We expect puppies to mouth and nip. That’s what puppies do. Sock on the ground? Into the mouth. Wearing baggy pants? Mouth. Playing with a toy? Who needs a toy when fingers taste better?
But just as much as we expect that puppies will mouth and nip, we also expect that behavior to stop (or at least significantly decrease) as they age. So what happens when your dog has reached late adolescence or adulthood and still continues to use their mouth with abandon?
In reality, there aren’t many differences between how we train mouthing and nipping in a puppy vs. an adult dog. The difference lies in how easily and quickly they can learn.
Puppies are little sponges soaking up the world around them. These under-formed lumps of dough are building skills rather than breaking habits, which means that if we are consistent with our interactions with them, they will catch on faster to the rules we set.
Adult dogs, on the other hand, have quite a bit of lived experience under their collars. If they’ve been mouthing all their lives without effective or consistent intervention, they’ve formed a behavioral pattern that they have no reason to believe is wrong. It’s our responsibility to lovingly teach them otherwise.
Most of the time, arousal biting isn’t particularly dangerous. Yes, it can hurt, but your dog is probably not intending to hurt you. In arousal biting, your dog is expressing excitement, playfulness or uncertainty—not aggression.
However, it’s important to note that some dogs can easily tip from arousal biting into more aggressive biting if they become frustrated or overstimulated. If you suspect your dog may be biting or mouthing out of aggression, or if overstimulation seems to lead to aggressive behavior, do not attempt to tackle their mouthing without the guidance of a professional. Be sure to look for a certified behaviorist or trainer that practices positive-reinforcement techniques, as aggressive behavior can be made worse by dog training techniques that use aversive, dominance-training methods like the alpha-roll.
If you have a mouthy dog, no matter what their age, the worst thing you can do is to hold their mouth shut when they nip. Holding your dog’s mouth shut teaches them…nothing. All your dog learns is that they don’t have to change their behavior because you’ll be there to force their mouth closed when necessary.
To improve mouthing, we need our dogs to learn “bite inhibition.” Bite inhibition is a dog’s ability to control the force of their jaws when they bite. This is something puppies learn naturally in their interactions with other dogs, who teach puppies how hard they can bite down before they cause pain. Mouthy adult dogs may not have had been socialized as puppies to learn good bite inhibition. Even if they were, the skill doesn’t necessarily transfer from doggy playtime to human interactions. Luckily, this is something we can teach.
When I’m training, I use a three-chances-and-you’re-out style of teaching bite inhibition. Here’s how it works:
Chance #1: If you’re playing with your mouthy dog and their teeth become painful, let them know immediately by squeaking something like “Ouch!” in a high-pitched voice. At the same time, remove your hands (or feet, or whatever body part your dog is targeting), hiding them behind you or hugging them your body to get them out of the way. Turn your gaze away from your dog and don’t interact with them for about 30 seconds. When the 30 seconds are up, return to playing with your dog.
For some dogs, this technique will startle them out of play and get them to back off. If this happens, you may be able to return to play with a calmer dog when the 30 seconds are up. For other dogs, this will do little to lower their arousal level that’s where their second chance comes in.
Chance #2: Back to playing with your dog. When their teeth get too painful, inform them immediately with your “Ouch!”, but this time, instead of just removing the body parts under assault, completely remove yourself from the situation. Go into a bathroom or bedroom and close the door, step behind a baby gate, or even go outside. In other words, disappear. Not for long though—give it another 30 seconds and then return to play.
Again, for some dogs, this brief timeout will be enough for them to calm down. Even if they don’t, you’ve very clearly shown them that when they mouth too hard, the fun stops and you disappear. Give your dog one more chance to demonstrate that they’re calm enough to continue playing.
Chance #3: At this stage, when your dog’s teeth become too painful, say your “Ouch!” (or similar phrase) one last time and then separate yourself completely. Learning is hard for an overstimulated dog, so it’s time to stop playtime and temporarily end all interactions with your dog. Go to another room and do something that historically has never involved your dog, like sitting at your desk or curling up in a chair to read. It may be necessary to close a door or put up a baby gate to prevent your dog from following you and attempting to continue play. Alternatively, you can put your dog in a confinement space—just be sure to give them a toy or even a stuffed KONG to let them know they aren’t bad, but that their mouthing is unacceptable at playtime. This timeout should be the longest one of all, lasting until your dog completely calms down (at least 15-30 mins minimum).
More options for teaching bite inhibition
There are a few ways to modify the three chances method.
If your dog moves quickly from mouthing to overstimulation, you may want to consider beginning your three chances from the moment your dog’s teeth touch your hands instead of waiting to begin when their teeth become painful.
If the situation isn’t right to do the three-step process, try redirecting your dog from your hands to an appropriate toy. If they can focus on the toy instead of your skin, you can continue to play.
If you are in a situation that involves children, elders, or a group of unfamiliar people, skip chances one and two and go straight to their third chance. It’s not worth attempting to train your dog if their escalating arousal could ruin someone else’s day.
Teaching your dog to stop painful mouthing will not happen overnight. As with all dog training, particularly when we are trying to change a habit or innate behavior, consistency over time is the key. Make sure that everyone in the household is on board with the three-chance method or your dog will start to learn that it is sometimes okay to use their mouth forcefully.
As arousal biting ultimately stems from a lack of impulse control, improving your dog’s foundational training basics with cues like leave it, sit, go to bed, and down-stay will also be helpful in the long run. After all, if your dog is in a down-stay, they’re going to have trouble mouthing you at the same time. Training strong alternate behaviors for when your dog becomes too mouthy can sometimes be a solution in and of itself.