Puppy mouthing is one of the most frequent causes of concern among new puppy owners. Lets take a look at what it is, why puppies engage in mouthing and what you can do to manage this behaviour with success.
The first thing you need to know is that mouthing is normal, almost every puppy will mouth. Mouthing usually occurs when puppies are happily excited, it usually targets hands and feet. Appropriate mouthing is gentle, the puppy will usually keep their mouth wide open with many low pressure bites. Mouthing should not be hard enough to break human skin, even with a puppy’s sharp teeth. Some breeds have a tendency to mouth more than others, such as Labradors, German Shorthaired Pointers and Retrievers will be ‘oral’ for their whole lives.
Mouthing serves many important functions for a puppy. Bite inhibition is learned through mouthing, when a puppy mouthes inappropriately play should always stop, this gives the puppy important feedback on how to control their mouth so that as the puppy grows he understands how hard is too hard, and even when frightened or startled a dog with excellent bite inhibition will not cause damage when he bites. Dogs explore with their mouths, they cannot use their paws as we use our hands they ‘feel’ things with their mouths. Mouthing can also be a learned behaviour, a dog who continues to mouth hard enough finds it gets him the attention he wants, dogs do what works so if inappropriate mouthing is rewarding for a puppy they will continue to engage in it.
There are a few strategies you can use to help manage your puppy’s mouthing and teach him important impulse control and bite inhibition. Here are some strategies to help manage mouthing.
- Give your puppy as much dog-dog time as possible. Allowing your puppy to physically interact with other dogs, usually older dogs are best, will provide your puppy with many positive learning opportunities. Another dog will give your puppy feedback if he bites too hard in the way of stopping play or chastising, other dogs do this better than humans could ever hope to do.
- Always, always interact with your puppy through a toy. If someone wants to play with your puppy hand them a toy so the focus becomes the toy not hands, feet, clothes or faces.
- Use your confinement areas. Puppy play pens, baby gates and crates can be used to keep your puppy away from incidental mouthing learning opportunities, any time you are too busy to supervise your puppy he needs to be confined. The most inappropriate mouthing occurs when families are getting ready for work or school and when children are running around playing unsupervised with the puppy.
- Train your puppy to ignore mouthing triggers. First identify your puppy’s triggers, it may be longs pants or children running and train him to ignore those triggers by rewarding him with a piece of food when he disengages (looking away) from or ignores these triggers.
- Learn to read your dog and be proactive in redirecting his energy. Puppy’s usually engage in mouthing when they are excited, learn to anticipate your puppy’s excitement and redirect their mouthing through an appropriate game or food dispensing toy. For example, if your puppy mouths at dusk (a typical crazy time for dogs) anticipate this by giving him a long lasting piece of food that will see him through this time by mouthing something appropriate.
- Play with your puppy right next to a door or inside a play pen, as soon as your puppy starts to inappropriately mouth say ‘gentle’ and if your puppy continues to mouth too hard immediately leave your puppy in their area. Repeat as many times as necessary. It is no good moving your puppy because by the time you isolate him he will have no idea why and you run the risk of harder biting as you move him.
Correcting your puppy after he starts biting by hitting, holding him down, closing his mouth with your hand or shoving your hand further down his mouth does nothing to teach impulse control (sometimes these reactive strategies can also escalate the mouthing to growling or harder biting), because even if successful in the moment the mouthing will only stop after the correction.
Being proactive in managing mouthing will teach your puppy to manage his own impulses without constant correction and direction from you, the best dogs are the ones who choose the correct behaviour on their own.