Dog Mouthing

Dog mouthing is a very common problem that varies from simple situations where a dog is overly playful up to the more serious situations where dogs deliver powerful bites that in some cases leave nasty bruises or scars on the skin. In order to deal with this dog behavior issue we need to understand why the dog is behaving this way in the first place.

First it is important to address the background of shaping the dog mouthing habit and then we can jump into scenarios and techniques that we can use to stop this unwanted behavior.

Why does a dog mouth?

A dog uses his jaw and teeth for more complex actions than just eating and biting. It is the dog’s only extremity that serves a multiple purpose, from the primary one such as feeding to others such as exploring the environment and physical displays of complex and various social behaviors.

Dog mouthing behaviors start in the earliest stages of a dog’s life and although many people think that this kind of “habit” is only displayed while dogs are in their puppyhood, the truth is that dogs are mouthing throughout their entire lives. In most cases, this type of interaction won’t stop without human intervention and it is not encouraged by most dog owners, however, this type of interaction still continues among dogs themselves during their social interactions with each other throughout their whole lives.

So why are some dogs more vicious than others?

There are many things to consider when trying to understand the background of this dog behavior. First of all, I would consider the different breeds. Although there aren’t any breeds that tend to practice dog mouthing behaviors more than other breeds, there are dog breeds that naturally play rougher than others.

For example: it is difficult to compare a playing session with a young Irish Setter and one with a Rottweiler. Not that the Rottweiler is meaner or more aggressive, it is simply that his muscular body and his temperament is built for a rougher contact than the soft-mouthed and more delicately built, Irish Setter.

In protection work there is a significant difference in the way that a dog delivers a bite; pit bull type dogs tend to deliver the bite and then shake a lot, Belgian Malinois and other smaller breeds tend to deliver the bite while “flying” through the air, in order to increase the power of their bite with the moving momentum; and mastiff type dogs tend to simply plow into you and try to knock you down using their body weight while delivering their bite.

It is more or less the same principles that are used during an active playing; which means that some dog breeds just tend to play rougher and their “nipping” can be more severe and less tolerable.

The development of this dog behavior

Regardless of a dog’s breed, there are a few other factors that play very important roles in shaping the dog’s nipping habits. These include; his parents, his socialization period while still in the litter and his socialization period after leaving his littermates, when he is removed from the litter and the environment in which he lives.

It is a known fact that dogs removed from the litter before 6 weeks of age tend to display more dog mouthing issues during the first period of their lives and in some cases, it continues even beyond that. The reason for this is that the dog has been removed from his littermates and his mother just before the first biting and mouthing experiences are properly shaped. The environment in which the puppies have grown up in during their first few weeks also plays an important role, as well as the overall structure of the litter and the presence of other adult dogs in the area.

Once a puppy changes the environment and you bring him into your home, he will simply try to communicate with that environment in the same way that he is already familiar (which is by using his mouth). This is also the stage of his life dog when he is developing his instincts, drives and muscular/bone structure as well as his overall coordination; using the jaw in this development stage is crucial for dogs.

What is acceptable and what is not

New dog owners are often concerned about their new puppy’s behavior if he bites at their legs and calves while they are walking or running. They see this as a form of aggression, especially as some pups tend to be very vocal when they do this, with a lot of growling and barking.

This is not aggression; it is a prey drive and most dogs naturally have it. What the puppy is doing is exercising these prey-drive patterns. It is important to understand this, because our actions during this early stage may steer the direction of our pup’s growth, development and behaviors.

For example, if you are encouraging a puppy’s prey drive during this early developing stage, you will probably end up with a dog that shows higher prey drive patterns than are necessary, even for some dog sports or other activities. This can result in problems later on.

On the other hand, if you avoid triggering this type of behavior altogether during the early development stage (the first 16 weeks of a puppy’s life), your dog will probably show lower prey drive patterns later on, which can also be a problem for training and motivation depending on what you plan to do with your dog.

All puppies play, but that play is not as structured as it is with grown up dogs. They also don’t have such good self-control as grown up dogs have. If they were left in their litter, their dog nipping behavior patterns would have been shaped based on the responses of their fellow littermates and their mother and/or other adult dogs, however, a puppy that was removed from the litter too early grows up with humans, and we tend not to be able to successfully control this issue. Just like any other type of dog behavior issue, what can start as a small problem, will only grow, if not addressed correctly.

Dog Mouthing Issues in Adult Dogs

Even though nipping during the development stage of any dog is normal, mouthing in adult dogs is a serious issue that can be very dangerous. The root of this problem lays in the fact that as a puppy, this dog grew up in an environment and with situations that didn’t properly shape this behavior pattern and in which he wasn’t properly addressed for this behavior or perhaps he was encouraged by accessing functional rewards (this is a type of reward that includes things like; going out, asking for attention, initiating play, etc. For example, if your dog is bored and he knows that certain actions (including biting at you) will initiate play with you, he will use this.)

