by Lisa Lafferty
...Dogs don't have hands, but
they do have a mouth full of teeth and they just
love to explore their world with those big white
choppers. Whether it's your hands, your
child's hair or clothing, or your heels as you walk
on by, this article will teach you how to show your
dog how to control himself when he wants to wildly
nip and play with you as if you are another dog...
All dogs play using their teeth, and this can be a large
concern to pet owners. Whether it be a very young puppy incessantly
chewing on hands or an older dog that grabs pant legs or shirt sleeves, it can
be an extremely annoying behavior to pet owners and the people who encounter
the dog. At worst, it can escalate into more severe issues that are much
harder to deal with. In any case, training is necessary and advisable for
any dog, no matter what the size or breed, so that he can learn to behave
One of the most common issues for new puppy owners is how
to handle their puppy’s needle-sharp teeth. Parents of small children feel the
greatest brunt of the problem. The children run around, the puppy gets excited,
and the next thing you know the puppy is hanging off the pants or hair of a
child that is screaming in pain. Although the puppy is not trying to hurt
anyone, its needle-sharp teeth easily break the skin. Many a puppy has been
re-homed or put down because it has put scratches or holes in a child’s face.
Adult owners of new puppies often feel frustrated because they cannot interact
with their new pet without having hands bitten and clothes torn. No matter what
they do, it always ends painfully, and they start to think the puppy is “bad” or
“doesn’t like them” and they might even wonder if the mouthing will lead to
serious biting when the dog grows up.
Older dogs who mouth a lot scare strangers who aren’t sure
if the dog is behaving aggressively. Also, dogs who mouth their owners a lot
are often confused about the leadership structure in the household (and think
they might have a shot at being the boss, which can lead to multiple serious
For these reasons, dog owners should know what mouthing is,
reasons why it needs to be thoughtfully and seriously managed, and how to teach a
dog appropriate use of its mouth among humans.
What is play-biting or mouthing?
All dogs play and interact using their jaws, teeth and
tongue. Called “mouthing” or “play-biting” (very different from aggressive
biting), it is their instinctual programming to play with their littermates and
other dogs by jaw-wrestling and inhibited biting. Most dogs attempt to play
with humans in this way as well, especially during puppyhood when the urge to
use their mouth is strongest.
Play-biting serves an important purpose in a dog’s life.
Because dogs use their mouths to interact with their world (unlike humans, who
usually use their hands) it is crucial that a dog keeps this sensory organ in
good shape with lots of exercise. Jaw-wrestling and inhibited biting are
important parts of a dog’s social behavior, and much rehearsal is necessary for
these social behaviors to become honed to the point where the dog can function
properly in doggie society. So, dogs mouth and play-bite throughout their lives
to learn how hard or soft they should bite, and to keep their mouths speedy and
Young puppies learn a great deal about how to appropriately
use their mouths from their mother and littermates from four weeks of age. The
mother dog will quickly and firmly discipline a puppy for mouthing too hard or
too much, and the littermates will also teach each other when things have gone
too far. People who don’t know any better often feel that because the puppies
are weaned (happens at around 4 weeks old) and because the mother is becoming
“mad” or “rough” with the puppies, that it’s time to send them on to their
homes. Nothing could be further from the truth. Puppies need that experience
in order to develop proper inhibition. Puppies that are taken away earlier than
7 weeks often mouth excessively and harder, and have more difficulty learning
appropriate use of their mouth. Because play-biting is part of the social
repertoire, dogs taken away too early can have more trouble than average when
interacting with other dogs.
Why does mouthing need to be managed?
Dogs have to live with people. For this reason it is
critical for dogs to learn appropriate use of their mouths with people. Because
dogs can bite with great force, even in play, it is crucial to get a management
plan and thoughtfully teach your dog what is appropriate, and what isn’t.
In particular, great care needs to be taken with dogs and
children, who present the ultimate in excitement for a canine. They move
quickly, they like to have fun, and best of all…they SQUEAK when bitten, better
than the best squeaky toy on the pet store shelf! A child’s natural reaction to
painful puppy teeth is to back or run away screaming shrilly. This stimulates
the puppy to higher excitement levels and harder, more intense mouthing. An
adult dog can badly bruise a child while innocently trying to play, and at the
extreme worst, become so stimulated that they see the child as prey (especially
when they hear that rabbit-like squeal and see the child running away).
Children like to “horse around” physically with dogs and
often actually encourage the mouthing (until it gets too hard, at which point
they “squeak”). This can lead to ripped clothing, bruises, broken skin.
