Mouthing is a natural method used by puppies to learn about their surroundings. It is not generally a sign that the dog is aggressive and usually occurs when the puppy (or older dog if not addressed during puppy phase) is excited or overstimulated. In the wild, it is how they play with each other, and they eventually use it to defend themselves against predators. As puppies, mouthing is generally softer and without a lot of pressure, although those teeth can be really sharp! There are a number of ways to stop puppies from mouthing.
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Why do we want to discourage mouthing? For most pet owners, it is to be sure that the dog does not harm people or other animals. As the puppy gets older his mouthing pressure becomes stronger. Without the awareness that the more intense pressure can hurt, the dog may accidentally injure someone. The damage could be even worse if it is a small child or animal. It is because of this potential danger that many feel that it is important to discourage mouthing. But how does one go about that?
From what I have learned there are a variety of methods that can assist with discouraging mouthing, or at the very least, reduce the intensity of the pressure (known as bite inhibition). Here are a few that seem to be used most widely:
One of the most widely used methods is to “yelp” when the dog mouths you. This imitates what would happen during an interaction with another dog during play. If a dog mouths too hard while playing with a buddy, the playmate would yelp and stop playing for a moment, alerting the mouther that the play was too rough. The play would then continue with the knowledge that there is a limit to the amount of pressure allowed. With a human interaction, when the puppy mouths on someone’s hand the human should yelp and then completely relax their hand to make it clear that the pressure was too much and not enjoyable. Wait a few moments and then continue play. This should be repeated until the connection between mouthing pressure and yelping is made and the puppy exercises self-control.
Some prefer to simply stop playing with the dog when mouthing occurs. With this method the human who is mouthed while engaged in play stops playing and briefly (a few seconds) turns their back to the puppy. Play then resumes until the puppy mouths again, and then another time-out occurs. This sends the message that mouthing ends play. Eventually, the pup will make the connection and will refrain from mouthing.
When a puppy begins to mouth immediately provide a safe chew toy for him to chew on. By substituting the toy, the puppy knows that it is OK to chew on the toy, but that the hand will be removed.
When a puppy is becoming excited or play is escalating, use a command that the puppy is already familiar with i.e. “sit”. By redirecting the puppy to perform an already familiar task the level of excitement will be reduced and focus will be changed to the task at hand.
With any of these methods, it is recommended that you acknowledge any indication that your puppy has understood what you are trying to teach. Some indicators would be beginning to mouth but then pulling away on their own, licking instead of mouthing or sitting when it seems that excitement is escalating. Praise and treats to congratulate achievements using any of these methods will encourage the puppy to continue to exercise self-restraint when they feel the urge to mouth.
NOTE: These methods can be used for older dogs as well, but because they don’t react to new direction as quickly as a puppy does, it will take longer for the process to become effective. Patience and perseverance will prove successful.