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Managing mouthing and chewing in young dogs

Let’s start with definitions:  a mouthing dog is one who routinely grabs at people (their clothes and limbs) with his mouth without causing injury.  Such behavior often occurs during play, during exercise and whenever he is overly excited.  While it does not typically indicate aggression, it is certainly an inappropriate behavior that needs attention.  

Mouthing in dogs is frequently referred to as “play biting”, but this also requires clarification.  While puppies under five months of age certainly bite in play (as well as explore their entire world with their mouths), dogs past this age are considered adolescents and should no longer be “play biting”.  If a dog is causing injury, he is no longer playing or mouthing…he is biting.  Immediate attention is mandatory for everyone’s safety.

How does one teach an unruly adolescent how to be gentle with his mouth?  Follow these guidelines:

  1. Make sure plenty of appropriate chew toys are available.  When/if he starts to chew something inappropriate, calmly redirect him to a proper toy.  Praise him for chewing the correct items.  Never encourage mouthing during play, such as during wrestling or “boxing” games.  Select a toy for tug-of-war and play by a set of consistent rules:  I start the game, I end the game, dog must give me the toy when I ask for it, and teeth on my skin makes the game stop immediately.
  2. Withdraw all attention if he gets mouthy.  If you’ve been playing with him, the game stops:  put him gently in his crate or a time-out area.  Bring him out only when he’s calm. 
  3. Use consequences instead of punishment.  Punishing normal dog behavior – or even abnormal dog behavior – can create the very problems you’re trying to solve.  Physical or verbal punishment can provoke aggression in any dog, particularly in one that is aroused or over-excited.  Avoid any methods involving force and intimidation, such as “alpha-rolling”, scruff-shaking, muzzle-grabbing and leash jerks.  These do not teach the dog what he should do, and could lead to serious behavior problems.  Focus on removing the things your dog likes as a consequence for mouthy behavior.
  4. Use a Gentle Leader to gently close his mouth.  Keep the GL on your dog (while you are there to supervise), with a drag line attached.  When he gets mouthy, gently pull up on the line to close his mouth:  immediately release the tension when the mouthing stops.
  5. For Puppies Use the Quiet Hold to calm him.  This teaches him both to tolerate restraint and to learn to calm down.  If you are an AHS Training School student, ask a trainer to show you how to do this.  Never hold your puppy on his back or side in an “alpha roll” (this can lead to aggressive behavior).  Warning:  Do not do the Quiet Hold with dogs older than 5 months. 
  6. “Make a trade” when your dog won’t give up a forbidden item.  Hold a tasty treat under his nose and gently say, “Can I have that?”  When he drops the item, give him the treat.  The goal is to teach him to give you what he has in his mouth without becoming defensive.  Trying to “show him who’s boss” will make him less likely to give up what is in his mouth, and may teach him to react aggressively to you.
  7. Don’t allow him to rehearse problem behavior.  Does he chase the kids and mouth their legs when they play tag in the back yard?  If so, Fido will either be on leash with you or inside the house.  Does he mouth your leash-hand on walks?  Stop walking and pull steadily up on his Gentle Leader, releasing the tension when he stops mouthing.  Your dog will not learn proper behavior by accident:  he needs you to teach him.
  8. Be careful not to teach your dog to mouth you.  If your dog learns that mouthing you makes something good start -- or something bad stop -- he will continue doing it!   Some dogs learn that jumping up and grabbing their owners gets them lots of attention, instead of a trip to the crate.  Others learn that if they don’t want to be leashed up, gentle mouthing makes it stop instead of continue.  Let the consequences teach the behavior you want!
  9. Provide plenty of exercise.  Strenuous exercise won’t teach a dog not to mouth you, but it will burn off excess energy that can exacerbate such behavior.  Long leash walks, fetch games, Frisbee (without high jumps), swimming (if Fido knows how!) and play with other dogs can all be helpful.
  10. Continue training appropriate behavior.  Some dogs use their mouths because they’ve learned it gets a reaction from their owners.  Teaching and heavily rewarding appropriate behavior will give your dog “legal” activities that will earn him attention for the right reasons.

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