Mouthiness in Dogs
Ages 6 months and up
Sometimes miscategorized as biting, “mouthing” is when a dog will put their mouth on someone’s skin, clothes, or shoes with varying pressure, typically when they’re frustrated, excited, or seeking attention. While mouthiness can escalate, especially if left unaddressed over time, it typically does not lead to injury or intentional harm. Adolescent and adult dogs who are mouthy tend to also be social, energetic, playful, and outgoing dogs. Thankfully, there are several things you can do to modify and manage mouthy behavior so your pup can better understand what appropriate play looks like.
PLEASE NOTE: The majority of dogs showing this behavior do so in a social, attention-seeking manner with loose, wiggly bodies. If a dog starts mouthing with a stiff body and does so in a way that begins to control your movements and/or limits your choices to move away, this is not social play behavior. Instead, this is a way of your dog attempting to control their environment; you should stop what you are doing and contact a certified, force-free, professional trainer for additional support. If this sounds like your dog, some of the techniques listed below could escalate your dog’s reaction since they are typically exhibited towards anyone who tries to passively or actively control the behavior. A trainer can build a custom plan for you to help manage the behavior in a safe way.
DO NOT practice any aversive suggestions, such as holding your dog’s mouth closed or rolling your dog on their back and holding them down (referred to as an “alpha roll”). Yelling, hitting, or other physical punishment should also never be used. These methods risk damaging your relationship with your dog and can result in new behavior problems or an escalation of the current behavior.
Potential Causes for Mouthiness:
- Singleton puppies and puppies who have been removed from their litter too early (earlier than 8 weeks) may be more prone to mouthing as they mature. Without siblings around to let them know they are biting too hard, it’s harder for them to develop good bite-inhibition.
- The dog may have been reinforced for this behavior unintentionally.
- The dog may not be getting enough physical exercise, leaving them with excess energy and resulting in using their mouths during playtime.
- The dog may not be getting enough mental stimulation. When you add boredom to excess energy, you have a dog looking for something to do and they discover they can engage you in play by using their mouths.
Everyone who interacts with your dog should consistently follow all management rules. This includes family members and visitors. People coming and going in the home can be very exciting and may trigger mouthing, and anyone who lets it happen is unintentionally telling the dog that this behavior is ok. Management is especially important when children or less mobile individuals are involved.
- Keep your dog on leash, tethered to a sturdy piece of furniture in the room, or behind a barrier (ex. baby gate) to prevent mouthing at common problem times, such as when visitors arrive, or the environment becomes too exciting or stressful for your dog.
- When you return home after an absence, plan for a game of fetch or another activity that will burn some energy before trying to pet them.
- Keep treats near the front door and around the house so they’re readily available to toss on the ground when your dog may become excited. The treats should ideally be tossed prior to them jumping up and mouthing, and are intended to redirect their attention to something more desirable.
- Avoid any rough-housing, pushing, or shoving games with your dog. These activities can encourage your dog to use their mouth in inappropriate ways. Instead, engage in non-contact games like fetch or Tug-O-War.
Before playing Tug-O-War with your dog, make you’ve taught them the cues “tug” and “trade” or “drop.” If at any time the dog begins to put their mouth on your skin, calmly end the game and remove yourself from the situation to give your dog a brief break from the excitement. Playing tug with your dog does not make dogs aggressive nor cause dominant behavior; you do not always have to win.
- Redirect your dog to a more appropriate item, such as a toy. When your dog’s mouth is on the toy, reward them with lots of praise and attention. Keep a stash of plush toys and chews around the house and try to determine the triggers of your dog’s mouthing so you can offer them an appropriate item before they have a chance to mouth you.
- Always supervise children with dogs, especially when they are mouthy. Young children commonly react to being mouthed by screaming, running away, crying, or otherwise responding in a way that may excite the dog even more and increase their arousal. If mouthing does occur, an adult should be present to redirect the behavior and children should end the interaction by exiting the area. If a dog is persistently mouthy with children, it is best to keep them separated in the home while working on these behaviors. Your dog can be separated in the home by using baby gates, crates, or being put in separate rooms with enrichment.
- Increase the amount of exercise your dog is getting. You can exercise your dog for several short sessions throughout the day or a little longer during their current play session. This will help them expend energy in an appropriate way and allow them to spend more time with you.
- Provide your dog with interactive toys and encourage them to work as a form of enrichment. Examples of interactive toys include Kongs, food puzzles, and treat-dispensing toys. You can rotate these toys on a regular basis to keep them interesting and novel to your pup.
- Bitter Apple is a product that can be sprayed on human hands, feet, or clothing. It’s designed to taste bad and thus discourage the dog from putting their mouth on that object. NEVER spray bitter apple directly in the dog’s mouth! Bitter Apple can be purchased from the retail store at the Wisconsin Humane Society and 100% of proceeds benefit the animals in our care.
The management tips above can help prevent you from reinforcing the behavior and reduce the likelihood of it occurring, but you may also want to train new behaviors to take the place of mouthing. Training will decrease the need for constant management and will help build a positive relationship between you and your dog. Most importantly, be sure to always reward your dog for desirable behavior to increase the likelihood of it reoccurring in the future.
- To decrease unwanted behavior, one option is a “time out” or break. This is the removal of something the dog wants (ex. your attention) after they engage in an undesirable behavior.
If your dog places their mouth on you during play (or any time you are interacting with them), calmly leave the interaction for about 30 seconds. When your dog has calmed down, return to the room. If your dog puts their mouth on you again, leave again, this time for 1 minute. Continue this, increasing the length of time you stay away as many times as necessary until you can return to the interaction without your dog putting their mouth on you. When your dog does not put their mouth on you or offers more desirable behaviors, like sitting, make sure to reward them for that.
- Teach your dog an incompatible behavior. This is any task that physically cannot happen while they’re mouthing you. For example, the cues “sit/stay” or “down/stay” can be effective because they aren’t able to jump up and mouth at you while they are sitting or lying on their mat (or towel, blanket, bed, etc.).
- If mouthing occurs when people enter the home, cue your dog to “sit” and reward them before they can jump up and mouth. It is important that you are reinforcing “sit” frequently and in all situations. This ensures your dog will put their bottom on the floor when they hear the word “sit” and it will be automatic in different environments and at different distraction levels without requiring additional prompts or lures.
- Take your dog to a manners class. Even if your dog attended a puppy class, a manners class can be a great refresher and can help re-establish appropriate boundaries. The Wisconsin Humane Society offers a Manners Class specifically for dogs 6 months and older.
- If you are seeking additional support, contact our Behavior Line at 414-431-6173 or email@example.com
- Visit www.wihumane.org/behavior/canine-manners-classes for available dog training classes that we offer.
- Visit www.whole-dog-journal.com/training/tricks_games_sports/ for more information on the benefits of tug of war and how to create appropriate rules.