Dog Nipping Fingers

Q. My dog loves to nip at my fingers and toes. I know she’s just playing, but it can hurt, and the more I try and get her to stop the more she does it because she thinks it’s a game. I’ve tried keeping still, but that doesn’t deter her. What can I do to get her to stop?

A. Mouthing can be a normal doggy behavior. Many dogs use their mouths to explore their environment and interact with other dogs — and people. Although puppies are most likely to exhibit mouthy behavior, mouthing can continue into adulthood.  

Distinguish Play From Aggression

Start by determining if your dog is playing or being aggressive. If her body and face look rigid and tense, she’s growling or showing her teeth, the hair on her back is standing up or if the biting is fast and intense, her behavior may be motivated by aggression rather than play. Unfortunately, play and aggression can sometimes look very similar. If you have any doubt about your pooch’s behavior or if what you’re seeing is clearly an aggressive response, don’t hesitate to recruit help from a board-certified veterinary behaviorist or a certified professional dog trainer.

You should also rule out any medical problems, such as severe pain, especially in your dog’s mouth, which may be causing her to want to chew and/or bite more frequently than normal. Consult with your veterinarian about any possible health-related issues that may be causing the mouthing behavior and deal with those immediately.

Decrease Mouthy Behavior

Once you are sure that your dog’s health is good and her behavior is play related, you can begin taking steps to decrease the mouthing. Although your dog is out of puppyhood, it’s still possible to decrease the strength of her play biting, which can be taught by yelping and withdrawing attention from her each time she bites. If she stops biting when you yelp, give her praise. If she continues to bite, do not give her attention, and if necessary, leave the room. If you continue working with her in this manner, she should gradually decrease the strength of her bite until she applies no pressure at all with her mouth.

Though this process is more difficult to teach as an adult than as a puppy, it’s critical to teach her that teeth cause pain and that she needs to be careful with the pressure used when mouthing during play. Her bite strength should be practiced at decreasing levels until there is no pressure at all applied by her mouth. As an added bonus, this training may also decrease the amount of pressure your dog would use should she ever feel threatened enough to bite in a different context.

Narrow down the times your canine is most likely to use her mouthing behavior. Usually there are specific contexts where mouthing is most likely to occur. For example, the mouthing may occur during greetings when your dog is in a heightened state of arousal, or when you’re sitting on the couch and she’s trying to get your attention. Mouthing may also happen when your dog feels overstimulated during play. Isolating the time and place your pooch is most likely to mouth will help focus your training energies to times when your pet is most likely to exhibit this behavior and will allow you to find an alternative behavior to substitute for the biting.  

Provide a Replacement Activity

It’s important to find a replacement behavior that can be used at the times when your dog is most likely to nip at you. You are looking for an alternative behavior that your dog can be rewarded for performing in place of the mouthing. For instance, if your canine mouths when greeting, find another activity she can engage in, such as playing with a toy like the Chase-It, a stuffed animal on the end of a fishing pole-like handle, which can help direct her energy toward a more appropriate outlet. When choosing a game to use as a replacement activity, choose one with less contact to the skin, such as fetch or the Chase-It, rather than wrestling with your hands.

If your pooch is food oriented, have a station of treats by the door and give her attention and treats only when she’s sitting. If she’s likely to nip at toes when you are walking, practice heeling with a food reward to show her that walking calmly at your side reaps the biggest rewards. "Leave it" is a way to redirect your pet away from your fingers and toes if she starts to move toward them; she can then be redirected toward a chew or plush toy instead. If she mouths when you are sitting on the couch, give her an alternative activity to engage in, such as doing a down stay on a mat, playing a game of fetch with a stuffed toy or engaging with a frozen stuffed Kong.  

Discourage, But Reward

For persistently mouthy canines, you can use an anti-chew deterrent on your socks or other areas your pup is likely to chew on. The icky-tasting substance will further help to discourage mouthing. Just be sure to use a pet-friendly spray that will not harm your skin. Spray it on the areas of your body your pet is likely to mouth before you interact with her; don’t spray it during interactions. Most important, reward and lavish attention on your dog during the times when she’s not mouthing you so that she gets the attention she craves without the biting behavior. Provide ample outlets for her mouthing, such as toys and chews.  

If the mouthing gets more intense or there are any indications that the mouthing is related to aggression, immediately recruit help from a veterinary behaviorist or a certified professional dog trainer.