Mouthing is often tolerated in young puppies as it is thought to be a teething behaviour. Nipping, mouthing and biting in young dogs are generally a form of social play. Teething is more likely to involve gnawing or chewing on available objects. Soon young puppies grow up and there is much more force in their mouthing.
It is best to set up a no teeth policy from the day your puppy comes home. That is, no teeth are to make contact, no matter how soft, with skin or clothing of any human. There are two steps to this process. Firstly provide lots of things your puppy CAN chew and encourage him/her to do so. Place part of his/her meal in a treat toys such as Kong’s and treat balls. Interact with him when he is playing and encourage him to take the toy in his mouth. A toy may not be intrinsically interesting on its own, but if you show him/her how it works and play with the toy its value will increase in your puppy’s eyes. Items that are appropriate are puppy toys, raw hide treats, pig’s ears, Kong’s, treat balls, rope toys, and tennis balls.
The second step is to be clear and consistent in providing an immediate time out whenever contact between puppy teeth and human skin is made, no matter how accidental. Remove your puppy and give him a short time out, 30 seconds is enough. Be prepared to repeat as necessary as some puppies have learned that mouthing will eventually coax litter mates to play. Your puppy will quickly learn that mouthing humans stops the game and results in social isolation.
If your puppy has already been practicing mouthing interactions, be prepared for him/her to complain about the change of rules by whining, barking, scratching and mouthing. Be persistent and consistent so that you end up with a polite dog.
- Make sure your puppy gets lots of chances to practice appropriate play with other puppies and gentle dogs. Be prepared to interrupt play if it gets too boisterous or play starts to be controlled by one dog. Give both the dogs time to calm down, generally a few minutes. Reward them for being calm and responding to cues such as sit and look at me. When both pups are calm and responsive allow them to play again. It is better to do a few short play sessions and keep it to appropriate interactions than to allow a huge free for all. Puppies learn bite inhibition and good manners by playing together and it is an important developmental stage.
- Help your pup get used to handling. When your puppy has played and is calm, before he/she goes to sleep, gently pat him/her from head to tail in continuous strokes. Stroke the ears with one fingertip, stroke the limbs and tail with one or two fingers (more as your puppy grows). Eventually you will be stroking the muzzle and the stomach. If he/ she starts to mouth during any of this process give him/her a short time out. Wait until he/she is calm and responsive before starting again.
- Encourage all family members to practice handling your puppy in the same manner described above.
- Try to limit the interactions with your puppy when he/she is boisterous and over excited, or when he/she is nervous or scared.
- Ask as many people as you can to visit so you can teach your puppy to calmly greet visitors of all shapes, sizes and ethnic origins. Have visitors offer your puppy a treat whenever he/she sits and greets politely. Be mindful that large groups of people can sometimes be scary for a young puppy so start with a few people at a time.
- Do encourage your puppy to practice calm behaviour.
Some Things We Don’t Do
- DO NOT scream, yell or squeal – this may heighten your puppy’s sense of arousal and can increase the likelihood of the mouthing happening again with more enthusiasm.
- DO NOT say ‘No’ – it doesn’t let your puppy know what the RIGHT thing to be doing is.
- DO NOT use any form of force or punishment. You will confuse your puppy and may nurture other inappropriate behaviours, such as appeasement wetting every time he/she sees you.
Mouthing is an interspecies communication problem; we just don’t play like puppies so we need to show our puppies how to play appropriately with us.