There are four common reasons why puppies (and older dogs) may put their mouths on your skin or clothing without being aggressive or intending true harm. They are:
Escalation of Play/Frustration
“Please stop doing that”
It’s normal for dogs (especially puppies and adolescents) to use their mouths for much of their interaction with the world including playing, exploring and general communication. Although some individuals may be clumsier than others and your puppy will be teething until he’s around 5 to 6 months old, most dogs have pretty good control of their mouths by the time they’re 3 months old. The sooner you begin helping your youngster learn to control his natural tendency to mouth human skin or clothing, the better.
In order for any training program to work, all humans who interact with your puppy must be consistent in implementing it. If your puppy will be around people who don’t know how to work (or aren’t complying with) the training protocols outlined here, stay nearby so you can intervene by redirecting him to you with toys, treats, chews etc. if he starts mouthing them. Small children should ALWAYS be supervised around dogs.
Commonly seen in puppies under 6 months old, chewing on things is a normal behavior that’s necessary for pups to lose their baby teeth and grow their adult teeth. Usually the last adult teeth to come in are the top canine teeth (the ones that look like a vampire’s teeth). If your puppy hasn’t lost all of his baby teeth by the time he’s 6 months old, consider having your veterinarian check him to see if medical treatment is necessary.
You can tell the difference between teething and other types of mouthing because although it can be done with significant pressure, it’s typically slower than the other types listed above. “I’m chewing on the toy, I’m chewing on the toy, now I’m chewing on your hand…”
It’s important to have a variety of toys and chews of different textures and hardnesses for your puppy so he has appropriate things available to satisfy his need to teethe. We recommend having at least 10 chews and 20 toys for your little one. Keep 5 toys and 1 or 2 chews in your pup’s vicinity at all times, and put the remaining items away where he doesn’t have access to them. Every day or two, pick up a couple that have been left down with your puppy and switch them out for some he hasn’t seen in a while. This chew and toy rotation will ensure that your youngster is often being presented with novel things, so he’ll be less apt to become bored with them.
Keeping 5 toys and a couple of chews nearby at all times will also make it easier to implement the following training program:
When interacting with your puppy, CONSTANTLY have a toy in your hand and a chew close by so he always has something to put his mouth on. If his mouth comes off of the toy/chew and onto your skin or clothing, simply pick up the toy/chew he was involved with (or grab one of the others that are nearby) and move it around excitingly to get him interested in it again.
You may need to be super enthusiastic and enticing to get your pup’s mouth back onto the toy/chew!
If after 5 or so tries you are still unable to redirect your puppy to an appropriate toy or chew, he may be over excited and need a “time out” in his puppy-proofed confinement area. Make sure to give young pups a chance to potty before confining them.
The good news is that your puppy will eventually grow out of this kind of mouthing, and one day his teeth will no longer be as sharp as needles!
A NOTE ABOUT TIME OUTS:
“Time outs” are NOT meant to be punishments. Rather, think of them as a way to help your puppy “cool off” when he’s too excited. If your puppy needs a time out, use some treats to happily direct him to his crate, pen or other puppy-proofed place where you’ve already taught him to comfortably hang out. Provide him with good things to occupy himself, like toys and/or yummy chews. The length of time it takes a puppy to calm down will depend on the situation and the temperament of the individual dog. For some it may be just a few minutes and for others it may be longer. Always be sure that your puppy doesn’t need to potty before putting him in a time out. After he’s quiet and seems to have calmed down, you can arm yourself with more treats, toys and chews and bring him out again for more fun!
This type of mouthing happens when you’re not paying attention to your puppy, and he puts his mouth on your skin or clothing to say, “Hey, look at me! Pay attention to me!”
You’ll want to set your puppy up for success by being proactive in your training. This means teaching your pup alternative ways to get your attention. Whenever he approaches you, think of it as a training opportunity! Notice him BEFORE he mouths you, ask him to do something simple like “Sit”, and immediately give him the attention he craves with praise, petting and/or treats, a game with a toy, etc. It’s easy to ignore a dog who’s being good but hard to ignore a dog who’s doing something you don’t like, and you should be doing the opposite. Whenever your pup is doing something you like such as playing with one of his toys or chews (or simply lying down peacefully), reward those behaviors by calmly praising and/or interacting with him. Plan in advance, too: if you’re going to be doing something which will require all of your attention and you won’t be able to focus on your puppy, put him in his puppy-proofed area beforehand with fun things to entertain him.
