Ouch! Mouthy Puppies!

By Linda Daves Siekert, CVT – www.sinbaje.com


All puppies are "mouthy"; born without hands their mouths help them to play, explore and manipulate their world.  Mouthing should never be confused with biting; mouthing is a learning process while biting is a corrective measure having much more force behind it.  Unfortunately incorrect handling by an owner can turn a normal mouthy puppy into a potentially dangerous biting puppy.  


Puppies quite often nip and mouth while playing or in greeting.  One of the most frustrating problems owners have with young puppies is the playful mouthing and nipping of human hands, arms, legs and clothing. Unlike biting, this type of behavior isn’t intended to do harm but it can tear clothes and result in cuts and bruises on bare skin, particularly an older person’s skin.  If left uncontrolled, it will become worse due to the puppy’s incorrect belief that nipping is an acceptable way to greet and play with their humans.

When working with a mouthy puppy, always keep in mind that the puppy does not know how to act around humans; it is our job to teach them while not encouraging the very behavior we want to avoid though inappropriate games (tug-o-war) or responses (yelling, hitting). Many inexperienced dog owners will punish a puppy for mouthing. This is counterproductive, harmful to the puppy’s mental health, and will actually teach the puppy to use aggressive methods to solve problems. 


If you have a mouthy puppy, avoid putting your hands or face in or near your puppy's face to avoid unintentional contact with razor sharp teeth.  When interacting, do not make quick or vigorous movements, especially around his head or face; in fact all physical contact (petting) with mouthy pups should be controlled and delivered in super slow motion; especially if your pup is in a particularly jazzed up and nippy mood.  Slowing your movements down will help your pup to slow itself down and alleviate the excitement that precludes being mouthy.  If necessary, a timeout might be in order.


When a puppy is too mouthy, terminate all social interaction and ignore.  If your pup continues to grab or nip you or your clothes, cross your arms and look away from, even walk away (slowly) from him so he learns that nipping gets no response from you. By no response we mean do not speak, make eye contact, and most importantly, do not touch your dog to try and redirect it; all of these are social interactions and are rewarding to a certain degree for your pup.  If your puppy is worse when children are playing, try to keep him separated from the play or put him on leash to better control his behavior.  Never let children tease or excite puppies into nipping and mouthy play. 


If at any time your pup should grab your hand with his mouth, the absolute worst thing you can do is quickly pull your hand away.  Why?  Every interaction with your pup teaches him something and at every interaction he is storing information for future use.  The second he learns that grabbing at your hand makes your hand (at the time unintentionally) go away, he will store that for a time when he intentionally wants you, or your hand, to go away.  The difference being, when he intentionally wants you to go away, he will increase the force of how he grabs you.  Bingo! You no longer have a mouthy pup you have a biting pup. 


Instead, the second he grabs at your hand cease all movement but continue to keep your hand on your pup.  Continuing to move your hand could incite the pup to continue being mouthy; the goal is for the pup to come to the conclusion on his own that it is in his best interest to not grab.  If you cease movement, you cease being fun and he should cease being mouthy. When he releases your hand, reward with low-key verbal praise, or a toss of a favorite toy or better yet, yummy treats.  Do not reward with any kind of petting as it might encourage him to once again grab at your hand. 


If these strategies are not effective, the use of non-physical aversives might be necessary.  Water from a squirt bottle, loud sounds from a whistle, air horn or penny shaker (an empty soda can filled with a few pennies and sealed) are all effective aversives. Timing is crucial however; you must catch him at the very moment he nips, and the aversive of choice must be used consistently for it to work long term.  Don’t forget low-key praise or a favorite chew toy for when he correctly responds to the aversive and stops nipping.  Never forget the reward aspect (it has greater power than an aversive) and always reward calm, relaxed behavior any time it is displayed.


Remember, a puppy does not know what is right and wrong unless it is appropriately shown.  Never punish by hitting, slapping, kicking or any other physical means; this causes unnecessary fear, aggression and will only make the problem worse.


Dealing with puppies takes patience and consistency. Everyone in the household must deal with the puppy in the same way to effectively teach new behaviors. It is best that children do take an active role in shaping behavior but are not the primary teacher.  Taking the time to deal with these problems the minute they arise is easier than trying to correct a more habitual problem later in life.