Nipping and Mouthing by Dogs

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Puppy biting toes
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Nipping and biting can be aggressive or non-aggressive, and it can be hard to tell the difference. However, dogs who nip and bite are usually just playing. But because they are playing in a way that hurts, it’s likely that these dogs haven’t yet learned bite inhibition. Teaching a dog that the behavior is annoying and painful and reinforcing impulse control can put an end it.

Overview

After housebreaking issues, nipping and mouthing are the behaviors new puppy owners most often complain about. Older dogs will often persist in this behavior as well. Though most nippy, mouthy dogs are engaging in a non-aggressive form of the behavior, some take a decidedly aggressive approach to nipping and mouthing.

Indeed, nipping and mouthing are natural, usually non-aggressive behaviors that dogs use to communicate during play and normal interaction with other pets and people. However, most people don’t appreciate nipping and mouthing by dogs, and adult dogs can inadvertently cause injury while nipping and mouthing. Therefore, these behaviors should be discouraged starting in puppyhood.

Symptoms and Identification

Everyone knows what nipping and biting looks like, but it can be difficult to tell the difference between nonaggressive and aggressive nipping and mouthing. Some dogs use their mouths out of fear or frustration, which can indicate a problem with aggression.

In most cases, playful dogs have a relaxed body and face. During play, a dog’s muzzle might look wrinkled, but the facial muscles shouldn’t look tense. Playful dogs have a pliant, relaxed body posture, and their tails may be held low and wagging. Playful nipping or mouthing is usually not painful.

However, an aggressive dog often has a stiff body, a wrinkled muzzle, erect ears, tense facial muscles, and possibly exposed teeth. Its tail may be held up high and wave stiffly in the air. Aggressive bites are usually quicker and more painful than playful nipping or mouthing.

Affected Breeds

All breeds of dogs may enjoy nipping and mouthing

Treatment

Puppies often chew on people’s hands and feet. This behavior may seem cute when a dog is small, but it’s not welcome when your dog is bigger and stronger. Therefore, it’s important to teach a dog not to nip or mouth early on. The goal is to teach your dog that people have very sensitive skin, so s/he must be very gentle.

Bite inhibition is a dog’s ability to control the force of nipping and mouthing. 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. Some behaviorists and trainers believe that dogs who have learned bite inhibition are less likely to bite hard and break the skin if they bite someone due to fear or pain.

Young dogs usually learn bite inhibition while playing with other dogs. When dogs play, they nip and mouth each other. Occasionally, a dog nips his or her playmate too hard, causing the victim to yelp and, usually, stop playing. The offender is often surprised by the yelp and also stops playing for a moment. Usually, the dogs soon begin playing again. Through this kind of interaction, dogs learn to control the force of their nipping and mouthing so they don’t hurt each other and play can continue uninterrupted.

Dogs can also learn bite inhibition from people: First, play with your dog, letting him or her nip and mouth your hands. When it becomes too hard, immediately make a high-pitched yelp as if you’re hurt and let your hands go limp. This should startle your dog, causing him or her to momentarily stop nipping and mouthing. If yelping has no effect, say, “No!” Praise your dog for stopping or for licking you and then resume play. If your dog nips or mouths you hard again, yelp and stop play again. Repeat this process no more than three times within 15 minutes.

If yelping alone doesn’t work, try adding a time-out. Time-outs are often effective for reducing nipping and mouthing in adolescent and adult dogs. When your dog nips or mouths too hard, yelp loudly and ignore your dog for 10 to 20 seconds; if he starts nipping or mouthing during this period, walk away for 10 to 20 seconds. If necessary, leave the room. After the time-out, encourage your dog to play with you again. It’s important to teach your dog that gentle play continues but painful play stops. As you continue to play, require your dog to become gentler: Yelp and stop play in response to increasingly softer nipping and mouthing until your dog uses little or no pressure with his or her mouth.

The next step is to teach your dog to stop nipping and mouthing altogether. Try one or more of the following:

  • Continue using the time-out procedure described above.
  • Give your dog a chew toy when he tries to nip or mouth you.
  • If your dog nips or mouths while being petted or scratched, feed your dog small treats from your free hand to accustom him to being touched without being able to nip or mouth.
  • Engage in non-contact forms of play, such as fetch, with your dog. Ideally, your dog will begin to look for a toy when he feels like mouthing.
  • Teach your dog impulse control by teaching commands such as “sit,” “wait,” and “leave it” or “off.” This can help you train your dog to resist nipping and mouthing.
  • Give your dog opportunities to play with other friendly, vaccinated dogs. This will reduce your dog’s need to play roughly with you.
  • Use a taste deterrent. Before you interact with your dog, spray the deterrent on areas of your body and clothing that your dog likes to mouth. If your dog mouths you, stop moving and wait for him to react to the bad taste of the deterrent. Praise your dog when he lets go of you.

If you use the deterrent for about two weeks, your dog will likely learn not to mouth you.

Seek help if needed! Owners of dogs who might be nipping, mouthing, or biting as an aggressive behavior would do well to consult a qualified professional, such as a veterinarian, a certified applied animal behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB), or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (DACVB). Many trainers are also equipped to handle these cases, but owners should ideally receive a recommendation from their veterinarians before proceeding.

Prevention

There are a few things you should not do.

  • Don’t wave your fingers or toes in your dog’s face or slap the sides of your dog’s face to entice your dog to play. Hands are not toys!
  • Don’t discourage a dog from playing. Play can build a strong bond between human and dog.
  • Avoid quickly pulling your hands or feet away from a dog when he mouths. Instead, let hands or feet go limp to discourage playful reactions to rapid movements.
  • Do not use physical punishment on a dog. Hitting a dog could cause him to become afraid or aggressive.

This article has been reviewed by a Veterinarian.

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