If you miss one of these training opportunities and your puppy mouths you before you have a chance to cue an alternate behavior, you’ll want to give him the opposite of what he wants. This means you’ll be teaching him that instead of gaining your attention, putting his mouth on you makes him invisible. Immediately fold your arms, turn your back on him and look away. If you interact with him when he mouths you (even if it’s to say, “Bad dog!” or “No Bite”) you’re actually reinforcing this behavior because bad attention is better than no attention. Remember, even looking at your dog can be a reward for him. Continue to completely ignore him until he’s stopped mouthing/jumping on you for at least 10 seconds.
Once your puppy has calmed down for 10 seconds, reward him for his self-control by giving him the attention he was craving! Calmly praise him, have a play session with one of those 5 toys that are always nearby or even head into the kitchen for a quick training session with some yummy treats. If he continues to put his mouth on you when you re-engage with him repeat the procedure, but follow a “three strikes you’re out” rule. If you’re unsuccessful after 3 attempts, he’s likely over stimulated and may need a time out as described above.
SET YOURSELF UP FOR SUCCESS:
Another thing to consider when you’re working these training protocols is setting yourself up for success. Are you too busy or tired to attend to your puppy right now? If so, don’t feel guilty – no one can train their dogs 24/7! Simply make sure your pooch has gone potty, then confine him in his puppy-proofed area with something to keep him busy (like a stuffed Kong or other activity he loves) while you finish that important email or phone call. If you’re planning on doing something which will require all of your attention, it’s also smart to take your pup out for a fun walk or play session ahead of time to tire him out a bit before confining him.
If you find yourself needing to ignore your puppy for mouthing, it means that you’ve made an error by not catching him before the behavior occurred and ignoring him is a punishment. Don’t be too hard on yourself – just try to be more proactive and attentive in the future to set him up for success. Any time a dog has been punished, it means we have to triple our attempts to preemptively teach him the way we’d like him to behave and substantially increase the rewards he’s getting for being good! If your puppy continues to jump and/or put his mouth on you when you’re ignoring him, you may want to consider implementing a “houseline” (sometimes called a “dragline”). This is a 4 ‘ to 6’ leash that you can attach to his collar when he’s not in his puppy-proofed confinement area(s). Use something inexpensive that you don’t care about in case he chews on it, and cut through the handle so it’s less likely to get caught on furniture, etc. (You can also spray it with Bitter Apple or another taste deterrent before using it.) Then if you need to ignore your pooch, you can gently pick up the leash and hold him at arm’s length away from you so he can’t reach you while you’re doing your “I can’t see you” act.
You will NOT be using your houseline for correction – don’t jerk on the leash or hold your puppy so tightly that his front feet are off of the ground. This technique is simply a way to protect yourself (and your clothing!) from those sharp puppy teeth. As soon as your pup stops trying to put his mouth on you for 10 seconds, drop the leash and reward him with praise/treats/toys/chews and attention. Then reevaluate the situation to determine if he’s over stimulated and if it’s okay for him to be loose in your home at the moment. If you can’t be fully present to supervise/work with your puppy, it’s time to utilize your puppy-proofed confinement areas so both of you can succeed.
IMPORTANT: It’s not safe to have a houseline on a dog unless you’re supervising him, as it can catch on things and scare or injure your dog. Make sure you’re watching your pup in the same room whenever he’s wearing his line and take it off when you aren’t near him or when he’s confined.
ESCALATION OF PLAY/FRUSTRATION:
Often puppies and dogs will mouth people during play, and while YOU may know they don’t mean any harm, other humans might take offense or even become frightened if your dog does this to them.
This kind of mouthing should be treated in the same way as the attention seeking variety: setting the dog up for success and giving him the opposite of what he wants when teeth touch skin or clothing. We call it “escalation of play” because it happens when you’re already playing with your pup and he puts his mouth on you to turn it into a wrestling match. Some dogs may also mouth people when they become frustrated or aroused during play and/or training sessions.