Adult dog mouthing is in most cases, a form of attention seeking behavior which means that at some point the dog learned that he can control the environment and people’s reactions by this action. This can be very dangerous because dogs tend to increase pressure in order to get what they want, so in some cases this can turn into actual bites.

Don’t be fooled that a dog doesn’t know how hard he is mouthing. They are perfectly aware of it and if creating pain will make you move (or if this is the way they can reach their goal), they will bite to that point. Many dog trainers think of this as a “lack of respect” and address it as such, but in truth, it is possible that the dog has simply learned how to manipulate certain situations this way. It is always important to identify the root of any dog behavior issue, before you can properly address it. Nevertheless, this behavior is not something to be ignored or underestimated.

Is this behavior a form of aggression?

That depends, normally puppies don’t display aggressive patterns during early puppyhood, however as the dog grows older you may see in many cases a fast switch during their interaction with humans, in which the dog displays a combination of playful and aggressive signals, this is relatively dangerous as these types of rapid switches are a direct product of the response that the dog is receiving from the person that he is interacting with.

This is often the reason that dogs tend to be rougher with some family members, than with others. There are a few steps that we need to be aware of in order to steer young dogs in the right direction on this subject.

How to stop or manage this behavior

There are several different techniques that can be used to address dog mouthing problems, however, always remembering the “safety first” rule is imperative. If you are not sure of how to read your dog’s signals properly, or if you are not sure of how and/or what to do, it is always best to contact a professional for assistance.

First of all, dogs won’t grow out of this behavior, as many people think; this is not just a part of puppyhood, it is a rather normal dog behavior.

Training techniques & tips

The best time in a dog’s life to address any potential issues on the subject of dog mouthing that may arise at a later time, is as early as possible, most precisely during their socialization and development period.

  • Control the environment: Everything in puppyhood is considered to be a developing time, therefore prey-drive patterns are developed during this window, as well. If the dog is exposed to the environment that encourages his chasing-biting behavior, than this dog will develop stronger reactions to movement and will often react with his mouth even more in these situations.

    Teasing your dog with your hands (rapidly moving your hands) will only encourage him to persist and want to grab your hands even more.

    I often see dog owners that perform “YMCA” dance-style movements whenever their dog goes into a mouthing mode, without even realizing that those same fast movements that are intended to get away from the scenario are actually triggering the dog’s behavior even more.

  • Respond to the behavior: Dogs in the early stages of their lives are easily influenced. You can use this to your advantage. There are a few simple things that you can do when your puppy starts nipping.For example, if the game becomes too rough, simply “yelp” and stop playing. Stop all activities and ignore your puppy for a few seconds, then engage the game again. This is important, as just yelping alone and continuing play will only intrigue your puppy even more, the game has to stop at that moment, and cannot resume until the dog’s behavior is acceptable (he calms down).

    TIP: It is very important to reengage the game session; the purpose of this break wasn’t to punish your dog, but to deliver feedback to him. Giving a response and feedback during the interaction with your dog is crucial for his development. This is the way he learns to adjust his game and the strength of his approach.

  • The use of a loud sound: Sometimes young dogs simply go too far and even your attempt to stop the game may not stop your dog from mouthing and jumping. In this case, you may try using a loud sound like clapping your hands or a loud “hey!” in order to stop him. It is important to stop all of your body movement, as well). Once your dog stops his unwanted behavior, reengage the play session. If you have a sensitive dog, or one that tends to get overly excited when playing, keep the intensity of the game session controlled and under a lower level of excitement so that your dog doesn’t get over-stimulated.

    TIP: Keep in mind that your body posture may also be a trigger for the intensity of your dog’s play and how rough he will respond. The lower you are with your body, the easier it is for him to reach you and the more excited he will get. Also, the lower you are, the more you are encouraging jumping at you and mouthing at your face, which can be extremely dangerous.

  • Ignoring the behavior: This is probably one of the best techniques to use, although it is usually the hardest. Young dogs will often try to engage a playing session by grabbing/biting at your legs, hands, clothes, etc. What you do (or how you react) will mold your dog’s behavior patterns. Responding to your dog’s engaging signals (in this case, the mouthing), will teach your dog that his actions create an impact in the environment, and he will begin using this “technique” whenever he wants to activate you. This is the road to attention seeking behavior issues.

    If your dog realizes that he can make you move and play or do whatever, simply by practicing the mouthing behavior, he will increase that behavior and from then on you will face a long, difficult, and time-consuming, retraining period to resolve this unwanted behavior.

