By Anthony De Marinis, CDBC, ADT, CBATI, VSPDT, VSA-DT
Ouch, my puppy is a beast!
Ok, so maybe your puppy isn’t a beast, but your puppy is probably mouthing and biting you and your family. It is probably driving you crazy!
The first thing to know is that puppies learn and explore by using their mouths. Since puppies do not have hands and fingers like human babies, they use their mouths to learn, feel, and explore the world. They use their mouths to explore items, textures, objects, and even our hands, feet and legs. Ouch!!!
Addressing the Beast!
What is mouthing & what is biting?
The most common term I hear among clients and trainers is the word “nipping”. I hear the term nipping when we discuss puppies and even adult dogs. But lets be honest with each other, what is nipping? Nipping or a nip (whatever you want to call it) is considered biting. Does this mean your puppy is aggressive? And what is the difference between puppy mouthing and biting? Hmmm…many good questions!
First, I want to explain the difference between your puppy mouthing versus your puppy biting. I look at mouthing as more of a soft and playful behavior. During mouthing the puppy is investigating, exploring and is probably teething. The puppy is acting in a social way towards people without chomping down or going too far.
Generally speaking, when your puppy is mouthing you will notice her body language is playful, wiggly and loose. Some puppies might become excited or overstimulated easily and may start mouthing more excessively. Typically this behavior still stays playful (even if it is annoying and hurts). Knowing how and why your puppy is mouthing is important. Does your puppy chase, grab and let go quickly? Or does she grab with her whole mouth and hold on? These questions can help determine what the puppy is doing and if it should be cause for concern. Typically, when a puppy is mouthing they might start chewing a little or playfully grabbing and letting go of you quickly. Teething puppies tend to be mouthy because their mouths hurt as their adult teeth come in. It is normal that a puppy wants to mouth to comfort and sooth themselves.
I look at biting differently. (Please keep in mind I am NOT saying that your puppy is or isn’t aggressive. I am simply trying to distinguish the difference between mouthing versus biting behaviors.) To me, biting is more forceful then mouthing. Just because a puppy may not break or puncture someone’s skin, does not mean it isn’t a bite. If your puppy is approaching in a pushy and/or confident way or confrontational way, grabs or grips with their entire mouth, and holds on in a forceful manner, this is considered biting behavior.
Does this mean there should be cause for concern? Well, that depends! This really depends on a variety of factors for each individual puppy. Your training & behavior professional needs to determine what is appropriate and what could be cause for concern.
Common Reasons for Mouthing & Biting
Although puppies use their mouths to learn and explore, they also mouth and even bite for other reasons. We are going to explore those reasons here!
Some Common Reasons For Mouthing & Biting Are:
Teething: Young puppies are typically mouthy because they are in the teething process. Their mouths may be hurting because their puppy teeth will eventually fall out, making way for their adult teeth! Once those adult teeth start coming in, you may find your puppy is a bit more mouthy. This can be because it is uncomfortable. When your puppy is chewing it may be because it is comforting and soothing to them.
Learning & Exploring: As I mentioned earlier, mouthing is part of the learning and the exploratory process. A puppy’s mouth are like children’s hands! This is how they learn about the world they live in. Allow your puppy to learn and explore. To many owners are to nervous to let their puppy pick up a twig, a leaf or something else that may not be totally harmful. (It drives Anthony crazy!!!) Allow your puppy to learn and explore! Pro Tip: Constantly grabbing and swabbing things out of your puppy’s mouth can actually teach your puppy to run away and avoid you when they pick things up. It can also teach your puppy to pick things up more because you are making it a big deal. And finally, it can teach your puppy to become protective/possessive of items in her mouth! If the item is not dangerous or toxic, then leave it alone! Chances are she will probably spit it out.
The Tired Puppy: When children become tired they may sometimes get cranky or overstimulated and as a result they start getting to be a bit to much. Puppies are the same! Some puppies that are tired or overstimulated may start getting mouthy and bitey or may start displaying other strange and sometimes annoying behaviors. The simple solution here is providing what I call a “forced nap”, which just means placing your puppy in her confinement space in a quiet area so that she can take a nap and regroup.
