How would you explore the world if you did not have hands? For dogs, their mouths are their hands in many ways. Mouths are not just used to eat, they are also used for play and exploration. They mouth other dogs and their owners’ clothes and limbs during play. Puppies are especially prone to mouthing others. Not only because of teething but also because they are learning about the world around them.
Sometimes, even adult dogs may mouth or nibble their owner’s limbs. Why do they put your hands or arms in their mouth? Even if they are not biting, mouthing can become painful. Should you be concerned?
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The Root of the Behavior
All dogs play using their mouths. In puppies, chewing and nibbling should be directed toward appropriate outlets, like toys, instead of inappropriate ones, such as your limbs, your clothes, furniture, or possessions.
Mouthing is an important part of play among puppies and adult dogs. When dogs play, you may notice one bite may go too far. In that case, the bitten dog will yelp and the biter will back off for a second, as though scolded or shocked. After a moment, the play time will resume as normal. Most dogs learn the difference between play nips and hard bites with other dogs, but with humans, some additional training may be required.
When training your dog or puppy, you should employ the same tactic as dogs do. If playtime nibbles get out of hand, yelp in a loud, high-pitched voice (you can say “ow” loudly in a high-pitch as well) and let your hand go limp. Your dog should immediately respond by letting go. You can reward your dog for licking your hand and resuming playtime. If this doesn’t get your dog to ease back, you can try time-outs, by ignoring your dog when they bite, substituting a toy whenever they want to mouth, or other taste deterrents you can purchase.
If an adult dog continues to mouth or nibble, the behavior is harder to curb than it is in puppies. For this reason, if you have a puppy who likes to nibble, you may need to work on redirecting the behavior away from hands and onto toys or treats instead.
Some mouthing is playful, and other kinds may be precursors to aggressive behavior. The important part is to tell the difference. Pay special attention to your dog’s body language. Relaxed facial features and body indicates a playful mood, while exposed teeth and tense muscles or tension in their facial expression can indicate aggression. An aggressive bite will also be faster and more painful than a playful nip.
Encouraging the Behavior
If your dog mouths you during play time and isn’t hurting
you, it’s up to you whether you want to allow it or discourage it. Keep in mind
that your guests (including any children who may visit) may not be accustomed
to having their hands nibbled. Some people may not appreciate being mouthed.
One of the best ways to teach puppies not to bite is to teach them bite inhibition, or how to control the force and strength of the bite. Dogs who have learned how to be gentle are less likely to cause harm if they bite out of a reaction to fear or pain. To encourage gentle mouthing in puppies, rather than biting, you can use peanut butter or banana smeared on your hand. Your puppy will lick rather than bite, which you can reward and praise.
You can use yelping and freezing to discourage biting. By holding very still, your nibbled limb, whether hand or foot, becomes less interesting and engaging. You can then praise your dog for licking you or for playing with a different toy. As always, making sure your dog or puppy has sufficient chewing toys or treats will help ensure they leave you and your belongings alone.
If you suspect that your dog might be aggressive, consult your vet or a professional trainer, especially those certified as a behaviorist, who may be able to help curtail those aggressive behaviors. If you need help deterring your dog or puppy’s nibbles, consulting a trainer will give you more ideas on how to deter bites.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Playtime is important for puppies and adult dogs alike. Spending sufficient time playing with your dog promotes a healthy bond between you and your dog. But be careful to play safely. Avoid waving hands and fingers in your dog’s face, slapping the sides of their face, or jerking your hands away quickly. This may encourage them to bite. If your dog does bite, do not physically punish your dog as this may scare or hurt them, which may result in even more aggressive behavior. If your dog continues to nip your hands, or bites painfully, consult your vet or a professional trainer for help.
If your dog is a bit mouthy, you can decide how much you want to allow. If they’re biting painfully, you should work on their behavior immediately and consult a trainer or a behaviorist. There are many ways you can discourage your dog from biting. Do your research and your dog will be much better behaved without the “ruff” stuff.