In the worst case, it can lead the dog to believe that the child is similar in
status to a littermate or another dog that is lower in status. Dogs readily
discipline dogs that are lower in status. A dog that has been allowed to mouth
children can unintentionally learn that it’s OK to discipline a child for
wrongdoings such as bumping into them, disturbing the dog while it is resting,
trying to put the leash on and off, and for coming to close to anything the dog
The same is true when adults horse around with a dog and
allow mouthing. Dogs that are allowed to use their mouths on humans will
sometimes get the idea that they are equal to or higher in status, and certainly
will feel free to whip around and mouth during necessary handling or other times
when the dog disagrees with what’s going on. For instance, when dogs are lying
on the couch and the human tries to get them to move over, the dog that has been
extensively allowed to mouth might choose to snap or even bite (the same thing
he would do if a lesser-status dog made the brazen move of trying to push him
out of his comfy spot). Putting on or taking off the leash becomes a struggle
to stay out of the way of the dog’s teeth. Vet visits become a nightmare and
nail clipping virtually impossible.
The dog learns that sometimes when it bites, it can cause a
human to flinch, move away or stop. This is a very dangerous thing for a dog to
learn. Dogs do what works. If snapping or biting has worked for them in the
past, they will continue to try it in the future. For example, a dog that has
whipped around and snapped during leashing will certainly escalate to actual
biting in the future if the whipping around and snapping made the person even
slightly flinch (and it’s almost impossible NOT to flinch under those
behavior can no longer be called
“play-biting.” It is the real use of force and aggression to get their way, and
definitely stems from the dog thinking it is allowed to use its mouth on
Another reason for thoughtful management of play-biting is
how dogs act with people outside the immediate family home. If the dog
encounters a stranger and tries to play-bite it can easily be misconstrued as
aggression, which is dangerous to the dog. Often, dogs rip people’s clothing in
an attempt to play. It’s easy for a dog to bruise or break skin while playing.
All it takes is a person or two that claims the dog “bit” them to send the dog
on a one-way trip to the vet’s office.
For all of these reasons, it is inadvisable to allow your
puppy or dog to play with you using its mouth on your skin, clothing or hair.
When dogs play together, they usually play-bite and mouth.
Often there is a great deal of growling and “imitation” aggression which can
look and sound like true aggression—loud and scary! This is usually nothing to
be worried about—it’s practice for dog/dog social behavior, and you shouldn’t
interfere unless one of the dogs is much larger than the other, much more
physically fit (as in puppy/old dog situations) or much shyer. If you see
desperate attempts to get away, it’s a good time to break it up. If the tone of
the wrestling play begins to look more serious, it might be a good time for a
break to allow the excitement levels to die down a bit before continuing play.
Otherwise, play-biting between dogs is a nice way for the dogs to enjoy
themselves, and is really important for maintenance of social skills. Generally
it is not something to be concerned about and will not lead to dog/dog or
How is play-biting managed?
Fortunately, managing excessive mouthing is a simple
exercise that gives speedy results and is very easy for the dog to learn. Dogs
readily learn to distinguish between appropriate dog/dog play and appropriate
dog/person play. Whether it’s a new puppy, a new older dog, or a dog that is
already in your household, the methods for management are the same.
Prevention, Redirection, and Punishment.
Prevention of the mouthing is the first priority. Do not horse around with the
dog and encourage it to mouth. It is difficult for the dog to learn that
mouthing is only appropriate SOMETIMES. Consistency is the key. Also, be aware
that as the excitement level of play gets higher, the tendency to mouth goes up
exponentially. This means that if you are playing with your dog and he begins
to get really excited, he will probably mouth you. Predict this fact and try to
make a break in the play BEFORE the excitement levels go too high. In dog/child
interactions, parents should carefully observe the puppy and break up the play
before it gets out of hand.
Also be aware that as excitement
levels increase, playful mouthing can easily become very hard biting or true
aggression that is meant to do harm. Dogs that get to a really high level of
excitement lose bite control/inhibition and can actually “click over” into
aggressive mode. This is why it is particularly important to monitor excitement
levels in play, and try to keep things to a medium or lower level.
Remember that dogs learn to do
things by rehearsing the behavior over and over. If the dog needs to learn to
sit on command, the learning takes place by doing it again and again, and the
dog gets better and better at it. So if the dog is allowed to play-bite again
and again, he will definitely get better at it. The best way to teach a dog to
mouth/play-bite is to allow him to do it! Prevention of this kind of learning is
the first (and most crucial) step in managing this issue.
great way to play with your dog without encouraging mouthing is to use a toy or
bone. In this way you can physically play with a dog, allow them to use their
mouth, yet teach them that there is to be no contact with human skin, hair or
clothing. You can get the same fun down on the floor horsing around allowing
the pup to chew on a bone you are holding in your hand, a tug toy, or a stuffed
The human must control the game,
NOT the dog. Never start a game because the dog brought you the toy--keep fun
toys up off the floor, and get them out only when you want to interact with the
dog (you can of course leave some chewing items down). Then initiate the game
and have a great time! To end the game, simply take the dog’s collar, hold him
still, and let go of the toy. Wait for the dog to drop the toy, give a treat or
praise, and put the toy away.
If a dog begins to mouth you,
and you have a toy nearby, you can firmly say NO, then pick up the toy and
encourage play while praising. This shows the dog that teeth on skin or clothes
is a no-no but teeth on toy is fine.
