We all expect nipping and biting with a young puppy. But as our dogs grow and continue maturing, continued mouthiness can be concerning. The good news is that although annoying and unpleasant, mouthy adolescent behaviour usually is not a sign of aggression.
Certain dogs may be mouthy because of genetics or personality. It is vital to offer appropriate outlets or opportunities for mouthing when an inherent mouthing trait is present, as with many herding breeds. An imbalance in a dog’s needs can be another cause of continued mouthiness. Mouthy behaviour can also go on because it is being accidentally reinforced.
Don’t Forget This Vital Step
Before we address each of these, a reminder about the importance of good management. Many people drop the use of management tools too soon with young dogs. Providing too much freedom to an adolescent dog that struggles to remain calm, stay settled or make good choices consistently almost always leads to problems. Leaving too many options for your young dog will allow them to continue mouthing. Not only will this confuse them, but it will also frustrate you, and the inconsistency will slow or stall progress. So while trying to change or build new behaviour, you must have appropriate management options.
When you cannot follow recommended practices, management is required to prevent your dog from accessing you and rehearsing the mouthing behaviour. Management recommendations will depend on when and where the mouthing is happening. This may involve using a baby gate, a leash, an xpen or some other type of doggy den. Management is a proactive choice on your part that sets your dog up for success.
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s focus on the mouthing and how to help your dog.
Provide Appropriate Outlets for Dogs That LOVE to Use Their Mouths
Many dogs that are popular as companions have been bred for mouthiness. Many terriers, retrievers and herding dogs have a propensity to use their mouths because of the jobs or activities they were intended for. When they cannot participate in these activities, they often find other ways to outlet their strong desire. They are not being naughty. We have bred them to do this and often deny them the opportunity if they are not ’employed.’ It’s not hard to see how this would be frustrating and lead to many dogs being mouthy with family members or other people.
We now recognize the value of being empathetic towards our dogs. Rather than squashing opportunities to partake in fulfilling and rewarding activities, we can choose ways to provide safe and appropriate outlets. Let’s consider digging as an example. We usually deemed it inappropriate in the past and focused on stopping or preventing the behaviour altogether. Thankfully, it is more common now for people to teach the dog when and where they can dig and provide opportunities to do it.
Adopting this approach makes for happier, less frustrated dogs. The trick is figuring out how to provide the outlet appropriately and then teaching your dog that they CAN do the behaviour in that situation, just not randomly. Providing an appropriate outlet sometimes requires creativity but usually is straightforward.
A few examples of appropriate outlets for mouthing are:
- interacting with a flirt pole
- shredding safe objects such as cardboard or heads of lettuce
Please note that not all of these activities may be appropriate for every dog. Some care, attention and supervision are required to see if any particular activity is safe and suitable. Playing tug or interacting with a flirt pole also requires some ground rules to be taught. It’s worth it, though, as it will also allow you to teach some great rules of engagement – such as the game immediately ends if their mouth touches humans.
Make Sure Your Mouthy Adolescent Dog’s Needs Are Being Met
I always feel a bit uneasy when I say this. It sounds like I’m accusing parents of not taking proper care of their dogs. I promise that’s not my meaning. Just like us, our dogs have needs to ensure not only their survival but also their safety, comfort and well-being. It’s a given that they need food, water and shelter, but meeting needs go way beyond these. I could write a whole article just on this topic (and probably will), but for now, I’ll give you a crash course just to put things in perspective.
- to feel safe and secure with us. They need to know that they can trust us because of what we do on their behalf and how we teach them, handle them and care for them. Are we teaching them the skills they need to be successful, confident and safe in the life we share with them? Are we consistent and predictable?
- to feel safe and secure in their home and have peace and proper rest daily.
- a species-appropriate diet.
- the right balance of physical and mental stimulation and exercise. Because dogs under two years of age are constantly changing physically and mentally, their needs will also be. This is why assessing and adjusting them regularly as they mature is essential.
- to be able to participate in dog-centric activities that are fulfilling and important to them.
- to have companionship and form social bonds. This doesn’t mean they need to love every person, dog or animal they meet. Each dog is different in their sociability, just like us. But based on their comfort, they need to have a connection with others.
- to have choices and the chance to feel they have some control. This may seem a bit unusual, especially if we think we need to be in charge and the dog must always be obedient. I do not mean that our dogs should be able to run amuck and do whatever they want. That would not be safe or appropriate for the dog or us. Instead, we need to recognize that we control so much of our dogs’ lives – when they eat, go for walks, and even go to the bathroom. Allowing our dogs to control some aspects of their day and let them have choice, independence and freedom, when appropriate, is a game-changer.
Here are a few specific examples of meeting your mouthy adolescent dog’s needs:
Does your dog’s activity suit their needs? It changes as they grow, so you must assess regularly and adjust when necessary. For example, they might be getting too much adrenalizing activity, which usually makes it difficult for them to settle. This is often the case, as is too little mental exercise. On the other hand, I do occasionally find young dogs that lack the chance to have a good romp and burn off steam.
