Over-Excited PlayWhen dogs play with each other, they use their mouths to communicate and the play can appear to be quite rough! When dogs are puppies, they learn through mouth play to be careful about how they apply pressure with their mouth and teeth. Their needle-sharp teeth ensure that even slight pressure will cause the other puppy to yelp and “freeze” or leave and effectively end the play session.
Dogs at any age, but especially puppies, may use their mouths when they are playing with their human friends, or at other exciting times. Your dog may be mouthing because it is over excited if:
- The dog’s mouth makes contact during a play session.
- The dog’s mouth makes contact during a period of excitement, such as when the owner comes home or a new person comes to the house.
- You can feel the dogs teeth as they interact with you after doing something else that was stressful or exciting to them i.e. after playing in the backyard with your other dog, or after a long walk, or a trip to the vet, or when you catch them after a play session at puppy school!
- Teach your dog a few simple tricks, and ask them to do these for you to regain control after a highly exciting period or when your puppy lets you know they are over-excited. A dog that busy doing things for you will be less likely to resort to mouthing or nipping.
- Do not reward the mouthing behaviour by continuing the play session. Stop the play and remain still. Resume again as soon as your dog relaxes, slows down, offers a more appropriate behaviour to get your attention (i.e. picks up a toy) – or ask your dog to do something else for you as soon as they start to be calmer.
- Break up play sessions so that the level of excitement does not get too high. Play with the dog for a few seconds/minutes and then stop until the dog offers something else to get you to play (i.e. they sit) or, ask for a behaviour or trick. Resume play. Repeat. STOP before the dog starts to make bad choices by biting too hard. One of you is delicate and needs to help the other be careful with their “hands” – a mouth full of sharp white teeth.
Taking Treats RoughlyIt is not unusual for a dog that is taking a treat or reward to accidentally mouth your hand. The dog or puppy may be so eager that they forget their manners and grab for the treat. This tends to happen more when the dog is feeling stressed (tired, worried, or too excited to think).
- Deliver the treat with a flat hand. Instead of pinching the treat between fingers and thumb and offering the extended fingers to the dog, place the treat on the palm of your hand, or the flat surface of your fingers when they are kept together.
- If the dog normally takes the treats nicely, think about what may be causing the dog stress and try to remove the stressors, or move your dog further away. For example, if you are training and a group of children is playing near by and the dog begins to take the treats too hard, then you may want to move further away from the children, until the dog is again taking the treats nicely.
- If the dog lunges for the treats before you indicate that they may have it – you should keep your hand still, turning it slightly so you do not get hurt and the dog does not get the treat for his rude behaviour – ask the dog to perform a behaviour or trick, and then offer the treat slowly and calmly again.
- Never let go of a treat if you can feel your dog’s teeth. For dogs that are chronic treat snatchers and have “hard mouths” you should ask your dog trainer how to teach “leave it”.
Seeking AttentionAny behaviour can become attention-getting behaviour if dogs learn that they receive attention for engaging in it (even punishment can be a form of attention).
Your dog may be mouthing to get attention if:
- The dog’s opportunities for interaction with you and with other dogs are limited.
- The dog comes and begins to mouth only when you are ignoring them.
- The dog mouths or bites someone else when you ignore them (i.e. children).
- Try not to give your dog attention for the mouthing. Try the other ideas mentioned earlier or get up and leave every time the behaviour starts.
- Make sure your dog has sufficient exercise and time with you on a daily basis, so they don't have to resort to misbehaving in order to get social interaction. Dogs are social creatures after all, and for many dogs, we’re the only other lives they share theirs with.
- Teach the dog what to do so you can watch for behaviours that you do like and reward for those actions with your attention.