    TIP: If you are in the situation where your dog is mouthing your hand while you are sitting, in order to engage you to play with him, even if you would like to do so, you don’t want to reward his behavior which will encourage it in the future, so instead, do a simple redirecting technique. For example: don’t move your body and wait for the second that he stops mouthing. As soon as he stops, make a kissy noise or other sound with your mouth to get his attention and then lure him with your other hand over to the other side of your body, step away from your current place and then start playing.

    Whatever you do, be sure to allow a few seconds between the dog’s mouthing and actually playing with him or performing other interactions. These few seconds should be enough for your dog to not connect his mouthing with your response, as a form of reward.

  • Redirecting dog mouthing: As mentioned, dog mouthing is a normal dog behavior and activity, our goal is to lower this behavior to a minimum and redirect it to different objects in the environment, like toys.

    Every time a dog gets into a mouthing pattern, redirect him to a toy or a chew bone that you will keep hidden in your pocket for this occasion. Be careful when using this method that you redirect in a way that is not rewarding. The easiest way to do this is to surprise your dog with a toy that appears “out of nowhere”. If you make too much noise or commotion when producing the toy (while you are getting it out), your dog may simply conclude that his mouthing has made you produce that reward, and this is not what we want.

    TIP: Remember that it is not advisable to use your body as a toy. If you do, your dog will not understand why he cannot mouth you (for example, playing with your hands or feet, encouraging him to chase or bite at you). Instead, always redirect him to, or play with, a toy that he can focus his mouth on.

The “capping” game:

In this “game” you will help teach your dog how to cap or control his energy/excitement level. Simply engage your dog and play with him, once he gets excited, stop the game completely. When the dog calms down and stops his play, re-engage him once more. Continue like this for a short play session, capping him whenever he starts to get too excited. Eventually, this will teach your dog how to deal with the over-excited state that he gets into in some situations, showing him that there is an alternative response (calming down). This also teaches the dog that just because the game stops, doesn’t mean all the fun is over. By re-engaging your dog, it reassures him that he doesn’t have to be persistently in that high-energy state to enjoy a play session.

Clicker (marker) training steps for dog mouthing issues

Just like with other approaches to dog training or dog behavior shaping exercises, the use of clicker (marker) training techniques are extremely useful and proven when dealing with dog mouthing issues. It puzzles me that people tend to underestimate or even reject this training technique that could change their relationship and their life with their dog in so many different aspects. Nevertheless, here is how it works with this issue.

In order to successfully apply and use this dog training technique, your dog needs to be familiar with the clicker or marker training principles which you can find here. Once your dog is familiar with the basic concept, and especially if you have started using training techniques like free shaping, in which your dog increases his problem-solving capabilities, you can apply it to your dog’s mouthing issues.

Once your dog is ready, simply start marking and rewarding the behaviors in which he is calm around your hands or other body parts (for example, mark the moment that your dog releases your hands and then redirect him with treats so that he does not associate the mouthing, but instead the act of “not-mouthing” with the reward, etc.).

Training outside of the dog mouthing situation:

This is an easy technique that can save you a lot of trouble (but please don’t use it if there are any possibilities of physical injury to anyone involved).

First we will set up a scenario where your dog will be made aware of the fact that you have treats in your hands (you can start off with only one treat, in one hand). Present the treat to your dog, then close your fist tight and place it firmly against your thigh (with fingers still curled in a fist and facing down).

Let your dog try mouthing your hand, or pawing at it, but ignore him while he does this. At the moment the he starts backing away, mark this moment and open your hand so that he can access the reward. Within a few repetitions, your dog will learn to back away in order to access a treat. You can then move on to using both hands, opening your fist, etc.

Once he is fluent with this, you can exercise it in different scenarios like: sitting on the sofa or on the floor, etc. and any scenarios in which dog mouthing normally occurs. You can also add a verbal command like “back”, “space” or whatever word you want to use when he is backing away. Once he learns the verbal cue, you can use it to remind him of the alternative behavior that you want if he starts mouthing.

TIP: Remember that it is important to train alternative behavior responses. Many people make the mistake of putting all of their focus on how to stop an issue (including dog mouthing) without training an alternative behavior (sit, down, back, etc.) to the dog. This is just important as dealing with the issue itself. Remember that if you are trying to modify or extinguish a certain behavior without offering a substitute action, this may end up a frustrating and impossible mission simply because a dog won’t know what else to do instead.

These are just a few approaches that work in most cases, however every case is a story for itself, and if you are not sure of how to do proceed or if nothing works, the best thing is always to contact a local expert who can visit you and your dog in the environment where the issues happen, in order to assess and plan the best course of treatment.

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