Redirection allows the dog to
play in the way nature intended, without harmful side effects. The dog gets a
mentally and physically entertaining experience and you get to “horse around”
with your dog!
dog needs to understand in very clear terms what IS allowed, and positive
reinforcement should be used as much as possible, but at some point (especially
in the case of puppies, who mouth much more than adult dogs) punishment will be
What works best as punishment
for mouthing is simply to end the game. Have a baby gate or small room nearby
to where you normally interact with your dog, and as soon as his teeth touch
you, immediately stop and put him behind the baby gate or door for a time-out.
It must be done extremely quickly, the instant he touches you with his teeth.
Immediately drop eye contact, stop speaking to him, scoop him up or take him by
the collar and good-bye doggie for a time-out from humans. The whole thing
should be unemotional and FAST.
The play must be stopped and dog
in the time-out area within 10 seconds of the mouthing for this to work. In
addition, it might be a good idea to intentionally stimulate mouthing (get down
on the floor and horse around) over and over for 5-10 minutes so that you can
quickly show him that not mouthing=continued play and
mouthing=game over. Many repetitions in a short period of time is the
quickest way for a dog to learn. With new puppies, doing this twice or three
times a day will help them to understand more quickly.
You needn’t be harsh or physical
with your dog to teach him not to mouth—just consistent. TOOTH
CONTACT=TIME OUT. No exceptions!
Using this method also produces
a very beneficial side effect—it teaches the dog “who’s the boss” and reinforces
that humans are the leaders.
Another method is to allow the dog to mouth your hands, and time him out as
suggested above only when he bites too hard.
HARD tooth contact=TIME OUT.
The game is always initiated and ended by the human and not the dog.
It is theorized that this method
teaches the dog that humans are much more delicate than dogs. Certainly dogs
playfully bite one another much harder than our sensitive skin can tolerate.
Using this method, you might be able to get some “insurance” that the dog will
realize that bites to humans need to be more inhibited, so that if the dog ever
does bite fearfully (a possibility with any dog) hopefully the damage will not
be as great as it could be. This theory is of course impossible to prove, but
makes a lot of sense. Correct implementation of this method does not
produce the harmful side effects of un-managed mouthing.
However, this method presents
several challenges to its success and is not the best choice for dog trainers to
advise to clients, or for inexperienced people to attempt. It is difficult for
a person to accurately judge just how hard is “too hard” on a consistent basis.
Most dogs are interacting with more than just one person in the family, and if
Jimmy lets the dog mouth very hard before timing him out and Molly times him out
for just a little pressure, there is so much inconsistency that it's difficult
for the dog to learn.
This method requires extremely
good judgment and timing. Because most people are not experienced dog trainers,
good success is difficult for the average home. In capable hands and with utter
consistency, however, it is probably an ideal solution for managing mouthing.
I use this
method successfully with my own dogs, but do not recommend it to most pet homes
due to my experiences with a general lack of success in those situations.
Dog books and internet sites widely promote many different
methods for managing mouthing. Unfortunately, these methods don’t often work,
sometimes make the mouthing worse, or cause unwanted side effects such as fear
These include slapping the muzzle, squeezing the mouth shut, forcefully shoving
your hand down the dog’s throat, etc. Sometimes these methods work to stop the
mouthing, but usually produce unwanted side effects. A dog with a soft
temperament will usually stop mouthing, but has a good chance of becoming
fearful, anxious, distrustful of his owner, or even become so fearful that he
bites. With “harder” dogs, this method rarely works to stop the mouthing and
will usually actually cause the mouthing to get worse. With Labrador
Retrievers, for example, this method is FUN.
Pushy, physical dogs actually
take the physical contact as a “bring it on” signal and escalate the mouthing,
or may try to bite you to discipline you for daring to push THEM around!
and dogs often yelp when they are bitten too hard, causing the dog doing the
biting to cease momentarily. It is theorized that when the puppy bites,
imitating this yelping or yelling OUCH in a high-pitched voice will make him
stop. The yelping/OUCH method sometimes work, but only with pups of a shyer or
softer temperament. Bolder pups can take it as an exciting “squeak” and become
more excited which of course leads to more, harder mouthing. If you wish to try
this method, YELP loudly and sharply, and if the puppy stops mouthing, quietly
and slowly stroke the puppy’s head and verbally praise as soon as they stop.
Be aware that with any method you choose, puppies will be
much more persistent in their mouthing attempts than adult dogs and require far
more attention and consistency of handling in order to improve. Certain breeds
such as terriers and nearly all of the retriever breeds have extremely high
“oral fixations” and puppies from these breeds usually need careful management
for months before the concept is truly understood and accepted.
If your gut feeling is that the biting is coming from a
motivation other than play, you might be right and should seek professional help
for a solution. The problem will not go away on its own and action needs to be
taken to prevent further escalation
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