• Nipping and mouthing should be discouraged starting in puppyhood.
  • If you suspect that your dog is nipping, mouthing, or biting because of aggressive behavior, please consult a veterinarian or qualified professional.
  • Do not use physical punishment on your dog. Hitting your dog could cause him or her to become afraid or aggressive.

The Basics

Nipping and mouthing are natural, usually nonaggressive behaviors that dogs use to communicate during play and normal interaction with other pets and people. However, most people don’t appreciate nipping and mouthing by dogs, and adult dogs can inadvertently cause injury while nipping and mouthing. Therefore, these behaviors should be discouraged starting in puppyhood.

Play Versus Aggression

It can be difficult to tell the difference between nonaggressive and aggressive nipping and mouthing by dogs. Some dogs use their mouths out of fear or frustration, which can indicate a problem with aggression. In most cases, playful dogs have a relaxed body and face. During play, your dog’s muzzle might look wrinkled, but the facial muscles shouldn’t look tense. Playful dogs have a playful body posture, and their tail may be held low and wagging. Playful nipping or mouthing is usually not painful. However, an aggressive dog often has a stiff body, a wrinkled muzzle, and exposed teeth. Its tail may be held up high and waving in the air. Aggressive bites are usually quicker and more painful than playful nipping or mouthing.

If you suspect that your dog is nipping, mouthing, or biting because of aggressive behavior, please consult a qualified professional, such as your veterinarian, a certified applied animal behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB), or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (DACVB).

What to Do

Puppies often chew on people’s hands and feet. This behavior may seem cute when your dog is small, but it’s not welcome when your dog is bigger and stronger. Therefore, it’s important to teach your dog not to nip or mouth. The goal is to teach your dog that people have very sensitive skin, so he or she must be very gentle.

Bite inhibition is a dog’s ability to control the force of nipping and mouthing. A dog that hasn’t learned bite inhibition doesn’t recognize the sensitivity of human skin, so the dog nips and mouths too hard, even when playing. Some behaviorists and trainers believe that dogs that have learned bite inhibition are less likely to bite hard and break the skin if they bite someone due to fear or pain.

Young dogs usually learn bite inhibition while playing with other dogs. When dogs play, they nip and mouth each other. Occasionally, a dog nips his or her playmate too hard, causing the victim to yelp and, usually, stop playing. The offender is often surprised by the yelp and also stops playing for a moment. Usually, the dogs soon begin playing again. Through this kind of interaction, dogs learn to control the force of their nipping and mouthing so that they don’t hurt each other and the play can continue uninterrupted.

Dogs can also learn bite inhibition from people. First, play with your dog, letting him or her nip and mouth your hands. When it becomes too hard, immediately make a high-pitched yelp sound as if you’re hurt, and let your hands go limp. This should startle your dog, causing him or her to momentarily stop nipping and mouthing. If yelping has no effect, say “No!” Praise your dog for stopping or for licking you, and then resume play. If your dog nips or mouths you hard again, yelp and stop play again. Repeat this process no more than three times within 15 minutes.

If yelping alone doesn’t work, try adding a time-out. Time-outs are often effective for reducing nipping and mouthing in adolescent and adult dogs. When your dog nips or mouths too hard, yelp loudly and ignore your dog for 10 to 20 seconds; if he or she starts nipping or mouthing during this period, walk away for 10 to 20 seconds. If necessary, leave the room. After the time-out, encourage your dog to play with you again. It’s important to teach your dog that gentle play continues, but painful play stops. As you continue to play, require your dog to become gentler: Yelp and stop play in response to increasingly softer nipping and mouthing until your dog uses little or no pressure with his or her mouth.

The next step is to teach your dog to stop nipping and mouthing altogether. Try one or more of the following:

  • Continue using the time-out procedure described above.
  • Give your dog a chewing toy when he or she tries to nip or mouth you.
  • If your dog nips or mouths while being petted or scratched, feed your dog small treats from your free hand to accustom him or her to being touched without being able to nip or mouth.
  • Engage in noncontact forms of play, such as fetch, with your dog.  Ideally, your dog will begin to look for a toy when he or she feels like mouthing.
  • Teach your dog impulse control by teaching commands such as “sit,” “wait,” and “leave it” or “off.” This can help you train your dog to resist nipping and mouthing.
  • Give your dog opportunities to play with other friendly, vaccinated dogs. This will reduce your dog’s need to play roughly with you.
  • Use a taste deterrent. Before you interact with your dog, spray the deterrent on areas of your body and clothing that your dog likes to mouth. If your dog mouths you, stop moving and wait for him or her to react to the bad taste of the deterrent. Praise your dog when he or she lets go of you. If you use the deterrent for about 2 weeks, your dog will likely learn not to mouth you.
  • Seek the help of a certified professional dog trainer (CPDT).

General Precautions

  • Don’t wave your fingers or toes in your dog’s face or slap the sides of your dog’s face to entice your dog to play.
  • Don’t discourage your dog from playing with you. Play can build a strong bond between you and your dog.
  • Avoid quickly pulling your hands or feet away from your dog when he or she mouths. Instead, let your hands or feet go limp.
  • Do not use physical punishment on your dog. Hitting your dog could cause him or her to become afraid or aggressive.