Stress, Excitement &/or Overstimulation: Even a calm puppy with a gentle mouth may increase the pressure of her bite when she is stressed, excited or overstimulated. Yup, you heard me right! Stress, excitement and overstimulation are three reasons that can cause a dog to increase the pressure of her mouth, regardless if it is a puppy or adult dog. If a puppy is nervous or uncomfortable you might notice that the pressure of their bite may increase when they take things like treats from your hand. While other puppies can become excited and overstimulated by a variety of random things which may cause an increase in the pressure of the bite. Some puppies might become overstimulated by being pet and touched which may cause them to start mouthing and/or biting. Others may get overly excited and stimulated by someone’s dress or even jeans swaying in the wind, causing the puppy to get mouthy. A puppy’s mouth tends to gravitate towards movement! The same is true in households with young children. Children constantly running around can cause a puppy to get overstimulated and excited which may result in the puppy chasing and mouthing. Knowing how and why a puppy is mouthing is important. If your puppy chases and grabs and let’s go quickly verses grabs with her whole mouth and holds on; this can help determine what the puppy is doing and if it should be cause for concern. (Breed also plays a factor, which we will get to next!)
Breed of Dog: Your puppy’s breed plays a role in mouthing and biting. Some breeds are going to be more mouthy or have more bite to them because it is who they are! If you get a puppy from a breeder, you should ask the breeder what kind of dog you are getting. What is the purpose your puppy is being bred for? Is it a household family pet or a working dog? or both? For example, a dog being bred for work is going to possibly be more mouthy then just a family pet dog. Border collie and Australian Shepherd puppies for example, are typically going to be mouthy by nature. BUT if you are getting a border collie for example from a working line (a dog bred to work livestock or agility) that puppy might be more mouthy and may come across as problematic or aggressive, when in fact she is probably displaying normal behavior for her breed. Sometimes this normal behavior becomes more problematic because the puppy does not have the right outlets available to her. And not having to correct outlets can create problems that can possibly be avoided. The most notable mouthy and bitey puppies I see are herding breeds and terrier breeds (both terrier mixes and pure bred). I also find doodle and poodle mixed breeds to be excessively mouthy, especially when from pet stores, which is a whole other story!
Herding dogs in general, especially ones that are bred for work and sport tend to have more mouthy behavior and need more appropriate outlets to channel that energy so that they do not constantly bite your hands and ankles (or herd the kids in the living room!). Terriers like the Jack Russels for example, are also very mouthy and bitey by nature! Terriers were bred to chase, catch and even kill rodents. They were originally bred for their hypervigilant, speedy and high strung behavior! This is normal for them! And if you are getting a terrier from a breeder who breeds their dogs for field or sport work, expect that terrier puppy to have a bite, even a grab bite. She may latch on and thrash her head side to side! Although this may not be acceptable behavior as a family pet (especially with children), this is typically normal behavior for this type of dog! Terrier mixes like pit bull terriers may also be high strung and excessively mouthy and bitey. With mixed breeds this will depend on their DNA (genetic makeup). The reality is that some pit bull terriers where bred for that high strung, hypervigilant, persistent and excessive behavior for a variety of reasons, whereas others are laid back and lazy. Breed is a factor and knowing the dog you have is important because your dogs behavior could actually be normal for who she is. You will need to determine if that is appropriate for your household. A qualified behavior professional can help you learn more about this. You can also purchase an awesome booked called “Meet Your Dog” by Kim Brophy.
Displacement Signals: Some puppies and adult dogs may mouth or bite when they are feeling conflicted, concerned or not sure what to do. This is called a displacement signal. Displacement Signals are body language and communication signals that are displayed during specific situations when a dog is feeling some internal conflict or stress and is not sure what to do or how to act. These types of dogs might start out as excited or even sort of obnoxious looking and then can become anxious, overstimulated or even frustrated. When they have these feelings, they might not know what to do or how to react, so they start displaying their displacement behavior. Depending on the dog and how they use these types of behaviors can be cause for concern as some will use their mouths. Addressing them will be important because in some cases this type of mouthing and biting behavior can become aggressive, even dangerous over time as the puppy becomes a teenager and a matured adult.
