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Puppy Mouthing/Nipping

Q:  How do I break my puppy from gnawing on people?

A:  Mouthing and nipping are normal puppy behaviors.  Whereas, humans typically initiate physical contact with loved ones or friends via their hands, young dogs will often use their mouths.  Puppies will frequently mouth or nip when they wish to solicit attention or play from littermates or while engaged in play with littermates.  Similarly, puppies will perform mouthing and/or nipping behaviors with human pack members when requesting attention or during play.

However, humans are literally and figuratively more thin-skinned than dogs.  Therefore, especially because deciduous puppy teeth are very sharp, the behavior can be very painful and even mildly injurious to adult owners and children.  Consequently, most pet owners desire that their puppy extinguish mouthing/nipping behavior and instead replace the behavior with an incompatible behavior, such as calmly and quietly sitting, when desirous of attention, affection, or play.

There are a few techniques that may work in accomplishing the initial objective of extinguishing your puppy’s mouthing/nipping behavior:

  1. Simply ignore the behavior, even though it may hurt in the interim.
  2. Redirect the behavior by gently removing your hand and verbally and physically encouraging your puppy to instead orally interact with a chew item or toy.
  3. Walk away from your puppy whenever your puppy begins mouthing.
  4. Wear heavy gardening gloves and allow your puppy to mouth, but ignore the behavior (do not provide attention and do not reprimand).  The gloves will eliminate discomfort while you cognitively teach your new pet that mouthing/nipping are unsuccessful methods of accomplishing the puppy’s objectives of obtaining attention or play.
  5. Loudly yelp “Ouch” whenever your puppy mouths.  Many puppies will modify their behavior when they observe that it causes pain, rather than results in affection or enjoyable play.  However, some puppies will become excited and energized by your yelp and mouth harder or more frequently.
  6. When your puppy mouths/nips, loudly and deeply growl “No” while stiffening, staring at your puppy, and perhaps giving a light “nip” around the scruff with two or three fingers.  This correction method may result in immediate compliance, as the method closely mimics the response a mother dog would likely provide.  However, some puppies may become frightened of you if your response is timed improperly or too harsh.  Moreover, some pups may become combative, whereby they increase the tenacity of their mouthing/nipping behavior.  The success of this method depends on the temperament of the dog and the effectiveness and believability of the owner in administering the communication.   In addition, we never recommend that children implement this method.
  7. If your puppy tends to nip your hands, place hot chili paste on your hands, so that the behavior becomes orally uncomfortable for your puppy.  However, please note that some pets may not quickly associate the unpleasant taste with your hands and many will notice the odor of the hot paste and still mouth when your hands are not covered in hot paste.  Furthermore, the method will “sting” you if you have any open wounds on your hands.
  8. Incorporate an aversive noise, such as the sound of a shake can (a plastic bottle or can filled with 3 to 7 coins), whenever your puppy mouths.  This method can be highly successful provided you are prepared and consistent- which means every household member needs to be prepared with a shake can and use the can each time the puppy mouths.  However, the method may also have the side effect of making your dog less noise tolerant and more sensitized to unexplained noises, whereby he later exhibits out of context anxiety when hearing an unexplained or unfamiliar noise.
  9. Nip back by either pinching his lips or gums or by placing his lip atop his canine tooth and depressing.

The above methods use strategies of redirection, negative punishment, positive punishment, and aversive conditioning to provide multiple options for extinguishing your puppy’s mouthing behavior.  Which method is best depends on the dog and the owner.  Nevertheless, we recommend that you begin by using the least punishing methods (numbers 1 – 4) before employing any methods that incorporate positive punishment or aversive conditioning.  In addition, be prepared, be consistent, and be fair.  Do not upgrade to a harsher method until you have given a gentle method ample time to modify the behavior.

As stated in the second paragraph, to raise the probability of successful behavior modification, we not only need to discourage your puppy’s mouthing/nipping behavior, we also need to concomitantly encourage a replacement oral behavior that satisfies the puppy’s objectives while concurrently pleasing the humans in the household.  There are several methods of accomplishing our second objective.

  1. If your puppy enjoys chew items and play toys, keep a toy box accessible, so that after he stops mouthing or even better before he starts mouthing, you can offer him a toy in lieu of or before he starts mouthing/nipping your hands.
  2. Do not allow any members of the household to place their hands inside the puppy’s mouth during play.  The puppy should only be allowed to have oral contact with toys.
  3. To encourage impulse control and calm behavior, offer toys, attention, affection, and/or play to your puppy when he calmly sits and ignore him when he is rambunctious.  You may even provide an extra reward of praise and a treat when he sits quietly and calmly on his own volition, rather than jumps, mouths, or nips.
  4. Employ proactive stimulation (walks, outdoor play on grass, obedience training), so that your puppy is preemptively fatigued and would rather rest than use extreme measures to demand your attention when you later prefer quiet indoor time.

In summary, mouthing and nipping are normal, albeit bothersome, puppy behaviors.  Fortunately, by employing a behavior modification strategy that discourages mouthing and encourages a mutually acceptable replacement behavior we can usually extinguish the behavior and create much happier puppy owners.

© Copyright Mark Spivak and Comprehensive Pet Therapy, Inc., March 2011, All rights reserved.