Puppy mouthing and nipping

muddy lily pup.jpg

Those little fangs are sharp!

It is a very normal behaviour for puppies, but one that is important to address, and quickly. 

Puppies teach each other how to have a soft bite by yelping when the teeth clench a little too painfully hard. Following this they will stop playing with their sibling and the biter will learn next time to not bite so hard in order to keep the game going.

When they start living with us, they need to learn the same thing. A popular treatment for teaching a soft bite from our puppy is to mimic this yelp through letting out a startling “OUCH” as soon as any mouthing occurs and immediately stopping any interaction with the pup. For many puppies this sound can excite them more and exacerbate the mouthing. Simply removing your attention and being completely still, letting them know as soon as teeth touch your skin interactions cease can be a lot more effective.

Once they have settled down and offered a more desirable behaviour such as backing off and sitting down, we can begin to interact with them again. Ensure these interactions are calm however, and use a toy to engage their mouth with instead of your hands being the moving object of interest for their teeth! We want to teach them that gentle interactions are continued, rough play with teeth stops immediately. Continuing to do this whenever teeth make contact with our skin will teach the pup that we are sensitive and delicate and therefore any contact with us with their mouth needs to be very gentle or all interaction will be removed. If your puppy continues to keep mouthing and biting at you, leaving the room so that they are separated from exactly what they want (interaction with you) will also teach them they will lose what they want if they continue to be rough. It also gives them time to settle down.

Another option is to pop your puppy into a play pen or behind a baby gate to settle down before interacting with them again. Before bringing them back out, go to pat your puppy and if they don’t mouth at you, immediately let them rejoin their family and reward them. If they mouth at you, walk off and ignore them. Sometimes our puppies are just too excited and often over-tired to be able to settle down without being physically separated from all the excitement going on around them.

Practice handling exercises: You can practice handling through patting them and if their teeth go to make contact with your hand, remove your hand and ignore them. If they don’t mouth at you, immediately reward them with a treat. Gradually increase the amount of touch between each treat until you can touch and pet them all over without any mouthing or biting. Look out for the areas your puppy is comfortable with you patting them and try to only pat there. Touching around the face and over the head will often incite more mouthing behaviours.

Use toys to play, not your hands. It is also important to not begin the habit of rough housing with our puppies using our hands. We don’t want our pups to think that our hands are toys. Whenever you play with your puppy, use a toy such as a tug rope that they can put in their mouths and not make contact with our hands. This is especially helpful for those puppies that like to tug on clothing and shoes as you walk. If this is your puppy, as soon as they make contact, yelp and stop moving. As soon as they back off bring out a tug toy from your pocket and play with them with the toy instead. There is an old myth still around today that playing tug with a dog will encourage ‘dominance’ from our dog. Rest assured that this is not the case at all, but instead it is an opportunity to give our dog an outlet for a natural and enjoyable behaviour with us.

Prevent teasing behaviours: Running around with slippers and dressing gowns on near your puppy will encourage them to want to run, chase and nip. Stand still like a tree if they do this, and redirect them onto a toy instead. Try to only move slower and more calm around the pup or put them in their safe spot when more high arousal activities will be happening in your home.

A tired and stimulated puppy is a calm puppy: Puppies that are frustrated and have lots of energy and more nippy. Ensure you’re taking your puppy out to do new activities daily. If you’re concerned about not having had their full vaccination schedule yet, take them for car rides or to friends homes. Let them have play dates with known dogs that are healthy and social in a safe clean environment. Take them out for coffee and pop them on your lap and they can meet new people. Do training and other activities in your back yard. You can go to a local vet to teach them the vet is a fun place instead. Lots of new experiences that are safe and positive will help satisfy your inquisitive puppies mind, it will also help make them sleepy. A sleepy puppy doesn’t bite 🙂

Crazy hour! There are times of the day where we know our puppies are just simply hyper and make some poor decisions. They’re just like sleepy kids that need some help to settle down. This tends to occur in the early evenings. If you  know there is a certain time of day that your puppy is a lot harder to live with, prepare yourself by setting up the environment to be safe for your puppy. You may decide to make up some Kong toys with their food in it and place them in a pen with it to keep them occupied. You are likely to find your pup will chew for a while and then go to sleep. If your pup is distressed by being separated when they’re in this state, try to stay close by on the other side of the boundary and comfort them while trying to get them to engage with the toy and settle down. Once they’re calmer you can move around and go about your normal routine.

Redirect them onto an appropriate activity!

Keeping our pups mouths engaged in desirable activities is critical. Our pups will be teething and wanting to explore the world. Using safe toys such as Kongs are a great way to do this. With a wide range of toys available, they can be stuffed with food treats to encourage them to use them instead. They are well worth the investment for any dog to keep stimulated and prevent destruction around the home too. You may also find your puppy is just as happy with a cardboard box or a toilet roll. They need their mouths occupied so find safe toys and other things for them to do this with and keep that mouth busy.

Make sure you never smack or hit your puppy for mouthing at your hands. This will only reinforce to your dog that hands are scary and cause pain and stress to them. The only thing our dogs have to protect themselves is their teeth, so if they see our hand as a weapon coming at them they will only want to bite at it even more.

We also want to make sure that we don’t create a negative and scary experience of humans being aggressive towards them. This will only risk developing fear and aggression issues towards humans in the future and risk damaging a positive relationship with our dogs.

Seek professional help…..

Make sure if you have significant mouthing issues causing injury that you seek advice from a qualified professional. Also if this behaviour is occurring in older dogs and there are any aggressive warnings from your dog in conjunction with the mouthing behaviour, contact a professional immediately.

Laura Mundy