Mouthing - Forging Relationships with your Primitive Dog's Fangs

Teeth are such a confusing thing. As humans, we react in a variety of ways, depending on how our dog’s teeth are applied to us. Some behaviors involving teeth, we encourage. While others we try to correct. How we describe these interactions varies as well. We call interactions with teeth play, exploration, mouthing, biting, mauling, gnawing, nipping etc. We have to simplify our language if we are ever going to be able to have clear understanding and communication with our dogs. 

Our dogs are limited in how they can interact with the world. While we have grasping hands, dogs can only grasp and hold with their mouths. This means that any interaction involving contact will most often be done with the mouth. Some dogs do paw or nudge with their nose, but the must still use their mouth for everything else. How hard a dog uses their teeth is usually when this comes into contention.

 Photo taken about 10 seconds before baby Journey nailed me. ;)

Photo taken about 10 seconds before baby Journey nailed me. ;)

Teeth will always be in your dog’s mouth*. That does not mean that all mouth contact is a bite. Jaw pressure plays a huge part in how a mouth interaction is received. For the sake of common language we will call tooth contact with an intent to injure, a bite. Any other contact with teeth we will call mouthing. This means that for the sake of this article nipping, gnawing, exploration, and play contact as all “mouthing”. 

 A simple rule of thumb is - if it hurts, don’t reinforce it. This is easier said than done however. If hard tooth contact has happened, the behavior has probably already been reinforced. Hard mouthing situations are usually caused by overarousal aka excitement. A dog can forget their strength and grab harder than they would normally intend. This is normal. However owners panic when this happens and usually correct the dog. The problem with this is that the dog may not be cognisant of the bite pressure they just performed because they were excited and lost in the moment of interaction. Instead it is lesson for the owner to be more attentive of their dog’s excitement when playing and to slow or end play before their dog becomes too excited. Teaching a dog to keep interactions to a certain level is more effective than correcting a dog for getting to excited. Especially a young dog. Young sensitive dogs can misunderstand the reaction coming from their owner and be less willing to play in the future.

Mouthing that comes from young puppies is normal and important. It can be rough dealing with a puppy who crunches down on everything but they are learning and exploring. Do not grab a puppy by the snout for mouthing or even reactionary biting. First, you are not another dog, so you cannot correct the puppy the way an adult dog would. Second, you are actually performing the exact same behavior the dog is doing - grabbing. Therefore you may be inadvertently reinforcing the behavior. This method of correcting the puppy only makes them fearful of your hands or think you’re playing. Neither the outcome you are trying to teach. 

 Keep an eye on a puppy's expression stop mouthing as soon as it starts.

Keep an eye on a puppy's expression stop mouthing as soon as it starts.

The solution is to remove yourself from the puppy for mouthing. Either by placing the puppy in a crate, pen or behind a baby gate. Losing you for tooth contact is the exact lesson you want the puppy to learn. Try to be quick about it. Don’t wait till the puppy has been chewing on you for 5 minutes. If you don’t want tooth contact at all, react at the initial moment of contact. Some people suggest “yelping”. I have seen mixed results. We are not dogs, so I don’t think we are clear with this message. I see far too many dogs who react more when they hear the sound instead of less. So take that suggestion with a grain of salt.

Remember that we are talking about adolescent mouthing here, and not biting from fear or stress. Dogs the cry out, struggle, or try to flee before mouthing is a different story and needs to be addressed by a professional. Give young dogs time to get over this behavior. It is important growing pains and while annoying for the owner, consistency will be key. If mouthing and chewing of furniture is occurring, hang tight, we’ll have more on that soon. 

A quick word on tooth extraction*: 
I put an asterisk early in this article because some people feel that tooth extraction of baby teeth will help with puppy biting. This is NOT safe, appropriate or humane for the dog. Tooth extraction is also something considered by owners whose dogs have a bite history. Again, this is not appropriate, even if the dog is facing euthanasia. Disarming the dog does not change the dog’s state of mind. It also does not eliminate jaw pressure. Please leave your dog’s teeth alone and seek a professional if you are worried about contact with teeth.