Excessive Touching & Holding: Sometimes we just can’t help how cute our puppies are! They are cute, soft and adorable. OMG, you just want to squeeze them all day, right? Well, that being said, sometimes we touch and hold puppies to much, which might cause the puppy to mouth or bite. The reality is that most puppies don’t like being held or picked up. Imagine someone picking you up and carrying you around when that is not what you want. I am not saying that your puppy hates being touching or picked up. However, some might actually enjoy it when they want it, not when you want to. We have to remember to listen to our puppy’s body language. The puppy is the one who decides what is excessive. Puppies that don’t want to be held or touched may communicate their displeasure by trying to squirm out of your hands and arms. If that doesn’t work, they may growl, snap (air bite), or even bite to tell you “Stop, leave me alone, and put me down.” This is especially true with households with children. Children by nature will gravitate towards a puppy. All with good intention the kids may pet, grab or pick up the puppy. However, that can create some negative associations in the puppy’s mind about the kids or any of the individuals who over touch, handle and carry the puppy around. Again, this is important information that can help you learn more about your puppy. If you have any issues or concerns make sure to reach out to a qualified positive reinforcement training and behavior professional.
Early Experience: In the first few weeks of life, most puppies learns how and why to control the pressure of their teeth. If she bites too hard while nursing, mom might just get up and walk away. If she bites too hard while playing, her siblings are likely to quit playing with her or let her know she is hurting them. Learning bite inhibition from the mother and litter is crucial early on, as it starts to lay the foundation. Puppies who are pulled from their mom and litter to early may not learn how to control the pressure of their mouths which can sometimes cause some behavior issues, especially as the puppy grows up. These puppies may also not know how to appropriately socialize with other puppies and adult dogs. I also find that puppies who are not socialized and exposed to other puppies and/or adult dogs once they are brought home also run the risk of having a lack in control of the pressure of their mouth and bite.
Genetics: Genetic components can also play a role in why a puppy has a gentle mouth or hard bite. As I mentioned earlier, the breed of dog will play a role, especially if the puppy was a purpose bred dog for field work, herding etc. Furthermore, if the mother or father had serious behavior issues such as low frustration tolerance, impulse control concerns, resource guarding etc. then it is possible that those issues will be passed on to the puppies in that litter. This is true of both rescue dogs and dogs from a breeder.
Accidental Reinforcement: Accidental reinforcement means that the puppy is being reinforced by someone or something that teaches the puppy to do that behavior again. For example, if your puppy starts biting on your leg, most people will start playing tug with the puppy to trade out your pants for the toy instead. Others might try and redirect the puppy from biting on your kids arm or the couch by calling them to “come”. Every time the puppy comes to you, you provide her with a treat as a reward, am I right? I am NOT against this, BUT many puppies can actually learn that biting gets them a reward such as a toy, treats or attention! And if the owners constantly use these methods over and over and over again the puppy can learn to continue this chain of events. (The fancy term is called a “behavior chain”). Puppy bites on pants, puppy gets a toy. Puppy bites on your arms, we ask puppy to sit and give a treat. Puppy bites on the couch, we call the puppy to “come” and reward the puppy with a treat or a new bone. Doing this could become a problem real fast!
Puppy proofing your house, providing structured chewing time and structured nap time, along with providing proper outlets and creating some simple rules and boundaries for everyone, including the puppy can help address many of these issues! We need to set the puppy up for SUCCESS if we want our puppy to be successful in our home. And of course, hiring a qualified trainer or behavior professional will help as they can provide you with suggestions and a plan for your individual puppy and household.
So how do we deal with puppy mouthing?
The Answer is Management
For example, if your puppy constantly tries to chew your shoes then manage the environment by putting your shoes inside a closet or another room. Dogs ultimately do what works for them and what’s fun and enjoyable. If your puppy keeps chewing your shoes over and over and over, then she is learning and rehearsing the “fun” behavior. We would need to introduce management strategies to minimize and stop unwanted behaviors from occurring.
