By Barbara Smith CPDT-KA, Owner- The Thinking K9, LLC
It is important to first differentiate between mouthing, biting, and aggression. Mouthing is when a puppy or dog grabs our extremities with their mouth, without the intent to do harm. Mouthing usually doesn’t cause injury and is not a sign of aggression in dogs. Mouthing is a very important part of puppy development, as it teaches them Bite Inhibition. Puppies that mouth their siblings get feedback, such as a yelp, which shows the puppy how hard his bite is. Because his intent isn’t to do harm, he will decrease the pressure of his bite due to that feedback- this will cause his bite will be inhibited (Bit Inhibition). However, once a puppy reaches 6 months, they are past this stage and should not be mouthing any longer. Should a puppy continue to mouth, it can turn into biting. Biting causes pain and injury. If mouthing behavior goes unaddressed, it can have dire consequences.
Mouthing is generally provoked by excitement and done in an effort for puppies or dogs to manipulate their environment. Each time they mouth, they get a reaction. Even negative attention, such as being yelled at, is still attention and thereby reinforces their behavior. If their sole purpose for mouthing is to get a reaction, the very best thing we can do is withhold all attention and walk away. Your dog will quickly learn that mouthing doesn’t get the response they are seeking. If you need to, you can put your dog in a time-out for a few minutes. This can be done by calmly putting your dog in a dog crate (if your dog already is used to the crate) or another room, behind a closed door. However, never lock your dog in a dark room and never place them in time-out in anger. It is also recommended to provide your dog with an outlet for that mouthing energy, in the form of a chew toy or stuffed Kong.
When your dog mouths, refrain from flapping your arms in an effort to get them away from your dog’s mouth. Flailing arms can trigger a dog’s pray drive, making them want to chase your hands more. Instead, ball your hands up and place them tightly under your folded arms, where they can’t be grabbed. By doing this, you are removing the “toy” and making it impossible for your dog to mouth them.
Some dogs will mouth worse because they need an outlet for their energy and/or desire to chew. Providing 6 or more different chew toys can help fulfill their need. Kong’s can be lined with pure peanut butter (provided that your dog isn’t allergic), then filled with kibble or treats. You can also search online for Kong Recipes! Additionally, you can give every meal in a Kong by wetting the food, stuffing it in the Kong, and freezing it. Simply pull Kong out of the freezer at meal time and give it to your dog.
Many dog’s mouth because they don’t get enough exercise. Adequate exercise for a dog consists of BOTH physical AND mental stimulation at least twice a day. For best results, practice “Interval Training” by playing with your dog for a few seconds, then working a couple quick obedience commands, then alternate back and forth.
Practicing Leave-it with the following steps can help curb mouthing if practiced often. Start by placing a treat in your closed fist. Hold your fist firmly to your leg, staying as still as a statue, and don’t allow your dog to get the treat no matter how hard they try. The second your dog stops trying to get it tell them “Good Leave-It” and give your dog the treat. Repeat this exercise many times, until your dog learns that they must leave the treat (and your fist) alone in order to get the treat.
If you have thoroughly tried everything above and your dog continues to seriously mouth AFTER they are 6 months old, you may need to implement more serious strategies such as the ones outlined below. Before resorting to them, you must fully understand that any time you implement aversive stimuli (punishment), there will be negative fallout. Punishments should only be used when all other options have failed and the behavior is so bad that it outweighs any fallout that will come of it. For instance, you do not want to make a mouthing dog, one who is eager to “play” with your hand, afraid of your hands. However, if the mouthing is severe, more serious measures may be needed before your dog does serious damage. Additionally, aversive stimuli should never be applied in anger.
Should all other options fail, you can rub your hands in Bitter-Apple Spray or Lemon Juice when you know your dog is likely to mouth you. Your dog will learn that your hands are gross and stop. Alternatively, you can carry breath-spray with you and quirt some in your dog’s mouth every time the mouth you. Binaca Breath Spray is the most widely recommended. For this to work, you MUST be prepared to use the spray 100% of the time until your dog doesn’t mouth for 3 weeks. If your dog is allowed to mouth even once, it will be even harder to stop. You must be as consistent with your training as you want your dog to be with their behavior.
* Avoid any breath spay or peanut butter containing Xylitol as it is dangerous to dogs!