The Scoop on Mouthing, Nipping, and Biting

As the saying goes, “dogs will be dogs.” Dogs being dogs sometimes includes mouthing, nipping and biting. Puppies naturally communicate with one another using their mouths, it stands to reason that they’d want to continue this behavior with their human “pack.” However, it’s nowhere near as much fun for humans and can easily escalate into a serious problem if it isn’t corrected early.

If a puppy is not taught from an early age that mouthing or nipping on skin or clothes is inappropriate, then she is likely to continue into adulthood. An adult dog’s nipping may still be just part of normal play, but if an adult dog gets overly excited the nipping can become harder and more difficult to stop. Nipping can cause significant damage to human skin and is especially dangerous around children. Some dogs are more orally fixated than others, but every dog should be given boundaries, especially when it comes to using their mouths around humans.

Some herding breeds such as Border Collies, Australian Shepherds and Shelties will sometimes nip at a person’s feet or heels, mimicking the livestock herding behavior they were originally bred for.  Children are most likely to be on the receiving end of such nipping, especially when they are running around or playing vigorously. You certainly don’t want to look into your backyard and see all the neighbor kids herded into a corner in your back yard by your sheltie or one of our scoopologist in need of protective leg guards to scoop your yard. 

So how can you tell the difference between whether your dog’s mouthing, nipping and biting is just normal behavior or representative of a deeper behavioral issue?

Mouthing

Taste and touch in and around the mouth are some of the first senses to develop in puppies. Exploratory gnawing or “mouthing” is an essential aspect of puppy development. When puppies are raised by their whelping mom, she teaches them about biting – what is “too hard” and what is “too much.” Since most of us adopt our pups without their mother having had a chance to teach them the rules about biting, it becomes our responsibility to help them learn what is acceptable and what is not. 

Nipping

Nipping is different from mouthing in that it involves a small, sudden bite—usually not hard enough to break the skin, but enough to puncture your clothing. While it can be annoying and sometimes painful, nipping is not an aggressive behavior and can usually be corrected. 

 

Biting

If your dog hasn’t learned to control her mouthing behavior by adulthood, nipping could escalate into biting—hard, painful bites that draw blood. Injuries from dog bites can sometimes require medical attention and cause scarring and disfigurement. Many states hold animal owners strictly liable if their pet attacks another person unless the attack was provoked. Often, if your dog is biting, you will likely need assistance from a dog trainer to curve the behavior.  It’s best to nip nipping in the bud before it becomes harmful biting. 

 

How Can I Teach My Dog To Stop Nipping?

According to sources such as the American Kennel Club , The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and Paternal Pet Care the following are suggested ways to teach your dog to stop nipping:

  • Teach your dog bite inhibition from an early age.
  • If your dog nips or mouths you during play or at any other time, withdraw attention immediately and walk out of the room, with no exceptions. Wait outside for a minute or two, come back in the room and resume play. If the nip happens again repeat the exercise until your dog realizes that nipping stops all interaction.
  • Yelling at or physically punishing your puppy, as strange as it sounds, is also a type of reward. It teaches them that biting gets some kind of response from you, which is known as positive punishment. This can also make them fearful of being handled. Instead, teach them that biting will get them nothing. Kathy Santo, dog trainer and columnist for AKC Family Dog, suggests turning around and tucking your hands into your armpits.
  • If your dog plays without nipping, let play continue.
  • If your dog nips, make a high-pitched yip or “ouch!” sound when he puts his teeth on you, then withdraw and ignore him for at least 15 seconds. This will teach him that he loses your attention when the teeth come out, and your attention is what he craves.
  • Give your dog plenty of indestructible chew toys to redirect her nipping onto something more appropriate.
  • Encourage non-contact games such as fetch or go find. You can play tug of war but make sure you do it with boundaries so that even when your dog is overly aroused, she listens and responds to you when you give her a cue or tell her to stop.
  • Avoid wrestling or rough housing with your dog as this can exacerbate mouthing behavior.
  • Teach your dog the ‘Leave It’ cue, which is good for impulse control.
  • If your dog is getting too excited give her a time out somewhere where there is no human interaction and she can settle before continuing interaction.
  • Some dog owners use a bitter spray to deter puppies from chewing and biting on objects.
  • If your dog is a relentless nipper of you or other family members try spraying some taste deterrent on you or your clothes. While this might not make you smell so nice for a while it will deter your dog’s desire to keep mouthing you.
  • Do not smack your dog on the nose for nipping or mouthing as this could make the behavior worse.
  • If your dog is tense when she nips at you or bares her teeth, this might be a sign that the behavior is less than friendly and is escalating into biting. Enlist the help of a dog trainer to help with this behavior before it gets out of control.
  • If your puppy is pouncing on your legs or feet as you walk, a common playful puppy behavior, consider holding a high-value treat next to your leg as you walk, to help the puppy learn to walk nicely alongside you. This same tactic is used when teaching a puppy to walk on a leash.
  • Gently put your puppy in their crate to give them a chance to calm down and prevent them from biting. Sometimes a biting puppy is really an over-tired puppy, and they need to be put in a quiet space or crate to take a nap. Other times, they may need a potty break, or may just be hungry or thirsty. It’s very important to make sure that they don’t learn to associate the crate with punishment, so be calm. Once the pup calms down, you can let them out.

Remember, mouthing, nipping, and biting are all common behaviors for dogs (dogs will be dogs, right?). Your job as your canine’s parent is to recognize the difference between normal play and aggression – this is key to raising a well-behaved, well-adjusted dog. If you begin bite inhibition at an early age, this goal will be achieved sooner rather than later. 

 

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