Below is a list of my suggestions on how to address puppy mouthing. If you find your puppy is mouthing excessively or even biting, reach out to a qualified positive reinforcement training & behavior professional to assist you.
Exercise Your Puppies Mouth:
Physical & Mental Exercise:
Providing your puppy with enough mental and physical exercise is very important. Just in case you were wondering, puppies and dogs were not meant to just sit around all day! Here are some suggestions.
Mental exercise can be using food dispensing toys to feed your puppy meals rather than a dog bowl. Another form of mental exercise is training. Training your puppy is super important to help teach her what you want her to do. Training is also important to help set rules and boundaries. As for food dispensing toys some of my favorites include the West Paw Toppl, Kong Forage Flower, Kong Quest Wishbone, Northmate Slow Feeder Bowl, Kong Wobbler, Orbee Tuff Snoop, Hyper Pet Licki Mat and even a Snuffle Mat.
Tethering can be a helpful way to manage and teach your puppy certain rules and expectations. I highly recommend hiring a professional positive reinforcement trainer or behavior professional to help introduce this concept. If you use this incorrectly it can become ineffective. The last thing you want to do is accidentally teach your puppy that tethering is a bad thing. You also do not want your puppy being afraid of the tether as this can cause more harm than good! The tether can be used to teach a dog things like a timeout and/or how to settle politely.
Think about what to wear around your puppy. Wearing dresses, loose pajama pants, baggy shorts, fuzzy socks, and Uggs are all articles of clothing that may cause your puppy to mouth you.
Touching, Handling & Lifting:
As mentioned above, some puppies start mouthing and will even bite to avoid being excessively handled. Handling is sometimes overlooked during training. It should be something we train our puppies to enjoy to prevent touching, handling and lifting as a negative experience.
If timeouts are used correctly, they can be a very valuable thing. Do NOT use your puppy’s crate as a timeout location. The crate is to be a good place. Timeouts can be given by being placed behind a baby gate, exercise pen or on a tether. Timeouts are not meant to be harsh, but they are meant to teach clear rules and boundaries. Timeouts are sometimes needed when a puppy becomes overly mouthy or obnoxious so that they can learn right from wrong. NOTE: If your household has children, do not allow the kids to give timeouts. Parents should be supervising the kids and puppy. If puppy is in a situation where she is going to fail and have the opportunity to practice unwanted behaviors, then do not place her in that situation. Remove her so that she can be occupied somewhere else. If a timeout is actually needed, the parent should be the one doing this. I suggest creating a list of the main reasons/behaviors that you want to use a timeout for, this way it is not over used.
Kids & Play:
Kids and puppies should always be monitored when interacting together. The household may cause the puppy to become overly stimulated, hyper, and mouthy. When or even before this happens, confine the puppy in another part of the house where she can relax. When kids are loud, hyper and bouncing off the walls this can affect the puppy in many ways. Some puppies may react in a playful manner which may come across to kids and adults as “rough or aggressive.” In reality, the puppy is simply trying to play and may even become overstimulated. HOWEVER, some puppies may also react out of fear (even if it doesn’t seem like it) because they don’t know what is going on or how to react. This type of puppy may try to run and hide due to being afraid. If they cannot run and hide they can react or display aggressive behavior out of fear. Always allow a puppy to have a safe place away and out of reach of children. Your puppy should always have easy access to this safe place. Contact a positive training and behavior professional to assist you if issues arise.
Place Puppy In Successful Situations:
Always remember that your puppy is a baby. Sometimes we all have high or unrealistic expectations for our puppy. Puppies are learning machines, but we need to guide them and teach them. Only place your puppy in situations where she will be successful. If you place her in situations where fails and/or practices unwanted behaviors, don’t get mad. Instead, reflect and think about what you can do differently the next time to provide her with more success. If you do not want your puppy practicing specific unwanted behaviors, then do not place your puppy in that situation. If something is unavoidable, then you and your trainer should create a training plan to put into action so that you and your puppy can learn what to do.
