Puppy Mouthing

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Dug and Nemo practicing perfect bite inhibition.

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.

Katarina

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5 Responses to Puppy Mouthing

  1. neish says:

    hi there,

    me again:)
    I just wanted to know whether you suggest redirecting biting or mouthing from a dane puppy or saying ouch and walking away…or both?
    And if so how would i do this? give the toy once i return 30 seconds later?
    or before i walk away???

    we pick him up in 2 weeks so excited but nervous wanting to make it right from the start~!! paticulary as I have two young boys:)

    thanks

    • katarina says:

      Always redirect to something more appropriate, ignoring the mouthing and jumping will do nothing to teach your what what TO do. Whereas redirecting will continue to reinforce what you want your dog to mouth.

      If you are busy running around managing the household and kids ensure your pup is in his confinement area. A confinement area ensures your pup is out of the way of danger and practicing inappropriate behaviour. You cannot manage a puppy 24/7 inside the home but with a confinement area the puppy can still be inside part of the family but contained to save your sanity.

      All the best.

  2. Vicki says:

    Hi
    We have a 3 month old who has gone past the mouthing stage to a biting stage. And very frequent nips and bites are getting out of control. We have tried everything that has been suggested but putting her in her play pen for time out is now hard as she backs away or tries to bite
    knowing that’s what’s in store. Even treats aren’t working and more aggression is evident. We are booked in for obedience school with you on 5th Jan but I feel that I’m making things worse. Now ever time I manage to pick her up or even play with her she bites. What am I doing wrong?

    Vicki

    • katarina says:

      Hi Vicki,
      It sounds like you are using the pen after the mouthing has already started, it is important to use confinement areas pre-emptively while everything is calm. This means you have to be mindful of what you’re doing, what your family is doing and what mood your pup is in before you give her space to roam the house. Also, practice calling your pup to you and NOT putting her in the pen so you do not teach her to run away from you or that every time you need her something negative is going to happen.

      I think you should also work on placing her in her pen with some amazing food, make her pen a fantastic place to be, not a place of punishment or where you put her when things are already out of control.

      Think about the times she does engage in nipping and biting, what are her triggers? Write them down so you will be prepared the next time the trigger appears you can put her in her pen when triggers are present, BEFORE she starts the mouthing.

      Try not to pick her up until you start your lessons with us, we can work on this with you. If you need her to be somewhere lure her with some tossed food or pop a lead on her and walk her somewhere you need her to go. I think she is probably making associations now with physical handling, negative experiences and mouthing, we need to get out of this habit.

      If she is loose in the house and mouthing has already started, just stand still wait for it to stop then calmly redirect her to something else. Think about what triggered the mouthing, you will notice her building up to mouthing if you watch her behaviour and you might be able to catch her before it starts and redirect.

      Also make sure you are giving her enough exercise and stimulation throughout the day. Feed exclusively (no more food bowl) from food dispensing toys like Classic Kong that will stimulate her mind and body. Daily walks will also help. Always interact with her through a long toy in your hand.

      Most puppies don’t want to be cuddled or patted, this may also be a trigger, all they want to do is play, play with her in her pen and leave if her behaviour becomes inappropriate, that way you are in complete control.

      • Vicki says:

        Thanks Katarina

        We will persevere with our precious bundle of joy and are looking forward to starting our lessons. You are right in saying we put her in her pen after the biting starts.
        Thank you for your advise
        Vicki

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