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Dog Mouthing Affection: What Does It Mean & How Do I Stop It?

Since dogs don’t have thumbs, they often explore the world using their mouths. While many dogs learn that people don’t like having their wrists nibbled or their clothes pulled on, some dogs continue mouthing people throughout their lives.

When your dog mouths you, is he being affectionate or aggressive — or something else entirely?

Let’s explore what dog mouthing means.

Why Does My Dog Mouth Me?

As with most “why does my dog…” questions, we can’t really be 100% sure why your dog mouths you. But we can make some good guesses based on the circumstances around your dog’s behavior.

In other words, we might be able to figure out why your dog mouths you if we look at what happens right before and right after your dog mouths you.

Either something in the environment causes your dog to mouth you, or something that happens after your dog mouths you rewards his behavior — or both.

When people say their dog is mouthing them, they generally mean that their dog is putting his mouth and teeth on their body with very little (or no) pressure. Mouthing generally doesn’t hurt and generally isn’t considered aggressive.

There are generally two different “types” of dog mouthing:

Type 1: Play Mouthing

This type of mouthing is the most common. When a dog greets someone, is excited about playtime, or is amped up about something else, he may mouth at your hands, wrists, or clothing.

Generally, these dogs will jump and wag their tails. You might feel their canines or molars when they mouth you.

This mouthing is somewhat similar to the common “jaw wrestling” play style that many dogs enjoy. Mouthing in this case may be considered a stress release or a game. This is more common in dogs that are easily excited and don’t seem to know what to do with that excitement.

Play mouthing can get out of hand when a dog does it incessantly or increases pressure as he gets more excited.

When I worked at Denver Dumb Friends League, an animal shelter, we often struggled with young dogs that got very excited about their daily walk and mouthed the volunteers. Sometimes, these playful pups accidentally broke skin on their handlers. Not good!

Type 2: Grooming Nibbles

Far less common is the “grooming nibble.” Some dogs will attempt to groom other animals, their toys, or even you by gently nibbling with their incisors. This is generally considered to be an affectionate behavior that a dog does towards someone that he trusts.

You won’t feel a dog’s molars or canines when he’s doing a grooming nibble. These dogs are generally relaxed, not jumping and wagging their tails like the excited play-mouthers.

Most dogs mouth you because they’re simply too excited about something. They don’t have great manners or good impulse control. They know that mouthing you gets attention, so they keep it up.

As I said above, the majority of dogs fall into the first category of play mouthing. While this behavior is entirely normal and is generally not aggressive, it can still be quite annoying! Let’s look at how to deal with it.

Should I Let My Dog Mouth Me?

The answer to this question is really up to you. If your dog only mouths you gently and at specific times, you might not mind this behavior. It can be quite endearing for some owners.

However, if your dog is big and slobbery and mouths you all the time, I bet you aren’t a fan of this behavior!

Let’s be clear here: mouthing is not a dominance behavior. Dominance is related to a dog’s access to a resource in a given situation. Mouthing you has little or nothing to do with acquiring a resource, so dominance is a pretty irrelevant subject here.

If your dog is not mouthing you in a playful way, but is actually fixated on putting his mouth on you or is putting hard pressure on you, he might not be play mouthing. He could be giving you a warning bite — and just because it doesn’t break skin doesn’t mean “he didn’t mean it.”

what-does-dog-mouthing-affection-mean

If you believe that your dog might be actually warning you that he’s uncomfortable rather than playing with you in a rude way, it’s time to get help. You can read all about aggressive dogs here, and it’s best to get help from a certified dog behavior consultant if you’re truly worried.

I’d Like My Dog to Stop Mouthing Me – How Do I Teach Him That?

While some moderate mouthing might not bother some of you, for others, dog mouthing can be a real problem. It can be painful, gross, or even scary — especially for guests or kids.

Teaching your dog not to do something can be a bit tricky if we don’t want to scare, startle, or hurt our dogs, since there’s no way to suppress behavior without being a bit unpleasant for our dogs.

Instead, most trainers like to focus on teaching a dog to do something else instead, and making that new behavior more rewarding to do than the original unwanted behavior.

My favorite solution for dog mouthing is to teach the dog to greet someone and play with people while holding a squeaky toy.

You can do this by simply giving the dog a toy before he starts to mouth people, then playing with the toy (some tugging is a great start) to remind your dog that he should chomp the toy, not you!

dog mouthing correction

This works wonders for most dogs. They quickly learn that the squeaky toy is much more fun than people’s arms.

You may also want to read our article on puppy play biting, which overlaps somewhat with mouthing affection, with puppies exhibiting even less mouthing control than adult dogs!

Common Mistakes When Correcting Dog Mouthing Behavior:

  1. Moving too much. Make sure that you move the toy more than you move your hands and feet. Dogs are naturally attracted to what moves, so if you flail your arms trying to avoid the dog, your arms become exciting.
  2. Ignoring the dog when he’s being good. Too often, we scold our dogs for being bad and ignore them when they’re good. If you catch your dog playing or saying hello politely, reward that good behavior! Otherwise, it’s likely to disappear. If your dog gets a reaction from you for biting your arms and is ignored when he’s got a toy, he’s going to go for your arms instead.
  3. Scolding, hitting, or scaring the dog for mouthing. Many dogs that enjoy play-mouthing actually like the attention that they get from it. Scolding your dog often works as attention that they like, even if you’re trying to be stern. If you are stern or scary enough, you’re actually likely to either scare your dog or make your dog bite harder. Avoid confrontational training methods when trying to stop your dog from mouthing you.

What if my dog is already mouthing me? And what if he doesn’t like toys? The squeaky toy approach works well if your dog hasn’t started mouthing you yet as a preventative measure.

But what if you’re not fast enough to get a toy to your dog, he begins mouthing at your arm, and you don’t want to reward your pup for biting (even if it’s playful) by giving him a toy?

In this case, you’ve got two main options:

  1. Leave. If your dog is mouthing you or someone else, they can (and should) leave. You can simply stand up if the dog is small and won’t go after your shoes. But if the dog is big or persistent, go to another room and close the door for 10-15 seconds. This removes whatever reward your dog was getting from mouthing you, teaching him that mouthing you doesn’t get him anything fun. When you come back, come prepared with treats so you can scatter them on the ground to distract your dog.
  2. Remove the dog. Sometimes, it’s easier to put your dog away than it is for you to leave. For example, if your dog is mouthing you while you try to cook dinner, you might not want to exit the room and risk burning your food. Instead, put your dog in her crate, outside, or in another room for a short time-out. Then try again.

As always, try to be calm and consistent. If something isn’t working, don’t keep repeating it — try to add something else that makes it easier for your dog. Don’t just ignore your dog, either. That’s likely to make you an easy target!

Treat scatters (simply tossing treats on the floor) are a great way to help calm a dog down and reduce mouthing. It’s best to do this before the dog starts mouthing you so that he doesn’t learn to mouth you to “ask for” treats!

Does your dog mouth you? Do you like it or wish it would stop? Share your dog’s mouthing stories in the comments!

About the Author Kayla Fratt

Kayla Fratt is an Associate Certified Dog Behavior Consultant through the IAABC and works as a professional dog trainer through the use of positive reinforcement methods. She also has experience working as a Behavior Technician at Denver Dumb Friends League rehabilitating fearful and reactive dogs.

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