Learn About Canine Body Language:
Understanding canine body language is essential to learn what your puppy is saying and why she may be doing specific things. Here is some helpful information from some credible sources.
Redirecting Your Puppy. Is It Good or Bad?:
Some trainers will recommend trying to redirect a puppy onto something else like a fun squeaky toy, tug toy or bone. This can work for some puppies and can become very useful. BUT, pay close attention to this as you could be rewarding your puppy for the mouthing behavior instead. Redirecting can work as long as the puppy is not learning that her behavior is being rewarded. Some puppies will learn that mouthing, grabbing or biting is a way to get attention. Redirecting can ultimately teach some of puppies that mouthing, grabbing or biting gets rewarded with attention, treats or a toy. If I redirect a puppy, I like to coach my puppy owners to try redirecting their puppy BEFORE the problem behavior (like mouthing or grabbing onto your leg) actually occurs. For example, when my dog Journey was a puppy, I could tell when he had the look in his eye to fixate onto my leg. Before he would start charging and latching onto my leg, I would redirect him with a hand target before the problem actually occurred. Trying to prevent or stop something from occurring can be more useful then constantly trying to redirect your puppy every time she does something you do not like. If she does start grabbing your pants for example, I would suggest quietly remove yourself so that she learns that her bad behavior makes you walk out of the room. The other option here can be placing her in a time out for a couple minutes until she settles. If you would like to learn how to teach a hand target, you can click here to read my blog on hand targeting (video included).
What NOT To Do
I wanted to quickly point out some misguided information that I would avoid.
- Do Not reprimand, hold puppy’s mouth closed, blow in her face, alpha role or flip puppy on her back, use a shock collar, spray bottle, a hose to spray or shake a can of coins! Doing any of these things can cause your puppy to become afraid of you which can slowly destroy the relationship you and your puppy can build together. This can negatively affect the training and teaching process. Furthermore, if your puppy feels threatened she will defend herself! Which means she could display aggressive behavior!
- Do Not yelp, scream “NO” or scream “ouch!” when she mouths or bites you. Sometimes puppies become mouthy as a way of seeking attention because they have learned it works. Over time they can learn that you screaming or making sound effects gets them the attention they wanted in the first place. Some puppies even become excited and playful because of owners becoming vocal. This can cause mouthing to escalate in the situation.
- Again, do not put your puppy in situations where she is going to fail and have the opportunity to practice unwanted behaviors. For example, if you know your puppy is going to chase the kids and grab onto their pajama pants, then do not place her in that situation so that this is not an issue when she becomes older.
- Do Not use her crate or other safe places as a timeout location. You want these places to be comfortable for her so that she learns to relax, take a nap and even sleep in these locations.
- Never let the kids provide timeouts, over handle her or scream in her face if she is becoming mouthy.
With some time and patience things usually get better. You will hit some bumps in the road where your puppy may regress, especially during the adolescent stage of puppyhood. This is where consistency and the training you have done will come in very handy!
About Anthony De Marinis
Anthony De Marinis is the owner of De Marinis Dog Training & Behavior and provides comprehensive in-home behavior consultations and positive reinforcement dog training services across Long Island, NY. (Online Virtual Consultations for aggression and behavior modification are also available for clients who are both local and out of state.) His specialty is working with complex aggression and behavior cases. Anthony has 7 professional certifications which include: Certified Dog Behavior Consultant from the International Association for Animal Behavior Consultants, Accredited Dog Trainer by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, Certified Graduate of distinction from the Victoria Stilwell Academy for Dog Training & Behavior, Certified Behavior Adjustment Trainer, Certified Victoria Stilwell Licensed Positively Dog Trainer, The Third Way Certified Trainer and is a Fear Free Certified Animal Trainer. Currently, Anthony has a young Australian Kelpie named Journey. They are learning about agility and sheep herding. You can visit Anthony’s website and learn more about him and his services at: www.demarinisdogtraining.com