Immature dogs often lose their focus or interest. This is normal. Before they get bored with that same old toy they have been playing with (and decide to launch at you for a bit of fun), offer them a new toy or invite them to engage in a new activity with you.
You may have heard that a tired dog is a good dog. Well, a dog that isn’t getting an appropriate amount of sleep or rest, especially when growing, can lead to inappropriate behaviour, including mouthiness.
Do you know your dog’s favourite things to do, and do you give them the chance to do them regularly? Exploring new places, going for a swim, spending time at the beach, or dog-centric activities such as digging, chasing, scavenging or scenting are just a few examples of common favourites. Whatever your dog’s hobbies, it’s vital that they can partake in them to reduce stress, and prevent boredom and frustration.
If your dog has difficulty settling, have you taken the time to teach them how to do that? We often focus on what we don’t like but helping our dogs learn and practice what we DO want is more valuable. Teaching a solid mat behaviour and practicing it daily when watching TV or relaxing on the couch is a great habit. Industry leaders Suzanne Clothier and Dr.Karen Overall also have wonderful relaxation and calming protocols.
Have you taught lessons to your dog on how to use their mouths appropriately around people? Are you consistent in following these lessons?
Many people choose a highly-processed dry diet. Although convenient, the high carb, high sugar formulations often have undesired effects on our dog’s behaviour. Adjusting the diet, even by adding some fresh or higher-moisture food, can have a positive impact.
Does your dog have a chance to make choices? For example, they might like the red plush toy rather than the orange firehose chew today. Let THEM decide. Or maybe they would rather turn left while on a walk, instead of right. If both directions are safe and appropriate, then pause and let them make the decision.
Are YOU Reinforcing the Mouthing?
Doing your best to meet needs and teaching your dog skills for success is crucial. But, if you are reinforcing mouthiness, then it will keep happening. You may think, “Of course I don’t!” But parents often don’t realize their interactions are making the behaviour continue. So how do you react when your dog uses their mouth on you? Most dogs quickly learn that mouthing is an excellent choice because of how we respond or how it has worked to get our attention.
There are a few ways you can stop reinforcing mouthiness:
- Reinforce calm behaviour instead. Do things your dog enjoys when they are not hassling or mouthing you. When your dog is relaxed or entertaining themselves, is the time you want to give them attention, call them over for cuddles, or engage in an activity they enjoy. If they are doing pretty much anything other than being mouthy, that’s when you want to interact with them. By consistently doing this, you will build value in other behaviours rather than reinforcing mouthiness.
- Mouthiness can also be reinforced if family members or friends rough-house with your dog or encourage the dog to grab hands or clothing when playing. Don’t do it!
- Ideally, your dog will not have the opportunity to mouth you because of management and the other good practices mentioned above. But sometimes things happen, even when you are being careful. So let’s discuss a couple of options, so you aren’t accidentally making things worse.
- If you see your dog coming at you, redirect them with a toy or treat toss BEFORE they get to you. You can even ask them for a known behaviour. Asking them to do something or giving them something AFTER they have grabbed you will only reinforce the mouthiness. Just what you don’t want! In the beginning, you don’t have to wait for your dog to do something polite before providing the treat or toy. Just get their attention on the treat or toy BEFORE they contact you.
- If you miss your chance or the redirection doesn’t work, and your dog does get you, STAY CALM! Reacting by getting excited, noisy or animated will have the opposite result you want. Calmly disengage. Depending on your dog and how long the behaviour has continued, one of the steps below will be an effective level of disengagement if consistently applied.
- don’t react – remain calm
- do not use your hands – this will be viewed as play
- stand up
- turn away
- leave the area – be sure that you have a fast, short exit route so your dog cannot chase you as you leave
Here are a couple of additional tips:
Keep a diary to track daily routines. Doing so will help you recognize patterns that may be connected to mouthy behaviour. Keeping a detailed journal of your dog’s activities for a few weeks, including rest, duration of the activity, and behaviour, will help you recognize any correlations. You can then make informed choices about adjusting routines or activities. It will also allow you to be more proactive based on what has happened that day.
In addition to paying attention to your dog when they are not mouthy, you can also reinforce better choices simply by treating them. Having a small container of treats stashed where your dog hangs out will allow you to quickly reinforce your dog when they are making choices and behaving in ways you like. Focusing on reinforcing non-mouthy behaviours for just a couple of weeks will help to promote those behaviours and make them more common.
So, where do you think there’s room for improvement with your dog? Remember that management is crucial to you and your dog’s success while you continue to build good habits and behaviour. If you have put away the puppy pen or stopped using their den, bring it back! And when it comes to looking after our dogs, Just surviving is not enough. We should aspire to help our dogs thrive with us. Going beyond just the basics of your dog’s needs will help their sense of well-being and lead to better behaviour. Finally, your dog isn’t in this on their own. Your behaviour is also influencing what happens and the choices they make.
Not sure how to set up good management in your home? Need help assessing and taking your dog’s needs to the next level? Or maybe you need a hand changing YOUR habits.
If you have questions or would like more guidance on any of these issues, you can join babyBRAT, our online adolescent class.