Nipping, mouthing and biting are very different behaviors. We asked Nancy Tanner, a dog trainer who lives in Bozeman, Mont., and blogger extraordinaire, to explain them in human terms. Here’s her advice. We hope it helps!
All dogs, from Chihuahuas to Great Danes, explore their world with their paws and their jaws.
While some people get overly excited when a dog jumps up and puts two paws flat square on their chest, it is the jaw end of the dog that causes more conflict and concern than anything else. Dogs have mouths and they’re going to use them, so it’s important to know the difference between mouthing, nipping, and biting.
THE MOUTHING STAGE: Where teeth begin!
Puppies start to bring in their puppy teeth right about five weeks of age, around 28 teeth depending on the breed. They are small, super sharp, dagger-like teeth that can melt skin like butter, and fingers are almost always available, and a preferred mouthing item.
This is the age where they start to learn how to operate their jaws and also where they learn bite inhibition, what bite is too hard, what bite is too soft, and what bite is just right. This part of development is critical to developing what is referred to as a soft mouth.
It is never recommended to hold a puppy’s mouth shut, say, “No bite,” or correct a puppy for mouthing. Their mouth is a fine piece of equipment, and they need to learn how to use it appropriately. It is up to the owner to have a healthy supply of legal chew items all around the house, at all times. Puppy play groups are also very good as they learn how to use their
mouth in play and not hurt their playmates. Teething is a reality, so don’t be surprised by it!
From four to six months of age, puppies begin to lose all of their puppy teeth, deciduous first, and then the molars and canines. And at the same time, they bring in up to 48 adult teeth, depending on their breed. To say the least, they have an angry and irritated mouth, and are going to want to mouth and chew on everything!
For a puppy/young adolescent dog, the world is a chew toy and needs to be at this time. The need to interact with the environment with these new teeth is very strong, whether it is sticks, balls, chew toys, raw bones, and/or human body parts. So, with this knowledge it is important to manage your puppy’s mouth with appropriate things to chew on, which have value and are healthy, like bully sticks, hooves, raw bones, and stuffed KONGs. If your puppy mugs you while you are sitting down and starts chomping away on your hand, you just do an equal exchange — your body part for a bully stick for example.
NIPPING: Is it play or is it not?
Many young dogs can be found nipping at ankles, calves, and pant legs while their owner tries to walk through the house or across the yard. Shredded pant legs are a common sight in our puppy classes.
But why? Why do some puppies do this? Movement is exciting for a puppy, and boot cut jeans seem to be just what they are nipping for, or shoe laces, or skirts, or little girls’ lacy dress hems. Nothing more than moving chew toys. Equal exchange with something more appropriate is the ticket to stop nipping. Some days you will exchange a body part for a chew toy twice, other days it will feel like two thousand times. Always keep in mind, developmental stages are a phase. “This too shall pass” is an awesome mantra for an owner with a nipping puppy.
Because movement is stimulating to young dogs, and most will react to it — probably all, actually — it is important to manage your environment. For example, if you have young children that are playing big (running around, wrestling, swinging) it is a good idea to have your young dog with you in another area, providing valuable things to chew on, or working on fun behaviors together.
The rule of thumb is to never have young children babysit a young dog, and never have a young dog babysit young children. Both are immature, and immaturity is not the place where good choices are born.
But what happens when nipping is to back a person off? Some puppies or young dogs might have concerns, or fears, or cautious outlooks on life. It is important that this is recognized if this is your puppy, and that you let your puppy know ALL human hands ALL of the time are safe and kind. This also means no rough housing. This causes more dogs stress than not, and the only way they can tell a human to stop is with their jaws. Please keep that in mind.
BITING: Are all bites equal?
This is where we can get our dogs into a bunch of trouble and either label or mislabel them by calling them biters. Keep in mind: dogs never bite just because, and it never happens out of the blue. There is always a trigger, or an event, and most of the time — 85% by national statistics — most dog bites are avoidable through better management, better dog/handler relationship, and training.
There are bite levels developed by Dr. Dunbar. Note: levels #1 and #2 comprise 99% of all dog bites in the United States.
Level 1 – Obnoxious blustery behavior with lots of teeth showing but no skin contact. (Extremely common, over 23 million reported in 2009)
Level 2 – Mouth over, skin contact by teeth, but no punctures or bruising; shows signs of really good bite inhibition. You should contact a professional to help you at this point, so it does not go further.
Level 3 – One to four punctures, with no puncture deeper than half the length of the dog’s canines.
Level 4 – One to four punctures with one or more punctures deeper than half the length of the dogs canines, accompanied by deep bruising and tearing.
Level 5 – Multiple bite incidents consisting of multiple level 4 bites.
Level 6 – Victim dead (extremely rare, 12-30 a year)
So, know that your dog has teeth, they are supposed to be there, and they are supposed to use them. Help your dog learn how to use them in the human world through your interactions, management, and understanding. Enjoy it all, because it goes by way too quickly.