Mind the Mouth 2: Disturbing Stimuli

While dogs can’t verbalize, they communicate a great deal via their mouths.  A relaxed dog often has an open mouth that resembles a smile.  This same dog is feeling less at ease when he closes his mouth.  A dog who usually takes food gently from your hand, then becomes grabby, is telling you that something has changed.  Handling tolerance plays a role with puppies and adult dogs.  When puppy nipping is inadvertently reinforced, it can stick as an attention-seeking behavior.  Over stimulation during play, exposure to unfamiliar people, places, and situations and residual over-arousal levels are also manifested in dogs’ use of their mouths.  If your dog snaps at you, but doesn’t make contact, he didn’t “miss”.  His intention was to warn, not injure.

Play with Rules

Play works best when rules go along with the games.  There are, for sure, rules involved when dogs play with each other.  Many are so subtle that we humans must observe closely to notice them.  If Dog A oversteps a boundary with Dog B, Dog B communicates this infraction to Dog A.  The message may be delivered with a hard eye or a growl.  Periodically interrupting dog play with a recall (come when called) maintains safety.  The higher the arousal level climbs, the more likely an aggressive event becomes. 

Games, such as fetch and tug, escalate arousal level, so playing with rules moderates the dog’s excitement to maintain a healthy balance and order.  Basic obedience cues form the framework of game rules.  Requiring the dog to “look/sit or down/wait or stay” prior to releasing him to play, starts the game with a thoughtful – not reactive – mindset.  Arousal levels escalate with chasing and tugging.  They decompress with the release of the toy.  Re-start the play sequence with obedience cues.  Playtime is managed well with a combination of physical AND mental exercise, and this means less mouth use on anything except the toy.

New People, Places, and Situations

Meet and greets with new people or even regular guests in the house are difficult for many dogs.  The arousal level spikes at the sound of the doorbell or a different “cast of characters” in the house.  The dog’s demeanor changes when the kids come home from school and/or a family member returns home from work.  For the dog, it’s an exciting change in his environment OR a potentially uncertain change.  Nipping, barking, and grabby behaviors can follow.  It really helps to have a plan for these routines and rituals.  Dogs can learn other behaviors when the doorbell rings.  One option is a “go to your mat/down and stay” cue chain.  Release the dog to say “hello” when you observe a more settled manner, so jumping and nipping are unlikely to happen.  Another option is to send your dog to fetch a ball or go to her safety spot, such as a crate.  Your dog learns to anticipate a directive from you and a new, more appropriate set of behaviors is established.  Homecomings can be more manageable when your dog is comfortably crated until the dust settles.  After 10-15 minutes, he is capable of a calmer greeting with the family.

Most owners are aware of the need to socialize their dogs with people and other dogs.  An often missing piece of the socialization puzzle is exposing the dog to new places.  Along with new places comes exposure to new situations.  Make no mistake.  There is nothing haphazard in socializing a dog – whether he is a puppy or there is remedial work to be done in an adolescent/adult dog.  Ideally, it’s all good news for that animal.  These encounters are engineered to be brief, frequent, and pleasant experiences for your dog.

Leash biting is a common behavior for young or under socialized dogs.  They are telling us that something in the environment is unsettling, so they are using their mouths on the most conveniently-located object.  Trying to pull the leash out of the mouth is not the effective route away from this behavior.  It helps to make a “clck,clck” or kissy noise to interrupt the behavior, then talk up the dog, jolly her along.  After a few paces of nice, attentive walking, give her a treat to reinforce that alternative behavior.  A structured leash walking approach fosters a solid “attention on the handler” style and avoids many undesirable on leash behaviors.

Residual Over-Threshold Behaviors

At times, we scratch our heads and ask, “Why is the dog’s behavior so nutty now?”  It may appear to us that nothing is happening to jazz up the dog.  Remember this:  we have habituated to everything in our human environment.  We roll with changes because we have the mental equipment to do this.  Not so for our dogs.  They need more time to mentally unpack places and situations.  They also need more time to return to a sub-threshold arousal level, which is a relaxed and thinking state.

When the dog presents with over-threshold behaviors, where he is incapable of processing and responding mindfully to us, assess his activities and exposure earlier that day.  For many dogs, returning to a sub-threshold arousal level can take hours.  You can help that process along by calmly directing the dog to his crate with a smoked marrow bone or antler.  Remove other activity options that aren’t helpful for a chill-out. 

Typical scenarios for this residual arousal state are romps in the yard that go on too long, leash walking in new venues, time at the dog park (think this one through very carefully), dog playtimes at a day camp facility (a better option), or off leash dog playtime with a friend or family member’s dog (the wisest option).  Any of these activities that go on too long can result in residual over-arousal levels, where inappropriate use of the mouth is highly likely.  Observation is a great teacher to help you determine when to switch gears and take your dog home. 

Copyright © Kimberly B. Mandel   CPDT-KA, 2017 all rights reserved

Kimberly Mandel Canine Behavior and Training LLC