Nipping and Mouthing by Puppies

It is a completely normal behavior for puppies to mouth and nip people as they’re growing.  Puppies use their mouths to explore their environment and they are also teething! Like a baby, your pup’s gums get sore & irritated and she needs a variety of different types of surfaces/textures to satisfy the itching/soreness/burning of her teeth cutting through. As puppy parents, the goal is to help her through this stage of her life while also steering her away from some very bad habits!

Tips for When Your Pup Puts Her Mouth on You:

Always be armed with something – a rope toy or stuffed toy that you can offer her to chew on instead of you. If you anticipate her starting to mouth, use the toy to redirect her before she does it! If she does put her teeth on you, disappear for a second and when you return start your interaction with the toy so she has an appropriate item to mouth. You can also use the toy as a distraction and use your empty hand to pet her while she plays. This can satisfy her need to chew and get attention at the same time.

If your puppy starts to mouth you when you reach down to pet her, pull both hands away as you stand back up.  Take a step back if your puppy tries to jump at you or nip at your legs.  As soon your puppy has four paws on the floor and is not touching you, reach down again to pet. Repeat this process several times to teach the puppy that using her mouth makes the attention go away. 

If your puppy continues to nip at you after several repetitions of removing your hands and you can’t redirect her to a toy – quickly go into another room and shut the door. Just leave her behind you for a few seconds and then return. Or hop over the baby gate or out of the ex pen. The goal is for her to learn when her teeth touch you, you go away!

Things to Avoid!

If she’s nipping or mouthing to get attention the most important thing is that she does NOT get attention for it. Don’t squeal, yell, yelp, squirt her with water, force her mouth shut, stick your fingers down her throat, pinch her lip or any of the other things you might read about on the internet. These are the wrong thing to do and can cause serious behavioral consequences. Why?

  1. Because she might be frightened as a result – see Note at the end
  2. Because she might be over-aroused as a result and actually start to bite more
  3. Because she might take no notice whatsoever

You might get away with those methods and see a decrease in the behavior but the risk is high and there are many more effective, humane, and behaviorally-sound approaches.

How to keep your puppy from mouthing inappropriately:

At the specific times when you know she’s going to be at her worst, be prepared with stuffed Kong toys or other toys or keep her on a leash attached to her harness.

Use baby gates and ex-pens to create divisions between you & the puppy when needed. If you have young children, put a baby gate across the entrance to their play area if possible. You can put the puppy in an exercise pen with lots of toys and chews that she can mouth instead. You can also sit on the other side of the gate and put your fingers through the gate just far enough that she can touch them but not bite them. Reward her for touching your hand but not mouthing it. 

Teach her to “touch” –  this gives her the opportunity to be rewarded frequently for gently touching hands when she’s asked (or you can use a closed fist if she tends to go after your fingers while you’re trying to teach this).  – We’ll go over “touch” in class!

Having taught her “touch” (or “sit” or “down” or “fetch the ball” etc.) you can ask her to do a bunch of repetitions of a desired behavior – she can’t nip/mouth at the same time as gently nose targeting your hand. If she’s sitting, she’s not biting you – if you stay a little distance away of course! This way she gets rewarded for doing what she’s asked instead of being punished for the unwanted behavior.

If she gets something in her mouth that you don’t want her to have, trade her with a treat or some other toy. Once she’s shown she wants the treat or toy, toss it away from her so she has to leave the other item and you can retrieve it. If it’s in the house, you can also just quickly call her name and run in the opposite direction. Dogs are very curious and she’s more than likely to follow you and drop the other item because you’re not chasing her for it.

Get children to tuck their pant legs inside their socks and double knot shoelaces during this period!

Safe play for children and puppies (adults too!): Get a fleece-braided toy that is at least 6 feet long. Longer the better. Then the children can run around holding one end and if the puppy starts to head towards their hands, they just drop that end and run and grab the other end and start the game over again. Wears out puppies and children! 

The point of all this is to REWARD her for NOT biting and make sure she’s getting plenty of things to chew on that she needs. 

Remember – The recipe for aggression is “Fear Plus Frustration”. If you do things to your dog that frighten her she could become afraid of you AND very frustrated because she won’t understand why you are loving and fun one minute and frightening and intimidating the next. This makes for a potentially aggressive dog.