Mind the Mouth: Handling by Humans

Puppies and adult dogs use their mouths to play and explore the world. They also use their mouths when their mental state moves over a threshold of mindfulness. Nearly all very young puppies place their mouths on human body parts and our clothing. Owners typically refer to this behavior as “nipping”. It is important to note that it is not caused by teething, and it is not a behavior that your puppy is likely to outgrow, if it is reinforced at all. With de-sensitizing and management, nipping behavior can be shut down.
Arousal level, commonly called “excitement” or “hyperactivity”, drives behavior, including use of the mouth (pressure and frequency). Which stimuli flip this switch? Depending on the dog, this could be a long list. At or near the top of the list for puppies, especially, is handling by humans: petting and hugging the dog, placing equipment on him, grooming, drying feet, and applying eye/ear medications, among others. All of these handling actions can trigger excessive use of your dog’s mouth.
The most effective strategy: learn to read prelude signals and interact with your dog in ways that do not flip the “on” switch. Avoid inadvertently reinforcing this behavior in any way.
Read the Signals
Dogs always give us signals, which communicate their emotional state and dictate behaviors that follow. Escalation can be swift, and signals are often subtle.
It’s very clear when a dog who is hugged too often darts away when that human approaches. With the presentation of a grooming tool, puppy may freeze for a moment. This signal is less obvious and identifiable. It is telling, nonetheless. Freezing, a side eye, and turning the head toward your hand are all preludes that can happen within a second or two. Puppies are likely to squirm and fidget just prior to nipping.
A spike in arousal level during play is indicated with an increase in jumping, speed of activity, increased jaw pressure on the toy, and grabbing a treat from your fingers. Playing any game with rules that include learned obedience cues is a good way to flip the “off” switch. Return your puppy to a mindful state. Know when to say, “The game is over.”
Constructive Interaction
Set up for success and practice constructive interactions. Our interactions with the puppy often result in an over-threshold push to his arousal level. Calm owners tend to have calm dogs. This is no coincidence. Low voices with an appropriate amount of verbalizing certainly can help keep arousal level sub-threshold. Clear directives using the dog’s name and 1-or-2 word learned obedience cues yield the best results.
Play time should always involve toys and never human body parts or clothes. Physical rough housing is a bad idea, especially with children in the mix. When adults or children get down on the floor for petting or play, this is often a trigger for puppies to become overly excited. Training exercises can change the puppy’s conditioned emotional response and, therefore, her behavior. In the meantime, stand up to play ball and tug.
Mealtimes are great opportunities for constructive interaction. Forego the food bowl in favor of serving up your puppy’s kibble in a food foraging toy or puzzle. Arousal level remains sub-threshold when an animal must THINK to obtain what she wants.
Avoid Reinforcing Over-Threshold Behaviors
Most puppies have the attention span of a gnat. The longer the time when your puppy has access to space to explore, the faster she is likely to move into over-sensory/over-arousal mode. Nipping and latching onto shoes and pant legs usually unfold. Observant owners read the preliminary signals and are better equipped to avoid reinforcing undesirable behaviors that follow.
Jumping and grabbing clothes can be perceived as a fun and gratifying activity for your dog. A Zero Tolerance stand is in order. This behavior results in a no-nonsense removal from activity and interaction: unemotional and swift placement in a crate or playpen. Words are not necessary.
You can de-sensitize your dog to equipment placement and grooming. Once achieved, these results last his lifetime. Dogs do what works for them. When squirming and nipping allow them to avoid un-welcome handling, these behaviors can last a lifetime, too.
Copyright © Kimberly B. Mandel CPDT-KA, 2017 all rights reserved
Kimberly Mandel Canine Behavior and Training LLC