When your dog gets mouthy
Acknowledging the difference between playful nibbling and dog bites
Patriot is one of those dogs in the 2018 documentary “Pick of the Litter” that you just cannot help but sympathize with. His trainer, who was intending to teach him how to be a guide dog for the visually impaired, knew something was going wrong.
“His main problem is he’s very mouthy, and he likes to bite a lot,” the trainer said. “Anybody who like will pet him here, he’ll like bite them. And that’s not OK ’cause he can’t bite. And even if it’s just like playing, it’s still not acceptable. I don’t know if I exactly trained him right, and it made it into this. I don’t want to lose him even if he does that. I don’t care.”
Anyone who has ever had a mouthy dog understands the sentiment. I walked three — none of which were seeing eye dogs. One was a Cockapoo who was pretty even-tempered unless there was food around or if she didn’t want to continue walking. If you moved anywhere close to her while she stopped to sniff whatever caught her attention, she would fake like she would nip at your hand. An American Eskimo also had the same tactic. If he didn’t want to move, and always if I tried to dry his paws off, he’d reach around for the fake nip.
Even one of my favorite dogs ever (outside of my own), a Louisiana Catahoula Leopard mix, had a habit of nibbling. Unlike the other two who would “fake” like they’d bite at my hand, she actually did give my hand a light squeeze twice. It was initially startling, and I put her in her crate the first time. However, what I realized fairly quickly was that she wasn’t playing; she really needed to go outside. This was her way of saying, “Hey, if you don’t let me out soon, get the paper towels and cleanser ready.” By the second time, I understood her adamancy and took her at her word. (She was not a “faker” to get outside and play; she consistently released herself every single time she was outdoors.)
While it’s not impossible to train an older dog to cut it out with the mouthiness, it is easier to get ahead of this bad habit from puppy years before it’s become normal for the dog.
Training tips for a mouthy biting dog
In my case, I knew exactly why the three dogs above would get mouthy. There was never a time when they were mouthy for any other behavior but those few actions. Although I was not their owner, if I was, I would know exactly what to focus on during the early training years.
In Patriot’s case, there doesn’t appear to be any rhyme or reason though. At one point, he bit a woman’s shirt, then her skirt, then tried to get at his owner’s hand and whipped his head around so fast that his owner banged his head into a locker. As a Labrador Retriever puppy that is light enough to pick up with two hands, this can be quite a handful. If unchecked as an adult, that 55–80 pound dog’s nips won’t be so easy to ignore.
More often than not, they don’t mean any harm. If you’ve ever seen two dogs play around, the mouths come out. They often nip at people or other pets when they’re playing, exercising or overly excited. According to the Animal Humane Society, five months is the cut-off mark for this form of play with human beings.
Be wary of it around other dogs, too. I once housesat two Labrador Retrievers and quietly watched them wrestling. After breaking them up several times, I gave in to let them wrestle for a few minutes while I watched from a La-Z-Boy. What started off as a brief battle between a Lab “puppy” — who was more than 50 pounds — and an adult Lab — who was around 60 pounds — quickly spiraled; the puppy bit my toe. The dog bite was not enough to draw blood or leave a tooth mark, but it was the first time in my entire life I can qualify as being bitten by a dog. When I motioned for him to go to his crate, he didn’t even put up his usual fight. He knew he’d gone too far. I never allowed my bare toes to be anywhere near that dog for the rest of the time I was around him, but I oddly missed him after the job was over.
In my younger years, a pop on the nose did the trick for my first dog. He never did it again. However, as I got older, I learned more of the tactics of positive reinforcement training. Alpha-rolling, scruffing, leash yanking and muzzle-grabbing (none of which were tactics I personally used) should be off the table because that just instigates mouthy habits. Motioning for my own dog to go downstairs was usually enough of a tactic to make him reevaluate his behavior in an “I’ll be good” way.
For dogs that are crate-trained (neither of my dogs were), a time-out is another useful option. Be very specific about these time-out redirects though. If you send your dog to time-out for everything, it is going to become confusing for him to learn what to do and what not to do. You being in a bad mood that day isn’t exactly the best time to utilize this technique. For nibbling and excessive rough-house playing, yes. But if the dog is just getting on your nerves because you’re upset about something else, you may want to give yourself a timeout and walk in another room.
There are other ways to get ahead of the nibbling. Some may feel like they’re “treating” a dog for bad behavior. However, if you’ve ever given a human child candy in a store to avoid a temper tantrum or to settle her down, you shamelessly understand why it’s worth it.
- Hold a favorite/tasty treat nearby to make him get rid of whatever is in his mouth or to stop nibbling at you.
- Redirect him away from chewing at something inappropriate, and cheerfully acknowledge him for moving toward a chew toy. (Avoid dog antlers unless closely supervised though.)
- Long walks and games of Fetch will help him release a lot of pent-up energy, especially for apartment dwellers who cannot just send him to the backyard to play.
You should also stop the mouthy behavior before it starts. If you’re someone who changes your own behavior whenever your dog nibbles at you, this could easily be confused as a way to get what he wants. (With the Louisiana Catahoula dog, she was doing me a favor by trying to get outside if I was ignoring her initial whimpering. Had she nibbled at my hand just for kicks or treats, however, that would’ve been a problem.)
Don’t “teach” your dog to nibble at you when he sees you. If you walk in your door and are immediately jumped on and nibbled at, you need to get control of that early. The puppy who jumps at your legs may be adorable, but the one who grows up to be Marmaduke is not going to be so cute anymore. If your dog hops around on walks or lunges at people to play, a Gentle Leader is a useful addition to your dog supplies. I’m not the biggest fan of heavy muzzles and stopped walking one dog altogether because I was uncomfortable with repeatedly using the choke collar, but I understand that there are exceptions to the rules. (Try the Gentle Leader and chew toys first though. Don’t go straight for the most major control tactics until the lesser ones have been explored.)
If these tactics above are done consistently and correctly, your dog’s nibbling habit should decrease or be nonexistent within a reasonable amount of time.