Make sure that no one is playing games with your youngster unless they have something appropriate for him to put his mouth on in their hands. When people play games with their bare hands or feet, they’re actually teaching their dogs to put their mouths on skin and clothing. Whenever you (or anyone else) are playing with your dog, make sure you’re holding a toy. Make the toy exciting by moving it away from your puppy in sudden, unpredictable patterns as though it were a live animal. Toss it away from you to play fetch and allow your pup to bite it and tug on it as much as he likes. Teach him that keeping his mouth on the toy will continue the fun and that you’re good at sharing his toys with him – don’t worry about “winning”.
If your puppy takes his mouth off of the toy and puts his teeth on your skin or clothing, give him the opposite of what he wants. Instead of partaking in a WWE match, pause the game by saying, “Oops!” and hold the toy out of his reach until he’s stopped mouthing/jumping for 5 seconds. This is similar to the technique described above under “Attention Seeking”, but you don’t have to wait for a full 10 seconds. Stay calm and don’t say anything else to him when the game is paused. If he continues to jump and/or tries to keep mouthing you, use your houseline to gently hold him away from you until he can calm down. When he’s successfully stopped jumping/trying to mouth you for 5 seconds, present the toy again and give him another try. If you’ve made 3 attempts at pausing play and presenting the toy again without success, your puppy is likely over stimulated and may need a time out.
Sometimes puppies and dogs become over excited and will jump on you or mouth you when you’re doing a training session. This is usually an indication that they’re becoming frustrated due to unclear communication from you or that you’re making the training too difficult for them. If you experience this, make whatever you’re trying to teach your dog easier for him and increase the frequency of your rewards. It’s never a mistake to go back to an earlier version of your training.
A NOTE ABOUT “OUCH”:
You may have heard that saying, “Ouch!” every time your puppy puts his mouth on you will teach him to stop doing it. We’ve found that this rarely works, unless you have a very sensitive puppy and are an extremely good actor who can convince him that you are truly injured with an academy award-winning performance EVERY time his teeth touch your skin or clothing. More typically, this technique will instead teach your pup that you are an easily excitable person and therefore a lot of fun to grab, his own personal giant squeaky toy.
PLEASE STOP DOING THAT:
If your puppy puts his mouth on you when you’re trying to restrain him, groom him or engage in another activity he may not be 100% comfortable with, he’s probably trying to politely let you know that he wants you to stop. It’s important that you listen to this communication, because if you don’t he may escalate to a louder (i.e., aggressive) way of letting you know he’s not happy about what you’re doing.
Instead of trying to force your dog into complying, it’s MUCH better idea to slowly help him learn to accept the activity he’s upset about using systematic, positive training techniques. Forcing your dog can often backfire, undermining his trust in you and causing worse behavior problems down the road.
Once you’ve identified the activity your dog finds offensive, break it into the tiniest steps you can imagine and do very short practice sessions every day, pairing it with things he LOVES. For instance, if your pup is mouthing you when you try to brush him, get a super-soft brush and start by just picking it up and giving him a treat or two, several times a day. Gradually bring it closer to him as you give him treats, and work up to doing “fake” grooming sessions, gently brushing with one hand while you feed him the scrumptious treats continuously from your other hand. Don’t try to do a thorough job – only continue for 1 – 2 minutes (or until you run out of treats). Your goal should be to get him to like being brushed. We recommend doing these training sessions right before another event your dog enjoys (such as getting his dinner or going on a walk), to help him feel even better about the activity because it predicts Really Good Stuff.
When professional trainers work on this kind of training, we frequently do something we call “consent checks” during our sessions. We toss a treat away from the area where we’re working and see if the dog comes back for more training after he’s eaten it. If he does, we know he’s ready to work a little more. If he doesn’t, we don’t worry about it – we respect how he’s feeling and stop the session. When a dog feels he’s in control of a situation it can speed up his acceptance of it enormously. Click here to read an article about fearful dogs that discusses how giving them the power of choice helps build resilience to stress, including links to great resources which will help you “read” your dog’s body language.
As your pup becomes more comfortable with your short approximations of the activity he’s previously been uncomfortable with, you can slowly begin to add more time and intensity. Once he’s okay with the full procedure, you can begin to gradually decrease the food rewards, always being mindful of your dog’s right to opt out at any time.
If your puppy or dog is putting his mouth on you in a manner that seems aggressive, it’s time to consult a professional. Please feel free to call us at 818-832-9906 to chat about your dog, anytime.